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The Jewish New Year: Welcoming the New & Cherishing the Old

difficult dates grief support holiday grief Sep 11, 2023
suriving the holidays after a loss

By Ilana Shapiro Yahdav

Reliving Cherished Holiday Moments 

Growing up, we went to my maternal grandparent's house every year for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). My Bubbe (Yiddish for grandma) would prepare a huge feast for both days. She would fret about it for the months before and lovingly drive my Zaide (Yiddish for grandpa) and my mom nuts. I know she loved it though. It was definitely her love language - to feed people - especially her children and grandchildren. Despite her worries, the meals were always delicious and she never forgot anything or anyone. She knew who liked and didn’t like what and ensured no one was hungry. She always had chicken for my dad who refused to eat brisket. Carrots without raisins for me. Something vegan for my youngest cousin. Food without onions for my younger brother. I’m pretty sure she had enough food for half the neighborhood to eat a ton and take leftovers home too. That was my Bubbe. I miss her so much. I’m proud my second daughter’s English name is after her. 

I have so many happy memories of the holidays at my grandparent’s house. We got to see some extended family that I adored and hang out together. I fondly remember the many occasions when my dad would lie down on the floor, with his newspaper, in my grandparents’ living room, next to the long tables that would always be set up to fit all of us. He often would fall asleep and not wake up while we all walked around or over him. One year, my Zaide even vacuumed around him, and he managed to sleep right through it. It was actually quite impressive. It’s a skill he said that he learned in Med school and while I was learning how to drive. 

Full of Gratitude and Blessings Beyond Measure

Death had not really been introduced in our family yet, and it was a carefree time together.  My immediate family and extended family were all intact and breathing. Little did I understand at the time how fleeting it would be, how it would all end before I could really truly appreciate it. Of course, I cherished those times, but as a teenager, I sometimes wished I could go out with friends, and not drive 5 hours to sit in Temple to make my grandparents happy. Though I would not admit it at the time, it was worth it to see my grandparents beam with pride when my two brothers and I showed up at the Temple. They would scold us to be quiet but I think they were really just happy that we were there, even if we were horsing around or my dad was sound asleep sitting upright in his chair. 

It all changed - seemingly overnight - as life has an uncanny way of doing.

But, my dad wasn’t supposed to go so soon, followed closely by my 18-year-old first cousin, paternal grandparents, and Bubbe not too many years later. 

I get a sharp pang just writing this and thinking of those days, especially how many of my dad’s last holidays I missed while I was living in China. It almost feels like a completely different lifetime. In a sense it was. Life was so carefree and pain-free in ways that I was too young and naive to fully realize. Only now, looking back, am I able to truly understand and appreciate how blessed I truly was. 

I can still picture their house on West Street in Massachusetts. I remember that long drive from Upstate New York and the delicious deli that we would stop at halfway there. When I would think of Rosh Hashanah, it was essentially synonymous with my grandparents - their house, temple, and food. They were the glue that brought everyone together. There was never a question of what we were doing for Rosh Hashanah, even when I was in college.

I honestly don't remember the first few Rosh Hashanahs after my dad’s death. I think we still went to my grandparents’ for a few of them, but it’s a blur. I had so much regret that I was in China and not home to be with my family those years prior. 

Navigating Conflicting Holiday Emotions 

In the last decade, our holidays have morphed as the extended family has shrunk and spread out geographically. I’ve spent some holidays with new friends, and my husband’s family, and am now working to build new traditions with my daughters who are still too young to really understand or care. 

On the eve of the holidays, I feel a wave of sadness that my girls don’t have two grandfathers like I did. I feel sad that I don’t have my father or my grandparents. (My Zaide is still alive but has severe dementia.) 

It feels heavy as I put pressure on myself to try to create the same loving holidays that I had as a kid. I sometimes don’t know where or how to begin. I begin with one step. And then another. And another.

Finding Joy Amidst Holiday Grief

A powerful first step is to acknowledge that I will never be able to recreate what I grew up with. However, I can create something new and wonderful with and for my babies. 

Even as a grief professional, I have pushed these feelings aside for a long time and ‘should’ on myself constantly, simply perpetuating the cycle of grief and sadness. 

Now, as a mother of two, I am allowing myself and making space (albeit quite begrudgingly, I will admit) to sit with these feelings.  

  • Making space - intentionally.

    • This can look different for everyone. 

      • My process begins with time to fully zone out, specifically with a show I grew up with. This year, it was with new episodes of CSI (thank goodness they brought CSI back!) Yes, despite the subject matter not being particularly soothing, the show itself is a remnant of happier times and is like being with an old friend or eating eggplant parm (my other guilty pleasure) minus the calories.

      • Then, I find some time to sit outside or at my desk with some music or my fur princess, Kira. Sometimes I take some breaths and remember to count, and sometimes I write. Honestly, writing is the most cathartic and healing for me. Writing this blog has been incredibly soothing. 

  • Name the feelings.

    • Grief. I am grieving. I feel sad. I miss my dad. I miss my grandparents. I miss the family gatherings. I miss the structure of always knowing where the holidays would be. I miss the traditions. I miss not having to think about the holidays and being able to get to simply show up. 

    • Excitement (and guilt). I get to create new experiences and traditions with my girls and husband! It’s a bit daunting but pretty cool, too. I feel a tad guilty for thinking this because if my grandparents were still alive, there really wouldn't be room for new traditions. But, as I always say, we can experience many seemingly opposite emotions. I can be excited and still miss the heck out of my deceased family and the traditions that were.

    • Overwhelm. It’s hard being an adult. It’s hard being in charge. It’s both hard and awesome being a parent.  

    • Love. I love my family - the living and the non. I just want them all to be happy. 

    • Fear. I’m scared that I won’t be able to instill Jewish values in my children. I’m scared I won’t be able to give them the same happy holiday experience that I grew up with. I’m scared that I won’t be able to figure out traditions with and for them. I’m scared that I won’t continue to work through my own grief because I’m so focused on them. I worry that I will unconsciously pass down my feelings to them or put it on them. I worry that I will forget to put on my own oxygen mask first and run out of steam.
  • Feel them.

    • I often feel my feelings in my stomach. I’m feeling it right now- breathing through it. 
  • Acknowledge them.

    • I see you, grief. Fear. Excitement. Guilt. Overwhelm. Love. We’re all in this together. No one is excluded.

  • Honor them. 

    • I welcome the tears. I welcome the laughter. I will share the stories. I will dream up the new traditions, and respect and cherish the old ones.

  • Accept them.

    • There is room for all of your emotions at the table. All are welcome. All serve a purpose. Time is non-linear. 

It hurts. And frankly, it’s not particularly the most fun, but it must be done. The only way out is through.

Now that I am consciously making room in my mind and heart, I am creating space and the mental and emotional bandwidth to create new traditions with my husband and girls. 

Creating New Holiday Memories & Traditions 

Together, as my daughters grow up, we can find ways to honor loved ones who are no longer with us and to move forward with the family that is. One does not need to override the other. All can and do co-exist. 

My husband’s Sephardi family has some different customs than my Ashkenazi family, and it’s fun to think of how we can combine them to make our own traditions. I know my dad is super jealous of the amazingly delicious Babaganoush that my mother-in-law is going to bring this year and I get to happily eat it in his memory.

I’ll admit, I really don’t fully know what our new traditions are yet - or what we are really doing!- or how it will morph as my girls get older. But, what I do know is that I am committed to continuing to work through my grief so that it does not taint their holiday experience. I will not let my grief or my desire to recreate my childhood holiday experience get in the way of helping them create their own happy childhood holiday memories.

I truly want to give them their own loving and happy memories, and will not let my grief weigh it down or sour it. Of course, there is a place for my grief, but I don’t want it to overrun the rest.

My grief gets a seat, not the whole table.

Easier said than done, but luckily I - we - have many tools at our disposal. 


Exciting Update - Announcing our New Course!! 

Kim and I are THRILLED to share about the upcoming launch of our new course, “Beyond Bereavement” created specifically to empower you to thrive beyond loss.

"Beyond Bereavement" offers a roadmap to emotional resilience with 10 transformative tools (including the one outlined in the blog) and helps you discover how to honor your grief journey while crafting a personalized toolkit for healing and growth. These are the same tools helping me process the grief, fear, and all other feelings as I approach the Jewish High Holidays. 

Join our waitlist to be the first to find out when doors open. We are so excited to welcome our inaugural group! 

We also have other tools that we encourage you to utilize: