“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.”
Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room
A Coping With Grief Post
Winter is the season when nature rests. Bears and other creatures hide away in dark places to hibernate. Things are quiet and peaceful while the earth regenerates below the surface. The dark quiet is part of the proper order of things. It’s an ideal time to turn our gaze inwards in introspection.
I have a W friend who often berates herself for not moving forward with life fast enough. While I do wish rediscovered happiness for all of us, there is something to be said for taking the time, all the time we need, to heal. There is a season for all of our grief cycles, including the cold ones spent in the dark.
Lack of Light
Winter is also the time of year when it feels like nature commiserates with the bereaved. The days are short, dark, and cold. Where I live, we get terrible inversions and can go days or weeks without seeing the sun. (I’m writing this in a cloud of fog filtered grey light that I can only have faith was once sunlight.) Even before grief entered my life, I would often struggle with the lack of light at this time of year (see also, when island girls move to the high desert).
For the bereaved, the lack of light can be more than depressing. It’s a harsh reminder of the heart that no longer beats for us. But it can also be an opportunity to embrace the darkness within. And by darkness (relax, I’ve not gone all goth on you), I mean the dark feelings: the grief, sadness, loneliness, pain, and anger, to name a few. These are the feelings we often turn away from in our grief phobic society, and I’ve found they are the ones that need our attention most in the grief process.
“because sometimes that’s what has to be done. you have to lay down with it. the hurt. or the heartache or even the hate. whatever is inside. sometimes you have to get close to it, taste it and understand it so you can define it, before it defines you.” ~j.m. storm
Carl Jung referred to it as Shadow Work. Some people prefer the lighter sounding Soul Work. Whatever you choose, winter seems ideally suited for it. My short definition of the Shadow: it’s all the parts of ourselves we choose not to accept. Like a secret kept locked in a dark closet, we do our best to forget or deny the shadow even exists.
But, just like children will act out when they are being ignored or unloved, our shadows do the same. They lash out and affect our relationships and even our physical and mental health. Scott Jeffrey describes one reason why facing our shadows is so essential.
So what happens to all the parts of ourselves we sweep out of view? Whatever qualities we deny in ourselves, we see in others. In psychology, this is called projection. We project onto others anything we bury within us.
The Grief Shadow
So we all have a shadow. Facing and embracing our shadow is vital to our health and development. I happen to include grief and all the attached yucky feelings that come with it in my definition of the shadow, including that pesky W-word, Widow.
Let’s get back to that projection bit. When we’re grieving the loss of our loved one, it’s a common complaint that we feel abandoned by those around us. That people are insensitive and callous, even. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’re aware it’s been a frequent topic. It’s one of the reasons grief becomes so isolating for so many of the bereaved.
And all of that is true. But in the practice of shadow work, I’m forced to look at those complaints as they apply to me. Before my fellow W’s tell me to stick it where the sun don’t shine (Boise, Idaho in the grip of an inversion), let me remind you I’m only writing about myself.
How Does This Apply To Me?
Where was I? Oh yes, applying all of my grief support (or lack thereof) complaints to myself. So how did I abandon my shadow? In the early days, I wouldn’t allow myself to feel all the feelings, especially the ugly ones. Sure, I cried so much I thought my eyeballs were going to fall out. I also walked around like a bawling Pollyanna telling everyone that we were blessed to have the time we had to make memories and say goodbye. That was my mantra, as I forced myself to acknowledge that it was true. What I didn’t do was let the angry green rage monster come out to play. Although he eventually refused to be ignored. (Apologies, again, to those who were in the shrapnel field of that explosion.)
I wasn’t sensitive to my needs to explore the dark recesses of my grief, which included traumas and losses before D. There was a massive pile of grief that needed to be examined. As I shoveled through each layer, there was always another one underneath waiting for me, waiting for me to face and embrace it with love and acceptance.
And the worst one of all, I turned my back on the grieving Widow, because I refused to acknowledge I’d become one. I didn’t cut her any slack and expected her to bounce back quickly, something I’d never do to another Widow. Ouch. I was pretty horrible to myself.
I can directly attribute the peace I have today to my willingness to dive deep into the grief shadow and face and embrace all of it. It wasn’t easy. Most of the time, it sucked and was miserable and painful. But for me, the work of transmuting that pain back into love was worth it.
Everyone is different. Shadow Work was the path that worked for me. In addition to a core group of people who supported my efforts every step of the way, I also had a great grief counselor to help make sure I didn’t get stuck in the shadows, a genuine risk. (I don’t recommend the newly bereaved try this without a grief counselor or spiritual advisor to walk beside you.)
The Light Returns
So why am I writing about spending so much time in the dark shadow? It’s because, in the darkness, we find the light. Here’s the thing we often forget when we’re in the midst of winter or lost in the depths of the shadow work: the light does return. It never left, we just lose sight of it for a while.
In a week and a half, on the Winter Solstice, we will celebrate the return of the light. When I light that solstice candle this year, it will have special significance. I’ll be celebrating the return of the light as I emerge from the shadowy fog of my grief journey.
I’ll leave you with one last thought. The fact that we have a shadow means that we have the light that created it. Or, as the saying goes, where there is great grief, there was great love. Celebrate your shadow, no matter how dark it feels at times. I promise you, the light will always be there waiting because it comes from within.
The Wandering Widow
Live Now. Dream Big. Love Fierce.