Coping with Grief during the Holidays and other Special and Sacred Occasions

Marjorie U. Sokoll, MEd, Director of Jewish Life and Healing at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, 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. “It is not good for people to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) The following post is reprinted with permission from the JF&CS blog.

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, or during other special and sacred occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and day of death.

For many of us, these moments can be a potentially challenging time. Instead of anticipating joyous family celebrations or special dates on the calendar, 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 and to dismiss the potential difficulties faced during personal sacred occasions. 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. However, today we know through additional research in this field that grief does not have a prescribed road map with distinct stages; human beings experience a myriad of emotions that ebb and flow, and change over time. There is no correct way to grieve – each person grieves differently.

The list below includes some of the more common suggestions provided by the experts for coping with the mixed emotions that the holidays may bring. It may also be helpful for any other potentially difficult date that you are anticipating on the calendar:

  • 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. This may be a time to consider a healing ritual such as immersion in the mikveh as a way to cope with the anticipation or aftermath of the holiday or special and sacred occasion.
  • 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. Holidays and special occasions are a time to share happy and sad memories with family and friends, as well as creating 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 which reinforces this idea from the great book of love poems attributed to King Solomon. It may offer you some comfort and solace through its timeless healing words, “Love is stronger than death.” Song of Songs (8:6)


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