In the laws dealing with the time of impurity after giving birth, the Torah instructs us that there is an initial seven day period of Tuma. The Baal Haturim points out (Tazriya, 12:2) that this parallels the seven days of mourning observed when a person dies. The same way one comes in (7 days) is the way he goes out. While there are many mysteries surrounding the concepts of Tuma and Tehara, there should not be so much obliviousness as to what is and isn’t appropriate behavior and topics of discussion when being menachem avel one who has lost a close relative. This week seems an appropriate time to discuss some of the proper protocols.
First, it is worth clearing up some of the misconceptions surrounding mourning in general. While there are a multitude of Mitzvos D’Rabanan and minhagim when it comes to mourning, there are only three halachos of Torah origin. They are: Eulogizing the deceased; providing a funeral for the deceased and providing the first meal for the mourners upon their returning from the place of burial. Everything else is either of Rabbinical origin or evolved customs.
That being said, many of the halachos and minhagim which have evolved revolve around kindness and appropriate symbolic gestures of mourning. The purpose of this writing is to focus only on those related to kindness towards the mourners. The Rabbeinu Yona and the Rambam both describe the need for compassion towards those who have suffered such a loss. Those losses are deeply personal and often mean different things to different people depending on a multitude of factors including the nature and depth of the relationship; the relative ages of the mourners and the deceased; and a number of other familial, personal and social variables. The one constant though is the sense of loss.
The first thing one must remember when entering a Shiva house is that you are there to be a comfort to the mourner. There is a long standing protocol that one does not address the mourner until he/she addresses you first. You are there for them, not the other way around. Most mourners agree that the most comforting thing for them is hearing stories or anecdotes about the deceased. If you did not know the deceased, than allowing the mourner to speak about the deceased or asking about their youth and life often provides a similar comfort. The critical factor seems to be the knowledge that the deceased is remembered positively and will not be forgotten. All discussions about the deceased may be comforting but obviously those of great accomplishments or middos of the deceased have an even greater impact.
One of the most difficult Shiva houses to visit is one where a parent is mourning the loss of a child, R’L. Simply put, children are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around. The loss in such a case is typically much more deep and profound. If the deceased was old enough, then again stories and memories of the deceased are appropriate and comforting. Even a young child can be remembered for their smile, laugh or joy they brought to others. In the case of a baby or very young child, there is often very little to say. Simply being there and giving charity in the deceased’ merit is an appropriate gesture.
Some DON’TS: While discussing the deceased is encouraged, discussing the precise cause of death, the suffering involved or the nature of the disease which brought about death is neither appropriate nor comforting to the mourner. Remember, you are not there to satisfy your grim curiosity but to be a comfort to the mourner. Similarly, a Shiva house is not a place for levity. Even though one might think that injecting humor can help alleviate some of the grieving, it can later be felt as disrespectful by the mourners.
The best way to compensate for the sense of loss is by helping the mourners feel the love of family, friends and community. This alleviates some of the inevitable feelings of loss and loneliness of the mourners. Indeed, that is one of the reasons given for the Seudas Haavra (the first meal after burial). The mourners should know that they have friends and a community who are there to emotionally support them. This is why donations in the name of the deceased to charity are comforting as well. It reminds the mourners that they are thought of; it perpetuates the memory of the deceased and it provides the merit of charity to the deceased at the same time.
While voluminous books and treatises have been written on the subject, sometimes it is helpful to have a beacon or homing device to keep in mind in lieu of an exhaustive undertaking of reading on short notice. As with many Mitzvos, those surrounding Aveilus and Nichum Aveilim stem from the most basic concepts of kindness towards ones fellow Jew. If we can keep this concept front and center at all times, it will allow us to be at our most compassionate at the most difficult of times.
 Obviously one must be careful to adhere to Rabbinically ordained Mitzvos as well. Nevertheless, one needs to know which Mitzvos are from the Torah and which are Rabbinically mandated in order to avoid Baal Toseph.
 There is actually a disagreement between the Rabbeinu Yona and The Rambam as to whether there are three or four Mitzvos from the Torah involving the mourning process. The Rabbeinu Yona says that comforting mourners comes under the category of Gemillas Chasadim while the Rambam says it is Rabbinically mandated.
 The Rambam points out several other halachos for the first day of aveilos which are Min Hatorah, including not washing or attending to ones appearance, not wearing shoes, engaging in intimacy, getting a haircut etc.