What Happens When We Stop Saying Kaddish For a Loved One?

After 11 months of saying the mourner's prayer every day for my mother, I'm transitioning from grieving to remembering.
By Sylvie Shaffer
April 8, 2022
kaddish

I can’t stick to a skincare regimen or yoga practice. I have started and quit more bullet journals over the years than I can count. Maybe it is my ADHD, or maybe I’m just easily bored. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever done a single daily activity for 11 consecutive months, except maybe, for a spell in my early twenties, smoking pot. My mother would cringe at my admitting that publicly, but she’s dead, so.

You know what she would be proud of? What I’m proud of? I said Kaddish, every day with a minyan, every day for the first 11 months since we buried her last spring. Every day. Usually I would Zoom into the My Jewish Learning daily Kaddish minyan, with its rotating cast of rabbis speaking on the Torah portion of the week. Some Shabbat mornings I’d join the incredible multi-camera productions put on by large urban synagogues, with stage lighting, and organs, and rabbi-cantor-congregant choreography. I made it to a few (outdoor) services in person. Other times I would attend online daily minyans hosted by the congregations of my youth, communities in western Massachusetts that my mom was a part of, with people who knew her in attendance. There was comfort in that, in seeing faces that knew her, that know me.

It’s been a few weeks now, of not saying Kaddish, and my internal alarm clock still pings each day, as if I am forgetting something important.

Jewish mourning practices tend to focus either on showing respect for the dead, known as kavod ha-met, or comforting the mourners, known as nihum avelim. For me, saying Kaddish all those months was an expression of both. For a parent, the tradition is to say Kaddish for 11 months. As the end of this time drew near, I found myself feeling big feelings. There’s no clear ritual prescribed to mark the end of saying Kaddish. When my sister, stepdad, and I marked “getting up from shiva,” we took the traditional walk around the block. Throughout the first year of mourning (actually 11 Hebrew months, minus one day), there were many traditions to follow, most of them about abstaining from things: During the first seven days of shiva, we abstain from looking in the mirror, wearing shoes, or worrying about work. During shloshim, the first 30 days of mourning, I didn’t cut my hair, and in the months that followed, continued to avoid live music, wearing new clothes, or attending large celebrations. COVID made this easier, but still.

Saying the daily Kaddish, however, wasn’t about giving something up. It was about adding something.

To say Kaddish every day, I had to be proactive, both in planning my schedule and in reestablishing my relationship to prayer. As a queer woman who attended day school only through second grade, and later dropped out of Hebrew school, it took me years to feel comfortable in formal prayer services. I’ve never had a formal prayer practice that wasn’t mandated by summer camp or day school, which I attended several decades ago. I love the Torah service, but I find a lot of davening, or praying (even with dynamic leaders), lowkey boring. Before the pandemic, when I attended Shabbat services semi-regularly, I’d bring a book, usually a secular and Young Adult one, and tune out a lot of the prayers unless my wife was leading. It wasn’t as if I’d been saying daily prayers all along and just added this one thing, the Kaddish, to my regular praying routine. I had to make it work. For all those months, I blocked time on my calendar, made sure I had internet access, and, if I had appointments or meetings that couldn’t be scheduled around any of the minyans I had links for, spent time finding other congregations to beam into, sometimes in different time zones.

As my final recitation of Kaddish approached, I pondered what to do next, how or if I should mark the day. It felt anticlimactic. The day of my last Kaddish, I took a deep breath, and clicked the My Jewish Learning link.  For the first and only time in 11 months of it being my primary Kaddish minyan, there were technical difficulties and I couldn’t get into the Zoom. I tried a few different devices with no luck. I called my sister (who’d completed her Kaddish journey that morning) and she tried, too; there was definitely an issue with the MJL Zoom. I was in tears, freaking out because the other Zoom options were all at the very time I needed to get my kid from aftercare. And with sunset imminent, I had a clear deadline looming.

After a moment of panic, I had a fellow mom from my son’s aftercare agree to drop him off, which meant I could join my hometown mincha minyan on Zoom, led by the rabbi who’d led my mom’s funeral. The personal touch felt nice, though I was mostly just relieved to be in a minyan at all. Then it turned out my stepdad was actually leading the davening that afternoon, where he noted that it was 11 months since my mother’s funeral. A few stragglers logged in after I did, but I was the tenth person, making the minyan. I could feel my mom shep naches from beyond the grave, full of pride.

A few days later, I found myself unexpectedly driving the eight hours from Washington DC to Longmeadow, Massachusetts to pay a shiva call to a dear childhood friend, who had, by strange coincidence, lost his father that week. This friend had been one of ten people who made the minyan at our mothers’ gravesite burial in peak COVID last spring, when pandemic restrictions meant only a minyan of people were allowed to attend. The timing and geography of our friend’s loss made it possible for my sister (who lives in Western Mass) and I to visit our mother’s grave together for the first time, where we recited the memorial prayer for the dead, the El Malah Rachamin. (Well, my sister recited it in a clear newscaster voice, while I sobbed and choked through it.)

The last Zoom Kaddish had not been the final ritual I longed for, with that final “Amen” lingering in the air and offering me comfort over the next few weeks. Instead, it was the time with my sister at our mother’s grave, after reciting the El Maleh Rachamim. My sister took the lead, launching into a shmooze sesh with our mom as if she was speaking into a landline phone rather than into the next world. I knew what she was doing. We had seen our mom do the same thing at her parents’ gravesite. An act maybe not halachically encouraged, but one which very much honored our mother’s customs. L’dor v’dor. From generation to generation. The pair of us chatted into the thin, cold air and then went shmying, Yiddish for window shopping (and a favorite activity of our mom’s), in the nearby town. I bought my sister a sweater, the first new article of clothing she’d had since our mom died. We then drove to the shiva house, where I hadn’t been for decades, but which still felt so familiar that I joked it was weird to drive over, instead of riding my pink-banana-seat Huffy bicycle.

Sitting with our friend at shiva, I realized that what I had expected to be an uneventful and underwhelming end to the 11 months had come full circle, reaching a moment of ending and beginning. Some of the same friends and community members who’d sat with us at our parents’ home months earlier were here, nibbling at a bakery tray of cookies, sipping seltzer, and sharing memories. Instead of being comforted, we were part of the community bringing comfort. The rituals were the same, but we played supporting roles this time.

I slept that night in my parents’ home just a few blocks away. The next morning, I packed up to drive home to DC in time to spend Shabbat with my wife and our son after a whirlwind 36 hours away. My stepdad stood at the head of the dining room table, tefillin centered on his forehead like a GoPro as he zoomed into morning services. I had a strange sense of “déjà vu”, seeing the morning version of his evening davening I’d seen on Zoom a few nights earlier when I said my final daily Kaddish for my mom. As the service leader announced zichronam livracha, the Hebrew phrase by which we note those who are gone and who we remember for a blessing, preparing to list the daily yahrzeits and names of those in mourning, tears sprung into my eyes. Not saying Kaddish hurt as badly as saying it had at the start.

It’s been a few weeks, now, of not saying Kaddish and my internal alarm clock still pings urgently. Am I forgetting something important? No. I’m remembering. I’m remembering my mom. Zichrona livracha.