I once saw an embroidered pillow in someone’s home that read, “A good friend walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” The phrase resonated with me, and to this day I remember it. In the last year, one of the hardest in my life, you would think that the phrase became my reality; in some ways it has, but for others in the same circumstances, it hasn’t.
In a set of very unfortunate events, my mother passed away suddenly, and ten days later I gave birth to my first child. Here I was mourning my mother and at the same time celebrating the birth of a child who I never thought would be named after my mother. You can’t imagine the words that come out of people’s mouths while I sat shiva nine months pregnant. The words of one acquaintance of my father reverberate in my mind again and again. He approached me with pity in his eyes and said, “It’s a shame your mother will never see the baby.”
I simply answered, “She will see the baby,” referring to my belief that my mother would be looking down from Shamayim at her new granddaughter.
As if I was a simpleton who couldn’t grasp the fact that my mother had passed away, the man sat down next to me and said, “No, your mother died. She will never see the baby because she’s dead.”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
When I told a friend of mine what this man had said, she shared a similar experience.
My friend had lost a brother who had died at the age of 22. At the shiva, a woman from the community who didn’t know the family well asked loudly, “Why didn’t you take him to the doctor if you knew he was sick? Why didn’t you do anything to help him?”
My friend’s brother had passed away in his sleep, complaining of nothing before he went to bed. His family didn’t know if he was suffering from some ailment he was keeping to himself or if something had simply happened while he slept. My friend’s mother didn’t know what to say to this woman, who obviously meant well but wasn’t thinking before she spoke.
Yet another friend told me that when she was sitting shiva for her father, a woman in the community told her mother, “My husband died six years ago, and it’s still so painful, I feel like I can’t go on.”
This wasn’t what this particular woman needed to hear. She wanted to know that it would get easier with time and the pain would dull, though it might never go away entirely. Her visitor shared her lament loud enough for the whole room to hear, as if she was sitting shiva all over again.
One of my co-workers was visiting the shiva home of a mother whose toddler had passed away. Others present tried to comfort the mother by telling over words of chizzuk. The mother told her visitors, “I believe he was a tzaddik in another gilgul who had to complete his task here and was then taken.” Another woman answered her, “Or he could have been a rasha and needed to suffer, and that’s why your child was so sick.”
Why do people say such things at a shiva house? I’ve been asked by several people to write on this topic, and I felt strongly that this issue had to be addressed. People may mean well, but they have to think when they are speaking to someone at a shiva house. Yes, it is awkward to start a conversation with someone sitting shiva, but you can’t just say the first thing that pops into your head.
The person who told me that my mother would never see my daughter probably doesn’t even remember saying it, but I do. You must be so careful with how you speak to a yasom and almana (an orphan and a widow). Doesn’t it say that Hashem defends them because they don’t have a defender? Speak kindly to them.
And what happens once the doors close and life continues? What happens to all the promises friends and family made that they would be there for you and you should “just call” if you need anything?
My parents were a very social couple. Our Shabbos table was always filled with guests, whether it was singles who didn’t have a family of their own or longtime friends of my parents. Today, my father is alone, without his zivug by his side. At the end of the day, he closes the door to his home and he is alone. Yes, I call him every day and invite him to my house every night for dinner and for Shabbos as well, and my sister speaks with him daily too, but the bottom line is my father is alone.
All the friends who graced our Shabbos table for years and were invited into our house year after year – where are they now? When someone’s life partner passes away – where are the friends to help the surviving partner pick up the pieces and continue with life? Only two of my mother’s friends call my father on a regular basis to invite him over for a Shabbos meal.
Recently, while walking with my husband, I saw one of my father’s longtime friends. He asked how my father was. Calmly, I said, “If you called, you’d know how he’s doing.” The man was shocked. I continued, “You and my parents were friends for over three decades, yet when my father needs his friends the most, you’re nowhere to be found.”
The man defended himself by saying that he’d called my father “once.” I applauded him for that and continued walking.
I’m not here to speak about my father’s friends but to tell you that this is happening more often than we realize. The other day I was speaking to a friend whose mother frequently has to travel to Florida to help care for her sick parents. Although my friend’s mother might be away for a couple of weeks at a time, her father hardly gets invited out for a Shabbos meal or even receives a phone call from friends checking up on him while his wife is away.
Another friend told me that after her mother’s passing, her father felt forgotten. It got so bad that he moved to Florida, where he befriended a group of widowers. Now he’s bowling, playing poker, going out to dinner, and watching movies with his new friends. My friend and her siblings are upset that her father felt that he had to move for Florida in order to have a social life. She used to see her parents on a weekly basis, and now her children can only FaceTime with Zaidy. But she and her siblings weren’t enough to keep her father in the northeast. He needed a social life, and unfortunately his longtime friends had disappeared, so he was forced to make a new life for himself.
Many widows and widowers move to Florida and have an active social life there. That’s wonderful. But what happened to the friends they had for decades when they were half of a couple? I realize that normally the wife is the more social partner, but once the wife passes, why have friends forgotten about the spouse who is still living?
One person told me that her father’s world was rocked when her mother died, and the one thing he felt he would still have, besides his children, was the support of his friends. He mourned their loss as well when he saw that he was called less frequently and not invited to join in Shabbos meals. She said that her father went through two losses and both hurt.
At the end of the day, words that aren’t backed up by action are empty. How many people tell an avel when visiting a shiva house, “I’ll call you” or “We’ll have you over for a meal soon”? The words need to be followed by action! The avel shouldn’t have to call friends and ask, “Can I come for a Shabbos meal?” or “Hi, I just wanted to see how you’re doing. I haven’t seen you in a while.” When someone is mourning, do they have to call others to remind them that they’re still around and need cheering up?
Don’t misunderstand my words; I’m not trying to give mussar to anyone. But why are we forgetting about our friends whom we’ve had for decades? Is it because we don’t want them to feel like a third or fifth wheel by inviting them to a meal where only couples will be present? Let them make the decision if they want to join their friends in such a setting. They aren’t thinking of how awkward their friends feel, but rather of how left out, forgotten, and alone they’re feeling.
The more I speak to people on this topic, the more heartbreaking stories I hear. Where is our bein adam l’chavero? We run to shiurim, we daven with a minyan, we keep kosher, and our Shabbos tables have the nicest meats and dips – but how do we treat our friends when they need us? Is this how you want others to think of you – “I once had a friend, but just when I needed them, they stopped calling”?
A good friend walks in when the rest of the world walks out – or do they?
Michelle Gruber is an LMSW and a lifelong Queens resident, guest lecturer, and author of the shidduch dating book, The Best of My Worst, and the children’s book, Where Has Zaidy Gone? She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.