A how-to on comforting a grieving parent from someone who knows

A how-to on comforting a grieving parent from someone who knows

Eta Levenson with son Eric at his graduation from Muhlenberg College in May 2010. Courtesy Eta Levenson
Eta Levenson with son Eric at his graduation from Muhlenberg College in May 2010. Courtesy Eta Levenson

My family lost our beloved son and brother, Eric Eliezer Levenson (z”l), in February 2016. He took his own life at the age of 28 after 14 years of suffering from severe depression. 

As we have just finished a month of introspection and personal communication with God for the High Holy Days, I wanted to share some thoughts I have had over this last year and a half, both from our own personal experiences and in discussions with other families who have lost children to suicide. Much of the following also applies to the loss of a child from other causes, such as illness and accidents.


1) One should never ask a mourner how their loved one took their life. It can’t possibly make a difference in helping ease the mourners’ pain, and no one is entitled to that information.

2) My most important message: don’t say anything. Let the mourners start the conversations. The point is to comfort the mourners, not entertain them, and visitors don’t know what will bring solace. Sitting in silence is the most respectful thing to do.

3) Please don’t try to make sense of the death of the loved one. It doesn’t make sense. Don’t try to find a “reason” for why he/she died — there is no good reason. Why would one assume “he/she is in a better place”? What could be better than home with me? Why assume “at least he/she is not in pain anymore”? Maybe we would have been fine with him being in pain, because at least he’d be alive.

4) If you are not a rabbi please don’t tell me God wouldn’t have given me more than I can handle. I would be perfectly willing to handle a lot more, or a lot less, with my loved one alive. Don’t tell me it’s God’s will; this is absolutely not comforting during the time of the most intense pain. It is probably best not to bring up God at all. Many mourners are not on a very friendly or loving basis with Him (or Her), especially during the numbing time of shiva.

5) Have a notebook available for shiva visitors to sign. Mourners are too overwhelmed to remember who came (and who didn’t), and it ends up being important to us going forward in how we feel about people (sorry, but it’s the truth). I feel bad that I may not have seen someone who took the time to pay a shiva call and worse, that I thought they didn’t come.

6) Texting is OK, just don’t expect an answer back. Supportive “thinking of you” texts (from real friends) is helpful, but it is not the same as a shiva call.

After shiva:

1) Please continue to cook for us, call if you are running errands and ask if we need something from ShopRite, CVS, or the cleaners. Life hardly gets back to normal on day eight; it’s even harder the second week and the first month.

2) Don’t offer to help clean his or her room. I couldn’t even walk in there and I certainly didn’t want anyone else to. It took me more than six months before I was able to open the door. If parents choose to keep it as a “shrine,” well that may be what we need. It’s not morbid, it’s necessary to help us adjust to life without our child.

3) Do invite us for a Shabbat meal, with one other couple at most, but not if you have children. In the first months of mourning it was incredibly painful to be around happy families. Please understand that and forgive us. Try again, don’t give up on us. It took us a full year to feel comfortable socializing again.

In synagogue:

1) Shabbat and holidays are especially difficult without the distractions of work and our gadgets; there is nothing to do but think. One of the best things a friend did after Eric’s death was switch his seat in shul to sit next to my husband. It can feel very lonely in the sanctuary without your child nearby.

2) Please don’t stand there and stare, with a pitying face, or worse, loudly whisper about me to a friend. It’s OK not to talk to me or not reach out to me if you haven’t spoken with me before. Just don’t talk about me in front of me.

3) It can be awkward for people to speak to me now who have never spoken to me before. Sometimes it’s people who want to share their own struggles, that’s good and I appreciate it. Others want to comment on how “strong” I seem, how “well” I’m handling my loss. These comments are not helpful.

In general:

1) Before our son’s death, we were often hiding from the community, mainly to protect his privacy and sometimes our own. Now we sometimes feel like pariahs. Make us feel wanted; don’t treat us like we have a contagious disease.

2) It’s important to keep trying. Don’t ask invasive questions, just say, “I know you’re having a hard time, is there anything I can do to help?” The answer might be going for coffee, ice cream, or just running some errands for me. I definitely lost people during the last years who I thought were my friends, as we were struggling in private with Eric. I miss the friendships, and I admit I resent the loss.

3) Finally, when we are going through this struggle we might feel like we are the only ones. But if you too are going through struggles, please share that with us, it would be such a help to feel we are not the only people in pain, unfortunate as that may be. And I imagine you feel the same way.

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