REFLECTIONS ON LOSS AT THE WINTER SOLSTICE
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
The following is an address that was delivered by Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D., at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco, at the Spirit Babies Ceremony.
Summary: The winter solstice is an ideal time for going inward, and the experience of loss presents an opportunity to open up to ourselves more fully, through our emotional reaction to the world not being what we once thought it to be.
We are gathered here this evening of the winter solstice. This is the longest night of the year, and it is honored by many traditions as a sacred and rich time. In Latin, solstice means sun set still and winter solstice is the great stillness before the sun’s strength builds, and days grow longer. It is a time when everything lies dormant in the silent night. At this time of year, the earth reaches into the darkness of the winter night and our experience is driven by that darkness. The days are shorter and shorter as the nights invite us to focus more deeply inward, to reach more and more fully into the deepest recesses of our psyche.
For those of us who have experienced loss, these times can challenge us to know ourselves in new ways as we are brought into the experience of hidden or latent aspects of ourselves. These aspects of ourselves may have always existed, but we may have tried to navigate around them, as the experience that loss reveals can be painful and confusing. The dark nights of winter offer us the stillness and space to examine our relationship to our loss, and to understand the nature of our grief. It is important to take the time to know our experience. It is important not to shy away from what can be the most difficult path we walk down as human beings. We must allow our loss to become part of the world that emerges from our experience. And we must remember that this path, however difficult, reveals an ever deepening understanding of ourselves, and our relationship to the cycles of life and death. In human experience there is no greater mystery. And as difficult as it is to walk this road, we must realize that through our loss, we have been offered the opportunity to deeply touch the mystery of who we are.
When we talk about our relationship to loss, we begin to perceive the nature of our grief. Perhaps the largest lesson loss provides is that things do not always turn out the way we thought or hoped they would. Coming to terms with this fact without moving into despair or denial is a challenge for all of us. Things simply are as they are. Not as we would have liked them to be. It is important to meet this fact simply and honestly. It is tempting to want to twist away from this stark truth. But we must try to stay with it without rejecting our own or others’ experience.
Grief and loss show us we have much less control over events than we like to admit. When an overwhelming loss occurs, it shatters our ability to maintain our beliefs and images of the world. We feel disoriented and confused. We may believe that we cannot cope with events, or we may struggle with the realization that we are unable to hold our experience or direct our experience. Yet, if we allow loss to rumble through the deepest levels of our being, we begin to experience ourselves in an entirely new way. As we move through our destabilization, our disorientation, our loss of compass, we come to know the world in a new way. If we sit with our loss and try to understand it, we can begin to regain equilibrium. As difficult as these experiences are, they open us to ourselves and challenge us to know who we are in relationship to the mysteries of life and death in a new way.
Overwhelming loss invites us to look beyond our usual ways of structuring our reality. We often have to look outside ourselves, or beyond ourselves, or at least beyond our usual ways of thinking and feeling to find balance. When we experience loss, we are willing to go beyond ourselves in ways we are not always willing to when things are going the way we thought they might. This is one of the gifts that loss provides. It encourages us to encounter the world in a new way as we set out on a quest to reorient ourselves to the world that emerges out of the experience of loss. This can lead to greater depths of understanding about who we are, what the world is, and nature of the relationship between the two.
The process of adapting to what to that which seems impossible to adapt to is a process that leads us to greater awareness and to a broader consciousness. But we cannot benefit from the lessons of loss if we allow ourselves to become lost in our reactivity to the loss of control we feel in the face of loss. Of course, it is devastating to lose someone we love, or long to love. But death is part of life, not separate from it. If we are lucky, we can make the decision to allow the lessons that our reactions to loss reveal. Following the path these lessons reveal can lead us deeply within ourselves. These winter nights provide the depth of space and time we need to be able to know ourselves more deeply. This is a perfect moment to move more deeply into the deepest part of ourselves, and our loss provides us the illumination we need to find ourselves in places where we may have not ventured to explore before.
Learning to be with loss is the process of learning how to meet what is happening without any defenses, learning how to be with what is without reacting. Paradoxically, in order to be able to be present with loss without being swept away by our reactivity, we have to allow ourselves to go fully into the reactions that make up our experience of grief. Every person has his or her own unique path through the experience of grief. We must allow ourselves the full and complete exploration of our grief, free from the judgments or expectations of others. No one else can really know what our own path through grief holds for us. And even we cannot know what it holds for us if we do not allow ourselves to follow this path without the weight of our own expectations about how we should or ought to be with our loss.
In exploring our grief, we are exploring our reactivity. In exploring our reactivity, we explore how we reject the idea that life is not what we wanted it to be. If we are lucky, when we understand we are not in control of what is happening – we begin to understand that we do have control over how we react to what is happening. In an effort to relieve ourselves of the pain that our reactivity generates, we find ourselves coming face to face with aspects of our experience that may have lain dormant until the moment of our loss. These reactions may range from denial, to anger, to bargaining, to depression, to hatred, to jealousy, to rage, to despair, to hopelessness, to a rejection of our powerlessness. It is important to explore what our true reactions are without judgment or prejudice. We must walk the path that loss opens to us without cultivating self-pity or despair, but without rejecting them either.