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How to lighten the load over yomtov

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For some who have lost loved ones, live far from home, or are battling loneliness, yomtov can be a triggering time, evoking feelings of loss, emptiness, or pain. Yet by confronting difficult emotions, making a difference, or embracing community, the load can be lightened.

For Helen Fraser, Rosh Hashanah is associated with the heartbreaking loss of her daughter, Hayley, who was 29 when she passed away on 15 September 2012. Fraser, her husband, Mel, and their other daughters, Kerry and Gaby, find it hard to accept that such simchas pass without Hayley’s larger-than-life presence.

“It was Saturday, Rosh Hashanah was on Sunday, my brother had already arrived from Cape Town, and the food was prepared,” says Fraser, recalling the day she lost her daughter. “I always did one night and one lunch on Rosh Hashanah as well as breaking the fast after Yom Kippur. There was always a big crowd.”

On Saturday, Fraser received a call from her youngest daughter, Gaby, saying that Hayley was in intensive care in London, where all three sisters lived. Having spoken to Hayley the previous day, Fraser knew that she wasn’t feeling well and had gone to the doctor, who had said it was asthma. Hayley wasn’t asthmatic but used an asthma pump to better tolerate the air in London. Having studied medicine for three years, Fraser knew that her daughter didn’t have asthma and something was wrong. “I could hear she wasn’t breathing properly and told her to get to the doctor.”

Upon receiving Gaby’s call the next day, Fraser booked the first flight out to London. Mel decided to stay to take care of their guests over yomtov and fly out later. They went to the airport together. Panicking after hearing that Hayley would probably not make it through the night from a friend at her bedside, Fraser was rushed through passport control by the amazing Virgin Atlantic staff. “The next minute, Mel, who by then had left the airport, phoned, and he was screaming,” Fraser recalls. “‘She’s gone,’ he said.” Friends rushed to the Fraser’s home, where they helped Mel book flights for the next day as his wife’s plane was about to take off.

“He flew on Sunday, on yomtov, which was horrific for us,” says Fraser. “It was a yomtov I wish to forget.” In Johannesburg, her friends banded together and fetched Fraser’s mother and brother for yomtov meals so they wouldn’t be alone in their grief. Dealing with the nightmarish paperwork required to repatriate Hayley’s body, through which it was determined that she died of undiagnosed multiple pulmonary embolisms, the family later flew back to Johannesburg for the funeral.

“I haven’t had a yomtov in my home since then. I don’t know if I ever will,” Fraser says. “It should be a happy time. Our friends take care of us, but I just find it so hard, as does my husband. The girls are in London, and we’re here – it’s difficult.” This year, first night Rosh Hashanah coincides with the Gregorian date of Hayley’s death, which makes it even more painful. However, Fraser is hosting a handful of close friends for second day lunch who would otherwise be alone.

A few years after Hayley’s death, Fraser was introduced to the founders of community organisation “Challah”ishing For Change. They suggested a challah bake in Hayley’s memory. Through this, donations were made to the Nashua Children’s Charity Foundation, where Fraser serves as operations director and Jewish food fund Yad Aharon & Michael. Fraser now runs an annual online yomtov charity drive for the same beneficiaries. Each year, she encourages community members to do what Hayley loved best – give.

For Carrie Miller, a South African expat who has been living in the United Kingdom (UK) for nine years, celebrating yomtov with family has always been something to look forward to. “I have wonderful memories of yomtov meals with family in South Africa,” she says. “We always had one night with my mom’s family and the next with my dad’s – it was really special.”

Losing her father in 2007 made these family gatherings increasingly meaningful. So, being away from family members over Rosh Hashanah immediately after she and her husband emigrated was therefore that much more difficult. “Yomtov was really hard for the first few years. We were able to spend it with special friends, but I felt heartsore about not being with my family.” Though she has sometimes spent Pesach in South Africa with her mom and sisters since moving, it’s never worked out over Rosh Hashanah.

Over the years, Miller has become more used to being away over yomtov, but she still misses her family. Yet not only does she now have cousins close by, but her aunt and uncle moved to the UK at the end of 2022. “It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate together again,” she says.

“In order to avoid painful losses or loneliness, we often keep busy on a daily basis. However, when the chagim come around, we’re forced to stop what we’re doing and confront that painful emptiness – which for some is very triggering,” says counselling psychologist Lisa Hirschowitz.

Yet, instead of avoiding yomtov celebrations, a natural response when confronting loneliness or pain, she suggests immersing oneself in community events to develop new avenues of support. “This may be extremely difficult at first, but with time, new relationships can be forged.”

As yomtov approaches, Hirschowitz also advises speaking to a trusted friend or professional ahead of time to better navigate the feelings it may evoke. Remembering lost loved ones or those who are far away in various ways over yomtov can also be of comfort.

“Many people feel a sense of guilt if they feel joy without their loved ones,” she says. “Letting go of this guilt is also an essential part of healing. As a community, we should be sensitive to others’ circumstances and offer more support to those who are suffering or lonely.”

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