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Life unexpected: Saying kaddish

Without Mom, I am adrift, missing the anchor I'd never realized was holding me and grounding me
The text of the mourner's kaddish. (via Rabbi Raymond Apple: https://www.oztorah.com)
The text of the mourner's kaddish. (via Rabbi Raymond Apple: https://www.oztorah.com)

The very first place I said kaddish was at the cemetery the day my mom died. One month short of her 91st birthday, Mom drew her last breath, quietly and without fanfare, in her own bed. Her death was anything but a surprise. She had been declining over the last year, requiring increasingly more medical intervention. There was certainly enough time during all these weeks and months to consider whether I wanted to say kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, long before that fateful moment at the cemetery. Yet, the thought had never crossed my mind — not until my father handed me the card with the kaddish printed on it, propelling me into a journey I had never anticipated.

During the long months of her illness, I thought often about the moment of Mom’s death. I imagined scenarios of how exactly it would come and who would be with her in her last moments. In the weeks leading up to her death, sleep was elusive and as I tossed and turned I began to compose her eulogy in my mind. During those sleepless nights, pictures of her life filled my very being, an almost physical imprint stored somewhere in my body and mind. Flashes of my “30-something” mother with smooth skin and a French twist, along with the aroma of baking cinnamon buns filled my nocturnal brain. I could feel my sweaty 3-year-old hand holding tightly on to hers as we crossed the busy street to the Dexter Davison supermarket, in northwest Detroit. I saw her singing along with Pete Seeger on Sunday evening television as he wove a magic rainbow in the sky. I pictured her in the kitchen making grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken soup, granola.

Worries and concerns about my mom and what I could or should be doing to help ease her growing suffering consumed my days while vivid memories of the past filled my nights. However, kaddish never crossed my mind.

Her final days were a roller coaster of emotion. Eight days before she died, her newest great-grandson was born — news that lit up her eyes and brought a smile and a “mazal tov” to her lips. Four days later, she slipped into a coma, and we began a full-time vigil around her bed. Would I be able to attend my grandson’s brit (circumcision ceremony)? How could I not?

Thankfully, I did not have to worry. Sunday morning dawned and my mother was still breathing. My sister-in-law stayed by my mother’s bedside. As soon as the baby was named, we called her, and she whispered the baby’s name into my mother’s ear. Then my mother drew her last breath. Considerate in death as she had been in life, Mom waited until after the brit, and then gracefully departed this world.

As is the custom in Israel, the funeral arrangements were quickly completed and scheduled for that same afternoon. I barely had enough time to rush home from the brit to finish writing the eulogy. Kaddish never even crossed my mind.

So how did I begin reciting the kaddish? At the funeral, I sat between my father and sister. The rabbi from the burial society handed my father three cards with the kaddish printed on them. Dad gave a card to each of my two brothers, seated on his left, and then passed the third card to me. I looked at him quizzically and said, “Isn’t this for you?” He answered an emphatic “No!” without explanation. “Okay,” I thought to myself. “I guess it’s for me.” That was it. With the card in my hand and no time to think, I was off on a journey that was to take me to far-flung places of the mind, soul, and universe.

A short aside about what kaddish is. Kaddish is the Jewish prayer recited by mourners during the weeks or months after the death of a first-degree relative. While it is a prayer that surprisingly makes no mention of the deceased or death, it does relate to the magnifying and sanctifying of G-d’s name, asking that He bring peace to the world and all of Israel. Amen. The prayer can only be said with a quorum (in Orthodox Judaism, that is 10 men), and since the 13th century, men have been the ones to say this prayer, three times a day. In the last two decades, with women’s quest for greater involvement in Jewish public life, some women have begun say kaddish publicly in the synagogue. Depending on the type of congregation where one might find one’s self, a woman saying kaddish may be welcomed, tolerated or even spurned. In the community where I live, it is certainly not the norm for a woman to say kaddish, but it is tolerated, and even encouraged by some.

We are back at the moment  at my mother’s funeral, and I am holding the kaddish card, without ever having considered whether I wanted to say kaddish or not. It is all very surreal.I have imagined this scene countless times in the weeks leading up to the funeral, yet it is impossible to comprehend that we are really here, and she is not. A world without Mom is inconceivable.

It is time to say kaddish. I stand, as if in a dream, and begin to chant with my two brothers, “Yitgadal veyitkadash shemey rabba.” Sanctified and holy is Your great name. I read through the entire prayer, stumbling over the ancient Aramaic words that are so familiar to my ears, yet so unfamiliar to my tongue. I think to myself that I have been among the fortunate and have been spared saying kaddish until now. Though as a trauma psychologist, I have worked closely with those touched directly by death, this is the first time that death has visited so close to home.

After the first stumbling kaddish, my mother’s funeral procession continues. The crowd of friends and family that have come to honor her memory follow us to Mom’s grave site among the pine trees, looking out onto the hills and the setting sun. My mother would surely have loved this spot. Along the way, the procession stops several times to allow us to recite the kaddish. Sometimes, I am able to chant straight through until the end. Other times, I break down in tears, unable to continue, and my brothers carry on. I notice that my sister has joined in now as well, so all four of us stand together to say the final kaddish at the grave site. My shrouded mother is lifted and placed gently into the ground. I am hovering a few feet away from my feelings. I am numb. The psychologist part of me knows that this is somehow protective, and wonders what will happen next.

I am feeling bereft, without my mother, the woman who birthed and raised me, the one who washed my scraped knees and sewed my clothes, the woman who came to babysit for a month so that I could finish my doctorate. I cannot imagine life without Mom. I feel cut loose, without an anchor that I never realized was holding on to me, grounding me and silently creating a sense of coherence. I hold on to my sister as I walk through the two lines of friends, neighbors, and cousins, all who have gathered to pay tribute to my mother and to comfort us, the living. The words of the kaddish are ringing in my ears, “Magnified and sanctified is His great name.”

Naomi will be sharing her experiences on saying kaddish throughout the year. This blogpost is the first in a series.

About the Author
Naomi L Baum, Ph.D., is an international consultant in the field of psychological management of traumas and disasters with an emphasis on resilience. She recently published a book, "Life Unexpected: A Trauma Psychologist Journeys through Breast Cancer." She is the mother of seven and grandmother of 12.
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