Thoughts on Kaddish, nine months in

“We’re here for you,”“You’re going to be OK” – and most of all, “We’re your friends”– are words my mother, my sister and I never expected to hear from virtual strangers.

As Passover arrives, and with it the Yizkor memorial service on April 16, CJN reporter Frances Kraft reflects on the experience of going to synagogue to say Kaddish for her father. She finds it unexpectedly compelling and, although she always hesitates before admitting this, she says she likes it.
– The Editor

Shivah dos and don’ts

But our lives changed last July after my father, who had been living a busy and fulfilling post-retirement life, died of complications from a fall, and we began attending daily services to say Kaddish.

The prayer, as I knew before, makes no mention of death or the deceased person.

Rather, Kaddish, which praises God, is believed to elevate the soul of the person who has died. But no matter how many times I turn that idea over in my mind, I have no way of knowing, intellectually, whether it’s true. Especially at first, I couldn’t help wondering if my efforts constituted the equivalent of sending e-mails into cyberspace and not knowing if they had reached their destination.

I also like to think that maybe my father doesn’t need my Kaddish because he was a good person, an idea planted in my mind by a family friend during the shivah. Fancifully, she visualized him being ushered to the front of the line to enter what my rabbi refers to as Olam Haba, the “World to Come.”

I do know that saying Kaddish connects me to my family, my religion and my shul; and to others who are saying, have said, or will say Kaddish.

My mother, my sister and I never considered not saying Kaddish. To go that route, even if we had engaged someone to say it on our behalf, would have meant ignoring our instincts and rejecting the example that my dad had set.

From the beginning, I have found the experience compelling.

What surprises me most – and it feels, somehow, inappropriate – is that I enjoy it. But I’m not alone. Sandy Hayward, one of the people at my synagogue who has been generous with her emotional support, said that going to shul to say Kaddish was her guilty pleasure.

The pleasure, of course, comes with a price. People seem to think it’s a burden to wake up early every morning for services, but I haven’t found that part difficult. I am also fortunate to have flexibility both at home and work so that I can attend twice-daily services.

What is difficult is losing a parent. Many aspects of the service remind me of my dad, although they don’t usually trigger “grief attacks” the way they did at the beginning.

The traditional 11-month period of Kaddish offers a way to deal with the year of mourning following a parent’s death, and it works well in ways I didn’t anticipate.

I didn’t realize how much of my time at shul would be spent not grieving, although I’m always conscious at some level of the loss of my father, not having been in the habit of attending daily services before last July.

It’s also not all about praying, even though prayer is the foundation of the service.

When you think about it – instead of just saying the words by rote – it is grounding to start the day with a service that includes prayers for a blessing on the earth, for the health of those who are sick, for peace.

There are also other benefits in having a routine. Unexpectedly, I find myself leaving shul better equipped to start my day, having mentally checked off the first major item of the morning.

At the same time, there is a sense of community that has little to do with prayer per se.

Seeing familiar faces every day is part of it, and shared perspectives play a role too. Brenda Cooper-Geffen, who lost her mother in late December, said we have a bond because we have chosen to mourn our parents in the same way.

People often remark on the warmth they feel at our synagogue, Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am. My mother, my sister and I were moved by the fact that even strangers told us they were sorry for our loss. We were embraced – sometimes literally – by the congregation.

I used to hesitate about offering condolences to someone I knew only slightly, let alone a stranger. That changed almost immediately.

Brenda and I were talking recently about the camaraderie that is evident in our daily minyan. Whether our fellow shul-goers express friendship in words or more implicitly, they are there for us when we need support. And we are OK.