Many years ago, when I lived for two years not far south of the Arctic Circle in Finland, where my mother grew up, I learned the custom of visiting her ancestors on Christmas Eve to light a candle on their grave. That first year, I traveled by bus to my Finnish grandmother, at my moms. She always had kaffee waiting with homemade pulla, a Finnish braided sweet bread flavored with cardamom. We ate it at a small round table covered by my great-aunt Senja-Tati’s hand-laced tablecloth. It was already dark at 3 p.m. when we got into a taxi which was to take us to the cemetery where ukki, my grandfather, was buried. Finns all over the country would do the same.
Temperatures at this time of year in Finland, depending on the latitude, can vary from -5 to -40 degrees Celsius. The taxi drove through the cemetery, trying to drop us off as close to Ukki’s grave as possible. At this time of year, you could see hundreds of candles placed just under the vast blanket of snow, each marking a grave. It was magical – a field of lights in a place we associate with grief.
Grieving, especially during the holidays, can feel particularly heavy. We have these expectations – especially in the United States – of perfect meals, happy banter, young and old gathered around a beautifully laid table. But sometimes, and perhaps more often in the midst of this ongoing pandemic, there may be a newly empty chair at the table.
Unfortunately, too often we feel like we’re hesitant to put that chair up, fearing that by simply drawing attention to it, the carefully orchestrated family reunion meant to bring joy might do the opposite? What if it was?
In Japan, where my husband and I once lived, most of the families we visited kept a prominent shrine with photographs of loved ones who died, both recently and long ago. Next to these one can also see a thimble of green tea or a clementine or other offering. These shrines were not folded and put away at the end of the holiday season. No. The Japanese kept these reminders of loss in their daily lives.
Grief expert Pauline Boss said in an interview with Krista Tippett, “Americans love closure. But in reality, closure doesn’t exist. We have to live with loss, clear or ambiguous. And that’s fine. It’s OK to see people in pain and just to say something simple: “I’m so sorry.” You really don’t need to say more than that.
Boss, I, and others have noticed that simply acknowledging grief can help those most affected feel seen and heard, and paradoxically even (not always) make it easier for them to experience other emotions at side of their sorrow, like joy.
As you come together (many after jumping last year), may you welcome into the light and the dark, the sorrow and the joy and all the spectrum in between that make up a life, any life, all lives.