“Death ends a life, not a relationship,” teaches Morrie Schwartz of “Tuesdays with Morrie” fame. Whether you have recently experienced the loss of a loved one or it has been some time since the loss of someone significant in your life, you know these words intuitively but may feel them more acutely during the holiday season.
For many of us, the holidays can be a potentially challenging time. Instead of anticipating joyous family celebrations, the grief surrounding the death of a loved one may evoke feelings of loss, yearning and sadness. Jewish tradition understands the very human experience of moving between joy and sadness by its inclusion of the Yizkor service–a service of memory–during Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot. It is easy to understand the presence of Yizkor during the introspective holiday of Yom Kippur; by including it in the three pilgrimage holidays as well, Jewish tradition acknowledges that within the joy of communal holiday celebration, human brokenness, pain and grief also exist. The presence of a service of memory emphasizes the profound importance of offering a space to remember, reflect and grieve within a supportive and caring community.
In contrast, within popular culture there is an expectation that we feel joyous during the holiday season. However, if you were to Google “grief and holidays,” nearly two million links appear. Some of these websites highlight the research of experts within the field of thanatology–the study of death, dying and the grief process–for guidance as to what to anticipate. In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously wrote about the five stages of grief. Today, however, we know through additional research in this field that grief does not have a prescribed road map with distinct stages; human beings experience myriad emotions that ebb and flow and change over time. There is no correct way to grieve–each person grieves differently.
This list includes some of the more common suggestions provided by experts for coping with the mixed emotions the holidays may bring:
- Spend time in advance anticipating which holiday traditions you would like to celebrate, which traditions you wish to skip this year and which new ones you would like to incorporate.
- Seek caring family and friends who support you in your attempts to talk about your feelings of grief, including saying your loved one’s name aloud in conversation.
- The memories of your relationship with your loved one are some of the most enduring treasures you have. The holidays are a time to share happy and sad memories with family and friends, as well as create new rituals of remembrance.
- Recognize that grief can impact your body, mind and spirit. Be good to yourself and make sure you eat well, drink enough fluids and get plenty of rest.
Although some of these suggestions may be helpful, some may not. You are the expert within your own experience of grief, and I encourage you to search within your own heart as to what feels right for you. And because death does not end a relationship, you can also turn to the following quote from the great book of love poems attributed to King Solomon that reinforces this idea: “Love is stronger than death” (Song of Songs 8:6). May it offer you some comfort and solace through its timeless healing words.
Marjorie Sokoll is the founder and director of JF&CS Jewish Healing Connections, which helps ensure that people feel a sense of connection when facing the challenges of illness, loss or isolation by offering spiritual and communal supports to provide hope, comfort and wholeness, guided by Jewish tradition. Click here for more information.