Opinion | Facing the High Holidays After the Loss of a Spouse or Partner


By Rabbi Tsurah August

“L’shanah tovah u’metukah — A good and sweet year!” rings in the air.

Yes, another New Year, but the “good and sweet” may sound impossible, almost cruel, when you have lost your partner/best friend/soulmate.

Yes, you may have good, wonderful friends, but they have families of their own to be with. You may have adult children who are doing their best to help you through your loss, but they, too, are mourning and you don’t want to burden them with your pain, your loneliness. Or your children may be young and you are their anchor in their sea of sorrow, while you yourself are adrift.

So what can you do to get through this challenging time?

Here are some suggestions based on the teachings of Rebbe Nachman, a 19th-century rabbi whose insights come from his deep commitment to guiding people through their darkest times:

Reach In

  • Be compassionate and patient with yourself; this is a tender time.
  • Give yourself permission to have the qualities you want during the holiday season, in grief there is no right or wrong way to handle the holidays.
  • Evaluate what parts of the holiday you enjoy and what you don’t.
  • Do you want to connect with family and friends and community or would you rather have time alone or with a close friend or time in nature — walking along the shore, the river or at an arboretum can be healing.
  • Will going to services give a helpful framework for your grief and healing?
  • Consider keeping a journal of feelings, hopes and dreams.

Reach Out

  • Do as much or as little as you want.
  • Let your friends and family know your needs. People want to help and are often at a loss as to how.
  • Reach out to the people you want to be with: Invite them to join you in going to services, or to dinner or a walk. Be bold and ask to be included in their plans.
  • Let hosts know in advance that you may not be up to following through on the plans. You are still on an emotional roller coaster; you can also gracefully decline invitations; ask for a rain check.
  • Consider honoring your spouse at dinner: You might use their favorite kiddush cup or make a silent or out loud toast to them; tell funny or poignant stories about them.
  • Include the children; they, too, have stories. Have art supplies available for them to make a special card or placemats to honor your spouse.
  • Plan how to respond to the inevitable question: “How are you doing?” Suggestion: “Thank you for caring.” “ I miss ____ very much.”

Reach Up

  • After a profound loss our beliefs are often shaken. The High Holidays are opportunities to explore what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “the Ineffable.” These may include your sense of God and what gives life meaning for you.  
  • When you light the Yarzeit candle, consider including a prayer of gratitude for your spouse’s presence in your life.
  • The tradition of visiting cemeteries can be comforting. If this appeals to you, ask a friend or family member to go with you. It is traditional to leave a stone of remembrance and love on their monument.

May the new year 5779 bring you what you need to heal and embrace life fully again. Now more than ever, be gentle with yourself. Don’t do more than you want, and don’t do anything that does not serve your soul, your loss and your love.

The next eight-session Jewish Family & Children’s Service Bereavement Support Group for Spouses begins Oct. 2. 

Rabbi Tsurah August is Jewish Family & Children’s Service rabbi and chaplain, specializing in bereavement, hospice, hospital and long-term health.


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