What Happens Then?

Last week an older man who I know from various minyanim on the Upper West Side mentioned that he was about to finish his year of saying Kaddish. I opened my mouth to respond and realized I had no idea what was an appropriate thing to say in that situation.  Mazal tov? I’m so sorry? I hope this year has been one of healing? In the end I simply said, “I don’t know what to say,” and he told me it was okay, he didn’t know either.eema_lighting_thanks_candle.jpg

This is not something that I’ve thought much about, since I’m still so early in the year of saying kaddish, but it has become so central a thing in my life that the idea of stopping, of stepping back from the grief, is terrifying.

It has been an incredibly hard few weeks.  I had been doing pretty well, I thought, but then I fell apart, and for more than two weeks I found myself on the verge of tears many many times every day.  On the subway, at the gym, at work, in the shower–I just get so sad I can’t get a hold of myself.  Anytime I think of those last few minutes–the family standing around the bed and holding Eema’s hands as she faded away– I feel like hiding under the covers and never coming out. I am overwhelmed and exhausted by the idea of subverting my grief in order to get through basic interactions with others.  Sometimes paying for a gallon of milk without dissolving into tears seems nearly impossible.

And then yesterday, at minyan, a woman was leading davening and she had a yahrzeit for her son, who died five years ago. It was eight o’clock in the morning and the room was perfectly still, everyone trying to make space for the sorrow that rolled in invisible waves off of her body and pushed against all of us.  She was a stranger, no one I had ever seen before, but I wanted to tell her, afterwards, how sorry I was. When I approached her, the tears came quick and hot and I was humiliated. One of the things about grief that I find so frustrating is how selfish it makes me.  I cannot see past this, I cannot get over myself enough to gently say something sweet to someone else who is in pain.

I’ve been thinking about all this in connection to Thanksgiving, which is coming up in a week.  It’s a holiday that’s meant to be about being grateful, and about eating with a community of people who help each other through difficult times.  This year it seems simultaneously profound and perverse.  It’s hard to imagine being thankful, celebrating a year of plenty when this year has been so soul-crushingly sad.  Yes, we’ve had plenty of food, and plenty of support from amazing and lovely people, but it’s hard to focus on the thanks when everything else is so horrifying. I think thanks is something that you can do effectively when you’re either very close to something (thank you for giving me food because otherwise I would have starved) or have a lot of perspective (now that I’m an adult I can appropriately thank you for disciplining me in a way that was respectful and effective).  When you’re somewhere in between–not super-close , but a long way from having any perspective–it’s so hard to be thankful.

Then, this morning, I read this poem. And I feel a little better, though no less confused.

Praise Song By Barbara Crooker

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crowd chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have and it’s never enough.

(Cross-posted at Blogging the Kaddish)

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