Perhaps social media has increased our awareness, but chances are you or someone you know is enduring a season of grief right now: the death of a loved one, friend, neighbor or coworker.
Loss always produces grief. There is no escaping it. If you try to deny it or postpone it, it will only gather force and become more debilitating the longer you try to suppress it. That is one reason prayer is an indispensable resource for a grieving heart. While intelligible prayer may seem impossible in the early days of a deep loss, one or more of the following prayers may become helpful as the shock begins to subside:
1) Pour out your grief.
“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief” (Psalm 31:9, NIV). My heart is broken, my mind exhausted. I cry out to you and hardly know what to ask. All I can do is tell you how I feel and ask you to “keep track of all my sorrows. . . . all my tears in your bottle. . . . each one in your book” as I pour them out to you (Psalm 56:8, NLT). Amen.
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2) Ask for comfort.
Jesus, You said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, NIV). I am mourning; send me Your comfort now. Wrap around Your arms around me and hold me tight. Send angels of mercy to me. Shower Your comfort on me through those around me, and keep far from me those whose words and actions are no comfort. Amen.
3) Ask for healing.
O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, hurry to help me. Please take the consuming anguish I feel right now; take it from me and hold me in Your arms. Heal my broken heart and bind up my wounds (see Psalm 147:3). Amen.
4) Ask for peace.
Jesus, You told Your followers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in Me as well. . . . Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:1, 27, NIV). I need Your peace. I need “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” to guard my heart and mind (Philippians 4:7, NIV). I need peaceful sleep. I ask for peaceful thoughts and emotions to rule my days and nights. Amen.
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5) Ask for hope.
Lord, the Bible says You are “close to the brokenhearted and those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18, NLT). Draw close to me and rescue me. Help me not to grieve like those who haven’t discovered Your kindness and mercy, who have no hope (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13); lift me up and give me hope once more. Help me to believe that tomorrow will be better, and the next day will be easier, and that a day will come when I will feel a surge of energy and expectation for what You are doing and where You will take me. Amen.
As the prayers above suggest, you may find special comfort in reading and praying the Psalms during a season of grief. They can help you take the time to grieve well and to pray as much as you are able.
Blessed are You, Lord God,
ruler of all creation
and Father of us all:
we praise You for Your loving care.
Help us in our time of sorrow
and lift us when we are crushed,
for we entrust our life into Your hands, Father,
through Christ our Lord.
For the deceased person…
Lord Jesus, our Brother and our Saviour,
welcome N. into paradise.
Let him/her be with You in Your kingdom
and share for ever in the heavenly banquet,
where you are Lord for ever and ever.
For the parents, family and friends…
May God our Father
grant you His consolation and His strength,
and help you to accept His will
and praise His Holy Name for ever and ever.
Jewish mourning is both private and public. When we visit a grave or observe a yahrzeit , we generally do so in private. Yizkor is the public observance for the community of bereaved.
Yizkor means “may remember,” from the Hebrew root zachor. It is recited four times a year in the synagogue: on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot. In Israel, it is recited on the combined Simchat Torah/Shemini Atzeret, the seventh day of Passover, and on the only day of Shavuot.
Originally, Yizkor was recited only on Yom Kippur. Its primary purpose was to honor the deceased by committing to giving tzedakah in their memory, on the theory that the good deeds of the survivors elevate the souls of the departed. It also enhanced the chances for personal atonement by doing a deed of lovingkindness. Since the Torah reading on the last day of the pilgrimage festivals mentions the importance of donations, Yizkor was added to these holiday services as well.
It was the custom in medieval Germany for each community to read a list of its martyrs at the Yizkor service. The practice was eventually expanded to include the names of other members of the community who had died. Today, most synagogues publish lists of those who are remembered by congregants, which are distributed at the Yizkor services. In addition, the lights on all the memorial tablets in the synagogue are turned on.
The Four Parts of Yizkor
1. A series of readings and prayers, recited and chanted, that sets the mood for the solemn service.
2. Paragraphs that individuals read silently recalling the deceased. There are paragraphs for a father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, other relatives and friends, and Jewish martyrs. During the service, each person reads the appropriate paragraph(s).
3. The memorial prayer for the deceased, the El Male Rahamim is chanted. This is essentially the same prayer said at Jewish funerals.
4. A special prayer, Av HaRahamim (Ancestor of Mercies), probably composed as a eulogy for communities destroyed in the Crusades of 1096, is recited by the congregation as a memorial for all Jewish martyrs. Some also add Psalm 23.
Although in its traditional structure Yizkor does not include the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddishmany congregations do add this as the climax of the Yizkor service.
Non-Mourners During Yizkor
When I was a kid in Omaha, Yizkor always seemed to be the climax of Yom Kippur day. The shul was crowded with people all day long, but it was packed at Yizkor time. There was something about this mysterious, awe-inspiring service that drew people. It was the pull of remembrance.
It was also break time for those of us who were shooed out of the synagogue by our parents. A powerful superstition pervaded the community: If your parents were alive, you didn’t stay for Yizkor. God forbid, you should tempt the ayin ha-ra, the evil eye, by hearing and seeing others mourn for their departed. God forbid, you should sit down while virtually everyone else was standing for the Yizkor prayers, somehow making the mourners feel bad. So, during the 20 minutes or so of Yizkor, the “fortunate” people whose parents were alive sat outside chatting, while the majority of the congregation who had sustained a loss participated in the service.
These superstitions are just that — superstitions, bubbemeises (Yiddish for old wives’ tales). There is no legal requirement for those whose parents are alive to leave the service. In fact, many rabbis today suggest that everyone stay for Yizkor so that the entire congregation can offer the prayers for the martyrs of the Jewish people and offer moral support to friends and family who may be deeply touched by the memorial service. But, as with much of the folk religion, this custom is sure to continue in many communities. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal and family decision-making as to your practice.
Questions About Yizkor
Can I say Yizkor privately?
Since the Kaddish is not recited as part of Yizkor, there is no technical requirement for a minyan . Therefore, the memorial paragraphs can be said privately if you cannot get to the synagogue.
How do I get names listed in the Yizkor book?
Most congregations ask their members to list those who are to be remembered in the coming year as part of the yearly membership survey when you join or renew your affiliation. If someone dies during the year, the names are generally added as a matter of course, unless the synagogue publishes one book for use throughout the year. You may want to check with the synagogue office to spare yourself the unease of the name missing when you expect it to be on the list.
What about donations?
In keeping with the origins of Yizkor, it is appropriate to make a tzedakah contribution to honor those you are remembering. Many congregations appeal for funds at Yizkor services for the synagogue or for Israel. If you don’t belong to a synagogue, consider making a donation to a worthy cause.
Do I light a memorial candle when Yizkor is recited?
Yes. The 24-hour memorial candle should be lit in your home before the fast begins on Yom Kippur. On the other festivals, if your custom is to light a yahrzeit candle, use a flame from a pre-existing candle or other source to light the candle. These memorial candles are widely available in synagogue gift shops, kosher stores, and often in supermarkets. There is no blessing recited when you light the memorial candle, although it is certainly appropriate to reflect upon the memory of loved ones. The candle may be placed anywhere in the home.
Do I observe Yizkor during the first year of mourning?
Contrary to popular belief, yes. Clearly, Yizkor is observed for a spouse, a child, and a sibling and, according to most authorities, for parents during the first year.
Adapted with permission from A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights).
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