I've written before about my good and challenging experiences attending shiva minyanim. This weekend, for the first time, I led one of these. Awhile back the rabbi taught a few laypeople how to do so, in case there were a bunch of deaths and not enough real leaders available, i.e. the combined dozen rabbis, rabbinic students, and rabbi members of the congregation. It's a short service, not hard at all. The part that got me nervous was inviting and listening to memories of the deceased, and running the overall proceedings. And perhaps saying something Torah-related in hopes of offering a comforting insight. But I knew I could do it if the rabbis believed I could, even though my role to date has been to open my mouth and sing, not speak.
Time passed, and I wasn't asked. In any case, I wasn't prepared; I meant to learn the correct weekday evening nusah (the specific melody that goes with the prayers), but never got around to it. Then I got a phone call on Thursday--could I lead Saturday night? I was too embarrassed to admit I only knew half of havdalah, the prayers at the conclusion of Shabbat; a friend graciously played a tape into my answering machine. I didn't remember until the next day that I didn't know the nusah, so the rabbi kindly and calmly taught it to me over the phone. I tried to think of a few wise words to share having to do with the week's parasha, which opens with Sarah's death--but nothing appropriate came to mind, because I didn't know the deceased.
It went well, if you can say that about an occasion where people have to confront recent, unbearable pain. In a way it was easier for me than being an attendee--I had something to do, some control over the situation, and so felt less helpless and more able to bear the sadness and discomfort in the room. Once again I wished I had known the strong, funny, complicated person who was described with such love by his family, and hoped my parents, for whom I barely sat shiva so many years ago, were watching from wherever.