I am 71 and I just became an orphan.
My dad, Sol, died in 2007 at age 90, and now Mom has died at age 97. Rosalie died Dec. 14, before the Sabbath. At that moment I became an orphan.
I have been thinking that the Bible speaks about caring for orphans often (Psalm 146:9; Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 16:14, 10:18, 24:17, 27:19; Isaiah 1:17), and yet many orphans are not poor and therefore need no special care. Still, the Bible commands us to always care for orphans. Now I understand why.
These are the things that compassionate people have done for me and said to me in the days since Mom's passing that fulfill the biblical commandment to care for the orphan. These suggestions may help you comfort your newly orphaned friends as they helped me be comforted in what is now, and for some time into the future, my broken time.
•Don't tell an orphan (or any other person who has just lost a loved one) "Don't worry, everything will be OK." The point of death is that it is forever and that it makes many things in your life that were once OK, suddenly not OK. The task of grief work is to find a new way to live a complete and joyous life while knowing that a big part of your joy has vanished from your life forever. I found that the best greeting from consolers was, "May God comfort you." The greeting "I am so sorry for your loss" is not bad, but it is a bit odd to issue an apology (I am so sorry) when in fact you are not apologizing for anything. The main thing is to accept the gravity of grief and not trivialize it by saying that everything will be OK. Since Mom died there are things that are permanently not OK.
•Ask the mourner you are trying to comfort to tell you a story about their loved one who has died. I know that I love stories and I love to talk, so asking me to tell a story is easy for me. But for every mourner, a comforter who is sincerely interested in learning more about your loved one is far dearer than a comforter who focuses on you or the death or the future. If the mourner is too broken to tell you a story, and if you knew their loved one, then you tell them a story.
Many of my congregants wrote to comfort me and told me of how they would watch Mom sit in the front row listening to me preach. They said she looked elegant and proud. Pride is easy, but I honestly don't know what elegance really means and yet Mom was surely elegant. She was poor her entire life, but she was elegant. I have been wondering how she managed elegance on such a tight budget. Now I realize that elegance is not a measure of wealth, but rather a measure of satisfaction. Mom was satisfied with her lot and not jealous of others. This is the secret of elegance. It is right there in the first verse of the 23rd Psalm, which is mistranslated as, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." The word for "want" is not there in the Hebrew. The word that is there is the word for "lack." So the verse should be translated from the Hebrew as, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack." God does not promise us the fulfillment of our every desire. Rather, God promises us that we lack nothing we need to live a fulfilling, compassionate life right now. Mom no doubt wanted things, but she felt that she lacked nothing. That is elegance.
•Mention heaven. Of the many messages of condolence I have already received about Mom's passing, the only message that mentioned the hope that Mom's soul would rest in heaven was from my Catholic friend Michael. God how I wish that Jews would feel more comfortable mentioning heaven, or in our version, "The World to Come" (Heb: Olam Habah). Telling me that I have so many memories of Mom only makes her passing harder for me. Believing that death is not the end of her soul gives me true hope. The message that death is not the end of us is the essential belief of every single religion on earth. Affirming that belief always is important. Affirming that belief is essential when the grave of your mother is still fresh.
Dear Mom, may your soul rest in peace in the Olam Habah with Dad among the holy and the righteous ... and the elegant.