“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts joy into the shadows.” ~ Brené Brown
On my way home from work every night, I drive past two houses that take Christmas decorating seriously. Spilling from the rooftop, outlining every window, wrapped around banisters and across bushes, these houses are absolutely ablaze with light. I always slow down as I pass them, drawn to the beauty of the light that shines so brightly against the dark December evening. I find their warm glow comforting: for a moment, I can forget the stress of holiday expectations, the exhaustion of a never-ending to-do list, and the undeniable ache that seems to permeate this season, and rest in the radiant display of color.
For me, and many others I know, the holidays stir up difficult emotions. It’s the time of year when we are told to feel most happy – to give thanks for our blessings, to celebrate with family and friends, to be full of cheer – yet it is also a time when our longings and losses are intensified. Whether it’s missing a loved one, mourning a dream deferred, pondering a frightening diagnosis, experiencing separation from family, or being disappointed by the reality of our circumstances, many of us wrestle with the pain of loss.
Whenever we suffer loss, we go through grief. Grief is not an event that we experience and then move on from, but rather a cycle that is repeated throughout our lives. Each time it comes, it looks a little different from the last – certain losses are no longer as fresh, while others seem sharper – but it is nonetheless recognizable. Grief engages the whole person: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Certain stages or phases of emotion are common to most grief experiences:
First, there is shock, numbness & denial, a sense of “this can’t be happening; it isn’t real.”
After the initial shock has worn off, the first feelings of anger and confusion emerge. There are often questions about why the loss had to happen. It may feel like we are fighting against ourselves, the loss, and God.
This can be followed by bargaining, a phase of wondering, “what if?” or “if only?” It can even look like trying to strike a deal to postpone the loss, e.g. “If I’m good, will God heal me?”
After the anger and bargaining don’t result in change, the reality of the loss sinks in, leading to depression. We encounter the depth of our sorrow, when the weight of the loss is real and unavoidable.
As pain, anger, and sorrow are felt, there often emerges a sense of acceptance. Acceptance is not denying the loss or moving past it, but rather acknowledging it. In making peace with the reality of the loss, we can integrate it into our lives and carry its meaning with us into the future.
The grief process does not happen in straight line; these stages are often experienced simultaneously and repeatedly. As grief reappears, some stages last longer than others, or take different forms. There is no right way to grieve; each person’s process will be different. The only thing that doesn’t help is avoiding grief altogether. When we ignore our emotions, they increase until we are forced to notice them, at which point they may have grown so much that they seem insurmountable. While working through grief is not pleasant, it is far easier to face the feelings as they come, rather than pushing them aside and experiencing the intensity of unresolved grief later on.
Yet, it can be frightening to consider facing our grief. It may seem as though the darkness of our pain will overwhelm us if we turn toward it. Paradoxically, it is when we face the darkness that the light breaks through. As we acknowledge our losses and honor our grief, meaning and truth are illuminated. Just as the stars shine more brilliantly against a black sky, or the beauty of a lit Christmas tree is heightened in a dark room, so too hope casts light into the shadows of sorrow. Healing comes when we allow this light to shine into the darkness of our pain.
The journey of grief is not easy, but if we have the courage to embark on it, we will find that it leads to a place of healing. And we can trust that no matter how dark the road may get, there will be moments of meaning and hope along the way, offering comfort and rest, like Christmas lights blazing in the night.
By Laura Ward, M.A., LMFT, LPC-MHSP