Telling Their Stories: Widowhood in the Frum Community

Sari Kahn

As told to Merri Ukraincik

My husband Ari passed away in March 2019 after an acute, month-long illness. I was in survival mode the whole time he was sick. Friends and family made it possible for me to juggle our lives, caring for our children—then ages nine, eleven, and thirteen-year-old twins—especially when I went to stay with Ari in the ICU.

My head was in a strange place because I was davening for a neis, but at the same time, preparing myself for the worst. Suddenly, someone at the hospital asked me, “How many death certificates do you want?” and my body kicked into autopilot from the shock.

So many people came to the funeral, which is what happens when someone dies young. Ari was only forty-two. I was then thirty-eight. The shivah was surreal. There was plenty of food, comfort, time to reflect—all essential to the grieving process. But it ended, and I was back to reality without my spouse, my children left without their father. The only way forward was to take things one day at a time.

From the moment Ari got sick, my priority was to keep things as normal as possible for the kids, to get them to school, to be sure they had extra support. Then came all the financial paperwork Ari and I had no time to discuss. Drowning, I was grateful when a friend offered to help me navigate it all, to figure out whether to pay the mortgage or insurance bill first, for example. Meanwhile, I was running a camp and it was nearly summer. I was carrying the weight of the world.

One of the most exhausting tasks was having to tell our story of loss over and over. To bank and credit card company representatives. To mental health professionals. I discovered that I needed far more copies of the death certificate than I imagined.

I had always been a giver, a doer. That changed overnight. I was transformed from a perennial Shabbos hostess to a recurring guest who could not reciprocate. As a widow, I was not a single parent, but an only parent who had to balance everything herself. I never had a break. Still, I could not bring myself to ask for help. Friends stepped up to plan and sponsor a meaningful sheloshim for Ari that was exactly what I envisioned. After that, I gave myself permission to accept that I couldn’t do this alone.

Like most widows, I put on a good face, no matter how I felt inside.

What made the difference as I moved forward through my grief was when people reached out to provide specific assistance. I’m at the store. What can I pick up for you? or, I’ll cover your turn in the carpool rotation. These offers were critical to helping me manage the day to day.

My children returned to the world before I did. They were brave. It’s hard to tamp down anxiety and act normally when nothing is normal, when their peers might not understand their burdens of mourning. Yet they found kindness when they most needed it, and we managed somehow as a family.

Like most widows, I put on a good face no matter how I felt inside. Because I did not walk around crying, people saw me as a warrior. But how could I possibly explain in a passing conversation how difficult it was to put one foot in front of the other? A close friend consistently wrote to me, I’m thinking of you. Her texts got me through the hardest moments. Our rav, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, was a great support to us until he passed away.

I started a new job the October before Covid hit. The isolation of the pandemic felt a lot like our grief, so in an eerie way, we were better prepared for it than most. I continued to mourn my partner, my children’s father, our future plans, our income and family traditions. At the hardest time in my life, I did not have the person I needed most by my side to get through it.

I am now remarried, baruch Hashem. But the grief of losing Ari, of having every single aspect of my life upended, will always remain a part of me. Nothing is ever the same after losing a spouse.  


Merri Ukraincik has written for Tablet, the Lehrhaus, the Forward, and other publications, including Jewish Action. She is the author of I Live. Send Help, a history of the Joint Distribution Committee.


Maureen Ash

As told to Merri Ukraincik

Because my husband died suddenly, I became a widow and my children fatherless from one day to the next. The shock hit me before the grief.

My relatives lived hundreds of miles away, and our small Jewish community lacked the formal infrastructure to provide much support. There were no meal trains or fundraisers. A few families we knew from the neighborhood stepped up when our inner circle of local friends, also mourning the loss, could not.

I attended a non-Jewish grief group. It was my only option. I made new friends, mostly divorced parents who discussed the challenges of single parenting. I felt their pain. Still, the term rattled me because I was the only parent. I had no alternating Shabboses off to recharge, no child support. I was a full-time graduate student working toward my nurse practitioner degree. I hardly slept. Since I could never commit to a carpool, my kids didn’t participate in after-school activities. There weren’t enough hours in a day.

These were some of the secondary layers of grief I contended with. Most painful was the loneliness, the sense that we were generally off the community radar. We had Shabbos meal invitations for the first few weeks, but otherwise, no one marshalled the forces. Whether they thought I was managing on my own or had no idea how to approach us, I cannot say, though I refused to become bitter or let sadness consume me.

My children were sixteen, thirteen, nine and five when my husband died. They were all hurting, but their challenges varied because of their different ages. For months, a neighbor took them to shul on Friday night, giving me my one hour of quiet each week. When I went with them to shul on Shabbos morning, I often got the “sad look.” At some point, I started hosting guests for Shabbos meals, even on occasions when we were invited out. The kids wanted to be home, but not alone. It was hard, yet it helped us heal.

Most painful was the loneliness, the sense that we were generally off the community radar.

Needing stability, we stayed where we were for another five years. When my third child was about to enter high school, I felt it was a natural cutoff point and a good time for reflection. I realized that no one, not even the kindest, most empathic individual could know what we were going through if he or she hadn’t experienced it. We needed a fresh start in a new community.

Reflecting now, twenty-one years later, remarried and with my children grown, I think the most important thing I was missing in those first years of widowhood was a sense of agency. I was deep in the daily mechanics of running a household alone with few resources and four young children whose own physical, emotional and personal needs left me unable to tie my own shoes.

I wanted overtures of help that gave me options, that opened a dialogue. Can I take care of X for you? If not X, then what about Y? What I didn’t want was pity, or a blanket offer that required me to know what I needed in that moment. I was trying to put our lives back together. Whatever other families had on their plates—preparing for yom tov, getting their children ready for the new school year—we had too. In my head I was shouting, “Take my kids along when you go sneaker shopping with yours. Drive carpool for me so my kids can participate in a chug. Please, just pick something and do it!”

The moments when I was at a total loss intensified what we were missing. When my son was ready to shave, for example, I had no idea how to teach him. In the end, a family friend took him to a ballgame. The outing included a grooming lesson.

Many people don’t know what to say to a mourner and certainly have no idea what to say to a widow who has just lost her husband. Erring on the side of saying nothing is much better than saying something uncaring. It was freeing when I learned to give people the benefit of the doubt.

What’s most important is that a widow and her children feel they have a safety net. Because things get really tough after the shivah ends, when everyone else goes home and she is left staring at her husband’s empty chair.


Stephen Bressler

As told to Steve Lipman

My wife Linda (Leah) and I met at Northeastern University; we got married in 1969. She was twenty and I was twenty-three. We were married almost fifty-two years.

Leah was wonderful—bright, beautiful, spiritual, friendly and outgoing, always smiling, a loving wife and mother.

After we got married, we became part of the Bostoner Rebbe’s community in Brookline, Massachusetts. We were both active in the community. In my mid-thirties, I was president of the shul. Leah was president of the sisterhood. Over the years, she worked for the Boston Jewish Federation, an environmental engineering company and as staff accountant for a law firm.

Leah had numerous health issues. She was diabetic, had heart problems, was a cancer survivor, and survived a stroke as well. I retired in 2013 after forty years as a public official so I could be her caregiver.

Unfortunately, however, I was diagnosed with lymphoma in December 2019, and spent much of 2020 and the first three months of 2021 in and out of the hospital receiving chemotherapy and other treatments. At the same time, in 2021, Leah was also in the hospital but in a different building. Covid restrictions prevented us from seeing each other. Our son was trying to manage it all. At one point, both Leah and I were in different ICUs; our son almost lost both of us at the same time.

My advice on relating to a widower? The main thing is to listen.

Leah passed away on the morning of March 28, 2021—the first day of Pesach—of congestive heart failure. The Shabbos before Pesach, she was on life support. My son and I were at the hospital. I was frantic. The doctors and nurses said to take her off of life support. But I did not want to take my wife off of life support. I put my trust in Hashem. Miracles happen.

Though Leah had been sick, her death was a surprise. In our years together, she had overcome many health crises. I thought that with Hashem’s help, she would survive this too.

During my time in the hospital and after Leah died, the Bostoner Rebbe was in touch with me by phone. He officiated at Leah’s funeral.

Because of my own health issues, we could not do an in-person shivah—I didn’t have visitors. Instead, I took telephone calls. That helped, though it didn’t have the intimacy and comfort of being with people, which I experienced when my father and mother had died.

I really appreciated the help from members of the community who shopped for me, brought me food and gave me rides to doctor appointments. People were very generous. Community support was there whenever I let it be known that I needed it.

For months after Leah died, it was very difficult for me. I missed her presence, our day-to-day conversations, her laughter. We used to do most everything together. That was gone. In the beginning, I would go to the cemetery every day and talk to her about my day. It was a one-way conversation.

A friend suggested I speak to a grief counselor. I didn’t. I was speaking regularly to my sister and my son, who alternately stayed with me in the early days following Leah’s passing, as well as to Leah’s sister and others in her extended family. That gave me the emotional support I needed.

Because of my chemotherapy, which began in January 2020, my immune system was wiped out. My oncologist advised me to avoid being indoors with people for lengthy periods, and especially to avoid crowds. I missed going to shul and socializing with friends in the community. And I wasn’t able to say Kaddish; after my parents died, I’d been in shul every day. It was a very, very difficult time.

My advice on relating to a widower? The main thing is to listen. It really depends on what the widower wants to share. And I would say to someone in my situation: be straightforward with what you need.


Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.


Johanna Granoff Cohen

As told to Merri Ukraincik

I became a widow and solo parent ten years ago.

That I have had no one to balance my parenting strengths and weaknesses with has been one of the hardest parts of doing this alone. My husband Josh was structured and disciplined. I’m chaotic. I tried to be more like him for a while, but it was impossible. I also missed having someone to watch me parent up close and tell me if I was doing it right, so from the start, I had a lot of self-doubt.

In my view, parenting solo seems completely different from parenting singly as a divorced mom. I don’t think it’s necessarily worse or more challenging. On the one hand, I get to make all the decisions without asking anyone else. On the other, I have to make all the decisions by myself.

After Josh died, I was alone with four young children. The only other person who had loved them like I did was gone. Every milestone felt bittersweet without him to live it with me. It only intensified my own sense of loss to know what he was missing. Our kids were then four, six, nine and eleven. Our oldest is now twenty-one. They’ve grown up without him.

In the beginning, nothing made any sense; yet the world kept spinning. I don’t know what we would have done without the support of our local Orthodox Jewish community. I’ve been in grief groups with widows from all kinds of backgrounds, and so few of them got anything like the kind of help we did, even those who were part of other faith-based communities.

It was the concrete support that made all the difference. People picked up my kids from school and set up their playdates on Shabbos. We went to the same families each week for Shabbos dinner and lunch, and we were always late. I just couldn’t get out of the house on time or pull it together during those early years. Still, they were always happy to see us.

As the kids got older and time passed, it got harder to parent alone. People expect you to return to your old self. The kids eventually reached some degree of back-to-normal, certainly more than I had. As a widow, nothing felt normal because my husband still wasn’t there and our house was in chaos and I was entirely responsible for my four children.

Reflecting now, I wonder how I could have given them more stability. Our lives were so stressful for so long. I had widow fog and forgot about all sorts of things like yeshivah forms and well checkups. For nearly two years, I failed to schedule their dentist appointments. Inevitably, they had cavities. These things happen even in households where the father is there. I knew it wasn’t the end of the world, but I couldn’t help but question if that would’ve happened had I been a more organized mother.

I remain a widow. It’s an intrinsic part of who I am.

We talked about their father every day from the outset. I found ways to bring him up and connect him to our conversations, mentioning his favorite ice cream, for example. But that lessened as the years passed without him and the kids grew and focused on their own interests and activities. I still think about him every day, though we talk about him less.

Josh missed out on so much, and the kids missed out on him being proud of them. They are older now, coming into their own. One has developed Josh’s sense of humor. Another has his taste in comics and wears his old character t-shirts. When I see this, and realize that our loss did not define who they are as individuals, I feel like I met that major solo parenting goal.

Yet I remain a widow. It’s an intrinsic part of who I am. For the kids, we have always been a family of five. That’s what they remember. But I think of us as a family of six. One of us just isn’t here.


Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

As told to Steve Lipman

Elana and I met in 1989; she was a madrichah and I was a madrich at a Discovery program in Jerusalem. We got to know each other, and a bond developed between us. Once we started dating, it became apparent to us very quickly that it was a match made in heaven.

We moved to London in 1991 when our first son was born. I set up Aish UK, and subsequently moved on to other organizations.

Elana was a beautiful person inside and outside, spiritual, deeply compassionate and unselfish.

In 1998, she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. It was pretty clear that it was terminal. We had four young children and she wanted to stay alive for them.

She used to say cancer is a funny disease—you usually get to be in very good health until the very end. Indeed, she was healthy for a long time. Then, from one day to the next, she started struggling to breathe. They admitted her to the hospital. The oncologist said time is short. “She might die today. I don’t believe she can live more than two weeks.”

She lived for another six—the best six weeks of our married life. It was very painful, but a very beautiful time as well. Living with a deadline to your relationship makes you appreciate each other.

Elana passed away in August 2001. It was utterly devastating. I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Had I been able to, I would have traveled the world to run away from the pain. But I had four young kids and had to stay and face life instead.

During the shivah period, the most common thing people said was that Elana was an angel. At one point, the pain was so intense that I recall going into the garden and physically gasping for breath.

Some people find a spouse who is perfect for them. I was lucky—Hashem sent me two.

There was tremendous support in the Orthodox community. That made a huge difference for me and my kids. At the same time, a widower is somewhat of an outsider in the frum community. The model in our community is a two-parent family. If you’re not, there’s no obvious place for you to go. I felt disconnected. It was very lonely. I don’t blame anyone because no one can understand what it’s like unless he or she has been through it. But there’s not a lot of understanding. There was no support group, which I would have appreciated; I joined a non-Jewish online support group.

My advice: Be very sensitive and very careful about suggesting shidduchim to a widower or widow. Wait for them to come to you. Once I did start dating, I was offered inappropriate matches. I felt like I was damaged goods. I was an emotionally healthy, well-established, financially stable young man in my thirties with a great track record in marriage. Why would someone be selling themselves short if they married me?

When Elana was sick, we needed help with the kids. Chana was a great nanny; the kids loved her, and Elana loved her. Chana expected to work six months with us and move on. At that point, she was the main caregiver.

When Elana died, Chana stayed on. She felt she could not leave our kids. Chana softened Elana’s passing for them, but also for me. As time moved on, I felt myself growing emotionally closer to Chana, and the feeling was mutual. (Obviously, we observed the laws of yichud.)

I asked her to leave. “If you stay any longer, we will get married,” I told her. “And you do not want to marry a widower with four kids.”

I had to pressure her to leave. When she left, it was almost like I was mourning Elana properly because Chana had cushioned the blow. Those months were the worst part of the experience. Too early, I decided I needed to date again, but could not get Chana out of my mind.

Ultimately, I felt that maybe Hashem was speaking to me. I called Chana and said, “Would you be interested in going out in a proper manner?”

She was open to that.

Hashem had sent a gift to both of us.

This month is our twentieth anniversary.


Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt is director of the London-based Rabbinical Training Academy and author of Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to Good People (Beit Shemesh, 2016) and Mean What You Pray (Beit Shemesh, 2022).


Zisel’s Links & Shlomie’s Club provides loving support and an array of services to children and teens coping with the loss of a parent as well as guidance to widows and widowers navigating the world of solo parenting.

Nagilla is a supportive network that provides financial, emotional and other resources to widowsthroughout the US and Canada.

Samchainu is a supportive community of Orthodox Jewish widows that gives them a lifeline and opportunities to take breathers from the unique pressures they face.

Ze Lazeh was founded in Israel more than thirty years ago to support widows and orphans struggling emotionally and functionally.

On My Own … But Not Alone by Ahava Ehrenpreis (New York, 2019). Inspirational stories and practical guidance on everything from halachah to personal finance for women who are unmarried, widowed or divorced.

This article was featured in the Spring 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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