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Grieving through the Omer

What do we do when our Jewish practices are painful, when instead of anticipation and joy one is filled with hesitancy and dread?

My father passed away unexpectedly on December 31st, 2016, the second night of Hanukkah. Since his passing I have lit the entire hanukkiah, tasted the new fruits and bounty in the Tu B’Shevat seder, tried to experience the joy of Purim, and just recently retold the story of our peoples’ exodus from slavery during Passover. But all these holidays have been tinged with the color of sadness. As I float through the Jewish calendar a part of me cannot fully engage with the natural rhythm of my people because every holiday I realize again and again that this is the first without my father.

Now with the counting of the Omer I am reminded daily, as I take up my siddur to say the brakhah, that another day passes without my father here. This is a natural thought as one grieves following a loved one’s passing, but to have an obligation to count each passing day is a painful practice. What do we do when our Jewish practices are painful, when instead of anticipation and joy one is filled with hesitancy and dread?

Life, unfortunately, is filled with grief, challenge, depression, and other struggles. At every Jewish holiday there is someone around us dealing with the loss of a loved one, the loss of a beloved pet, depression, a recent diagnosis of cancer, or many of life’s challenges and dark experiences. In Judaism there is tremendous pressure to be fully present in our Jewish ritual moments and practices, but how do we do this when we are in the dark moments of life or we just don’t have the capability to fully engage or be joyful about the Jewish holiday/practice?

I decided to turn this period of counting the Omer into a ritual practice that is connected to my grief. We can and should encourage one another to participate in Jewish life from the authentic space we occupy at that moment, even if it is a space of darkness. Every night I sit with the attributes of the day, viewing them through the lens of the grief process. I am kind to myself; I don’t expect it to be a long and tedious exercise but merely a time for quiet and reflection, a time for sitting with the pain and the grief and seeking growth and inspiration in the daily attributes.

Some examples of the ways in which I have processed grief through the Omer counting practice are shared below. This lens can be applied throughout the Omer to the different attributes of each day. If you, too, have found challenges to the Omer practice due to grief or other difficulties, I’d love for you to share what you’ve learned in comments below.

Day 1: Hesed sh’be’Hesed
One must begin from a place of lovingkindness when feeling grief, and when the lovingkindness becomes thin, one must focus on compounding lovingkindness upon loving kindness. (This is the only foundation to healing.)

Day 2: Gevurah sh’be’Hesed
Gevurah can be translated as discipline. One definitely has to have discipline to practice loving kindness towards oneself and this discipline is especially hard while grieving. It is so simple and natural to want to give up oneself to the grieving process, to just stop moving forward but is that practicing loving kindness to oneself? It is also easy, while grieving, to scrutinize last moments with our loved ones: I didn’t spend enough time, I didn’t call enough, I didn’t leave saying I love you. Practicing the discipline of loving kindness is to allow that judgement to float away, to practice saying I did the best I could and I lived loving them through my actions every day.

Day 5: Hod sh’be’Hesed
Hod is sometimes defined as sincerity. Therefore I must be sincere when I say I’m not sure this ritual is one of true loving kindness. I think about my father and the hole in my heart daily but to have 5 minutes of space to really think about it, spiritually, feels really hard. (In this moment sincere loving kindness can only be expressed to myself by acknowledging this is hard, I’m not sure if this is a healing process, and sincerely with every atom of loving kindness in my body, I miss my father.) There is a void. Acknowledging the truth of the situation and my true feelings feels the best way to exhibit sincere loving kindness to the grieving process. This is real, I was totally unprepared, and it hurts.

See the author’s ritual specific to Day 12 of the Omer here. Kami Knapp is the rabbinic intern for Ritualwell.
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