Dreading December Darkness

Courtesy photo  Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a very real effect of the diminished light during the winter season. Women are more often affected than men. The disorder results in increased depression and affects around 10 million Americans each year.

Dreading December Darkness

 

For it’s a long, long while from May to December. But the days grow short when you reach September.

Although I believe these lovely lyrics from “September Song” are meant figuratively as a musing on the limited lifetime of lovers, they are also undeniably literal as a description of the larger cycle of life and all the smaller cycles within. We are marching toward the winter solstice, our daylight hours growing shorter until Dec. 21, when we reach what many call the longest night. 

As enmeshed and surrounded as we are by the joyful trappings of the December holidays and the beauty of the lights that symbolically and tangibly bring relief from that darkness, there are many among us who suffer. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recognized medical condition that causes depression, often related to the change in seasons, particularly during those times of year when daylight is diminished.

And, for better or worse, we face an obvious ending in December as the pages of the calendar are torn away. We are about to put another year to bed and, while anticipating this ending, many grapple with reflections on what “was” and what is “supposed” to be. Many wonder why they can’t feel excited, blissful, optimistic the way everyone else seems to feel.

Endings can be uncomfortable. Change is hard and inevitable. One of the most difficult endings is the loss or imminent loss of a loved one. There is never a “good” time for death but the holiday season is an especially cruel time of year to face a profound loss. While some are shopping, decorating or planning and attending parties, others are standing vigil at the bedside of a failing loved one or grieving over an actual death.

We’ve all experienced that first holiday without someone we have loved. It’s so easy to think back and cling to seasons past, when good health was a given and hearts were light. We think it will always be this way. Until it’s not.

Those who have lost a loved one this year may be experiencing a melancholy that comes from thinking about events and nuances that were part of holidays past. It may be shopping for or preparing particular food items, wrapping gifts, a favorite Christmas carol or recalling a treasured memory that sparks a sadness and gloom that takes away from the warmth of the season. It’s a bitter pill, but an unavoidable one.

Whether you have spent decades with someone, just a few years, or even a few significant months, the loss of that person — whether sudden or expected —changes us forever. Thomas Mann said, “A man’s dying is more the survivor’s affair than his own.” And that’s why it’s so painful. The death may be a “relief that there’s no more pain” or “the end of a long, productive life.” But, no matter the explanation or rationalization, it’s still a hole in the hearts of the ones who are left behind.

There’s no question that time eases the pain and each new holiday season brings new gifts of the heart. My beloved grandmother faced the end of her life through a holiday season decades ago. It affected our family deeply but two Christmases later, we had a new baby girl to celebrate. And, as is true with any profound life transition, we are often called to reflect on and evaluate the familiar: maybe there is a way that more meaning or meaningful action can bring a new look to how we celebrate.

At the very least it can open a window into the sadness and struggle that others are experiencing. Maybe we look a little closer for signs that someone might need a kind word, a listening ear, a hug. In the past, local churches have offered a “longest night service,” often aimed at those who are grieving. Although I wasn’t able to find one scheduled in an Alameda, most worship leaders are familiar with the emotional and spiritual challenges that might be part of the season. People should not suffer in silence.

In the end, the best way I know to honor the memory of those we have loved is to really embrace each day of this holiday season, acknowledge that endings bring new beginnings and enjoy our friends and loved ones as if this is our last Christmas together. 

 

Laurel Yeates is a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, doula, nanny, Alameda Sun calendar editor and a nascent thanatologist.