Days of Darkness

This time of year can be magical – but not in the consumerist, endless holiday music kind of way. Since my awakening to earth-based spirituality, I’ve come to appreciate the magic of the growing darkness, the turn inward, and the reminder to slow down. We honor the dying season when the trees go bare and the landscape is stark. The lesson of the early winter is that even in the midst of cold and dark, there is hope of returning warmth, light, and life in the spring.

That’s easy to accept when we are just talking about falling leaves. When we feel secure, the cycles of life and death can remain at a safe, philosophical distance.

This year, unlike the past, I felt an urgent need to look more directly into the eyes of the winter crone. As the days grew shorter, I could feel the energy of death hovering around me. It wasn’t just a mysterious premonition, though. There were sick relatives, recurring cancer, very old pets. But all of those things had been fact for a while, and there was no reason to believe death would come now. The state of the world only intensified these feelings. On social media, random people repeatedly posted articles and videos about grief, dying, funereal culture. My anxiety rose as I heard the crone, the goddess of death herself, tapping gently on my window.

And death did come.

My aunt passed away, and I was the primary support for my grandmother, a woman who has seen nearly a century. She has lost many loved ones. Now, cruelly, she was forced to face the loss of a child. It was necessary for me hold my own grief deep down inside (that lack of expression eventually becoming physical pain) in order to hold her up. I could feel intensely the energetic space I held for her grief.

Really, though, most of the hard work of comforting and holding space was done by my three-year-old daughter. As autumn turned, she had become fascinated with death (tap, tap, tap). She asked, “what is die?” She wanted me to play dead, then she and Doc McStuffins would “fix” me. Weeks had gone by and I kept intending to do some research on how to talk to young children about death – “it’s like when the batteries on the iPad die, only people can’t be recharged.”

I finally got around to it a few days before my daughter and I encountered a dead squirrel (tap, tap, tap). She insisted on looking at the squirrel, visiting it again, communing with it, talking about it. She said very solemnly that although it was scary, it also made her feel “a little happy.” But then for some reason, our blessing of “safe travels” to the squirrel opened up a well of sadness in her that stunned me. As a mother, I could do little more than wrap my arms around her and try to understand as she collapsed into tears. I couldn’t make sense of the depth of her experience other than to suspect that it was not from this lifetime.

My aunt, her great aunt, passed away the next day. So the squirrel had prepared my daughter to talk about the passing and to see my grandmother grieve. She insisted on being with me when I broke the heartbreaking news, and she worked very hard to make her beloved great-grandmother smile. She was so intensely engaged, so present in the process of facing my grandmother’s pain that I was in awe of the ancient wisdom so obviously held in her little body. At one point, as I held my grandmother, my daughter curled up in my lap. I held both the oldest and the youngest members of my family in my arms, all of us together as maiden, mother, crone.

As my child and I worked to sustain my grandmother, we processed the death primarily with the other women of our family. Men were mostly absent from the process. Even my spouse happened to be out of town at the time. As it has always been, we women do the work of death.

It makes more sense to me now why some northern, Germanic cultures have chosen this time of year to honor the female ancestors with a celebration called Mother’s Night.

The observance is held on Christmas eve or just before the winter solstice, when we also mark the height of the darkness. Women are the keepers of life and death, so it seems right to use this season to remember all of those mothers, sisters, nurturers who came before – to remember their grief, their love and sacrifice, their strength, their dying.

In the weeks before the loss of my aunt, when I could hear the crone’s tapping, when I could feel the gathering, foreboding energy, I struggled to understand what it truly meant to face the lessons of the dying season. How to align one’s grief with the very visible environmental – and these days, cultural, social, and political - death that is happening all around us? What do we do with our pain when it’s not just leaves that are dying, when it’s no longer just a metaphor? I can’t say I came up with any revelatory answers. I held space for a grieving mother. I worked to be present and strong for her. I honored the awesome knowing and compassion of my daughter. When I felt like sinking into despair, I pledged to accept joy in the holiday season with my baby girl, even though this time is tinged with sadness and loss.

And ultimately, I think that’s it. Not a great revelation, just the simple wisdom of light in the darkness. The spring will return. There is life amidst death.