Aging Well

Aging Well

Let grief and joy coexist this holiday season

Posted December 24, 2021 8:00 a.m. EST
Updated December 24, 2021 9:28 a.m. EST

Many years ago, when I lived for two years not too far south of the Arctic Circle in Finland, where my mother grew up, I learned the custom of visiting one's ancestors on Christmas Eve to light a candle on their grave. That first year, I traveled by bus to my Finnish grandmother, Mummi’s. She always had kaffee waiting with homemade pulla, a braided Finnish sweet bread redolent with cardamom. We ate it at a small round table covered by my great aunt Senja-Tati’s hand-laced table cloth. It was already dark at 3 p.m. when we climbed into a taxi which would take us to the cemetery where Ukki, my grandfather, was buried. Finns all over the country would be doing the same.

Temperatures at this time of year in Finland, depending on the latitude, can range from -5 to -40 degrees Celsius. The taxi wove through the cemetery, trying to drop us off as close to Ukki's grave as possible. At this time of year, one could see hundreds of candles placed just beneath the vast blanket of snow, each marking a grave. It was magical – a field of lights in a place we associate with grief.

Grief, especially during the holidays, can feel particularly weighty. We have these expectations – especially in the United States – of perfect meals, cheerful banter, young and old coming together around a beautifully laid table. But sometimes, and maybe more common in the midst of this ongoing pandemic, there might be a newly empty chair at the table.

Unfortunately, it feels too often that we hesitate to bring this chair up, worried that by simply drawing attention to it, the carefully orchestrated family gathering meant to bring joy might do the inverse? What if it does?

In Japan, where my husband and I once lived, most families we visited kept a shrine in a prominent place with photographs of loved ones who had passed away, both recently and long ago. Alongside these one might also see a thimble of green tea or a clementine or other offering. These shrines were not folded up and put away at the end of the holiday season. No. The Japanese kept these reminders of loss as a part of their daily lives.

Grief expert Pauline Boss said in an interview with Krista Tippett, "Americans like closure. But in reality, there is no such thing as closure. We have to live with loss, clear or ambiguous. And it's OK. It's OK to see people who are hurting and just to say something simple. ‘I'm so sorry.’ You really don't have to say more than that.”

Boss, myself and others have noticed that by simply acknowledging grief, it can help those most affected feel seen and heard, and paradoxically even (not always) enable them to more easily experience other emotions alongside their grief, like joy.

As you gather (many after skipping last year), may you welcome in light and dark, grief and joy and the entire spectrum between these which make up a life, any life, all lives.