The High Holidays can be a time for enjoying family and cherishing one’s religious faith, but for many people those days can also lead to feelings of loss, sadness, stress, and anxiety.
“There is the Hallmark TV version of the holidays, and then there’s the realistic one,” said Sheri Bald, clinical social worker at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County. “It’s an extremely challenging time for many people, especially those who have lost loved ones.”
To cope with those emotions, social workers in Middlesex and Monmouth counties recommend a variety of strategies to deal with everything from navigating political debates among family members to facing the holidays in the absence of loved ones.
Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County and its counterpart, Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County, provide counseling services that “keep the Jewish community vibrant and strong,” said Susan Antman, executive director of Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. “Jewish Federation and our supporters are proud to enable these federation partners to provide affordable services to those in need, and to remind all Jews they are not alone.”
Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County, which has offices in Asbury Park, Eatontown, and Morganville, offers services to those of all ages. It has individual, family, and couples counseling as well as a drug and alcohol treatment program.
Those who have experienced the death of a spouse, child, parent, sibling, or someone else can find that the loss — even if it happened years ago — is exacerbated by the High Holidays because of their focus on self-reflection, one’s purpose in life, and relationship with God.
“Your religious and world view can be challenged when you have a loss,” said Bald. “People can be asking, ‘Why did God do this? Why did this happen to our family?’ and holidays can bring that up again.”
Planning ahead is crucial for coping with loss. Thinking through how you want to spend your time on the holiday and crafting rituals to honor the person who died can offer solace, Bald said. Each family member may grieve differently, so it is also important to leave space for people to go their own way.
“Acknowledge your feelings, and get help if you feel overwhelmed,” she said.
Other techniques can provide comfort for those feeling anxiety or sadness. Relaxation strategies can include a self-reassuring talk before the holidays that focuses on positive aspects of the events, exercise such as walking and yoga, and meditation apps available on smartphones.
Many people find volunteering is another beneficial option. “Helping people less fortunate often makes the helper feel good about themselves,” said Bald, who suggests delivering holiday baskets to the elderly, making visits to nursing homes, or working at a food pantry.
Marking the holidays with extended family can bring many stressors to the fore. Longstanding conflicts among relatives and estranged family members and discussions of current events are some of the many factors that can cause clashes, noted June Stern, director of clinical and senior services for Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County. The organization, which often sees an uptick in the number of people reaching out for help before the High Holidays, offers counseling on addiction, eating disorders, relationship issues, bereavement, and other topics at its offices in Milltown and Monroe Township.
Those hosting family and friends for a meal should be sensitive to their guests’ challenges and adjust plans accordingly, Stern recommended. If someone has a problem with alcoholism, for example, “the wine should stay in the kitchen” or not be served at all, she advised. “Talk to family ahead of time” and point out that it’s not as important to serve wine as it is to make all one’s guests feel comfortable, she added.
If you anticipate political debates erupting, assigning seats at the table can help separate those with opposing views. Another strategy is laying out ground rules as the meal begins. “If it’s your house, you can establish what subjects can and can’t be talked about,” Stern said. “You can say, ‘I really don’t think we’re going to be able to have this conversation without people getting upset, and we’re not going to change each other’s minds, so let’s not talk about it.’” Warning relatives that you will ring a bell each time a forbidden topic comes up will help achieve peace with some levity, she added.
Those who are facing the holidays alone can find themselves feeling despondent, and social media can exacerbate those feelings. “People go online and see friends who say, ‘I’m having 30 for dinner, look at my table,’ and they feel, ‘Oh, it’s just me and my neighbor.’ It can contribute to feelings of isolation. ‘What’s wrong with me that I’m not at a table with 25 other people?’” Stern said.
To alleviate stress, Stern recommends activities such as journaling or carving out time for hobbies and keeping to one’s usual routine of exercise.
For those who are not gathering with family members, Stern suggested inaugurating some fresh rituals. “Create a community with friends or neighbors,” she advised. “Have everybody bring a favorite dish, and start a new tradition.”
For information about Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County, visit jfcsmonmouth.org. For Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County, visit jfsmiddlesex.org.