In grief circles, the holidays are most often the hardest to face. With loved ones no longer present, how can we celebrate? The emptiness seemingly pervades throughout ones home. The familiar smells and sounds are no longer in the air. I know many people who much prefer to skip the holidays than face the reality of the empty chair at the table. How do people find meaning in the face of loneliness?
Around the world, people are about to celebrate the winter festivals of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, etc. These holidays revolve around celebration and light. Hanukkah, for example, is the Jewish holiday in which Jews light candles for eight nights, starting with one candle for the first night and adding an additional candle each night until there are eight candles burning the last night.
The Talmud (BT Shabbat 22a) presents a legal dispute regarding whether one can use a lit Hanukkah candle to rekindle another Hanukkah candle in the event it burns out. The argument hinges upon the question of whether using one candle to light another is a degradation of the holiness of the lit candle. The final verdict is that one is allowed to light from one Hanukkah candle to another (though it is not the common practice today).
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the current Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, recently explained the verdict of this dispute. When we think about the sacred value of an object, we have to look beyond the particular object. Considering the Hanukkah candle, if I have two candles, and only one is lit, then the result is diminished in comparison to two candles providing light. As such, because my goal is to enhance the light, I can relight one candle with the other because it enhances the significance of the candle lighting on Hanukkah.
When we consider the idea of grief, we encounter something similar. The loss of a loved one is like a candle that is no longer lit. There is a diminishing of light, of joy. The holiday is not the same, something is missing. Yet, with the grief, we are not diminished. We can still rekindle the light. This is done through memory and reminiscing. The holidays become a time when families gather to share what is missed, which can often provide joyful moments in the face of the emptiness felt. When we remember someone, the smell of the food cooked or the sound of their voice as the person repeats the same joke every year, we are symbolically relighting the candle that burned out. We are rekindling the fire in the room and working through our grief, which always reappears during the happier moments of life.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner is the campus chaplain for the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living, which comprises the Martin and Edith Stein Assisted Living, the Lena and David T. Wilentz Senior Residence and the Martin and Edith Stein Hospice.