Grief is a sacred journey

Winter Solstice: Rituals of Grief, Hope, and Laughter

In 2009, the year after my husband Vic’s death, my sons and I created a solstice ritual. In Solstice Blessings: A Family Ritual of Remembrance and Love, I wrote about that first of many rituals of love and remembrance. We were on to something good.

Lighting the Solstice candles at David and Liz's home, 2014

Lighting the Solstice candles at David and Liz’s home, 2014

Winter Solstice, the dark season in the northern hemisphere with its promise of coming light, is a perfect time to honor those we miss. Alone or with others, we pause, remember, and give thanks for who and what we love.

A solemn Solstice in 2009

A solemn Solstice in 2009

The first Christmas after Vic’s death was miserable. Friends tried to help by inviting us to share in their festivities, but everything felt wrong. We had no idea how to ease our grief.

By the second year (2009), I’d learned how much ritual helps. We kept it small so we could mourn together and celebrate our family in a quiet way.

Since then, we’ve shared many rituals at Solstice and other times, too. Two days before David and Liz’s wedding, we created a ritual to honor the fifth anniversary of Vic’s death. After acknowledging that we missed Vic’s presence, we fully celebrated the marriage. That wedding and welcoming Liz into our family was the best thing that had happened in five years.

Lighting candles with Liz, Solstice 2015

Lighting candles with Liz, Solstice 2015

David and Anthony making us laugh

Anthony and David making us laugh, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every Solstice ritual is unique. Sometimes we walk to the place where Vic’s ashes are buried. Usually we gather pine cones and evergreen branches for an altar in the house. The altar differs according to what people bring or find, but we create it together. That’s the only rule. Last year, it got silly (silly was good!) when Anthony dragged out a box of old toys–and a weight-lifting dumbbell.

What's on the solstice altar? Tractors & action figures?

What’s on the 2015 solstice altar? Tractors & action figures? Elephants and bears?

After we piled on the toys and laughed, we shared what we wanted to release from the previous year and what we hoped for the coming year. Then we told stories about the toys.

Baby Jesus driving a tractor?

Baby Jesus driving a tractor?

Power woman with a skateboard?

Power Woman, Darth Vader, and a skateboard?

This year, neither of my sons will be home on December 21, so I’ll have a quiet candle lighting. David, Liz, and I will share a Solstice ritual when they arrive a few days later. Anthony and Jenna will be on the west coast. I wonder if they’ll have a ritual, too.

The guy we miss

We’ll miss the guy who loved to make us laugh

We all miss someone–a parent, a grandparent, a child, a spouse, a friend, a pet. When we make space for grief, we open our hearts to ourselves and each other. Isn’t that what we want at Solstice and any time of year?

We might even laugh together. I hope so.

Blessed Solstice to you and yours.

***

Do your holiday rituals include remembering those you miss? It might be those who have died, but also family members who couldn’t join you this year. Does your family make room for losses during a celebration? Could this make you feel closer to each other? If you’d like more details, see How to Create a Solstice Ritual: Honoring Nature’s Pause.

 

25 Comments
  1. Beautiful as always, dear Elaine, thank you. From my heart to yours, I wish you the richest blessings of the season: peace, love, gratitude, and hope ♥

  2. I love all the comical elements I see in your shrine: tractor, Power Woman, skateboard – a starfish.

    Since laughter appears in your title, I’ll focus on that. (Yes, this has been a trying day, Elaine!) Author James Merritt suggests that laughing produces benefits similar to those from vigorous physical exercise. “When you throw your head back and laugh out loud, the muscles in the abdomen, chest, shoulders . . . contract, while your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Just one burst of laughter can cause your pulse rate to double from 60 to 120, while your systolic blood pressure shoots up. Then once you stop laughing your heartbeat and blood pressure dip below normal – signaling reduced stress.”

    Your photo of the guy who loved to make you laugh bursting through the leaves made me laugh too. And I smiled to see your lovely daughter in law Liz. I can tell you think David married well.

    We will put Mother’s name card near the center of our table at brunch this year. Though she is alive in another sphere, we miss her still.

    • Marian, I imagine you think of your mom a lot this time of year (or all times of year). I’m sorry you had a trying day. I “try” hard to keep this season relaxed, but it never works. Laughter is such good medicine and there isn’t enough of it. I had fun last week at a wedding shower for a young woman I’d known since her conception. It was a gathering of joyful women in their 30s, many with babies. Lots of laughing.

      That’s my favorite photo of Vic and I keep it on my bedroom altar. Yes, David married well in all ways.

      May we always remember them, grieve for them, leave place cards for them, light candles for them, and remember the stories that made us laugh.

  3. Thanks Elaine so much. It’s early-ish morning here – I’ve been up since about 6.00 catching up on this and that and also wanting to put up a post about the summer solstice today, here in the southern hemisphere. There’s something very special about this time when the earth stands still for a moment, and then tilts in the other direction …

    We are blessed to be with family over Christmas. We remember those who are not with us any more. Many friends are feeling the loss of their partner no longer with them – and we remember those living and their pain. Our sons value this remembering and sharing as we do too …

    • Happy Summer Solstice, Susan. Yes to the tilt! May your world be filled with bright flowers as mine is filled with snow.

      Have a beautiful time with family and friends. The longer we live, the more we know what a precious and brief gift it all is.

  4. I love your rituals, Elaine.

    Merry Solstice to you and your lovely family ~

    Jenna

    • Thank you, Jenna. If we let the people who join us have a say, every ritual has its own flavor. I’m glad my family taught me to loosen up before I started leading hospice rituals. Blessed Solstice to you and yours. May you light some candles tonight.

  5. What a beautiful ritual Elaine, honoring Vic with the Winter Solstice. Glad your boys will be visiting for Christmas time. Wishing you a beautiful Christmas, and love, peace, health and happiness for the New Year and onward.
    <3

    • Last year got silly. This year, only one son will be here with his wife, so it might be harder to get the laughter going. The two guys have a way of making each other laugh. We’ll give it a try. Wishing you good health for you and your husband, good friends, productive writing days, and the thing we all desire in the northern hemisphere–the Return of Light.

  6. Thank you for this post, Elaine. It’s touching and instructive. I love the rituals you describe, the flexibility and the one rule. This touches my heart as well: “When we make space for grief, we open our hearts to ourselves and each other. ” Sending love and light to you and yours this Winter Solstice 2016.

    • Thank you, Kimberly. I wish you the same. The power of lighting a candle while saying the name of someone who was once with us makes it all happen. Words of gratitude for that person spontaneously follow the name. With gratitude for the goodness you share and for the goodness we can count on–like the growing Light. Blessed Solstice.

  7. I am trying to remember how our Hershey family gatherings honored my father’s memory after he died in 1980. I was only 32 years old and had a young son, so I think we told stories that included Daddy. Mostly how long it always seemed to take him after he came in from doing the morning chores in the barn and had to change into Christmas clothes so we could have our party. We would laugh about that, and that would make Daddy real to us. We didn’t ritualize except through story and by following the same rituals we used when he was with us.

    Blessed Solstice to you.

    • Thanks for your memories, Shirley. My farmer grandpa was never in a hurry and he loved being in the barn. I loved being there with him. One son and daughter-in-law arrived on the 22nd and we had our Solstice ritual last night–with candles, memories, tears, and a Green Man Beer for Vic. I’m ready for Merry Christmas and the Birth of the Child of Light.

  8. Merry Christmas dear Elaine!

    ‘The light always returns’ such deep, beautiful words for me to read today. Thank you so much Elaine for uncovering your heart, helping me to remember the importance and sacredness of Solstice rituals. I love it when you include your wonderful photo of Vic, peeping out like he’s the Green Man himself! May your Christmas be full of love, light and much laughter! Blessings always, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. It’s a sweet reunion to read your comments on Jeanie and Susan’s articles. And I just received notification on email that you’ve put out a poem. I haven’t read it yet but will tomorrow. My son & his wife leave Christmas morning to drive six hours to be with her parents on Christmas night. Christmas Day will be quiet for me. A healing way to welcome the birth of new light. Wishing you and all of us Blessed Light.

  9. Alone again. But the rituals make even more sense when it’s just me, and they have more meaning as I light the darkest days with candles. All my Chanukah candles at once. Lined them up in the snow on a windless night and lit them. I sang to the stars although they were hidden by clouds. I thanked everyone I could think of to thank. Afterwards there was room in my heart to go to a Christmas dinner and celebrate with others.

    • I’m glad the end of your comment was Christmas dinner with friends, Robin. I love your ritual with Chanukah candles lighting up the night–and singing and gratitude. David and Liz arrived late Dec. 22 and left at 7 am on Dec. 25 to have Christmas dinner with her parents in Virginia. I could have shared Christmas Day with someone other than Willow, but I stayed home. I needed quiet, meditation, introversion, and a long walk in the woods ending at Vic’s cairn to thank him and to abandon myself to missing him right down to my toes. After that, more candles.

  10. Beautiful post! The images are lovely too. My father died in 2008 of a brain tumor, and I understand how powerful loss can be. As odd as it sounds, I started communicating with him. I’m a near death experiencer so I’m somewhat (reluctantly) open to this possibility. The experience has been lovely. Here is my latest communication from him if you are interested.

    https://triciabarkernde.com/2016/12/27/dont-say-purgatory-call-it-universe-school-after-death-communications/

    • Thank you, Tricia. I read your post. I’m glad you have a strong sense of connection with your dad. I love his perfectly named Universe School.

      I haven’t had near death experiences of my own, but have been a student of spiritual matters and meditation since 1967. I felt very close to the threshold with a few people–my brother in April 2016 and my husband in 2008 as well as others. My connection with my husband remains very strong. He shows up in many dreams, including last night. I don’t try to figure out if this connection is to my objective husband or to the subjective husband-in-me (you hear the Jungian in me speaking). I just know the connection is strong and I can rely on it. As it was when he was alive, I learn from talking to him when I’m confused or feel lost. During my husband’s dying and after his death, we relied on the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ (my husband had taught a Tibet class at Colgate U using this book for 25 years, so he knew it well). It was helpful to him and me to have a sense of where we were in the dying and, for me, the grieving process. If you don’t know the book, it might speak to you. I think I’ve read your first NDE article, but will look again to make sure.

  11. So happy to connect Elaine through twitter and then discover your wonderful blog. A beautiful way to honour your husband and show the love you feel for each other. Thank you

    • Fiona, thank you for taking time to explore and comment. When holidays come, I realize how important it is to tend my longing and share it with our family through simple rituals. Remembering together makes us feel close to our love for him and for each other. Time brings more laughter and fewer tears.

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