It is hard to believe that it has been over 2 years since my father died. After shiva I felt an emptiness that is hard to describe. I had regularly called my Dad, and faithfully visited him in England especially as his health declined. As the end drew near, we all suffered along with him. After shiva, the next phase of mourning began. Traditionally there are no open signs of mourning that are built into traditional rituals for women. It can be a very lonely place. It is not obvious that you are still mourning, feeling sad and bereft. It may seem that you are back to normal. For me, there was a big hole in my life.
It occurred to me that since there were no other family members able to make the commitment to say the kaddish prayer for my father, perhaps this would be something I could do. I discussed the idea with my rabbi. At that point I felt a powerful need and desire to stay connected to my Dad. He had cared and loved me my whole life and now I had the opportunity to give to him in a very real and meaningful way. I was told that if I chose to honor him in this way, that it would be very meritorious. I no longer had little children at home that would make my participation in daily synagogue services hard. My job was flexible. There was no problem working my schedule around the changing times of services. So I started attending my local Orthodox synagogue three times a day.
Kaddish speaks of G-d’s greatness. It is an affirmation of belief in the Almighty and His unlimited power. Our tradition teaches that following death, the soul ascends and that words praising and affirming the goodness of God positively affect the soul’s journey in the afterworld. When I, as his daughter, say words of praise of God to which the community responds with “May His great Name be blessed for ever and ever” my father’s soul gets the “credit” for these proclamations. My words in this world affect his soul in the next. We have the amazing ability to help souls ascend in the heavenly realms. When I understood the power of kaddish I felt not only a duty but an obligation to help him in this way. The reality is that kaddish also allows the mourner to stay connected with their loved ones. I was keeping the relationship active by “doing” something good for him. I thought about him multiple times a day. It kept him very much “alive”!
Learning Torah, giving charity and doing acts of kindness are also ways to honor and memorialize our departed. However knowing that there was no one else saying kaddish opened up another powerful opportunity. Loss and grief continue after the shiva. Going to synagogue every day identifies you as someone still mourning.
I encourage communities to welcome all people who want to say kaddish. Mourners desperately need support and love. They are in a very emotionally fragile place and have great potential to feel very lonely. When the synagogue community embraces them, they feel less alone. Mourners need the support of loving people who recognize their loss and who participate in the process of raising the soul of their departed.
Traditionally men are the ones in an Orthodox community who say kaddish, but recently more and more women are choosing to say this prayer. I encourage us to recognize and embrace all people saying kaddish, especially women for whom it may feel very intimidating. Many Orthodox synagogues are not used to women coming during the week to pray. When grieving women enter a traditionally male space they may need a little more welcoming. They, like all mourners, benefit from the community and the routine. When my fellow congregants responded to my kaddish or offered to say it for me if for some reason I couldn’t make it to a service, it showed they respected and acknowledged what I was doing. This was not only comforting but made the experience more meaningful. Women should not be reciting kaddish in spite of their fellow worshippers but with their support and embrace.
It was not easy for me, a woman, to go daily to an Orthodox service where there were sometimes no other women present. Sometimes there was no women’s section available and I would need to stand by the door to hear the service.
However my experience taught me the enormous value of this practice and it took away some of the loneliness.
After this loss I am so much more aware of the needs of a mourner than I was before. I realize how meaningful it is to be acknowledged and responded to. Prayers said on behalf of the deceased need the community to respond. When kaddish is recited it is a time to recognize the deaths of real people who are our friend’s parent, sibling, spouse or child. I encourage us to listen to their words, which are being spoken in pain and at a time of loss. It can be an opportunity to think about our own mortality and to be more grateful for, connected to and passionate about our own lives. It was important for me to feel embraced and recognized. We can all respond with a resounding, “And may His great name be blessed for ever and ever.”
After 11 months of saying kaddish, I felt I had done something meaningful for me and my father. My goal was for his soul to continue to be elevated in the next world and for him to benefit from the goodness that he continues to bring into the world through my actions. I had stayed in relationship with him daily as I spoke of God’s glory. I encourage others to say kaddish for their loved ones, if they are able. I also hope that we have communities where both men and women are welcomed, responded to, and recognized.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the Orthodox Union.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.