Are you in the winter of the soul, a season of darkness and barrenness? Maybe you wonder if there could ever be a spring again.
January is cold, even here in the South. The trees are bare. The ground is hard. The grass is pale. Life is asleep.
Sometimes my inner life looks like the winter landscape. Someone I love is gone, I feel rejected or deserted, and circumstances have sapped my hopes. The cold wind of loss whips at the tender skin of my cheeks, and I seek out shelter. A safe place.
Last week, I looked at my dead lawn and the naked oak tree limbs. And I suddenly realized the irony – we celebrate the New Year inside the season that brings us lifeless terrain. We celebrate new beginnings during winter, a time of death.
I remember times my life felt burned down to the ground. Lifeless. I wondered how I could get through the devastation. I wondered if I’d ever be happy again.
But in the midst of that winter of my soul, I clung to hope. And I clung to God. I’d lived long enough to know that spring isn’t just possible but probable.
How do you begin again in the middle of a personal winter?
Are you an adult orphan?
I’d never heard of the term until I became one – and felt like one.
I read it in a book somewhere. I then realized others had felt the same way as me.
I identified with the term though my mother was still living. Why? Because with my father’s death, I became Mom’s caregiver. Slowly, she became the parent and I became the child.
To be orphaned, I think, means to be alone. And helpless against danger. I felt alone.
In those chaotic, stressful times, I longed to be parented. To feel safe.
My burning request for rescue was voiced in a sudden stroke of desperation. I raised voice to the ceiling and cried to God.
“Send me a protector!”
Are we destined to retain this label of adult orphan? To remain feeling alone, unprotected?
Change. It’s the time of year we embrace it. Change our weight. Change our attitude. Change our career path. We make resolutions, determined to be different in the New Year – to change.
Other changes we fiercely resist. Familiarity is a comfortable companion. While routine rules, different drools. We like status quo. But change, as they say, is inevitable.
Death ushers in the most severe change to our lives. We may face financial changes. Housing changes. Widows may be ejected from couples groups. And be forced change friends.
While we struggle to manage the outward changes, our inward state of living has been upended. We felt secure. Now we feel unsafe. We felt needed, useful. Now we don’t know our purpose.
I’m embracing changes this season. I think my internal desire to change, to do things differently in 2020, is being mirrored in the rooms of my house as I purge belongings and tidy up spaces.
I’ve experienced seasons, however, when I fought change with ferocity. I didn’t want to let go of my parents’ home. I loved sensing them there, among the belongings they left behind.
Change is difficult, and when it is forced upon us, it is unsettling. But I’ve found that the best time to change things that I want or need to change is to coordinate with the change that is being forced upon me. I know it sounds a little crazy. Add more change to change? Yes.
How do we survive the longest night of the soul? To whom or what can we turn? What hope is there to latch onto when our lives feel battered, damaged beyond repair?
I pondered the longest nights of my soul the morning of the literal longest night of the year, December 21st, in the Northern Hemisphere. On this day, the Winter Solstice, darkness envelops the Mid-South for more than 13 hours, while daylight consists of nearly 10 hours.
The following date – that is, the day when the Earth begins to gain daylight rather than lose it – is of significance to me. It is the date I returned home. To mom and dad and their faithful love.
For four years, I’d lived in Jackson, Miss., about 250 miles from where I grew up. I’d fallen in love for the first time and hoped to marry. My widowed boyfriend had other ideas.
As I tried to figure out how to put new life together after my parents’ death, I was tasked with figuring out what to do with their voluminous collection of cookbooks and recipes.
It was Christmastime when I got to them. I’d held onto their home eight years, and I was still sorting not only through their possessions but through my grief.
I sat down and opened cookbook after cookbook, scanning for my father’s penciled notes beside recipes. He’d dated them and had jotted down the family’s reaction. A kind of a Siskel and Ebert thumbs up or down.
My mother, however, drew through ingredients and added others. What a treasure I had. My heart, however, focused not on this blessing but on the pain. We’d never share a meal again.
And then it occurred to me. Trying to find a “new normal” after a loved one’s death – whether during the holidays or any time of year – is a like following a recipe.
I hauled the boxes down from the attic, opened the lid and picked out one of the objects inside. It had belonged to my parents. I held it as if it may break, and then I caressed it. I smiled. And then I cried.
My mother and father felt so close.
And so far away.
Why did I unpack this box? Was I cleaning out my dead parents’ home?
Or was I decorating for Christmas?
A dozen thoughts whirl around my head about my parents and my care-giving days as I navigate a new, temporary reality – being the one to receive care.
This reality is opening up an old chapter on my life that was filled with stress and grief. A chapter that I thought was behind me, fully processed.
Grief works that way. The changing circumstances of life usher grief back into our lives, offering a new layer for us to process. We think we are done. We are not.
The trigger may be a new baby our parent did not meet. Or another death. Or a new home, husband or hobby. As life shifts, we wish our loved one was here to experience this new thing with us. To offer companionship, advice or comfort.
Instead we find ourselves wrestling with grief again, mourning the loss of what might have been.
From Grief to Growth
We may, however, transition to growth. We find we are looking at the past with different eyes.
Are you asking this question today? I’ve asked it every November for more than a decade. My parents weren’t just part of Thanksgiving. They were Thanksgiving.
How do I salvage the holiday now? What can I tell you so you can piece together a Thanksgiving celebration that isn’t simply tolerable but actually enjoyable?
I’ll warn you right now, some Thanksgivings really suck, especially the ones right after a death. Grief is expert at ambush, walloping you just when you think “I’ve got this.” An empty seat, a cherished tradition, a Christmas song on the car radio. All kinds of triggers lie about this time of year.
As hard as we try, grief is going to body slam us now and then. It’s inevitable, like a chemical reaction. We combine over-the-top holiday expectations and the stark reality that our mother, father, brother, husband, sister or other loved one is gone and won’t be back. And then bam! The tears come. Because Thanksgiving will never be the same. And we can’t change that.
But that does not mean that we cannot be grateful – at Thanksgiving or at any time of the year. In fact, gratitude can become an energizing force that powers our lives day in and day out. But how?