When my sister was killed by a drunk driver, we were crushed. We were not unique in our pain — many suffer similar sorrows — but we suffered out pain uniquely, as all do.
But I didn’t want to be alone in my grief and I wanted to experience it fully. No numbing. I wanted to get to the bottom of my sorrow, and the only way I knew to do so was through community and through prayer.
Practice 1 — spending time with good authors. I started with the quiet companionship of several trusted authors. Reading their books was a balm. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Frederich Buechner’s The Alphabet of Grace are all short and difficult books, but I read them not so much for their content, but to spend time in company with the authors.
Practice 2 — spending time with good friends. Then there were my praying companions. I met weekly with my friend Thierry Bourgeois for friendship and for prayer, meeting often in the art gallery at Regent College. For the next year, he and Geordie Ziegler walked with me through the many shades of grief. I can never repay the debt of friendship I experienced because of those prayer times together.
Practice 3 — spending time with a good prayer. The third thing I did was to say kaddish, the kaddish being a Jewish mourner’s prayer. Not being aware of any specifically Christian mourner’s prayer, I gladly reached for the Jewish one which I’d been introduced to in a book by Chaim Potok.
The kaddish is a surprising prayer. It doesn’t coddle the mourner. In fact, it doesn’t offer any direct consolation at all. Rather, it is a prayer of the greatness of the eternal God. In the face of death, it stands firmly on the forever and ever nature of God. In the face of pain, it asserts boldly the goodness and rightness of the Lord of all.
It is utterly serious. There is an unwavering statement of faith in the midst of circumstances that make hearts quail. Having prayed it, I have an inkling of the faith of religious Jews and how it kept them sane during the insanity of the Holocaust. This prayer never left them, for death never left them. And neither did the God who seemed so far away and so helpless at the time.
That’s what I needed.
What I didn’t need were the be-nice-and-greet-someone times during worship on Sundays. When I sat in worship, either singing or hearing the Scriptures read, I wanted to undam my tears. Gathered with God’s people in worship is when I feel most complete, most who I really am — it’s when I feel the most. And the happy handshakes at our church kept me bottled up (which is why, years later as a pastor, I offered to those who were grieving the relative solitude of one of the church’s two balconies). But saying kaddish was a daily uncorking of the bottle and an opening of the hands to the Glorious One who gives and takes away.
Having written that, I have to admit that it’s a fairly dry prayer. It is no great emotional outpouring like we have in many places in the Psalms (themselves an essential companion during grief). And yet, that is part of its richness. It doesn’t depend on our emotions, but on the greatness and goodness of the King of the universe.
Exalted and hallowed be His great Name.(Amen.)
Throughout the world which He has created according to His Will. May He establish His kingship, bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Messiah. (Amen.)
In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon, and say, Amen.
(Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity, blessed.)
May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted and extolled, honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He. (Amen.)
Beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world; and say, Amen. (Amen.)
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and a good life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (Amen.)
He Who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (Amen.)