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The days grow longer as a new year approaches. From the winter solstice on Dec. 21 we will see a gain in daylight - only minutes more, and yes, barely discernable - but the days will grow longer nevertheless. Ancient societies, afraid that the fading light would never return, lit bonfires to lure the sun back to the earth. Today, the celebration of light continues with the candles of Hanukkah and the brightly lit trees of Christmas. We are tied to our traditions even when their origins have long been forgotten.
Sitting in the darkness of our grief can be frightening business. Author and cancer survivor, Mark Nepo, writes, "When we open up we expose ourselves to further sorrow and pain, maybe, but we also let the pain we're sitting with out." We cannot appreciate the light until we have truly honored the darkness. We must have faith that the days will not always be dark, that it is the spark of faith which draws the light to us, the light of love, the light of support.
We live in a society that encourages us to turn away from the darkness, but I believe we do that to our own detriment. The philosophy of Taoism, which is based on the rhythms of the natural world, contains the principles of yin and yang. It teaches its followers that light and dark are interdependent opposites and that the whole exists only when both elements are present. What a liberating concept - to embrace what is naturally within us rather than to constantly struggle against it! The key lies in finding the balance, remembering that darkness is what makes light visible.
Christmas 1998 came four and a half weeks after my partner's sudden death. Christmas, a holiday that I had cherished in the past, was nothing more than an exquisite form of torture that year. Every carol, every card, every cheerily wrapped present broke my heart. Concerned friends called with invitations, but I did not have the energy necessary to go out in public and pretend that I was okay. I stayed home instead and rode the waves of my grief. The nadir came on Christmas Eve when I received a package of gifts from a far-flung cousin. Fifteen painstakingly wrapped presents when all I really wanted was my partner alive again. I opened those boxes in a rage, shredding the gift-wrap, screaming out my frustration. Christmas seemed as endless as my pain.
A year later, Christmas was upon me again. I chose not to put up a tree, but I did display the cards I received and put out a few of my favorite Christmas decorations. I woke up Christmas morning, opened my gifts, then read on the couch for most of the day. I had prayed to find the day bearable, but it was much more than that. I discovered a kind of peace that day that I had not experienced before. I thought back to the previous year and realized that nothing would ever be that bad again. I had come so far! I was brave and I was strong, I could survive much more than a solitary Christmas day. By having sat in the darkness and faced my pain, I had unknowingly given myself the gift of light.
On Dec. 2, Hospice held their annual Remembrance Gathering. Four candles were lit: the first candle represented our grief; the second represented our courage; the third was a light for all our memories; and the fourth candle represented the light of our love. It was a beautiful and deeply moving ceremony. Cathy Cuenin, a former Hospice nurse, guided us through the ritual and said a prayer in closing. As 2001 comes to a close, I would like to offer her prayer to all of you:
"Spirit of life and of love comfort our tender hearts, our hearts - tender from loving, tender from loss. Spirit of life and of love rekindle the flames of our hearts, melt the ice of winter within us. Spirit of life and of love inspire and heal us, make room in our open hearts for love and for grief. Infinite Spirit of life and of love we give thanks for the abundant beauty that we have known, the love we have shared. Hearts broken open with love, we bless all who journey this life, those who have gone before us, our families and friends, ourselves, and all those we have yet to love and cherish. Amen."
Mary Cook is a Hospice volunteer who divides her time between Juneau and Gustavus. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.