My son Anthony arrived from California around three a.m. After a few hours’ sleep, he woke up groggy-eyed, made a pot of coffee, and took a run. He didn’t have much to say, so I let my words rest.
My sons and I have been through big changes since their dad, my husband Vic, died eighteen months ago. Holidays have been difficult, but our first Christmas felt disastrous. This year, I hoped to make more space for grief, openly acknowledge what we’d lost, and soothe our sorrow.
After lunch, Anthony told me about his California life, and I talked about writing and my life on our family land in upstate New York. Anthony is a musician, so we shared the joys and struggles of creative work. I mentioned the difficulty of these dark winter days.
“It’s hard to celebrate when we’re grieving,” I said. Anthony nodded.
“It’s six o’clock,” he reminded me while we made dinner. “Solstice is at six-thirty.”
“Want to light candles?” I asked.
“Sure,” Anthony said.
I spread a small red cloth on a tabletop I’d cleared earlier in the day. We lit candles and wished each other a Blessed Solstice.
“Would you be willing to do something more elaborate when your brother comes tomorrow?” I asked. Since Solstice is a pause more than a point in time, we could spread our ritual over a few days. Anthony agreed.
The next morning, I took pruning shears and a cloth bag on my morning hike and gathered spruce and pine boughs and three types of pinecones. I put small slabs of shale in my bag and two chunks of granite. After lunch, I emptied my sack on the dining room table, put a favorite photo of Vic next to the cones, and waited.
“What are we doing with this stuff?” David asked around dusk as he pawed through my forest treasure. He had arrived from his home in North Carolina that afternoon.
“I thought you guys might build an altar with me, maybe light a few candles and create a few new intentions. We can include your dad.” I felt tentative and shy.
“Great. Let’s do it,” David said with enthusiasm. He picked up a red pine branch and put it behind the two candles Anthony and I had lit last night. I put a spruce bough on one side of the candles, and Anthony put a white pine branch on the other. We placed more candles around the greens, added stones, and scattered pine cones in clusters.
“And this?” David asked, picking up the photo of his dad that I’d left on the table. I’d taken this portrait of Vic surrounded by red maple leaves many years ago.
“I thought we’d put it in the back,” I said quietly, “slightly hidden beneath the evergreens so you have to pay attention to notice it. It’s a way to include your dad in our ritual and acknowledge that he’s here and he’s also not here. Is that OK with you?”
“Of course,” they said. I sighed in relief and tucked the photo behind pine boughs. Vic’s eyes gazed out at the three of us; our fourth watching us from the other side.
I lit a candle for Vic, put it in front of his photo, and stayed silent a moment.
“Let’s say what we want to release and what we hope for this coming year,” I suggested. “Or you could just light a candle. You don’t have to say anything.”
Anthony lit a candle in silence and wiped away tears with his shirt sleeve. David went next, describing in detail what he wanted to leave behind and what he wanted to add to his life before lighting his candle. Anthony thought better of his silence and spoke his heart’s desire while he lit a second candle.
“It’s your turn, Mom,” Anthony said.
“Fewer tears. More joy,” I prayed.
Our family ritual of gratitude has become a cherished part of the holidays since 2009. We create an altar, light candles, and tell stories about Vic and what we learned from him. We check in with each other, share sorrow, and often weep together. Acknowledging the hole we feel in our hearts allows room for love and gratitude. As our family grows, new people join our ritual of remembrance. There is plenty of space to honor everyone, living and dead.
Have you tried creating a ritual of remembrance at the holidays? I was surprised by my family’s enthusiasm and contributions and how close this makes us feel to each other and those we’ve lost. For more ideas about creating personal grief/life rituals, see Creating a Grief Ritual: Love, Loss, and Continuing Bonds.
This article is an adaptation from Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (Larson Publications: 2014) where you can read about many rituals that helped me and my family share our sorrow and learn from grief.
Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief was published by Larson Publications (October 2014). “Reading this beautiful memoir of love and loss and triumph felt to me like a sacred journey into the very heart and soul of the courageous woman who writes it,” Marty Tousley of Grief Healing. Dale Borglum of the Living/Dying project said about the book, “Not only a touching and courageous memoir about love, illness, death and grief, Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love is a manual for healing that offers us the emotional and spiritual tools needed to grow and even flourish through Life’s deepest crises.”
After a career as a women’s health counselor and writer, Elaine’s work has focused on bereavement and loss since her husband’s death in 2008. Elaine facilitates hospice support groups and writes for the Hospicare and Palliative Care of Tompkins County newsletter and website. She writes with an open-minded spiritual perspective that reflects her hospice training as well as 40 years as a student of philosophy, psychology, mythology, and meditation.
Elaine gave a TEDx talk called “Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss” on November 8, 2014. The talk will be available on youtube and at Elaine’s website by early December. Elaine writes a weekly blog https://elainemansfield.com/blog/ ) about the adventures and lessons of life and loss. Her articles have been published by Shambhala Sun Space, caring.com, Alzheimers.net, elephantjournal, KirstyTV, and The Healing Muse, as well as Open to Hope.