Winter solstice – maximum hours of darkness – not unlike grief

Reflections for the days when there are more hours of darkness than there are of light. For the bereaved, it might seem that all joy and hope have been extinguished. But hold on… the light will return…


We are approaching the 20th/21st December, the shortest day of the year in this hemisphere, with the fewest daylight hours and the longest periods of darkness.

Darkness seems to predominate. It’s dark when we wake up in the morning and dark before we set off for home from work. If the day is overcast, we might need to keep the lights on for most of the day. Artificial light is no match for sunlight. No wonder that this is the time of year that some people suffer from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The good news is that we have reached shortest day of the year. Why is that good news? Because it means the day after will be a little bit longer; the next day will be longer still. The days are gradually going to get lighter. The year will turn. In time, there will be more daylight hours than hours of gloom or darkness. Eventually it will be light when we wake and it will be light when we retire for the night.

Grief can be a very dark place

Even so our journey with grief.

When we are first bereaved, the balance of night and day, of darkness and light, would seem to be tilt heavily in favour of night.

Our bereavement, the pain of our loved one’s absence, might be constantly in our thoughts, overshadowing each and every aspect of our day. We might have little joy in daily life and barely a glimmer of hope for any future that might now unfold. How can there be hope when our loved one is missing from the picture?

For those bereaved of a child, there is a raw, intense pain as we know the future that they or we had imagined cannot now come to pass. Darkness.

For those bereaved of a spouse, there is the pain of loneliness. We are alone after the years of being at each other’s side. Perhaps fears of how the future will now unfold also cause us anxiety. Darkness.

For those bereaved of a close friend or family member, there is the loss of companionship. We miss the ease of being in the company of someone who we knew so well, who knew us so well. There is one less Christmas card to write or to receive. One less phone call to make or receive. One less person in the narrowing circle of our friendship or family. Darkness.

Yes, our early bereavement can be a time of darkness.

Yet most of us find that eventually the balance shifts. It might happen gradually, without our barely noticing that things are changing. We might discover that not all of the time nor all of the days seem so overwhelmingly bleak. There are times when we are pleasantly occupied; times when our minds are not quite so gloomy with our loss.

And then there are difficult days again. And then better days. And on it goes.

Grief doesn’t follow a linear path and there will always be some sad times. Reminders of our loved ones or special times of the year could make the world seem very dark again. More dark than light. More sadness than hope. More emptiness than presence.

Still, eventually the balance tilts towards light. The longest, darkest night does not last throughout the year.

It can feel as though the sadness of our grief completely overwhelms the light of life.

Acknowledging the pain of the darkness enables us to make space for light

It’s no good pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t.

Some churches hold “longest night” or “blue Christmas” services at this time of year as a way of acknowledging the pain that some people experience. This acknowledgement is so important.

When we acknowledge the darkness, we open up space for the light to enter.

Rather like at the moment when it gets to 3 pm. It seems too early to turn on the lights in our home, yet we do it, because we need the light to read. It’s only 3:30 pm, half an hour until sunset, and the street lights have come on. We need the light to see our way.

We each find our own ways to bring light back into our life.

It could be through our care of others.

It could be through pursuing our hobbies, interests and even our work.

It could be through our faith.

Whatever works for you

What brings even a glimmer of light into your day?

What brings you a moment of peace?

Is there a piece of music that moves you in a good way? Is there a food that you find comforting? Is there a family member, friend or even a pet whose presence makes you feel loved? Is there something on the TV that distracts you from the darkness, or a book that transports you to a different place? Is it something to do with faith or spirituality that lifts your spirit?

Whatever works for you – whatever makes these dark days a little bit lighter – if that’s what you need, by all means embrace it. Bring the light into your life, intentionally, and eventually you’ll find that the intensity and duration of darkness has been reduced.

The darkest day will have passed.

A practical way of bringing in the light

Lighting a candle can be so meaningful. One bereaved mother told me how when she is deeply saddened by her thoughts, she lights a candle. She physically lets the light in, and it helps.

Lighting candles in memory of our loved ones is something many of us do throughout the year, but perhaps in particular on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. It can be a beautiful moment of remembrance and meaning.

Sometimes the light is waiting for us. Sometimes we go out to meet it. And sometimes we must make the light happen. Lighting a candle in memory is one way of “making the light happen.” It’s one way of getting through the longest, darkest nights.

A reflection prayer on the shortest day

From the rising of the midwinter sun to its setting,
Scatter the darkness with the light of your love, O Shining One.

Make me short on mean thoughts, long on offering words of comfort.
Make me short on being driven, long on paying attention.
Make me short on focussing only on my own, long on looking beyond.
Make me short on obsessive lists, long on spontaneous acts of kindness.

Make me short on mindless activity, long on time to reflect.
Make me short on tradition as habit, long on re-discovering and re-owning.
Make me short on rushing and tiring, long on walking and wondering.
Make me short on false festive jollity, long on stilling and rooted joy.

Make me short on guilt, long on being merciful to myself.
Make me short on being overwhelmed, long on peaceableness as I set forth this day.

(Tess Ward)

Read more about coping with grief

And if you’re in the UK, you might like to join us at one of our Living with Loss retreats. Our next event is in Shropshire, 28 Feb – 4th March. (Calendar of events here)

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