Into the Heart of Mourner’s Kaddish

In 2001, someone I loved very deeply died really suddenly. I won’t tell you his age, as he was always mortified about it, but he was very young, in his early 30’s.  I wish you had been able to grow older, mortified or not, dear heart…

I crawled into a cave, and I didn’t accept his death. I kept on with my work, and did not accept his death. I tried having other relationships but was oddly disconnected (to this day, I do not remember those relationships very much at all) and I did not accept his death. JeffreyS

Then followed ten years during which I waited for him to come home. Knowing that when he had had an impulse to talk to me, he had driven by and if the light was not on, he didn’t come in, I left the light on for years.
There were shards of broken glass in my chest for ten long years; I could not breathe too deeply without tears.
And I did not accept his death.

I had a ten-years-delayed “rebound” relationship with the man who had begun grief counseling with me, who saw the raw ugliness of my grief that I had allowed no one else in the world to see, who told me he was in love with me and jealous of a man ten years gone from this world – that relationship taught me a lot and began a process toward acceptance, and very painfully woke my heart up from its long disconnected state,

but I still felt as though I was behind sharp glass panes, utterly separate from people, in a cage of frozen grief.

Last November on the anniversary of Jeff’s death, I decided to say Mourner’s Kaddish for a year. To do something for him, when I could do nothing. To spend time with him in the only way I could. To teach myself to accept and let go.

In the beginning, I felt sheepish about breaking the “rules” — I was not saying Kaddish at the traditionally accepted time — but I knew that on a deep level I needed this if I was ever to move on and heal, and perhaps one day have a healthy relationship. At the same time I also felt a bit of resistance, as always happens when I am faced with “structured religion.”  I felt like I was fulfilling an obligation, following a rule, and that chafed somewhat.

Still, I stood up to say Mourner’s Kaddish for my friend.  Painfully, I said his name aloud for the first time into the still air of that synagogue and something inside cracked open, just a little bit.

Then, there was a lot of grief. A LOT. I said Kaddish in a whisper, unable to speak around the enormous lump in my throat; I said Kaddish with tears flowing in a bitter flood down my cheeks, dripping off my chin and spotting the prayerbook. I said Kaddish and sometimes the grief felt like it was tearing its way out of my body, and I would wrap my head in my prayer shawl in mortification to feel so out of control in the synagogue, in “public.”

But, as a wise friend (a wonderful, supportive fellow Maggid student) said to me once: “if you can’t cry in the synagogue, where CAN you cry?”

I said Kaddish with anger that I was saying Kaddish for a man who had died far too young; I said Kaddish wishing I could go back to that week and help, somehow – living through the “bargaining” stage of grief  (“If I had gone with him, he wouldn’t have tried that drug. If I had not distanced from my best friend in all the world, he would not have felt so alone…”)

I said Kaddish remembering him, with a smile on my lips; I said Kaddish thinking of his family and wondering where they were; I said Kaddish remembering the first time I saw him, in a temper, with a scowl on his face, his skin glowing darkly across the room; I said Kaddish with a small giggle inside, remembering calling my Mother to tell her, “I have met a scenic designer. He is going to be trouble for me, somehow.”
I said Kaddish, and I walked through all our too-brief days together, our lifetime together and apart. I said Kaddish with the taste of our first kiss on my lips, and with the bond in my chest that we had formed, two twenty-somethings who played together like kids, and who always assured each other they’d be married, as soon as they figured things out…as soon as he no longer turned to drugs when he was sad…as soon as….as soon as…

I said Kaddish with compassion for us both, remembering our “dates” to Costco when we were both too poor to go out, and how we laughed until we had tears rolling down our faces, hunched over helplessly giggling and making the most delicious lunch out of free samples…the plastic ring he had gotten from a bubble-gum machine and how he had put it on my finger, and how it was more precious than any jewelry I owned…

I am nine months into the process of saying Kaddish for my best friend and love, and now I realize why the tradition is to say Kaddish for a year after someone has died.

Because at some point, time has done its work; you wake up one morning and realize, saying those same words you’ve said week after week, that a changed heart is saying the same words. The words become a steadfast marker against which you can see your own growth and healing, and as you say yet again the words of Kaddish, the meaning seeps into your bones.

AT first, it’s just the rhythm that is soothing: “…Yit-barach v’yish-tabach, v’yit-pa-ar v’yit-romam v’yit-nasay, v’yit-hadar v’yit-aleh v’yit-halal sh’may d’koo-d’shah…”

It is like a mantra – a heartbeat. The sound of it on my tongue reminds me of the time when I was in Greece for the summer, living on about $15 a week, taking the afternoons to simply float in the sea.  I had met a Polish girl there, and was teaching her how to swim. We lay back in the salty water, floating high in the stillness as the salt held us up, just our ears under the water, faces to the sky…and all I could hear was the musical chime of the rocks and pebbles beneath me as the gentle rocking of the tiny waves stirred them, and faintly, underneath, my own slow, steady heartbeat and the whoosh of the flow and ebb of my own breath in my ears. The water was warm; it was the safest I have ever felt, in the womb-waters of mother earth herself.

That is the rhythm of Kaddish.  It wraps you in its timeless serene acceptance of what is – it rocks you gently, and over the months, its assurance that nothing – no one- is ever truly lost seeps into your bones.

Then, the meaning of the words began to be clear.   (A few translations will be at the end of this post.)

Mourner’s Kaddish is a song of joy –a giving of thanks —  an affirmation of life!

IMG_7067The day that new layer of meaning struck me, as I was saying Kaddish for the thirtieth, fortieth time, I gasped. I knew then that this ancient prayer was not only for Jeff’s soul, it was also for mine. I knew then that this beautiful prayer was telling me that I was not alone (how many people have said Kaddish throughout the ages?) and that I was still alive, and that I must learn

how to live again.

During this 12-month journey, I happened to experience an interpretation of Mourner’s Kaddish that is one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received. I was in the time when I was beginning to feel a beauty and expansion in saying Kaddish; comforted by the rhythm of Kaddish – my grief had worked its splinter-sharp edges to the surface and had been worn into sea-glass by months of tears –

I was serene, aching still, but open; tender new growth had begun to soften the wounded places.  I was at a Rabbi Zalman Shabbaton in Ashland, Oregon, and the Mourner’s Kaddish that weekend was done by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, (“the Kirtan Rabbi”) – it was a kirtan Kaddish.  It was utterly beautiful. (*Is* utterly beautiful, actually: you can find and hear it online, if you don’t have the opportunity to hear it live.)

Also during a Rabbi Zalman shabbaton in the previous year, I randomly met an author, Hyla Shifra Bolsta, who had written a beautiful book: the Illuminated Kaddish.

Through Hyla’s artwork and through Rabbi Andrew Hahn’s kirtan, Kaddish opened before me; I experienced new depths in the magnificent heart of the prayer.

Kaddish is a road through the grieving process: it is a guide. It lets you listen to your own heart and know when it is time to let joy back in; it holds you up like the ocean in Greece held me, telling you, it’s okay, it’s okay, feel your grief, feel it all, you will not shatter.

And then, later: it’s okay, it’s okay, you’re alive and that is wonderful – your beloved is still alive in you.

Throughout the year, I have unravelled every stitch of what he was to me in my life: every bright glance, the funny way he blew his nose, his maddening stubbornness and his sweet, sweet voice; his breathing next to me and the sweet smell of him, that spot behind his ear that always smelled like woodsmoke and sweet meadow; his practical jokes, his quick, stormy temper, and his loyal, gentle heart…his beautiful eyes that noticed everything, and his long, sensitive fingers that sketched the things he noticed with such clarity and whimsy…

All of it has been unravelled, tiny stitch by excruciating stitch, and has been knit back up into myself, over the course of nine months saying Mourner’s Kaddish. All the moments of who we were together knit back into who I am — and suddenly, he was a part of me, not shut out by my grief. The memory of him lived and breathed in me, and I began to feel like he was with me; in my mind I would see his smile when something wonderful happened, and I would feel, suddenly, the warmth of him near. I felt as though I was living with all of my heart, as I never had before.

Surrounded by my community who let me be – who did not judge, who did not need to talk to me about my grief, who just stood with me and once in awhile squeezed my hand or put a comforting arm around me— held in this warm sea of mother earth’s lifeblood, held in the heartbeat of my community, I said Kaddish, and I finally healed.

Ariwildernessillustedited

I finally let him go.

I finally realized that while I loved him with all my heart, that was a gift that made my heart and soul grow larger- there was infinite room in my heart to love again.

I have three months left to say Mourner’s Kaddish for my best friend and love.

I have three months in which my heart might still sting with grief, but it also – so suddenly! even in the next breath! – might be quick and bright with joy….

because during this journey of saying Kaddish for my dear friend, I learned that it is okay to stand there saying Kaddish for him and also feeling the sun on my face. That it is okay to be laughing inside at a funny thing that someone had said just moments before, or to be still feeling elevated, serene and blissful from the prayer service that had come before.  I learned that it is all okay. That I did not need to die when he died. That grief is the deal we make when we draw our first breath here: we are going to love, and we are going to lose people – and we are all going to die sometime.  We will also learn things along the way — and in a way, saying Mourner’s Kaddish for a year cycle is a distillation, a metaphor of the whole journey of a life.

It is a beautiful gift to have this tradition that allows healing and understanding to come.

One of the messages Mourner’s Kaddish held for me was a vision of my future self, who said, “Don’t use up your life refusing to mourn, refusing to let go of those who are gone. Do not carry the dead—we will all end at some point — let their deaths teach you how to live.  Mourn, so you can fully expand into the length and breadth of your days here.”

At the last comes acceptance.  It cannot come at the beginning: there is a necessary process to go through first, and Mourner’s Kaddish is a beautiful guide through that process.

Mourner’s Kaddish interpretation by Rabbi Avram Davis:

(taken from the Illuminated Kaddish by Hyla Bolsta)

Exalted and Sanctified is the name of Loving Kindness in this world.
Created according to the Intention
And may it be established in your lifetime
and the lifetime of the Community
Speedily. Soon. (Amen)

May this name of the Infinite be blessed Forever;
Blessed and Praised, Glorified and Uplifted, Honored and
Elevated.
The power of Chesed {Loving Kindness} is Greater than all
the Hymns, Prayers or Consolations
we can utter in this life.  (Amen)

May there be abundant Peace and a good life for all the community;
for ourselves and all Creation (Amen)

Mercy and Peace sustain us the far heavens,
so may it Be for us, for all the community, for all of Creation

(Amen.)

kadheb

Mourner’s Kaddish (Transliteration)

Yitgadal v’yit-kadash sh’mei rabba (Congregation – Amen)

B’allma dee v’ra chir’utei v’yamlich malchutei,

B’chayeichon, uv’yomeichon, uv’chayei d’chol beit yisrael,

Ba’agala u’vizman kariv, v’imru: Amen

(Congregation – Amen. Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’allam u’lallmei allmaya)

Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’allam u’lallmei allmaya.

Yit’barach, v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar,

v’yitromam, v’yit’nasei,

v’yit’hadar, v’yitaleh, v’yit’halal,

sh’mei d’kudsha b’rich hu (Congregation – b’rich hu)

L’ayla min kol b’irchata v’shirata,

tush’b’chata v’nechemata,

da’ami’ran b’all’ma, v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

Y’hei shlama rabba min sh’maya,

v’chayim aleinu v’al kol yisrael v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

Oseh shalom bim’ro’mav,

hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu,

v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teyvel. v’imru: Amen (Congregation – Amen)

 

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