Hanukkah is a celebration of light, of a miracle, and of the resilience of God’s people. The eight days are full of wonderful food, Torah readings, the menorah lighting, and other special family traditions.

Yet, families celebrating Hanukkah for the first time after a loved one has died may struggle in finding peace, hope, and joy in the holiday. They may rely on the support of their rabbi, community, and others in the grief and deathcare industry for guidance on navigating this beloved and significant holiday.

Who is Missing

The emptiness felt and uneasiness in celebrating may depend on who died, and naming the significance of celebrating Hanukkah without that family member can be helpful.

If a child has died, their parents may feel irritable or tearful when witnessing other children playing and singing the children’s songs associated with Hanukkah. Children who have lost a sibling may still want gifts given to, or in honor of, their deceased sibling. It is a great way for them to express their love and grief.

If an adult has died, then children may feel confused and lost. Their grief may only be increased by the excitement and busyness surrounding the holiday. Grieving kids will benefit from patience, consistency, and space to process through play. It is also helpful to ask them if there is someone else who can cook, bake, read, or pray with them, not as a replacement for the parents who have died, but as someone who can carry on the traditions the parents and child participated in together.

It is common for grief to be triggered by family recipes, and Hanukkah can be full of them. It is difficult when someone such as the grandparent has died, and they had always been the one in charge of making the customary Hanukkah dishes. Instead of just leaving the food off the table, it is helpful to suggest that someone else in the family carry on the tradition of making them, or perhaps even ask someone from the congregation to provide them that first year.

Things like food can seem insignificant and easily forgotten, but they are anything but. Not only can they have religious significance, but there are years of memories attached to who made them. Biting into a traditionally religious food at Hanukkah may trigger tears or giggles. Both are OK and healthy.

The Menorah and Other Traditions

Other grief triggers during the holiday may center on the menorah itself and prayer readings. Some families may always rely on the same family members to recite the prayers, or they may choose different readers for each night the menorah is lit. If the person usually responsible for leading the prayers has died, it may be helpful to guide the grieving family in choosing a new person to lead this portion of each night.

The menorah each family lights may have significant meaning within the family that can be healing to explore. Menorahs may be passed down for generations and have stories to tell that are full of hope, resiliency, and miracles. Part of the grieving process during Hanukkah can include encouraging those stories to be retold.

Finding the Light

Lights from the menorah’s candles may be bright, but there can be a heaviness when grieving during Hanukkah. Rabbis, chaplains, and others in the deathcare industry can begin by validating the depth of the stories, memories, and other grief triggers found in the eight beautiful nights of Hanukkah. Allow families space to grieve by keeping traditions alive, serving the foods that bring comfort and memories, and listening to the stories of past family Hanukkah celebrations. They can find the light in your presence.

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