One death at a time, please

Should I have recited kaddish for Babushka?

Babushka Masha z”l

This post is one that I deliberately did not write during my year of mourning for Papa because I felt guilty for going against my rabbi’s guidance, especially after I had sought it.

During the year following my father’s death, I was challenging myself to chronicle my yearlong experience of reciting kaddish for Papa. He died on July 7th, 2018, and I began my kaddish writing project 30 days after burying him. That year, as prescribed by Jewish tradition, I recited kaddish for Papa every single day (but one) for eleven months, and I also continued attending shul on a daily basis during the 12th month of traditional mourning, when I was no longer reciting kaddish.

Less than three months after Papa’s funeral, my Babushka, my mother’s mother, also passed away. Thus, within the span of three months, my Mama lost both her husband and her mother; my brother and I lost our father and our maternal grandmother (our last surviving grandparent).

When Babushka died, I seriously considered reciting kaddish for her. After all, I was already three months into my kaddish year.

Nobody else would have done it

I knew with certainty that nobody else in my family would recite the mourner’s kaddish for Babushka, just as I had known that nobody else in my family would do so for Papa. Ours is a predominantly secular family, and most of us are not familiar with prayers and shul norms.

Now, the tradition is very clear about which of our loved ones we are expected to recite kaddish for. Technically, Jewish laws of mourning only apply to those who have lost immediate family members. Traditionally, one only recites the mourner’s kaddish following the death of a parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions – there are plenty! One will find Jews at shul reciting kaddish for many different people in their lives. Some are moved to recite kaddish for their friends or members of their extended families, particularly if they are aware that nobody else will do so; and sometimes those whom tradition designates as mourners opt to request that somebody else recite kaddish in their steads.

Reciting kaddish for Babushka was something that I was capable of doing, and it was something that nobody else in my family would think to do.

I did not want to do it

Still, in the innermost chambers of my heart, I did not really want to recite kaddish for Babushka.

… Actually…
That not quite true.

The truth?

In the innermost chambers of my heart, I did not want to recite kaddish for Papa and Babushka concurrently.

Why didn’t I want to?

Thankfully, my mother did not request this of me, as she had done after Papa’s death. If Mama had asked me to recite kaddish for her mother, I would have done so, but I’m certain that Babushka herself had no concept of kaddish whatsoever.

More importantly, I didn’t lend any serious credence to the supposed supernatural effects of reciting kaddish for a loved one’s soul. Papa’s soul, I was certain, would have been no worse off if I hadn’t been reciting kaddish for him. In essence, I knew that I was reciting kaddish during my year of mourning almost entirely for my own peace of mind.

Whereas my relationship with Papa was fraught at times, my relationship with Babushka could not have been any more simple; and the two of us were especially close during the last years of her life.

Obviously, there would never be any opportunity for me to work on repairing my relationship with Papa, but I wanted to do him that final honor, which was uniquely mine to offer; and I knew that I could do it in a way that he actually would have respected. Whereas he surely would have looked askance upon the performance of mourning rituals for the sake of propriety, he would have respected my studying them. Papa challenged me to delve into the history of kaddish, to learn it deeply, and to transform rote recitations of a popularized doxology into a meaningful, personal experience.

That year, I wanted to focus exclusively on Papa.

A discrete year of mourning

Jewish tradition is very specific about the lengths of official mourning periods, during which particular restrictions upon our daily behaviors apply. We mourn for a total of 30 days for spouses, siblings and children. We mourn for a total of 12 months for either one of our parents.

One of the texts I encountered that year was Maimonides’ (1135-1204) ‘Mishneh Torah’ (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11), which was quite stern with me:

אין מספידין יתר על שנים עשר חדש We do not eulogize for more than twelve months.
אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדאי שנאמר אל תבכו למת ואל תנודו לו כלומר יתר מדאי שזהו מנהגו של עולם A person should not become excessively broken hearted because of a person’s death, as Jeremiah 22:10 states: “Do not weep for a dead man and do not shake your head because of him.” That means not to weep excessively. For death is the way of the world.

Maimonides would have held that a son should not extend his mourning period beyond the allotted 12 months, and I well saw the wisdom in this.

I spent the latter half of that year dreading the end of my mourning period and knowing that I needed it to end. Experientially, I wanted to have a memory of my discrete year of mourning for Papa; I did not want to extend my mourning period for an additional several months.

Still, I wanted a way to mourn for Babushka

After Babushka died it took me a long while to get used to putting my headphones away before leaving the office every evening because she and I had been in the habit of speaking on a nearly daily basis just as I was leaving work.

True, I didn’t want to recite kaddish for her that year, but – I did want to mourn her Jewishly. Regardless of my faith (or lack there of), I love Jewish ritual and symbolism. Our tradition is full of riches, and I was looking for a gem.

I called my rabbi, hoping against hope that he would recommend something to me that wouldn’t involve reciting kaddish or studying Torah (both of which I was already doing for Papa):

Rabbi, my mother’s mother died. We’re going to the funeral today.
I’m so sorry. Your poor mother. Is she in Israel?
Yes, I picked her up from the airport.
How is she?
Sleeping. She’s worn out.
Please give her our heartfelt condolences.
Thank you; I will. Listen, I was wondering… is there a traditional way for me to honor her as a grandson? I know that I’m not obligated to…
But nobody else is going to do it? Listen, I think you should say kaddish for her. You’re already a couple months in; it would only be a few additional months at the end of your year.
… Thank you, Rabbi. I… I’ll do that.

But I knew I was lying.

31 thoughts on “One death at a time, please”

  1. I am so sorry for your loss upon loss, David. I too have had more loss than I feel I can bear. To allow yourself that year, then be able to put it away is both hardship and luxury, I fear. I can feel your love for your Babushka and the deep sadness at her passing. I do hope you have felt able to be kind to yourself as you have been able to be honest. Very best wishes TPS

  2. I think it’s really important that you noted that so many of our mourning rituals are really more about the living than the dead. I think in the end we need to remember that our loved ones want us to find peace as much as they have achieved it.

    I’m so sorry for your losses. Although I likely wasn’t as close to my cousins as you were to your father and grandmother, it’s still hard to experience two losses so close together – that much I can relate to.

    I think it’s interesting that the way we mourn our loved ones is so dependent on the type of relationship we had with them. Psychologically speaking, that’s why the death of a pet is often so hard – a human/animal relationship often doesn’t carry the same type of baggage that a human/human relationship does. It can cause a lot of guilt when you mourn different people in different ways depending on how things were between you when they were living, but it’s so normal and not talked about enough.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Aurora, thanks for visiting my blog! 🙂

      I totally agree with your remarks. Actually, I think there are a lot of matters surrounding the deaths of dear ones and our ways of mourning for them that are “normal and not talked about enough,” as you wrote… so many people simply try to move on instead of experiencing the grief… and so many find that they cannot surface from it… I think if it was something more commonly acceptable as a subject of conversation, it would be easier on all of us.

  3. I applaud your self appraisal and honesty. Even though you were not obligated to say kaddish for your grandmother, the fact that you had it in your heart is very meaningful.

  4. I’m so sorry – what a rough year you and your mother and brother must have had!
    A year of daily, actually 2 or 3x daily if you were going to minyan shacharit, mincha, and maariv, is already a huge commitment. It takes a lot of logistical planning to rearrange your day around minyan times, and then not to mention the emotional impact. I watched my mother go to minyan 2x/day to say kaddish the year my grandmother died and it was a lot.
    And I think it makes sense to want to mourn two different people with whom you had different relationships, in different ways. I hope you’ll find something appropriate for mourning your Babushka that feels right to you, and that memories of her will be a source of comfort.

  5. I am sorry for the loss of your Babushka, and your father, of course. I know it is not in the normal spectrum, but if you are still feeling as if you need to say Kaddish for her, why not dedicate saying Kaddish for her, beginning now, or on the anniversary of her death. It sounds strange, I am sure, but it is a simple suggestion, in case you are feeling somewhat guilty, or still feeling that you need, or want, to say Kaddish for her.

    There are no rules or laws that state you cannot say Kaddish for her, after all, we say Kaddish during Shabbat services, often for individuals we do not know.

    There is nothing preventing you from doing it, and it might relieve any anxiety you might still hold. But, then, again, maybe I am totally off the point, and you don’t feel the need. Which is fine.

    In any case, keep her memory alive within your family. That, in itself, is a Mitzvah.


    1. thanks for the support, Lori 🙂

      you’re very sweet.

      I’m still trying to figure out how best to honor her memory, actually… and kaddish doesn’t feel like the right way for her… but I’m still thinking about it.

  6. Babuskha, ! I think I know her, Ben. I can so connect with what you have penned here. I feel I know her. She was a pretty lady. She had a lot of spunk , I think. I know how you feel but you have such wonderful memories of her which I hope you share with your daughter. Keep Babushka alive.. talk about her everyday. That gives so much happiness. Remembrance is a way of devotion.
    I am glad you shared this. Thank you , Ben.

  7. I’m sorry to learn of two consecutive deaths in your family. It’s painful. I could understand your dilemma. This post regarding kaddish and mourning periods for different relatives was enriching for me.

  8. “transform the rote recitations of popularized doxology into a meaningful and personal experience” and “I didn’t want to recite Kaddish for her that year-but I wanted to mourn her Jewishly” Okay so I’ve been wrestling with something for awhile now that I think is slowly becoming clearer and clearer. I’ve been trying to understand why my people approach grief and loss the way they do. A way that for me is frankly not working. I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of a Jewish Christian approach we have a mixture of an Islamic Hindu Buddhist Christian approach which is “working” for some people, God bless them, but not for me. I would like to write a book (saying that scares me) for my own sake and I’m going to start fleshing it out on my second blog which is not ready for unveiling yet. I want to mine out the gems in certain Jewish texts from an outsiders perspective (obviously since I’m not Jewish)- ancient wisdom that I feel is currently forgotten or overlooked. I’m glad you’re around and I can pick your 🧠 when I need to.

      1. 🙂 it itself won’t be anything spectacular but I’m going to limit it to a small group and hope the magic will be in the discussion. I want to even post about simple things like the meaning of Ha’makom but for now it’s just territory that is too unfamiliar for me. I’d like to actually get around to reading something by Abraham Joshua Herschel because I’ve always seen so many quotes by him that I have liked. Does he write at all on the topic of grief/mourning?

        1. I did find beautiful quotes from Heschel in my readings – such as the one I included in this post:

          We are all very poor, very naked, and rather absurd in our misery and in our success. We are constantly dying alive. From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment…

          1. That is so good and the sort of thing that makes me want to read more of what he has written.

  9. So sorry for the double tragedy of personal losses. It echoes a season in my life when my maternal grandfather and my mother passed away within a few months of one another.

    The commitment you had undertaken for your father was already demanding, I can well understand why an extra commitment to follow the Rabbi’s advice felt like too much.

    Your attention to detail in your blog posts inspires and encourages me. Thanks for sharing! 🙏🏻

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