Grief In The Dark Time Of The Year

The neon sign flashes, all night long, exhorting us to have a Happy Holiday. I’ve wished several dozen people a Happy Solstice today, my words borne across the globe by phone and Facebook. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Good Kwanzaa, Joyous Noël, Happy Hogmanay, Happy New Year.

We are obsessed with happiness, now and always. We are forever telling each other to “have a great day!”. And at the dying of the year, during the longest night, our traditions lead us to wish each other well, as if to stave off sadness with greeting cards and gelt.

I think we’re missing something. Something important.

We fill this season with brightness and lights, stuff it with glitter and tinsel and parties and presents and prayers. Sometimes it seems like every moment is crammed with shining traditions, a candlelit concert, the lights on a Christmas tree, a blazing menorah, a phoenix or a Viking ship aflame. Perhaps it’s in our nature to look toward the light.

And so we shun the darkness. We look away.

We build fires against the night. We battle sorrow with jubilation and parry agony with hope. We protect ourselves against the darkness, armor ourselves against grief, build defenses against despair—and this is good—but still the night remains.

We needn’t run from it.

Many of us are grieving tonight. As the sun fades into memory, other memories return. The voices of loved ones, voices we’ll never hear again, dimly remembered and fading now. The almost-forgotten softness of an old lover’s lips pressing against mine. The agony of injuries, muted now after so many years. Cold comfort that, though better than they were, some wounds will never fully heal. The bitter tastes of injustice, cruelty, and indifference. Harsh words, spoken in rage, that we can never take back. The way despair and depression can blot out even the midday sun.

It’s dark out there. Not everyone can focus on candles and joy and brightness in this season. For many people, the pangs of loss are too recent and too sharp to be ignored. The constant reminders that we all should be joyful, that this is “the most wonderful time”, serve only to make us feel bereft and excluded. We need to start by sitting with the night.

In the long dark time of the year, I think we miss the point if we reach too quickly for the candles, if we run from the darkness and huddle near the fire too soon.

The fire takes its meaning from the blackness it dispels and the shadows it creates.

So let us first embrace the darkness.

Let us meet the grief on its own turf, in the soft blackness of these winter nights. It is right to shiver. Gaze, perhaps flinching a bit, at those parts of ourselves the daylight doesn’t touch. Listen to night sounds, the passing of deer, the way the wind hisses past snowbanks, how the heart can drum so loudly. Taste fear, knowing which of our demons have joined us out here in the dark.

Let us stand for a time, alone and undefended, in the dark and freezing air. Feel the earth hurtling through space as the seasons turn and the year dies. Feel the anger, feel the grief, feel the sorrows we’ve so busily ignored through all the well-lit days this year. Feel the darkness, drink it in, and accept that it travels with us, inside.

On the shortest day of the year, it is right to focus on the night.

Walk among the embers, sit near the coals, and remember why we need light.

And, when it’s time, seek it. Kindle a new flame, giving thanks for both the light and the blackness it dispels. See how much less terror the shadows hold now that we’ve dwelt among them for a while. And then rejoice, giving thanks, as we light more fires and carry them into the birth of a new year. Revel in the twinkle of a Christmas tree, sit close by the woodstove, light the menorah, and keep the lamps trimmed and burning.

Be grateful for songs, for saviors, for all who bring light into this season. And be thankful for the darkness they dispel.

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