A few weeks back, a classmate of my fourth grade son lost his mother after a 6-year battle with breast cancer. Ever since they met and became friends in first grade, he knew that his friend’s mother was dying, but after 4 years of watching her lead an apparently normal life as an apparently regular mom, there was no reality to the concept of her dying. Then one day he received a phone call from his classmate saying that his mother died.
Is there anything sadder in this world than one fourth-grader calling another to say my mother died today? Before the email notifications went out, before the funeral home was called, before the adults were ready to communicate, the children reached out to their friends. After they hung up from the initial phone call and my son had some time to process and discuss it a little, he called his friend back. “I am sorry to hear about your mother. What can I do for you?”
Of course, there was nothing that he could really do except continue to be his friend. Over the course of the next week, the family held extended Shiva hours at their house. Throughout this time, adult friends came and went continuously, but the one constant was children. Children came and stayed. For hours and hours. They didn’t cry together, have deep conversations about his mother, or sit around and reminisce. They just played like children are supposed to. Inside the house, outside the house, and everything in between including a snowball fight as the blizzard began to move in. There was plenty of time for the children to cry when their friends left and they were home alone with their father. But during the day, during the waking hours, during the time for the living, they did not need to be reminded that the best way for them to honor their mother is to continue to live.
It is often said that we can learn a lot from children, and this is certainly one of those times. These children showed us the power of presence, the power of the personal connection, and the power of friendship. And, they did this all on their own. As adults, we are often uncomfortable visiting a house of Shiva. I suggest we take a lesson from the children and just go anyways. And when we go, don’t just stay for minyan. Stay to talk, to be friendly, and to listen. You will never know what each individual mourner feels or needs unless you are there to ask and listen to the answer.