Dealing with grief during a time of celebration
Workshops help people who’ve suffered losses cope with the holidays
September 19, 2012
Six people gathered at Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center in West Orange on Monday night, Sept. 10, just one week before the start of Rosh Hashana. All had recently suffered a loss, and all had come to a one-day workshop to help them get through the High Holy Day season.
Members of the group discussed ways of coping with their private burdens during a period when other Jews were preparing to celebrate the new year, welcome family for festive meals, and see friends at synagogue.
The 90-minute session covered general theories of grief “to set people at ease, and know that what they are going through is normal, and that they are not crazy,” said Rabbi Moshe Abramowitz, director of pastoral care at the Barnabas center and coordinator of its Jewish Hospice Service. “We talked about whether shiva was helpful, whether people might want some kind of memorial. Everything Jewish tradition teaches about loss was interwoven into the session.”
Many area organizations, both Jewish and secular — including Barnabas as well as National Council for Jewish Women and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest — offer bereavement groups that meet for many weeks at a time (most requiring 10-12 participants in order to be successful). Jewish Family Service of Central NJ has offered such groups in the past, and currently offers individual counseling for bereavement.
What set last week’s single session apart is that it focused narrowly on coping with the High Holy Day season, and had no minimum number of participants.
An additional session at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch a few days earlier attracted a similar number of people.
“Holidays in particular can be very difficult because they are a time spent with family, and the sights, sounds, and smells around us may bring up memories that can jolt us painfully,” said Carol Billet-Fessler, associate director of JFS of Central NJ. “The key is to be gentle with yourself. If you are jolted, remember that it’s okay to have a strong reaction,” she said.
The ongoing bereavement groups run by JFS of MetroWest often deal with issues that come up around the holidays.
“Frequently there’s a heightened sense of loss when there is an empty place at the table,” said Anne Mollen, a senior clinician at JFS of MetroWest, who facilitates most of its bereavement groups.
Both family service agencies are beneficiaries of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Mollen recalled a widowed former client who was worried that her family, concerned about her vulnerability, would be reluctant to discuss their loss. Together, she and Mollen decided the woman would start the holiday meal by acknowledging her spouse’s absence.
“She used the remarks to give people permission to acknowledge that they all had feelings and didn’t have to keep them hidden,” Mollen said. “They needed to see she would not collapse. It ended up being a great relief.”
Abramowitz noted that hospices and other facilities host similar workshops around major secular and Christian holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day.
“The magic aspect is that people become a mini-group, even in this short amount of time,” said Abramowitz.
He related a story about a woman in the West Orange session who had lost her father. “By the end of the session, three people were helping her identify resources and support. That’s what groups do. They find ways to help each other and help themselves as well,” he said.
At NCJW, peer-led bereavement groups, facilitated by a trained leader, yield many conversations about grief at holiday times, according to case manager Heidi Neuberg.
Neuberg, a licensed rehabilitation counselor, said some people experiencing grief tend to isolate themselves. The holidays are a good time for them to reconnect with community, with some advance planning. “Don’t let the holidays creep up on you so that the days arrive without a plan,” she said. “Decide if you will go to synagogue or temple the way you have in the past or if, because of the grief, you might consider changing the tradition and traveling to where other family and friends are.”
Abramowitz learned in the workshop he offered that Passover, even more than the High Holy Days, can be a major hurdle for people in bereavement, in part because it is such a widely celebrated and home-centered holiday. “People felt they couldn’t make Pesach — that they didn’t have the strength or the emotional fortitude to face the holiday,” he said.
As a result, in addition to offering the workshop again next fall, he said, he is hoping to offer it about a month before Passover as well.
Handling the holidays
HEIDI NEUBERG, Anne Mollen, and Carol Billet-Fessler offered these tips for those who have suffered a recent loss:
• Pre-plan for services and for the break-fast following Yom Kippur. People experiencing grief have a tendency to isolate themselves. Plan how you will spend your time. Will you go to the synagogue/temple as you have in the past? Or will you change your tradition and travel to where other family and friends are? For many people experiencing grief, following the same traditions can provoke more sadness and focus on who is missing.
• Embrace the comfort of community. Use the time of the High Holy Days to embrace Jewish tradition and return to the comfort of the community.
• Attend Yizkor. Look at the Yizkor service as marking the time between periods of life that are joyous and periods that are sad; grieve with the people who can understand the grief and can be there in a comforting way.
• Light a Yizkor candle. This is a tradition that is already part of the holiday; it can elicit a lot of emotion, but it can also be very comforting.
• Prepare for what you will hear or see. Try to develop an image in your head of being in synagogue and hearing your loved one’s name being read, or opening a memorial booklet and seeing his or her name. A natural part of grieving is denial, and hearing or seeing a name is a way of confronting and reconciling the loss.
• Create a ritual of remembrance. Take some time during the holidays to remember someone in a special way: Light a candle, say a prayer, recite a poem. Consider visiting the mikva for a ritual immersion that marks the end of a period of mourning, or find a similar ritual meaningful to you.
• Visit the grave of your loved one. Visiting the grave around the High Holy Day season is another way of finding comfort in actions already built into the holidays to help us remember those no longer with us.
• Feel what you feel. Everyone handles grief in his or her own way. There is no right or wrong way to handle it. Do what you think will be best for you. Give yourself permission to feel joy, sadness, and other emotions.