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A Sea of Names: Healing our Imperfect Relationships through Mourner’s Kaddish

New boats come each week as the familiar ones start to leave. You connect, once a week, to the lost soul…

Each week, like a small boat surrounded by others, the name (and the life it represents) floats just a bit further away—one or two waves at a time—until at the end of the year it finally floats far into the distance and is no longer recited. We will recall the name once a year, remembered more as a distant star than a long-launched boat. If you follow the name as it makes its steady progression out to sea, you hear the names of the other boats, whisked off just a bit further as well. New boats come each week as the familiar ones start to leave. You connect, once a week, to the lost soul, now a boat whose distance away marks a longer tether to the grief, the celebration, the mix of memories and emotion.

Nearly every Shabbat morning between July 2012 and January 2016, I stood for the mourner’s kaddish: 175 recitations. For the first few weeks, I struggled to read it from the prayer book. After a time, I committed it to memory and would close my eyes as the rhythmic and ancient words, those moving with my own breath and the sounds of others reciting the prayer, washed over me.

The first few losses brought up memories of relationships that evoked positive emotions and were uncomplicated. First, I stood with my father on the Shabbat morning following my grandmother, “Savta” Rachel’s death. She was the last of mine and my husband’s grandparents—those eight sweet people who treated us with so much adoration, unconditional love, and very little rebuke. When I recited the mourner’s kaddish, I had a chance to commune not only with them, but with that feeling of unconditional adoration and love.

Overlapping that year, by about a week, I began to stand also for my beloved father-in-law, Ron. He passed away in July of 2013, shortly before what would have been the due date of a miscarried baby. I’d been connecting to that loss throughout the year of mourning my grandmother. I spent the second half of 2013 with a growing belly: the promise and disjuncture between life and death, punctuated the mourner’s kaddish. Our third child, Ronnie, arrived in April of 2014. She nuzzled against me in her sling every time I reconnected with her grandfather, her namesake.

Then my dad passed away in May of 2014, when the baby was 7 weeks old. The names of these two father figures bookended me and the baby as I mingled fond memories and impressions with sweet little nuzzles. A dear friend and teacher passed away later that summer, just as my father-in-law’s name cycled out, his boat launched beyond the horizon. I dwelled in only fond memories of the friend, and she remained a steady companion as I recited kaddish in the year that followed.

But when my mom passed away in October of 2014, her death brought to the sacred recitation the mix of feelings that only mothers can bring out in their daughters. All the while, my own little girl started to poke her head out of the sling. How many times did she nurse as I recited mourner’s kaddish? This act of mothering surely smoothed over many of my ambivalent feelings toward my mom.

Our relationship was based in love, to be sure, but it was a bit wobbly and never felt quite unconditional. My mother was an artist and had a strong personality. She encouraged all of my endeavors, no matter how outlandish or difficult. While she took pride in my accomplishments, she sometimes treated them as a narcissistic extension of herself. She always spoke her truth and did not suffer fools.

When my mother’s husband passed away in January of 2015, the baby and I would stand each week as I held a swirl of memories and mixed, often fraught, emotions. For a while, my father’s name remained on the list. Three parents. One friend. Four sets of emotions. My dad’s name sailed further and further away until May, when his ship launched off into the distance. My beloved friend, always such a strong voice for embracing the other’s burden, steadied me as I faced the impending encounter of standing with singular thoughts of my mother and her husband. The last Shabbat that I heard my friend’s name announced, I suddenly incanted “Infinite love and gratitude” instead of the proscribed words. This was her parting gift as her name sailed off into the distance.

So July came and all of the steadying guides and easy relationships had truly departed. As I stood up during the first encounter—just me and my mom and my stepdad—I breathed deeply for the difficult work ahead. As I shifted the 15-month-old on my hip I sought to move from ambivalence to compassion. For the next three months, the tight knots of frustration began to loosen.

Slowly, slowly, the sensations of the love and nurturance my mother bestowed upon me began to take over. Yes, she was difficult and not always kind. Judgmental and often divisive, and all those things that some mothers can be. But between the steady sounds of the incantation, the soft cooing sounds of the baby, and the still small voice urging “infinite love and compassion,” I truly swelled with gratitude by our final week together. I recall kissing the baby’s head, then the siddur, and wiping the tears from my cheeks.

“Thank you, Ima,” I uttered as her boat launched out beyond its tether.

“So,” I thought to my step-father as I rose the next week, “It’s just us now. Can we do this?” No one else would be doing this; he had no children of his own and my sisters had no need for the mourner’s kaddish. My stepdad had been an imposing figure. A lanky Vietnam veteran turned carpenter, he always remained composed and gentlemanly. Yet he also exuded an undercurrent of darkness and suppressed anger. After 15 years of tirelessly caring for my mother, he was at sea after her death,overwhelmed by her convoluted accounting, which required near-forensics to disentangle. He had vacillated between terrific gratitude for our concern toward him and seething anger that we three daughters hadn’t done enough to lighten his burden. He never explained himself before taking his own life, and I spent the ensuing months of reciting mourner’s kaddish working through anger and frustration.

I sought connection and gratitude. Images of silly dance parties and construction projects with my girls eventually flashed within my mind’s eye. I envisioned him and my mom dancing at my sister’s wedding. And in the months and weeks between October and January, I found gratitude and peace.

When I finally remained seated during the mourner’s kaddish, after three and a half years, I noticed, for the first time, what it’s like to no longer be the mourner, but to play the part of the community—to hold others as they stand and connect with their departed. I have come to believe in the sacredness of both ends of the production. I still feel the rhythms of the sea of names as they float by, marking time for us as a community and connections of lifetimes for those who remain behind.

Donna Harel is an anthropologist, writer, and writing coach. Her work explores the smaller details that reveal our private and cultural worlds. You can contact her and find her work at http://www.youradmissionessay.com/.

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