In My Own Words: Surviving the holidays by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

For my part-time chaplaincy job, I recently taped a 10-minute video about grieving and loss that was sent out to staff members. When I introduced myself, I found myself speaking about two different identities, saying that some people know me as a chaplain and others as the sister of my late brother, Larry. Although I had planned only to talk in general terms about the grieving process, I found myself giving personal examples.

What I said during the video was that even though Larry, who was born with Down Syndrome, was Jewish, he loved Santa Claus. He loved Santa so much that one year he requested Santa be the decoration on his birthday cake. Larry died in July 2010. In December of that year, I was driving down Hooper Road on my way into work when I saw a large, beautiful inflated Santa Claus and burst into tears. That was more than six months after Larry died and the grief still took me by surprise.

I think unexpected emotional moments are going to happen to many of us this year. I don’t believe I’ll have a problem with Thanksgiving. (Although this will appear after the holiday, I’m writing this the week of November 16.) That’s not a holiday about which I feel particularly sentimental. My family also never made a big deal about Hanukkah. I can still do my favorite part of the celebration – lighting candles – but I will miss celebrating at my synagogue and with friends. Christmas may be more difficult for me because I always think of Larry. This year, the normal distractions – the Christmas Eve Chinese dinner with friends and the lunch at another friend’s house on Christmas Day – are not going to happen. So, I am emotionally preparing myself for the grief I may feel.

What I’ll be grieving for is minor compared to many readers of this column. All of you have something to grieve for this season, whether it’s wondering if older relatives will survive the pandemic so you all can celebrate together next year, or how you will mentally survive the dark days of winter without the normal social gatherings that brighten your days. The colder weather definitely plays a role in our feelings because there are fewer hours of daylight and it’s harder to gather outside with family and friends. 

One thing we all need to remember, though – and this was something that I emphasized during my talk – is that we all grieve differently. That means we will all deal with the holidays in different ways. There is no one right way to feel about what’s been happening and, if our families disagree with our plans – or lack of plans – then we must remember that their feelings are as real to them as ours are to us. Note that we can’t help how we feel: that’s something beyond our control. However, how we act on those feelings is a different matter. We should not expect people to follow our lead, nor should we be forced to follow theirs.

Another thing may help to keep this in perspective: Jewish history. We have undergone oppression from outside forces too many times to count over the centuries, but we are still here. We can survive not only the pandemic, but the lack of normality in our lives. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to each other. Count your blessings. And if you can’t do any of the above, reach out for help: speak to clergy, a psychologist, a friend or anyone who can help. You do not have to do this alone. We may not be in the same physical space, but we can still connect in spirit. If you need help, reach out a hand. If someone reaches out to you, assist them in finding the help they need. May we all make it through this difficult time intact in body and in spirit.