The Kaddish Club & The Gift of Mourning

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candelTwo weeks ago, Adrian Peterson, a professional football player, suffered an unimaginable tragedy when his two-year-old son died as a result of child abuse.  Forty-eight hours later, he played football saying, “Football is something I will always fall back on.”  Whether you view it as playing a game or returning to work, Peterson’s reaction, while seemingly extreme, is not in fact unusual.

In an article in Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim provides examples of other athletes who responded to tragedy by returning to business as usual.  In September of 2012, 19-year-old Tevin Chris Jones was killed in a motorcycle accident.  Tevin’s brother, Torrey Smith, a wide receiver for the Ravens, played in a game just 24 hours later and delivered one of his best performances, catching six passes for 127 yards and scoring two touchdowns.  In 2003, famed quarterback Brett Favre played one day after losing his father and turned in one of his most legendary and spectacular performances in a nationally televised Monday night game. In 1990, weeks after his mother’s death, Buster Douglas knocked out the previously undefeated Mike Tyson.


The capacity to display tremendous resilience and return to life so soon after suffering loss seems extraordinary.  However, Wertheim argues, it is in fact quite ordinary.  He references George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University in a study entitled, “Loss, Trauma and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events?”  Bonanno found that there is little evidence that grief is incapacitating.  “Resilience is the norm,” he said, “Not the exception.”


Wertheim argues that rather than urging taking time off for bereavement, we should encourage people to recognize that they have the resilience of Adrian Peterson and that they could get back to their work immediately.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think, they could, but should they?  Just because people may have greater capacity for resilience than they know, does that mean they should deny themselves the opportunity to grieve and mourn and display the resolve to move on?  Is moving on really the best response to death?


The members of BRS’s new Kaddish Club definitely don’t think so.  Last week, our Shul inaugurated a new club that we only wish had no members.  The Kaddish Club meets once a month and is comprised of those within their year of mourning for the loss of a loved one.  I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Rabbi Shaul Robinson of Lincoln Square Synagogue, who gave me the idea for this fantastic initiative.


Our first meeting was attended by close to 20 of our members and brought together a diverse group, many of whom might otherwise not have met or spent time together.  We studied the origins of the Kaddish prayer and why it is so closely associated with mourning, considering that it doesn’t include any reference to death or loss at all.  The conversation that flowed was intense, powerful and, I hope and believe, therapeutic.


While the loss of a parent is not the same as that of a child, and the loss of a sibling is not the same as the passing of a spouse, the group bonded over a shared feeling of intense grieving and the pain of transitioning to life without their loved ones.   They shared their reactions to the Jewish way of mourning such as the difficulties in trying to never miss a Kaddish, having to schedule vacations near shuls and schedule dinner around davening.   While limiting how many families you can share a meal with, missing simchas, refraining from listening to live music and growing a beard for thirty days can be difficult or uncomfortable, the consensus of the group was that the Jewish laws of mourning are a tremendous gift, and they couldn’t imagine confronting death without them.


Just imagine going back to work a day or two after the funeral as if everything is normal when it isn’t.  Shiva and its rules provide an ingenious cathartic system that centers the focus on the departed and offers a perfect setting for others to share comforting stories, anecdotes and memories without the mourner being distracted by feeling pressured to go back to work, return to the gym or cook dinner.   Shiva makes space to mourn and grieve.  During shiva, instead of pulling the bereaved out of their pain and away from their sadness towards us, we join them in their sadness and attempt to extend comfort and consolation.


Sheloshim, the thirty-day period, allows the mourner to begin to transition back to everyday life while still forcing the world to remain cognizant that something for them is different.  For the loss of a parent, the year becomes the final period of mourning.  Not being allowed to attend a simcha, be part of a large social gathering, or take in a concert for 12 months, is a relief to most mourners who are grateful not to need to find an excuse or justify their absence when the truth is they really don’t feel like celebrating or being joyful while their wound is still open and raw.


While the pain from loss of a sibling, spouse or child is usually acknowledged, many downplay the loss of a parent as it is part of the natural cycle of life.  Many don't realize that losing a parent at any age is devastating, despite our knowledge that the day will come.  Rabbi Marc Angel wrote a book over twenty-five years ago called, "The Orphaned Adult: Confronting the Death of a Parent" in which he addresses the impact of becoming an orphan, even at an advanced age.  The pain and anguish of becoming an orphan doesn't disappear in a day or two and doesn't get resolved by simply going back to work.  It deserves to be addressed, validated, and provided an opportunity to express itself in grief and sorrow, just like the loss of other immediate relatives.


So, can we show the resilience to return to work after suffering a loss - perhaps yes. Could we perform at our best, and maybe even better, so soon after losing a loved one? The science suggests we can. But should we - I definitely don’t think so. People deserve an opportunity to grieve, mourn and to focus on their pain without guilt or distraction, and to receive solace and comfort from those who care about them.  We are so blessed and fortunate to have a tradition that provides a framework for doing so.