What to Do When the Holidays Hurt

When the idea of a happy family gathered around the holiday table, menorah or Christmas tree runs smack into the reality of a recent divorce, a kid in rehab, a parent with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home or the death of a loved one after a long battle with cancer or a sudden accident, it really hurts. Let’s face it, the holidays can be awful when you or someone you love is suffering, or when that someone is gone forever.

“The more noble a thing is in its perfection,” observed the sage Yohanan ben Zakkai, “the more ghastly it is in its decay.” The German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn riffed on this ancient insight and added, “A rotted piece of wood is not as ugly as a decayed flower; and this, again is not as gruesome as a man in his decay.” It’s true. The further something is in reality from its former, more whole or ideal state, the worse we feel about it.  That’s why it’s hard to square people’s Instagram and Facebook identities with our own ordinary and sometimes miserable days. We have fake lives in cyberspace and false hopes for the holidays. We have actual lives too, with our very real pain and often complicated families. Guess which one is ghastly in its decay?  

So, what do we do during holiday time if we are in our own kind of pain that others cannot fully understand? First, be honest. Pop culture and consumerism might not give us permission to acknowledge grief or sadness during the holidays, but you can at least grant that permission to yourself. Tell people you want to keep it low-key this year. Let them know that being around groups of people celebrating only makes things worse. In other words, don’t go. 

The year that I was struggling with opioids and depression following spinal surgery, instead of showing up at any number of holiday parties to which I was invited, my wife, two kids and I served Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica. It felt right to serve others who were also suffering, albeit in a different way. The ancient rabbis knew what they were doing when they forbade mourners to attend weddings and other celebrations for a year. It wasn’t because a mourner celebrating was disrespectful to the deceased, but because it was disrespectful to the mourner--an affront to his or her own pain. 

Even putting aside the national funk that has descended upon us in 2017, for a lot of people this year there is a lot to mourn.  For some it is the death of a marriage, others the repeated death of the-hoped-for loving mother who instead finds a subtle way to hurt you whenever she’s in town “so we can all be together.” A business collapse, an embarrassing indiscretion and the public shaming that follows, or feeling inexplicably lost and sad—it is grief no matter how you slice it. 

Dostoyevsky said his greatest fear was that his life would not be worthy of his suffering.  This holiday season your suffering is an invitation to say no; and an invitation to find the yes behind that no.  Say no to the holiday table and yes to serving others. Say no to the hellish travel required to migrate upstream for Hanukkah, Christmas or New Year’s, and say yes to hunkering down with tea, a good book and a warm throw blanket. Say no to the noise and the booze and the calories, and say yes to a quiet, healing walk with a friend who has also had a terrible year. Say no to the shopping and say yes to a charity that needs the money more than Amazon. Say no, I cannot be happy, but, yes, I can still be good and gentle and kind—especially to myself. Say no to pretending everything is ok, and yes to reaching out to the few who really do understand and love you no matter how wounded. To put it glibly but perfectly, the people who mind if you don’t show up for the holidays this year don’t matter, and the people who matter, don’t mind.



Founded in 1862 as Congregation B’nai B’rith, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is one of the most highly respected Reform congregations in the U.S. and the oldest congregation in Los Angeles. The temple building, built in 1929 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, features a majestic domed, Byzantine-style sanctuary encircled by a 320-foot mural depicting scenes of Biblical and Jewish history. The recent restoration of the temple building is the subject of the award winning documentary, "Restoring Tomorrow", and features Senior Rabbi Steven Leder as he shares the history and present temple, and its many outreaches to the communities in LA that they serve.  Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the Senior Rabbi and Pritzker Chair of Senior Rabbinics. With a cum laude degree in writing from Northwestern University, study at Trinity College, Oxford, and his Masters in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College, RabbiLeder was ordained in 1987. He is the author of 3 books, numerous essays, and Torah commentaries. He is a fellow in the British-American Project, a think tank that brings together leaders from America and Great Britain, and earned the American Jewish Press Association’s Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary.