Grief During the High Holidays

by Marnie Macauley September 30, 2016


advice-octIn an ideal world, the High Holidays are an awesome amalgam of joy, reflection and awe. For some, especially seniors, it’s also a time of great sadness. This month, we look at one woman, but this column is dedicated to all who have to face the holidays with empty chairs around them.

Dear Marnie: I can hardly write this through tears. My darling husband of over 40 years passed away three months ago after a long illness. Now I’m a widow at 62. Joseph (my late husband) and I were always the “doers” in the family, especially during the Jewish holidays. Together we made a large break-fast and had the whole family and friends over. Joe loved entertaining and took center stage with his anecdotes and stories. I still want to make the break-fast, and my daughter along with two cousins have volunteered to help. But I honestly don’t know how to face the High Holidays without him, next to me at shul, and at the break-fast. Are there any words you can give me to help?

– So Sad in San Diego

MARNIE SAYS: First, I’m so sorry for your loss. And yes, despite the majesty of the High Holidays, for those who have suffered loss, they’re frequently times of melancholy. When you’re grieving, pain is magnified. Especially The Firsts.  The first holiday(s), the first Birthday, the first Anniversary, after the death. There’s no rehearsal.  No practice. No method. And no right way to do it. All of these events evoke and re-evoke grief.  As with all agonizing times, it helps to brace and prepare. The following doesn’t diminish the hurt … but may help you manage.


– Don’t expect “normal.” Take these days at your own pace, in your own way. However you decide to do the holidays – tell yourself, it’s OK. 

– Don’t tear yourself up with guilt if you can’t pull out your old razzle-dazzle – or – if you can. Say no or yes to invites based on how you feel, but do lean on your family. If, during the break-fast, for example, you need to retire, make a quick getaway should your mood overwhelm you, tell them to take over.   

– Don’t try to duplicate what was. Things are not the same. You needn’t make a huge break-fast this year. Limit it to a number you can handle.

– Don’t crowd out the hurt with too many people, too many glasses of Manischewitz or over-doing. You need some clear solo time to think, cry and bolster.  You need time to take care of you.

– Don’t listen to “shoulda, outtas.”  The last thing you need is truly rotten advice from family or friends who’ve taken it upon themselves to declare your mourning “over” and insist you “get on with life.”

– Don’t forget that you’re not alone in your pain.  Family members, especially children, need to share and be heard as well.


– Do expect the holidays to be painful. It may come in waves as the wonderful memories and the loss seem to waft around you. When the pain hits…allow yourself to ride with it. 

– Do organize the day – in advance – with your family. Choose comfort and kinship over obligation. Let friends and others in on your plans.

– Do consider keeping some traditions, changing some, adding a few. Changes may be small ones.  What you serve, the guest list, when you attend services and where you’ll be seated.   

MOST IMPORTANT DO, prepare to remember your husband in specific ways during the High Holidays. You might make a special toast, have loved ones tell anecdotes about him, have each say a few words in his memory, light a special candle – whatever is most comfortable for you and your family. But DO schedule it for a specific time. Carving out a special time and way to acknowledge your loss will allow you to express the grief, the connection – and then you can get on with the day. 

– Do consider getting involved in a hands-on charitable effort. A Jewish organization, soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels, and especially mentoring moves us outside of ourselves. 

– Do get help if you need it! Grief is a lonely process. There are support groups, but they’re not for everyone. Counseling is another possibility to give you that special attention you need.

– Do believe in time. You will laugh again, enjoy again, live fully again – but differently.   

Most of all, I have not a doubt in the world that your dear husband would tell you to give yourself permission to grow like the wind. Do you hear it?  That gentle rustle? Think of it as the sound of your husband nudging you to live life full-out, knowing you can gather strength from the eternal bond between you.

Chag Sameach to you and all my dear readers




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