The grieving man stooped in sadness, accepting condolences from friends, loved ones, strangers. He wept over his sister's untimely passing. She was my colleague and a friend, so I attended her funeral to pay my respects.
I admit, I also went for another reason.
Six months earlier, my daughter was born with a life-threatening infection. My baby was required to spend the first weeks of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit, which was where my husband and I spent every moment of every day after her birth. We couldn't carry her more than three feet away from her crib as the PICC line attached her little head to a towering IV pole, pumping her body with lifesaving antibiotics. Finally nearly a month later, we carried our baby far away from the hospital and brought her home with a clean bill of health.
Now as I faced this man who wore his black blazer, torn as a symbol of his mourning, I felt a rush of emotion.
"You prayed for my daughter," I, among the strangers, told him.
He stared at me blankly.
"She was born sick," I explained. "Your sister offered to have you pray for her at your Yeshiva. I want to thank you." A flash of recognition shone in his eyes and he attempted a faint smile in return as he bowed his head.
My friend offered her prayers from her brother, a well-known rabbi, because she believed in the power of prayer to heal the sick. I admit, I have wondered about the validity of such a concept. But under the circumstances, I was ready to accept all the prayers anyone wanted to offer, regardless of the evidence.
According to NPR Religion Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty, many scientists are intrigued enough to ponder the question of whether or not our consciousness, prayers, can have health-promoting capacities in others.
Dr. Robert Shmerling of Harvard Medical School writes of a survey in 2012 which asked over 1000 physicians whether spirituality and prayer play a role in healing. The majority of the doctors polled (85%) believed them to be factors in recovery and wellness.
Dr. Shmerling goes on to site several studies which indicate the possibility that prayers can have an impact on health. Such metaphysical theories may seem silly or over-rated to those who want hard evidence. But even with or without scientific evidence in favor of prayers, consider the following ways in which prayers have been shown to support people through life's trials:
Prayers connect us to others.
In 1999, about 1000 patients in an Intensive Care Unit in the United States had prayers said for them. Neither the doctors nor the patients were aware of who was having prayers said for them. But those who were prayed for had noticeably faster recoveries, Dr. Shmerling writes.
Have you ever had someone tell you they are "praying for you" or for a loved one who was ill? This does not need to be taken in an organized religious sense. It is just one of the ways that people can offer to keep you in their thoughts as you move through life's many challenges, which can bring a sense of comfort.
Prayers connect you to yourself.
Illness, loss, and change can be frightening experiences. Sometimes we have a feeling of numbness when we go through these challenges, a sense of not being completely present. Praying for yourself or someone else allows you access beyond your concrete thoughts about the situation, and also can eclipse how you may (or may not) feel in your physical body.
For those inevitable times when you cannot find the words you seek in prayer, there are ancient and universal mantras, which allow you to access a simple vibration which science has shown can have healing effects. This can be found through music, chanting, or other artistic and spiritual pursuits. For instance, in Yoga, we frequently chant the mantra "Om." Richard Rosen, President of the Yoga Dana Foundation, writes, "Chanting Om may be the easiest way to touch the Divine within your very self."
Prayers give us hope.
According to Dr. Shmerling, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study in 2001 on women who were thought to be infertile. Those women who received intercessory prayer (the act of praying on behalf of others) became pregnant twice as often as those who did not receive prayer. We cannot deny the possibility that the act of receiving others' prayers ignited hope in the participants where otherwise hope had been lost.
Of course all of this simply parrots what mystics have been saying through the ages. Praying helps. At the very least, it can bring us comfort when we feel helpless and uncertain of what else to do, which goes a long way in times of distress.
As I walked away from my friend and colleague's family after laying her to rest and leaving them to grieve, I said a prayer for them. I hope in some small way, my faintest whispers to the universe will somehow ease their suffering.