Tag Archives: healing from grief

Ending Kaddish

by Pam Adelstein (Newton, MA)

Eleven months of showing up and standing up. The days blur together, sometimes feeling short, and other times feeling endless. People tell ME that it feels like I’ve been saying Kaddish forever. I think in response, it has been longer for me than it has been for you.

Countless Kaddishes feel like exposure therapy for public acknowledgment of grief.

I feel vulnerable and exposed each time I rise and hear the Kaddish uttered from my lips, as my voice fills the room.

In the traditional call and response, the kahal overpowers my voice. I know they are listening to me. Me –  one tiny insignificant mourner among centuries of Jewish mourners around the world.

Humbled and grateful, I take comfort in our togetherness. A daily minyan, where I stand with a group of mourners, who implicitly understand, no questions asked. I march blindly forward in their footsteps, often the youngest in the room. This has the effect of making me feel way too young to have lost my dad.

At our evening services the shliach tzibbur reliably inquires, “Is anyone observing a yahrzeit who would like to speak about their loved one?” Each time I stare blankly back, thinking, “Nope, still a poor schlepper.”

Finally, I learned what I have dubbed “the paragraph.” The talmedei talmedehon of the Kaddish D’Rabbanan.

Though I no longer feel nervous trepidation, sometimes while reciting the Kaddish I still feel as if the poetic Aramaic words are rocks in my mouth, projectile phrases from my throat, lyrics from my grieving soul.

The Kaddish words sometimes come out differently with every recitation. Someone jokingly asked if the words rearranged themselves on the page. I shared that reciting an imperfect Kaddish reminds me that my grief is imperfect. Like the Navajo people, who intentionally weave a flaw into their rugs to show that only a Supreme Being can produce perfection.

The end of my daily Mourner’s Kaddish is here. I have ordered my life around this prayer. I have observed the sun and the moon, the snow and the rain, and the day and the night through the skylight of Gann Chapel. Thinking about and searching for my father. Is he out there somewhere, looking in?

It feels as if a cliff’s precipice awaits me. A leap of faith, knowing that the sages thought we mourners would be okay at the eleven-month mark without the daily scaffolding of coming together briefly in community. Without those snippets of conversation before we return to our daily lives outside these walls.I wish those sages could guide me through the next phases of mourning, of integrating further back into regular life, as I ask: what do I do with my grief now?

Pam Adelstein is an active member of her Boston-area minyan. She is married, has two children, and is on the verge of becoming an empty-nester. She enjoys hiking, yoga and kayaking, and works as a family physician at a community health center. Writing is a way for her to express the emotions around her work and personal experiences, connect with others, and be creative. Her writing can be found at Pulse Voices (search Pam Adelstein), at WBUR, Doximity, and STAT.

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Sanctuary

by Alison Hurwitz (Cary, NC)

Incongruous, that towered height among the holly, butternut, 

hydrangea, along the oaks, camellias, black-green laurel hedge —

there it rose, so tall it steepled everything, as if to say, remember,

pray to what grows green above us.

A field-worn, furrowed man called Shorty came knocking once. He said

when young, he’d planted a young redwood seedling there, brought back

from California, vaguely hoped that it would someday grow to be 

a landmark. He’d removed his crumpled hat, his hand a map of years, 

his eyes as wide as forests, asked if he could go and touch the trunk, 

already girthed to temple, breathing dusk. My mother understood,

she a tree parishioner, so both of them remained a while in silence.

When Shorty went away, he left his story grafted to its branches. 

Dad cut back the deck each year, to give the redwood room to ring. Rare 

days when grandparents sat dappled on the deck, polite and tightly furled,

Jews and Catholics baffled past translation, they sat in shade below it, and 

in stillness, shifted into softening; green a common tongue between them. 

At seventeen, I’d park with my first love across the street, and kiss until the night 

dipped branches dark with longing. When, same car, same street, same boy, 

time wrenched us into ending, the tree stood by to witness, a shelter until 

my loss let go its spores, until my heart referned with undergrowth.

Ten years later, beneath the tree, my new husband and I stood quiet while my parents, 

faces filigreed with leaf-light, planted blessings in us. They prayed we’d tend

a sapling, make a small repair, something to green the broken world. My parents’ hope 

could sing the music out of wood.  Mitzvot and Meritum. Their reverence, ringed.

The day after my father died, when all I had was absence, I stumbled out to sit 

below our redwood tree. There, grief burrowing among its roots, I stayed until 

I found a seed and held it in my palm. I breathed and felt the way that branches 

lifted into blue, its birds built nests, the fledglings flew, each ending bending to beginning: 

holy as the timeless sky.

Alison Hurwitz’s work has appeared in Global Poemic, Words and Whispers, Tiferet Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Anti-Heroin Chic, Book of Matches, and The Shore, and is forthcoming in Amethyst Review, Rust and Moth, Thimble Magazine, Academy of the Heart and Mind, and SWWIM Every Day. She writes gratefully in North Carolina. To read more about her and her work, visit alisonhurwitz.com

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Condolences

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

People have surprised me since my son died—and not always in a good way. Some of those I thought would be there with a note, a call, a “How’re you doing?” have fallen by the wayside. Yet others I hardly knew have reached out in a most caring way. One such person called out, “Rita?” as I was leaving the synagogue one Saturday. 

Never having spoken, I knew this man only by sight. And name, if I could ever recall it.

He told me he had read an article I wrote about my son’s death (such a terrible and final word) when I had volunteered as a phone friend to an elderly shut-in as a way of reaching out to someone instead of wallowing in my sorrow. The man offered his condolences. But I sensed in his manner, in his almost hesitant way of speaking, that there might be more on his mind. I waited a beat and he asked if I had a minute, or did I have to get going? I said I had time.  

He shared that his father had died when he was five and a half, and his mother when he was 21. 

“Everyone has their own grief,” I said. “That must have been very difficult for you.” 

I wondered if this was going to be one of those conversations—if you can call it that—where people insist their grief is just like yours, or tell you about someone who has it worse than you (no one has it worse when you lose a child!). Or what you should be doing to get out of your funk.

But then, as if not to take anything away from my suffering, he said, “Losing a child is the greatest loss of all.” He was glad I had come to services and not stayed home brooding, grieving alone. It was important to get out, he said. To be with others, to socialize. “It’s key in the healing process.”

It’s also key in Jewish tradition to perform acts of kindness. The 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides wrote that by comforting mourners you fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. My neighbor was doing just that. 

“I hope you don’t think I’m preaching or telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just passing on what worked for me.” 

“Not at all,” I said, taken with his compassion.  

There had been mentors, he said: a neighbor, an uncle, later on teachers, role models who shaped him and became important in his life. A job well done, I thought, considering how he had sought me out, a stranger, to comfort. 

We stood there talking by the exit door but I don’t recall seeing anyone come or go, so absorbed I was in our exchange. And though he spoke more than I, it wasn’t a me, me, me assault. An us talk is what it was. One sufferer (he) trying to make another (me), feel better in the most sincere way. 

How kind. How lovely. How a five-minute conversation, if it was that long, cut to the heart of things. 

“You’re Sam, right?” 

He nodded.  

“Thank you, Sam.” 

He reached out his hand to me. I could feel the slight damp. This had not been an easy talk for him. Then gently, almost shyly, as if the gesture might be too familiar, he drew me in. It did not occur to me then how much I disliked being touched by strange men. Perhaps because it was I who was the stranger, and he had welcomed me, as the Torah says one should. So that when he brought me closer and his cheek tapped mine, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. A complete understanding of what had passed between us.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com

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The Siddur’s Healing Power

By Paula Jacobs (Framingham, MA)

It looks like any ordinary prayer book: blue cover, plain lettering, traditional Jewish prayers, and printed in the USA. While the prayer book has bound Jews throughout the world for centuries, I never imagined that an ordinary siddur would transform my pain to healing, while teaching me the real meaning of connection and community.

When I was reciting kaddish for my father at my synagogue’s daily minyan many years ago, the prayer book became my daily companion as a source of solace and cherished memories. During my kaddish year, the siddur linked me to generations past throughout the Jewish calendar cycle. As I prayed, memories flowed, reminding me of family holiday dinners, Chanukah parties, Purim celebrations, and more.

Through the prayer book, I gained a profound, lasting appreciation for the value of a prayer community. Granted, when I began attending minyan, I initially struggled with some of the communal customs: rapid-fire recitation aloud of certain prayers, calling out the page number before the Aleinu prayer, and light bantering during the services. Sometimes I lost patience with leaders who davened too slowly or too fast, made Hebrew mistakes, or chanted off key.

But the siddur taught me what truly counts, what community is all about, and how to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual created in the image of God. By praying in community, I learned the invaluable lesson to appreciate fully the humanity of those with whom we pray and the intrinsic value of participating in something greater than ourselves.

Once I understood that important lesson, I began to heal. I also decided to help other community members heal by creating a ceremony to mark the end of kaddish. This ceremony features the presentation of a siddur signed by minyan members, symbolizing the community’s support role during the year of aveilut or mourning.  

As I continue to conduct this ceremony 18 years later, I am grateful that the siddur keeps me connected to community. It’s something I think about whenever I present a siddur to a community member and whenever mourners share their personal stories or photographs and memorabilia with the entire minyan community after receiving their siddur.

I am also grateful that the siddur has connected me to a story greater than my own. As I reflect upon the more than 200 stories I have heard, I recall the nonagenarian who died surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren; the father who sent his young children alone from Cuba to make a new life in America; the 20-something widowed mother who became a successful business-woman; the first-generation American who became a judge; the Holocaust survivor who built a new life and family in America; the elderly father who fulfilled his lifelong dream of making aliyah; and other family members who left behind a legacy of treasured memories.

I look at the signatures of those who signed my siddur when I finished saying kaddish. I see the faces of those who stood beside me as we recited the Mourners Kaddish: the young woman mourning her mother, the elderly man reciting kaddish for his late wife, and others who have since moved away or passed on. We were once strangers but through death our lives have become intertwined. And it is the ancient Jewish prayer book that has bound us eternally together and enabled us to heal.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.  If you’d like to read more about the ceremony that she created to mark the end of Kaddish, visit  https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/traveling-mourners-path

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