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Overwhelmed planning a shiva? Here’s how to ask for help

‘If anyone asks you what they can do, don’t feel you’re being polite by saying ‘Oh, nothing’’

Mourning the loss of a loved one can be overwhelming. For mourners tasked with planning a shiva, the added burden of preparing to host visitors immediately after the funeral can be too much to bear. 

Plus, even at the best of times, it can be challenging to articulate our needs and allow loved ones to help meet them — no matter how eager they are to offer support. 

The Forward spoke to Rene Zweig, a clinical psychologist, and Leslie —Friedlander, the interim cantor at Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park, New York, to hear their tips for mourners on how to ask for help planning a shiva when that work seems unmanageable. 

‘Let people in’

Some people struggle to share their needs with others out of fear of being a burden or a need for perfectionism. 

“Asking for help has this connotation of weakness or demand,” Zweig said. It’s helpful, she said, to think of it instead as an act of compassion: “It’s actually the kind thing to do to let people in.” 

Zweig encourages mourners to think about a time when they were on the receiving end of a similar request. “Usually, we’re happy to help,” she said. “We’re eager to have something to do.” 

From organizing services to ordering food, it’s easy to be daunted by the logistics of shiva planning without connecting them to the purpose of the shiva itself. It’s important to remember that the rituals of shiva are meant to meet the community’s need to mourn. Leaning on your community during the planning process is part of the point.

“The purpose of a shiva is not to be overwhelmed,” Zweig said. “It’s to bring a community together to support one another.” 

Delegate tasks

When friends reach out to give condolences and offer support after hearing about a death, mourners can, and should, take those offers of help seriously. “If anyone asks you what they can do, don’t feel you’re being polite by saying, ‘Oh, nothing,’” Friedlander said. 

While it can be difficult to be direct, Zweig said, it’s best to try to articulate specific needs when asking for help. “Otherwise people don’t know, and we assume that they can read our minds, but then we end up resentful or overwhelmed instead of just putting it out there and being assertive,” Zweig said. 

Zweig suggests starting shiva planning by making a list of tasks, so you’re ready to delegate to others when they offer to help. 

Some ideas: Ask close friends and family to share the dates and times for shiva among neighbors or mutual friends. Have one friend call a local restaurant to cater food for a night of shiva. Ask another to arrive at the house early to help let visitors in. 

If coming up with specific tasks seems too complicated, try talking to a particularly organized friend about what needs to be done, and have them help you coordinate the logistics of each task. 

Friends can also help prepare a house for shiva, by covering the mirrors in a shiva house and making sure it’s clean enough for the host to feel comfortable having guests over, Friedlander said. 

For those more reluctant to relinquish responsibilities, try starting by asking for small acts of help. Even taking little things off your plate will help make the process more approachable. “Pick one small thing that you can ask someone who’s very close and reliable, and use it as an experiment” to see how it feels to let go of some control, Zweig said. 

Above all, remember that friends often deeply want to make themselves useful to families in mourning. “People need something to do,” Friedlander said. “It’s not just them taking care of you. They are taking care of themselves, too.” 

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