The heart shaped wreath my baby sister got died yesterday. The kids needed to practice piano. So I rearranged.
I’ve felt like this whole few months has been “all the things they don’t tell you about…” like when you are pregnant/giving birth/a new parent except for death and dying. Which gets me thinking. Why do we not talk about these things? Why are we all just fumbling around in the dark on so many aspects of life (and death)? I read the little blue book at the hospice center and suddenly the whole world of my last few months finally made sense just a couple days before he was gone. It would have been nice to know some of that information before that. Why did I have to get that information from a book? I can see now why there is a trend for “death midwives” after this experience.
Things they don’t tell you: someone in your family will get a ginormous picture of your loved one leftover from the memorial service. And huge flower arrangements.
So for now this one is in my living room on the easel that used to hold the flower wreath for his memorial service that now occupies the bottom of my green barrel. Stephen straightened the picture a little more precisely when he got home from work and said, “This is right where he’d be if he were here. He was always in the living room.”
A couple years ago, some friend shared this post and it showed up in my newsfeed. I know Mayim Bialik is not everyone’s favorite, kind of controversial, etc. and I’m usually not one to give a rip about what some celebrity says or thinks anyway, but the paragraph she included with post was intriguing and for some reason I clicked over and read through.
“Saying Kaddish is one of the most significant and meaningful ways I have experienced to move through my first year of grief. Jewish practice designates 11 months after burial for the daily recitation of this prayer – a prayer which reaffirms the reciter’s belief in G-d, and which has for centuries functioned as sort of a rabbinical pause in the daily prayer service. Judaism gets a lot of things seemingly wrong, but across all denominations, rabbis and scholars agree that we got this one right. Encouraging a presence with a community in the time of acute grief is profoundly meaningful…”
At the time it was a “gotcha” kind of moment for me. Further evidence that Eastern Orthodox Christianity was doing it “right” because if Jewish people did this kind of thing, then with their roots in Judaism, how could my previously held Protestant Christian beliefs decry the Christian version of this practice?
I was at war with myself, really.
Words can be one thing and people’s actions can be another. In my previous experiences with death while believing something almost entirely different about it, I saw that despite those words, there is a natural inclination to honor the person and do something meaningful at various anniversaries/dates of significance: gathering together for favorite food on a birthday, donating to a cause the person was passionate about, a scholarship fund in their name for kids that liked the same things, a huge event near the anniversary of their death, lighting a candle at a particular hour, a blue light on the porch for a LEO killed in the line, planting a tree or favorite flower, sending up floating lanterns or a balloon, a candlelight vigil gathering at the site of the death or a significant place in town, flowers at the graveside on significant days, a march, a 5K/marathon, etc.
At the exact hour one week from my father’s death, my sisters FaceTimed, lit a candle and listened to the last song that played in his hospice room while he breathed his last. We were at an event and I was unable to participate. None of my sisters are particularly religious anymore and yet the inclination to honor him at a significant date and time was there. When we were planning his memorial, there was a strong desire, despite the day of the week it fell on (Monday) to do it exactly one month from his death rather than the more convenient weekend. For the scattering of his ashes, there has also been a strong desire communicated to do it on his birthday despite it falling on a weekday.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity there is a memorial service called the Panikhida. It is done immmediately after death, the third day, ninth day, fortieth day, three months, six months, one year and subsequent years. There are also memorial Saturdays throughout the church calendar where the service is done for whole groups of people. “In the Eastern Church, the various prayers for the departed have as their purpose praying for the repose of the departed, comforting the living, and reminding the living of their own mortality and the brevity of this earthly life. For this reason, memorial services have an air of penitence about them… The service is composed of Psalms, litanies, hymns, and prayers. In its outline it follows the general order of Matins and is, in effect, a truncated funeral service. Some of the most notable portions of the service are the Kontakion of the Departed and the final singing of ‘Memory Eternal’ (Source).”
Similarly, from Mayim’s post: “Kaddish is meditative if you let it be, and being in the midst of quiet prayer and stillness during grief – even for minutes a day – is helpful and profoundly comforting… I did not recite it every single day, but I recited it many, many days… But you could not keep me away from It, nor It away from me. Grief followed me and hung over me like a veil of darkness everywhere I went. A cloud of sadness, a weight of death on my chest. And now the 11 months have ended. My responsibility is over. My father’s soul is as it was before, although the people in the synagogue where I have gone so many early mornings and so many afternoons and evenings tell me his soul can be lifted up because of the honor I have given it through my dedication to Kaddish. It’s higher, closer, nearer to G-d’s resting place in the heavens I don’t really think much about… Is this what you wanted from me, G-d? And did I do it for G-d, for myself, for my mother, for my brother, for my dead father? Sometimes you put one foot in front of the other just because it’s the only thing you know how to do. And for 11 months that’s exactly what I did. One foot in front of the other. I think about the times I slept in. The times I didn’t make it to shul. Did I not miss my father enough to go to synagogue one more time? Shame on me. And when I went instead to the movies, or to see friends, or to seek comfort other ways, was I running from this responsibility? …Eleven months reciting a prayer. Eleven months devoting my time to the loss of my father’s. Eleven months counting down until the next milestone, and the next, and the next: the English date of his death. The Hebrew date of his death. The unveiling of his matzeyvah (tombstone). And then the rest of my life. I had my father for 39 years. I gave him 11 months of kaddish. I gave myself 11 months of discipline and presence. I gave my religious tradition the opportunity to hold me up in ways I didn’t know how. I gave strangers the ability to become my comrades. I gave myself permission to learn something new, so many things new. I gave my community the chance to learn about what one daughter can achieve for the sake of her father.”
And so I find myself turning to my own tradition’s prayers, adding them in each night at the end of the regular evening prayers we do with the kids before bed most nights (when we too are not tired, lazy, or otherwise occupied):
“Prayer for the Departed: With the souls of the righteous dead, give rest, O Savior, to the soul of Thy servant N., preserving him/her unto the life of blessedness which is with Thee, O Thou who lovest mankind. In the place of Thy rest, O Lord, where all Thy Saints repose, give rest also to the soul of Thy servant N. for Thou alone lovest mankind. Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thou art the God who descended into hell and loose the bonds of the captives. Do give rest also to the soul of Thy servant N. Both now and ever and unto ages of ages. O Virgin, alone pure and undefiled, who without seed didst bring forth God, pray that his/her soul may be saved. With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant N. where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting. Amen.
“Prayer at the Death of a Parent: O Lord, You heard Joseph grieving over the death of his father, Jacob, as he wept and kissed him. Your own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, also knew the love of a mother, for as He suffered upon the cross, He beheld his Mother and the disciple whom He loved standing near her, and He said: Woman, behold your son. And to the disciple, He said: Behold your mother. Good Master, look down from heaven and see the pain and grief which have laid hold of my heart and soul today. Be merciful to me, Your servant, and receive the prayer which is offered to You by a child who has lost his (her) beloved father (mother). Forgive whatever sins he (she) has willingly or unwillingly committed, whether of word, deed or thought. Merciful Master, hear the grieving voice of one who has been taught by his (her) father (mother) to turn to You with true faith in times of need, and to raise my eyes and voice to You. Show Your mercy, O Lord, and grant rest to my father (mother), making him (her) a partaker of Your eternal blessings and granting him (her) a place at Your right hand, for blessed and glorified are You unto all ages. Amen (Source).”
I guess I find comfort in the mystery of we don’t know what exactly this does versus the very definitive, “this does nothing” of my previous tradition: “When we pray for those who have died and the forgiveness of their sins, we are asking the same thing, for their communion with God, whether broken or impaired, to be made whole. Of course, we enter mysterious ground in all of this. The Orthodox Church has very little to say in a definitive manner about prayers for the departed… What is essential in this is something that runs very counter to our contemporary minds, formed as they are by the false assumptions of modernity. Salvation, the full and complete restoration of communion with God and our complete healing, is not a private matter. We are not saved alone, for ‘alone’ is the very antithesis of salvation. Communion is how we exist. Neither can we have communion with God without communion with our neighbor (1 John 4:20-21), Our contemporary culture imagines that we are self-existing, that life is merely a matter of biology. However, true existence, both in this life and the next, is marked by communion, both with God and with others. This is the very heart of our salvation. That the Church prays for those who have died is the abiding confession that death does not destroy our communion with one another. That our prayers are of ‘benefit’ for those who have died is the abiding confession that our communion is real and effective. That we ask the prayers of the saints is the abiding confession that those who have finished the course are of benefit to us (Source).”