This is my final week of saying kaddish for my father HK”M. I remember when I was sitting shiva someone suggested that I should write something about the experience and I never did, but I will try to write a little something about the whole kaddish experience. I’ve noticed that for some people kaddish becomes not just part of religion – it becomes the religion, the end-all and be-all. Shacharis, mincha, ma’ariv are just a heichi timtza to allow the opportunity to say kaddish. I think this is due in part to people having a hard time coming to grips with death (which is why people say awkward things when they come to be menachem aveil, but that’s for the post that never got written) and so the kaddish becomes an emotional life preserver, the means to feel like you are doing something for and connecting to the person who is gone. I don't know why, but I never related to it in that way. I finished Mes Yevamos last week and honestly, I felt I accomplished more l'zecher nishmas my father doing that than any of the kaddeishim I said that day. I don't mean to minimize kaddish's importance; I'm just giving my personal perspective. Rabbi Akiva (according to some sources) composed kaddish for the sake of a yasom who knew nothing and needed a way to elevate his parent’s soul. The idea is if you can’t do anything else, you can at least say kaddish. If you can do something else – e.g. learn Torah, give tzedaka, daven, become a better person – that’s the real tachlis of aveilus (which, as the Rambam writes, is related to the mitzvah of teshuvah). Like in so many areas, a specific small ritual has taken on a life of its own and overshadowed the real goal of what should be going on.
This has real ramifications halacha l’ma’aseh. For example, what if someone works in avodas hakodesh, e.g. someone needs to teach Torah somewhere, and there won’t be a minyan for kaddish. Is it worth it to give up harbatzas Torah so as to not miss kaddish? The Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Steipler didn’t think so (Nit’ei Gavriel vol 2 p.300 [there is a typo in the text there and it should refer to "Minhagei Chabad").
Along the same lines, one of the hard things I found with respect to kaddish is that if you are not the ba’al tefilah, you are at the mercy of the ba’al tefilah’s pace. I clocked one ba’al tefilah at under 7 minutes for ma’ariv, start to finish, barchu to kaddish basra (I think the tzibur wanted to give him applause when he was done). I can’t keep up with that. The few times things like this happened I assumed it would be better for my own neshoma and hopefully aliyas haneshoma to daven at a “regular” pace even if it meant risking missing the last kaddish. (I tried not to make davening at express minyanim a regular habit when I could avoid it, but I was far from perfect in that regard. I get lazy too.)
Speaking of serving as shat”z, I thank all the gabaim who gave me a chance to take the amud and all the people who graciously shared the amud with me this year. Something I don't understand (and fortunately have only heard about but was never a "victim" of) is the rule in some shuls that only members can daven for the amud, even when none of them are chiyuvim and other chiyuvim are present. Isn’t that zeh ne’heneh v’zeh lo chaseir? Beats me.
I never was sure how to respond to “helpful” advice about how to daven (as opposed to the usual advice to me to speak louder) that amounted to doing something that was halachically less than ideal. I usually just went with the flow as long as the advice was not completely off the wall and against all shitos, or let some other chiyuv take the amud. What's especially irritating is when people call things a "minhag" when they really mean to say "A lot of people who don't know any better do this." Tosfos in Pesachim writes that a minhag is established by a talmid chacham, and no minhag can ever trump halacha. Anyway, the gedarim of minhag and abuse of the term are for another time.
One final note on hil aveilus in general: I found that there were many, many grey areas. I recently saw the first question in the aveilus section in one of the collections of psak from R' Elyashiv was how a person is supposed to figure out what to do when there are so many differing views and minhagim. I still don't have sugyos clear, but hopefully will not need them again halacha l'ma'aseh for a very long time to come.