At our annual holiday bereavement seminar a few years ago, a woman approached me surprised that my presentation did not regard holiday grief as an arduous emotional task to be dreaded and feared. She noted how so many self-help books bear titles such as surviving the holidays or managing your holiday pain. I responded, “Winter grief is complicated, and the first holidays without a loved one’s physical presence are indeed painful, but it is also true that many holiday customs enrich and support our grieving, helping us to grow and heal.” At this time of year, traditions and rituals can serve our grief, whether these be time-honored practices or a new one. Watching the horrors of the Israeli-Hamas war, I can only imagine the depth of courage that will grace Jews everywhere as they commemorate the Maccabean victories and rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem at Hanukkah. Finding light in the darkness during a nationwide occupation is a timely and meaningful theme for both Jews and Palestinians.
Hanukkah recollects survival in the face of destruction. The eight-day commemoration begins the 25th day of Kislev which this year starts the evening of Thursday, December 7th and ends on the evening of Friday, December 15th . This centuries-old observance of victory, stamina and hope is marked by lighting a menorah with nine candles, one candle for each of the eight-day celebration, lit by the ninth candle called the shamash (helper candle). The Menorah evokes the memory of a miniscule amount of oil that burned for eight days creating light in a destroyed temple. The menorah lighting ritual includes recitation of blessings and the menorah is prominently displayed in a window to remind others of the miracle. Though I am not Jewish, as an interfaith minister, I have always observed Hanukkah by lighting a menorah in my home, reminding me that light is eternal.
How inspiring that such a small amount of oil lasted for so long! In our wasteful, disposable, throw-away culture we need practice in making things last. Just as the temple oil miraculously lasted, savoring and securing the emotions and memories of those who have passed, creates its own light. Our memories, like the temple oil, will help our grieving heart find its way in the dark. Although a loved one is no longer physically present, their enduring presence will last by tenderly caring for their material things and our emotional memories. Believe in what lasts, do not try to avoid grief, its light will guide you. A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.
In the days following a death-loss, it can be overwhelming to rededicate yourself to life. It’s easy to get weighed down by “life-before” and “life-after” thinking. So much changes when a loved one dies. Dwelling on what was and what is no longer is certainly a pitfall of grief. The miracle of Hanukkah reminds us to rededicate ourselves to life. Just as the new temple didn’t happen overnight, needing patience, courage, and hope, so too is finding the way back to a meaningful daily life without a loved one. Rededicating oneself to life is a crucial movement of the heart when grieving.
Another gleaning from the observance of Hanukkah for the grieving heart is to make room for awe. The darkness of grief leaves many a heart in fear, not the good kind of fear, not the shaky, inability-to-move-forward kind of fear. But fear has another meaning, it is also “awe,” the grace to stand in wonder as the unexpected arrives to lift us up and out of the depths of pain. One tradition I have when lighting my Menorah, is to consider each night, what unexpected miracle God has in store for me the next day, and I try to position my heart to be ready for it.
Grieving during the holidays does not need to be traumatic or empty. Seasonal celebrations and traditions have many lessons for the sorrowful heart and one does not need to belong to a specific religion to find meaning in a tradition’s practice. Maybe this year is a time to adopt a new observance, perhaps it’s the perfect year to display a Menorah in solidarity and in hope for peace in Israel. Maybe displaying a nativity scene in a prominent place can remind you that people who lived in darkness saw a great light in the form of an immigrant, homeless baby. Perhaps sending and receiving cards will remind you that you are loved and that there is peace, joy and hope to be found in December grief.
There are so many ways this special season offers hope; after all, hope is what a broken heart needs to begin its healing. So indulge yourself in a ritual, encourage your heart to celebrate a much-loved tradition, and let your mind wander in a new custom to stretch and strengthen you.
“Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.” – BG