By Rabbi Renée Bauer
We are approaching a season in American life of holiday celebrations. Next week brings Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah follows very soon in its footsteps. For many, the war in the Middle East weighs heavily as we plan for our holidays. For some, the upcoming celebrations can feel like a beacon of relief in the midst of this darkness. For others, celebrating seems impossible amidst the grief. Similar reactions are common for those who are experiencing personal loss and grief.
I am currently co-facilitating Jewish Social Service’s Jewish grief group, which we hold each fall. Next week, the group will delve into how to approach the upcoming holidays while grieving. Jewish tradition provides beautiful rituals to mark grief throughout the seasons and gives us wisdom about approaching joy in difficult times. We incorporate these ancient tools with contemporary approaches to grief and personal experience of those who have walked the mourning path before. I share some highlights here:
- Plan Ahead: Anticipatory preparation is a coping strategy. You can have a plan A and a plan B. Perhaps you plan to have Thanksgiving dinner with family or friends, and if that does not feel right, you stay home, look at old photos, and write a letter to your deceased loved one.
- Choose Traditions and Innovation: Death, more than anything, reminds us of life’s impermanence. Do not think that your holiday celebrations cannot change now that your loved one is no longer here. Decide the family traditions you want to hold onto and what new ways that you want to mark the holiday. What you do this year does not have to be what you do forever.
- Acknowledge Memories: There is a myth that if you do not mention the loved one who has died that the mourner will not think about them. This is not true. Holidays are often the times when grief is most poignant, when longing for those we have lost is most intense, and when we find it hard to participate in ways that we have in the past. Finding ways to externalize our loss and bring the memory of our loved ones to the celebration is more comforting than keeping silent. Try creating time to share stories or light a candle for those who are not with us anymore, set an extra seat at the table, bring pictures to the celebration. Be creative, but do not keep the feelings bottled up.
- Seek Pleasure: After the death of a loved one, we sometimes feel guilty when we feel happy. Some parts of our life have died with the person, but not all parts of our lives have died with them. Remembering them may make us cry, but it also may bring laughter and joy. Trying to find meaning and pleasure is part of grieving and is not just OK but helpful.
- Cancel the Holiday: For some people, the structure of celebrating holidays gives a framework to the unmoored feeling that grief elicits, and participating in the holidays is a symbol that life continues. For others, participating in the holidays when grief is intense will feel like going through the motions and only intensify the loneliness. If you are in the latter group, give yourself permission to cancel the holiday this year. Stay home and eat popcorn (one year a participant in grief group offered that as her Thanksgiving plan). The holidays will come around again.
- Be Gentle with yourself: Grief is exhausting. Be kind to yourself when unexpected feelings arise or when you feel numb. Give yourself time to take a break and permission to move through this season in a way that is healing for you.
- Use Resources: Do not hesitate to ask for help from friends, family, or reach out to professionals, including the team at Jewish Social Services. Read here for more about grieving during the holidays or here for Jewish resources.
Rabbi Renée Bauer is the Director of Spiritual Care and Outreach at Jewish Social Services of Madison.