My father would have celebrated his 66th birthday today, but I wonder how many people still remember. Every year, the seven days surrounding the anniversaries of my father's birth (Jan 5), death (Jan 8), and burial (Jan 12) have become Days of Remembrance - almost religious in their personal significance. This year is especially meaningful because it is also the twentieth anniversary of his passing.
No matter the time and distance, my sadness always returns to visit during these seven days, like an old, faithful friend. The sadness is not nearly so heavy as before, but it always returns.
This year my thoughts also turn to my Uncle Richard's family. I've had twenty years to adjust to a world without my father, but my cousins are just beginning that road. Every holiday, birthday, and anniversary will bring a strange mix of sadness, confusion, memory, and love. Nothing makes that path any easier, except perhaps to know that others help carry the weight of grief.
Early in my own grief process, I would have given anything to banish the darkness and pain from my mind. Sometimes it seemed too much to bear, and certainly many well meaning friends also encouraged me to pick up the pieces and move on, but sadness always returned. I've come to realize that we live in a culture that is immensely uncomfortable with darkness and grief - either in oneself or in others. What is more, I saw myself as a spiritual person dedicated to light and growth, so even I wondered how it was possible for the darkness to cling so persistently to my spirit.
If they would have given me a pill to cure my sadness, I would have gladly accepted. Actually, at one time, I did take pills with names like Paxil, Wellbutrin, Celexa, and Effexor, but they did nothing to alleviate my distress.
Time doesn't really cure all wounds, but it does make them bearable. Now I have enough distance to view the grief from a different perspective, and this year, I intend to approach this week with a new-found acceptance of both light and darkness.
My friend Tim recently loaned me the book Owning our own shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche by Robert A. Johnson. This book essentially says that the darkness within us never really goes away, but it can get buried. If we don't find ways to honor the shadow, it comes out sideways with difficult and unpredictable results. Johnson (1991) wrote, "To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents" (p. 26).
Honoring the shadow seems counter-intuitive. We spend much of our lives trying to banish, avoid, overcome, resist, minimize, or ignore the shadow, yet even Jesus reminded us: "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). After all my dark nights of grief, the sun has become all the more brilliant and the blooming flowers of spring sing more sweetly than before. Was any of this possible without first passing through darkness?
Johnson wrote, "To own one's own shadow is to reach a holy place - an inner center - not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one's own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life" (p. 17). He also said, "I have to honor my shadow, for it is an integral part of me" (p. 22).
I've heard it said that compassion literally means to "suffer with," so this year will be different. Beginning this week of remembrance, I will honor both sadness and joy because they have given me the greatest gift of all: love.