Ask Miriam | Shiva: A Primer

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Dear Miriam,

I’m not Jewish, but I have a co-worker who is, and her mom just died. I can’t make it to the funeral, but another coworker said I can go to shiva instead. I don’t know anything about this. Please help.


Show Up for Shiva

Dear Show,

After a Jewish funeral, there is a period of mourning known as shiva. It’s traditionally seven days and observed in the home of one of the family members in mourning (or the home of the deceased). But, depending on lots of factors, the family might only observe shiva for two or three days, and the visits might take place at a synagogue rather than a home. 

Your sign-off says it all, though: showing up is the most important part of shiva for non-mourners. The family members, including your coworker, might do all kinds of things: wear clothing with a rip in it, sit on stools low to the ground, say prayers three times a day that remember their loved one or cover their mirrors. As a friend of the family, your responsibility is to be present. 

The traditional greeting is “May her memory be a blessing” or, “…for a blessing.” You could say that if you felt comfortable. You could also say nothing and just come in and sit down. (Typically, the door is left open in a shiva house so no one needs ring a bell or get up to answer the door.) You don’t need to ask questions or do anything or try to find the right words. Sometimes shiva houses are quiet, and sometimes they’re full of stories and laughter. 

There’s no need to bring anything with you. If you know that someone is organizing food, you can offer to contribute either food or finances to that, but otherwise, showing up empty-handed is fine. 

Absolutely do not bring flowers, which is a particular Jewish custom around death. Do feel free to eat if food is around, though; that’s what it’s there for. If you see other guests setting up food or offering drinks to the mourners, you can offer to help. Depending on when you arrive, there may be a short prayer service. Plan to stay around a half hour, though more or less can be appropriate, too, depending on the vibe in the room. 

Don’t ask any of the mourners questions if you can help it. Someone else should be available to show you to the bathroom, and Google will be available afterward if you have questions about customs you can’t figure out. The overwhelming point of shiva is to be comforting to people during a difficult time. As long as that’s your operating principle while you’re there, you really can’t go wrong.

May her memory be a blessing,



  1. What a wonderful reply, Miriam. The only thing I would add would be for when you walk into the house. I believe it is also acceptable to say, “I’m sorry” or “I am sorry for your loss.”

    • Glad you appreciated my answer! I think you’re absolutely right – and not sticking to a script but saying something heartfelt is certainly both understandable and acceptable.


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