By Ellen Frankel, LCSW
Sitting at my desk and gazing out the window, the night sky greets me earlier and earlier and I find myself reflecting. Soon, the winter solstice will blanket the northern hemisphere. Both the season of winter and the season of grief bring forth a darkness that, at times, can feel overwhelming. But if we allow ourselves to sit in that darkness, to sit still and let that darkness settle over us, we may discover the darkness is not absolute. Rather, there are sparks that can guide us to a place of light, meaning, and hope.
Imagine a blizzard where power is lost. At first, the darkness feels engulfing. We can’t see anything. If we run too quickly to find our bearings, we risk knocking into the corner of a table or bumping into the side of a wall. But if we sit still for a few moments, allowing ourselves to take in the darkness that surrounds us, we find, little by little, that our eyes adjust to that darkness and we are able to make out just one shadow that leads us to the kitchen desk, where we can open the drawer to find a flashlight. We can turn on that flashlight and use it to find our way to the dining room cabinet where our candlesticks await. We can light the candlesticks and secure another source of light in our darkness.
Searching for hope, healing as we grieve
In both the external darkness of the season, and our internal darkness as we grieve, we can search for sparks of light to lead us to a place of hope and healing. A compassionate word, a gentle hug, a prayer sent our way. Each becomes a spark in the dark pain of our grief, guiding us to one pocket of light. And then another. And then another.
Various faith traditions intuit this need to find and shine light into the darkest time of the year. Christmas and Hanukkah are millennia-old attempts to dispel darkness. In celebration of Christmas, trees and homes are decorated with lights, and some people place candles in windows. In celebration of Hanukkah, Jews light the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum. To fulfill the purpose of the holiday, the menorah isn’t placed in the interior of the home. Rather, it is set up in the most publicly visible location – a window or the exterior of the house. There it can fully illuminate the darkness and allow others to share in the light. Together, these traditions and their rituals hold thousands of years of shared purpose and power. Each has a metaphor for shining spiritual light and illuminating a darkened world.
Kwanzaa, an African American and Pan-African holiday began in 1966 in celebration of family, community and culture. It lasts for seven days, from December 26th through January 1st. Like Hanukkah, a central activity is lighting candles on what is called a mishumaa.
Hindus across the world celebrate Diwali, which falls on the fifteenth day of the auspicious Hindu month of Kartik – around November on the Gregorian calendar. Diwali falls on the day with no moon. Candles are lit in homes to symbolize the triumph of good over evil. Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains also celebrate Diwali and offer light amid the darkness.
For the Chinese, the winter solstice is a celebration of the triumph of yang (light) over yin (dark). The holiday, called Dong Zhi, is celebrated during the eleventh lunar month with ceremony near the family altar, which includes incense, candles and the offering of prayers.
Confronting our mortality
While the darkness can feel all-encompassing, across continents, religions, cultures and time we sense that the best response to the darkness is to dispel it with light. While these traditions are different, their sentiments are universal. We intuit that the human predicaments of mortality, struggle and death are to be confronted head on rather than avoided.
Author and researcher Brene Brown writes, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
As we move into this season of external darkness, may we find ways to invite and celebrate light. As we explore our own inner darkness and grief, may we discover our own sparks and let them shine. May we offer those sparks to others in our midst, and may we share our flame with those holding candles whose wick is in need of kindling.
Rumi, the Sufi mystic said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” We carry the light into the dark to remind ourselves that a shift is taking place, that in searching the darkness and finding just one spark of light to carry us to the next moment, healing has already begun.