Tuesday, June 13, 2017

From Mourning to Memory

It's been more than five and a half years since the death of my mother, Hilda Kessler, Hinda bat Chaya v'Yosef, may her memory be blessed and continue to live on. More than four and a half years have passed since I ended my official period of mourning and more than three years since I added anything to this blog. I haven't had anything to say on the topic of mourning since then. Indeed, when I look back now at this blog, it's difficult to even believe that I wrote these words. The psychic space I now occupy is so different from that which enveloped me as a mourner.

I do, however, have one more thought to add: the passage from mourning to memory. From being a mourner, with its daily kaddishes, obligations and prohibitions, to carrying on your parent's memory as you live your life. This was the subject of a talk I gave in shul on my mother's second yahrzeit, and what follows is a summary of that talk.

In this blog, I focused on the process of mourning and dealing with loss, to record my experiences, as a form of self-therapy, as well as to give voice to others coping with the loss of a parent. I am aware that my own experiences were the product of my particular circumstances: being a man, with the privileges and religious duties Jewish law bestows on men, observing the general requirements of halacha (Jewish law), praying in Orthodox shuls (synagogues), and living in New York, with easy access to minyanim (prayer quorums). I don't presume to speak for other people's experiences. Yet I have been amazed at how similar the experiences of mourners are.

My aim here is to track the passage from mourning to memory. The mourner, in a Jewish context, experiences various stages, as if passing through a tunnel that leads from one metaphysical reality to another.

There is Aninut, the period between death and burial, which neither halachically nor experientially is a stage of mourning. Rather, the primary sense is shock, for no matter how ill your parent is, and how imminent his or her death, nothing prepares you for the death of a parent. The focus during this stage is planning the funeral and burial. In this regard, it is quite helpful if you had a chance, as I did, to talk to your family members about what the funeral will be like (who should speak, etc.). I began writing my eulogy a few weeks before my mother died, and put the finishing touches on it on the airplane ride that took me to California from New York on my last visit to see her. (Of course, it is another matter if you have to first start dealing with burial arrangements for your parent.)

The next stage, the shiva, are the seven days that follow burial (in reality five and a half days, because half of the first day involves the funeral and the last day ends right after the morning prayer service). Shiva is when you first start to realize what it means to be a Jewish mourner. You begin reciting kaddish, about ten of them every day. If you are a man and the service is orthodox, you (if you so choose) begin leading services. You begin to understand that, in a Jewish context, mourning is public, as your home, your private space, becomes transformed into a public setting where people come and go at will.

I found shiva to be tremendously comforting as well as exhausting. You have little time for yourself. This is by design. You are in a vulnerable state so soon after your parent died, so it's best not to be alone nor have to deal with family or work obligations. You feel taken care of. In a paradoxical way, though your sense of loss is raw, shiva is the easiest period of mourning. You are surrounded by those who care for you and have the chance to process and articulate what your parent meant to you. I spent much of shiva reading and rereading words my mother had written and sharing them with my friends.

Next comes Shoshim, the first 30 days after the burial, seven of which is subsumed by the shiva. Shloshim is when you realize that you have joined a community of mourners. As someone in shul told me, "welcome to the club." You are not first person to have lost a parent, and you usually are not the only one in shul saying kaddish. If you are a man in an Orthodox setting, you begin to get used to the idea of leading the prayer service as a "chiuv." You start getting familiar with the words of the kaddish and the various points of the service at which it is recited. You are just beginning to deal with the psychological and spiritual aspects of grief and loss. Your pain, while still intense, is now mixed with the return to everyday life, your work, shopping, friends, etc. From the outside you are back to your regular life, but on the inside you feel something profound has changed within you.

On a halachic level, the next ten months are considered a single unit. But not so emotionally. During the first half year, you are getting used to the overwhelming nature of the kaddish obligation and the need to plan your day around the times of prayer services. The focus on the kaddish has both positive and negative aspects. It serves to anchor your mourning, constantly reminding you of your loss and giving you a psychic space to focus how your parent's influence continues to live on within you. On the other hand, its incessant repetition can be numbing and its recitation an end in itself rather than a means to support the mourning process.

The second half of the year, in my experience, was characterized by a growing acceptance of the loss and a clearer vision of life without your parent. This division is analogous to the first and second half of Tisha B'av: the first half of the day is imbued with deep sadness and restrictions on pleasurable activities while, during the second half, many of the restrictions of mourning are lifted and a sense of hope begins filtering in. Time during the second half of the kaddish year seems to move quite slowly. Even though you are moving toward the end of the period of mourning, you are by this point so immersed in the kaddish year that you feel it will never end.

At the end of 11 months, your obligation to say kaddish ends, though not the restrictions of mourning. The end of kaddish feels like a shock. For 11 months kaddish and mourning were bound up together. Now, for one month, kaddish is gone but mourning remains. I experienced the end of kaddish as a relief and a release: no longer a "chiuv," you don't have to go to shul every day. Your time is your own again. Kaddish is recited for 11, and not 12, months because of its theurgic nature: the idea that its recitation brings merit to your parent's soul, elevates it to Gan Eden and that to say kaddish for the full 12 months would imply that your parent's soul was not worthy to be elevated within 11 months. Whatever one's theological beliefs, the one month gap between the end of kaddish and mourning gives you a chance to shift your focus to living both without your parent and without kaddish. You are eased out of your mourning slowly, in stages, accompanied by the return to your private self.

The culmination and final stage of mourning is the yahrzeit, the year to the day after your parent died. It has the sense of a holy day, a sort of personal Yom Kippur, in which you confront your parent's life and death. It is a chance to get in touch with the totality of what your parent meant to you: the source of your life, the nurturing and life lessons learned, as well as the ending, all packed into one intense 24-hour period. You return to the kaddish and have priority over all others to lead the services. Different customs mark the day. Some fast. Others commemorate with a kiddush and a l'chayim. In addition to observing the yahrzeit day, I have made a practice of having friends and family over to my home on the Shabbat preceding the yahrzeit for a kiddush, to give words of Torah and to speak about my mother's life and my everlasting connection with her.

The year after your parent dies, mourning and memory are bound up with each other. Mourning is not a linear process, nor can its effects be anticipated or predicted. Feelings of loss and grief wax and wane, often unexpectedly, and without rational reason. And yet, in an overall sense, as the year gradually passes, mourning inexorably recedes, its intensity diminishes. As it does, memory of your parent begins to assume a more dominant place in your psyche. Memory comes from many places, from visitations of your parent in your dreams, from recalling their traits and what they would have said to you in various settings, in the transformation of self in which the legacy of your parent becomes metaphysically embodied within you. During shiva, shloshim and the first half of the year, loss and grief predominate. As the year passes, as the yahrzeit comes and goes, as your life continues on, mourning slowly recedes into the background while memory moves to the foreground. This metaphor is meant to suggest that mourning does not suddenly fall away the day after the yahrzeit, but that it assumes a less significant role in your emotional life.

I have traced the process from mourning to memory as I experienced it, while recognizing that these feelings are deeply personal matters. For all those who have lost a parent, I offer the prayer that these words offer a measure of solace and acknowledgement of common experience. May we cherish the memory of our loved ones and may they continue to guide us through our individual journeys.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Memory: A project realized

While blogging during my year of saying kaddish, I mentioned that I was engaged in a project to keep my mother's memory alive. (http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/07/rememberence-project.html)  The idea, as I wrote then, was to put together some kind of book of her writings in time for her first Yahrtzeit (anniversary of death). Obviously, now more than two years after she died, that aim was not realized. But I have been working on this project for the past twenty months or so. Slowly it has been taking shape. Among my tasks were to go through her writings, decide what was suitable and worthwhile to be published, edit writings that were in rough form, organize the writings into categories, find a publisher, go through family photographs and old slides, review proofs, and more. Through this process, my mother continued to speak to me, and I continued to learn from her.

If you have followed this blog, then I encourage you to order a copy of this book, which is entitled "Messages." All proceeds from the sale will go to Bridges to Israel, the organization she and my father founded to assist victims of terror and their families in Israel. While thank God the ongoing terror of 2001-2002 has abated, the medical, psychological and economic needs of the many victims continue. Every penny from the sale of "Messages" will go toward this goal while helping to preserve the memory of the remarkable woman that was my mother.

To order the book, email me at misterkessler15@gmail.com

Another visit

How much reality can a dream contain? Whether the dream I will relate is just a product of my inner thoughts or perhaps contains some aspect of metaphysical reality, I don't know. But its effect on me, as well as its lasting impact, was and always will be, real.

I dreamed that there was a knock on my door. I opened it, and in walked my mother. As is always the case when she appears in my dreams, which is not very often, I was quite surprised and overwhelmingly pleased. She looked alive and well, unlike the last few months of her life. All I recall is the following exchange we had. I told her I really enjoyed her visits. I asked her to visit me more often. I said, "I wish you would visit me every day." She responded, "I do."

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Many Functions of Kaddish

The following is a summary of a talk I gave in synagogue on the Shabbat preceding my mother's first Yahrzeit in her memory and honor. The talk was entitled "The Many Functions of Kaddish."

During the year that I recited the Kaddish after the death of my beloved mother, Hinda Yael bat Yosef v’Chaya, may her memory always be with us, I asked myself many questions. What was the purpose of saying Kaddish? For whom was I saying Kaddish (myself or my mother)? How was Kaddish related to mourning? In her honor and to help process my thoughts and feelings, I kept a blog in which I mused about these and other questions  (mykaddishyear.blogspot.com).
Nothing in life prepares you for mourning the loss of a parent. The idea that the person who gave you life is no longer in the world is incomprehensible. I had nineteen months after my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to get used to the idea, and I understood that I’d soon be a mourner. But there is an existential divide between the “regular” world and the one occupied by mourners.
Becoming a mourner and living without my mother was and continues to be uncharted emotional territory. One of my mother’s many life messages was to strive continuously for personal growth through emotional honesty, no matter how painful the process. Before her death, she shared a series of poems with her children, one of which, entitled “Uncharted Territory,” reads:

Start anew
in uncharted territory
the unknown coastline
the unrecognized terrain
the language
foreign to heart and soul.

I tremble at my task
I have not been endowed
with great strength
or powerful skills
my means are meager
my support in doubt.

Yet persevere I must
to continue my journey
bringing forth the word
we are the children of prophets
are charged to start anew
fulfilling the purpose
given us.

To start anew in
bringing forth
the word of words
guiding our path in

In my mother’s spirit of self-assessment and her desire to live an examined life, I have tried to map the processes of mourning her death. My blog was a record of these experiences, a kind of self-therapy, which I invited my readers to share.
            How then does Kaddish relate to mourning? Kaddish is the major religious obligation associated with mourning and its most visible sign -- but it is not synonymous with mourning. One can mourn without saying Kaddish or, conversely, say Kaddish without truly mourning. Mourning is the internal process of dealing with the grief, loss and disbelief that accompany the absence of one to whom our very existence is owed.
What is Kaddish? Developed in the Middle Ages, Kaddish is a prayer the recitation of which, over time, became the obligation of mourners. This recitation is neither a biblical nor a rabbinic mitzvah. Rather, it is a strongly held custom. Kaddish is not mentioned in the Talmud or the Shulchan Aruch. The earliest sources, which date from the early 12th Century, discuss Kaddish in the context of orphaned boys reciting it if they have not reached the age of bar mitzvah, because only adults are allowed to say  ברכו  את  השם המברך . (These sources account for the Mourner’s Kaddish’s Hebrew appellation,  קדיש יתום, or “Orphan’s Kaddish”). Over time, the custom developed for a man (and, more recently, a woman) who has lost a parent to say Kaddish for 11 months. As Kaddish contains words of kedusha, it may be recited only with a minyan.
Saying Kaddish can, but does not necessarily, assist the mourner in these tasks. Like any oft-repeated ritual, it can become a mindless act. (I’ve seen mourners say Kaddish while checking their cell phones, folding their tallit or holding a conversation.) Indeed, the nature of the Kaddish obligation lends itself to rote behavior. While halakhically the obligation can be fulfilled by a single Mourner’s Kaddish each day, most mourners strive to recite every possible Kaddish, a total of eight daily, five during Shacharit (the morning service), two of which are Kaddish D’rabbanan (the Rabbi’s Kaddish), one after Mincha, another Kaddish D’rabbanan between Mincha and Ma’ariv, and one after Ma’ariv. This amounts to about 2,640 Kaddishes during the 11 months that the mourner recites Kaddish.
The incessant repetition of the Kaddish can fetishize the prayer, such that the mourner strives so intently not to miss a Kaddish that the recitation becomes an end in itself divorced from any sense of greater purpose.
Kaddish can and should, however, support the mourning process. Here are some ways I found that it does.
The eternal relationship. The traditional explanation of Kaddish is that its words bring merit to the soul of the deceased. This idea is based on the following midrash: Rabbi Akiva was walking in a cemetery when he met a naked man with thorns on his head. He discovered the man was actually dead and had been forced to chop wood. When Akiva asked him what he did to deserve this punishment, the man said he’d been a tax collector. Akiva wanted to help the dead man. The man told Akiva that the only way to help was if his son were to say
 ברכו  את  השם המברך” and the congregation responded
 יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם  ולעלמי עלמיה”. Unfortunately, the man’s son had never been circumcised nor had he learned any Torah. Akiva prayed and fasted to open the son’s heart to Torah. God answered his prayer and Akiva taught him Torah. The son went to shul and said “ ברכו  את  השם המברך”.  The man then came to Akiva in a dream, blessed Akiva, and told him that his soul had been saved from the punishment of Gehenna.
From this midrash comes the notion that each time you say Kaddish, you raise the soul of your parent toward a higher level. No matter how righteous a life he or she led, their soul is in danger of being lost to Gehenna. Reciting Kaddish and prompting the congregation to respond “יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם  ולעלמי עלמיה” rescues the soul from the lower realms of the afterlife.
The power of this midrash helps explain why some take the obligation to say Kaddish so seriously that missing a single Kaddish becomes unthinkable. Of course, it is easy to dismiss the midrash as mere superstition.  Can I really believe that my mother, whose work as a psychologist and Israel activist helped hundreds if not thousands of people, needs my help for her soul to achieve eternal rest?
But there is another way of understanding the midrash. Its message is that there is a link between the mourner’s actions and the deceased’s soul. The bond between child and parent continues even after death. Even more so, the midrash suggests that the relationship remains, in some respect, a two-way street. Just as my mother’s life affected me profoundly and her life is forever imprinted in my being, my life in some indefinable way still affects my mother. The relationship is eternal, transcending life.
Beyond these metaphysics, saying Kaddish fulfills more concrete, yet equally important, functions.

The war against forgetting. Saying Kaddish regularly prevents you from forgetting what happened. It’s easy after the first few weeks to shove aside the trauma and pain of your parent’s death. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” It is natural, perhaps even human nature, to try to “move on” or “get over it.” That is how people who have survived traumatic events continue to live functional lives. We are blessed, or perhaps cursed, with the ability to heal from traumatic events. And with healing comes the possibility of forgetting. But saying Kaddish every day doesn’t allow you to forget. Kaddish is a public affirmation that you are a mourner. Kaddish is a pronouncement, to others and to yourself: “I am a mourner. My parent died. It happened. I cannot forget.”

Something concrete to do. Kaddish gives the mourner a concrete task to regularly perform. After a tragic event, it’s natural to ask oneself, “What now?” Kaddish’s answer is: Get up, get out of your home, get to shul and say these words for 11 months. Not too many words, about 100.
The words, even though they are in Aramaic, are not that difficult to pronounce. They have rhythm that is easy to pick up. Unlike any other prayer, the Kaddish is transliterated in most siddurim (prayer books) so that you don’t even have to know how to read Hebrew to say it. It’s the one prayer that seems to unify all Jews, no matter their denomination. (No one is proposing to change the words of this prayer.) Kaddish may not take away the pain of loss, but it does peg your mourning to a specific, definable, easy-to-accomplish task.

Routines. Saying Kaddish creates a routine for the mourner. You go to shul in the morning and the afternoon. Your life revolves around the obligation to say Kaddish. Routines are beneficial to one’s mental state. There is something comforting about knowing that you have to be at a certain place at a certain time every day. Dealing with the death of a parent is overwhelming; going to shul every day is much easier to deal with. Kaddish says to the mourner: “Dealing with your parent’s loss will take time. In the meantime, get yourself to shul and say Kaddish.”

You are not the only mourner. When I started going to shul to say Kaddish, someone said to me, “Welcome to the club.” What he meant was that, everyone will someday be in the “club” of mourners. The mourner is not alone, but part of a community of mourners, not one voluntarily joined, but joined nonetheless.
During the year of saying Kaddish, we mourners took turns leading the prayers and discussed the details of our parent’s illness and death and their effect on us. We formed powerful, often unspoken, bonds born of common grief. These connections do not replace the severed link with our parent, but the obligation of Kaddish does help create social outlets that offer a measure of companionship and solace.

Connection with community. Kaddish connects you to the community at a time when your natural focus is your own grief. Being in pain is selfish by nature. It is you—not others—who has suffered a loss. Kaddish provides a corrective message: In your time of grief, you must be with others. Kaddish puts your own pain in a broader context. You have to leave your house, go to shul and be with others. Indeed, not only are you not alone, but you are also the center of attention in shul. The mourner is considered a “חיוב,” that is, one with an obligation to lead prayers. As a mourner, you cannot hide in shul. Anyone who utters Kaddish is noticed.  People come up to you to ask you for whom you are saying Kaddish, even if you are a stranger. You meet people. You are not alone.

Benefit to the community. Saying Kaddish serves to remind the community that some of its members are in pain. Indeed, this idea is so powerful that the custom has developed that a person saying Kaddish for a parent has a חיוב, that is, priority to lead prayers except on joyous days such as Shabbat and holidays. The mourner leads prayers not because of any particular talent in this regard, but solely because his loss and pain grant him a certain stature. God prefers the prayers of the lowly to those of the exalted. As you represent the community in prayer, your words remind all those assembled of the reality of death and our own mortality.

Honor your father and mother. We all have an obligation to honor our parents, but that obligation does not end with their death. True, you can no longer honor them in the same way. But by coming to shul and saying Kaddish, you bring honor to their memory. You are acknowledging that your relationship does not end with their death, that you remember your parent and that your parent was and remains worthy of your honor.

Your parent’s evidence. When your parent dies, you are charged with carrying on their memory. In a sense, you take their place in the world. When you say Kaddish, you are testifying to this fact and that their lives merited to be perpetuated through you. Most people in shul did not know my mother. But through my daily saying of Kaddish, they got to know me. Through my efforts to go to shul every day to say Kaddish, I provided evidence that my mother lived a life worthy of memory and that, through her children, she continues to live.

Keeping hope and faith alive. It’s been often noted that the Kaddish does not mention death. Moreover, it focuses not on the past, but the future. If some find that their parent’s death ruptures their relationship with God, saying Kaddish may help repair the breach. Kaddish speaks to the hope that God’s name will become fully known in the world. It is a prayer for peace and better days ahead. Sometimes saying these words in the face of death may seem incongruous, even cruel, but the point is to keep saying them. Through the Kaddish, you are pointed to your own post-mourning future, to the belief that the sorrow will lift, that life will be renewed, and that the world, both heaven and earth, will someday be redeemed.

These are some of the thoughts I developed while saying Kaddish.

In the many years since I began attending synagogue regularly, I never gave much thought to the people saying Kaddish. But once your parent dies, you enter into a new realm of mourning and loss. Just as the mourner assumes a central position within the prayer community, Kaddish assumes center stage for the mourner. It provides a meaningful, repetitive and concrete activity that focuses the mourner on his or her loss, providing an anchor that grounds the mourning process.
After the year-long mourning period ends and the Kaddish experience recedes, the mourner reenters the world of life -- but not completely. Once you’ve encountered death, you are never quite the same. You stand somewhere between the realms of death and life, loss and renewal, sorrow and hope. A space all of us, eventually, will inhabit.
For myself and all mourners, I offer the prayer that, in my mother’s words, we be allowed to
start anew in
bringing forth
the word of words
guiding our path in