Grief and Renewal at Solstice
This winter more than ever, Solstice teaches us that no end is ever final.
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This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in December, 2001.
In some sense, all winter holidays of temperate climates are about Solstice, celebrations of light emerging from the dark. Outside, it's cold, the sun is low, the days are short. Inside is warmth and light and family and abundance. And so Jews light candles, one more each night until the Menorah is ablaze, and Christians string up lights, decorate trees, and celebrate the birth of Jesus. Pagans celebrate the sun's rebirth on Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year, but also the time when the days begin to grow longer again.
The winter holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, and above all, of family. But this year, for many, many people, the holidays will instead be a time of grief.
It's only three months since the attacks of September 11 left thousands of people dead. Their families, their friends, their loved ones will not be feeling joyful this season.
Since September, thousands more have lost their jobs, their livelihoods. The season of frantic shopping cannot be a happy one for them.
Hundreds of others have lost their liberty-"disappeared" by the Immigration Department, held without contact with their families, without their names being released, without access to legal counsel. For their families, the holidays will bring anguish and fear.
And all of us have suffered losses: the loss of our sense of security, the loss of confidence in our democracy, the loss of a thousand activities we were pursuing that have been changed in the last months. Many of us cannot ignore the loss of life in Afghanistan, the growing violence in the Middle East, the threats of new bombings and of unleashed nuclear weapons.
As a nation, we are not skilled at grieving. We find it more comfortable to be angry than to be sad. Our grief at the events of 9/11 was truncated early and transformed into the frantic activity of revenge. But grief remains.
The Solstice has much to teach us about grief. At Solstice, we descend into the dark. We can allow ourselves to face those emotions and impulses we generally keep hidden. We can feel the pain and touch the depths, for we know that the time will soon come to rise again, that darkness is always followed by increasing light. Solstice teaches us that everything is a cycle, a dynamic process, and no end is ever final.
Grief is also a process, not a fixed state. Grief begins with shock, sometimes with disbelief, and then with the sheer, raw pain of loss. We may attempt to bargain with the great powers, "Dear Goddess, let her be alive and I will never tell another lie," to prolong hope-think of all the "Missing" posters that plastered the streets of New York for weeks. Part of the process of grief is searching. Just as Demeter wandered the world searching for her lost daughter Kore who had been abducted by the god of the underworld, we look everywhere for our lost loved one, see her face in crowds, find a stranger wearing his familiar gestures.
Grief can lead us to create other losses. We put aside the pain of our lost friend, and then forget where we parked the car and spend hours in frantic searching. We hold ourselves together when we receive the layoff notice, and then cannot find our wallet, or become distraught over a forgotten bag of groceries.
Grief takes time. A life loss is not something we recover from in a day, or a week. A major loss will throw us into at least a year of acute mourning, for we must experience an entire cycle, every holiday and marked date, without the loved one, and grief afresh.
Grief can also be healing. Grief makes us stop, re-evaluate our lives, ask ourselves what is really important. Loss makes us aware that life is fragile and precious, that we are vulnerable, that we do not have infinite time to waste. And out of the depths of our pain can come renewed creative energy, new directions, new commitment, deeper values.
This Solstice, we might need to do less, buy less, plan less, be less frenetic in order to have more time to integrate our losses. The greatest gift we can give our friends may simply be the time we can spend listening to their stories. Rather than flaunting our abundance in a time of want for so many, we can simplify our lives a bit, spend less and make more, celebrate the real connections of love and friendship rather than the trappings.
Let this Solstice be a time to honor our grief, to sit in the dark, to acknowledge the dead and mourn for them, to mourn our other losses. Let this Solstice be a time of purification: When loss is acknowledged, we can let it go, wash ourselves clean of sorrow. In my home community, we will plunge naked into the ocean at sunset. But you can also purify in a hot bath, or by meditating on a bowl of salt water, or in a sauna.
We sit vigil through the night, midwives to the Dark Mother who is laboring to bring forth the Sun Child. At dawn, we climb a hill to sing, dance and celebrate as the sun rises.
Sunrise on Solstice brings restitution. After a loss, the renewal we most need is the restitution of meaning. We want to believe that life has purpose, that our suffering can bring some greater good.
We cannot find a glib or simple meaning from the losses of this fall. When we try to do so, from whatever political or religious framework, we simply fall into stereotypes that relieve our immediate distress but cannot truly heal. I believe we would do better to simply rest with the pain, the grief, the distress of not being able to make sense of it all.
And when the sun rises, when the light returns, let it kindle in us the sense of wonder and mystery that can arise from the deepest pain. Grief can be an opening. The shattering of structures can also open space for something new to be built.
May the Solstice bring us renewal of hope, renewed fire and passion and commitment and courage. May it remind us that, again and again, at the time of greatest darkness, light is reborn.
Note: My mother, Dr. Bertha Simos, was a psychotherapist who specialized in loss and grief. Her book, A Time to Grieve (Family Service America), is a classic in the field. I owe her most of whatever wisdom I might have about grief.