Mind Matters — A Solstice Message

Hanukkah, Christmas, whatever festival of light is celebrated, is a push against the dark. Our northern hemisphere experiences solstice when we reach the darkest day of the year and we respond to this by celebrating the Light with lots of lights.

Nevertheless, we can’t deny the darkness or death. Just as the solstice is part of the cycle of the seasons, so too is death a part of the cycle of life. That reality does not make it any easier to accept, and holiday times seem to make it even harder.

I write this having just found that my cousin has died. Margie had been ill and suffering for the last few years, so, yes, it may come to her as a release from her pain. But her pain is not her totality. She leaves behind many who mourn the loss of her loving presence—her son, her sister and two brothers, one of whom donated a kidney to her years ago. That brother did indeed give her life for a while. She also leaves behind lots of extended family who love her: those younger than she, who know her as aunt and loving mentor; those older than she, cousins like myself, who remember her as the sweet little cousin who was always kind.

The ripple of death is large and continuous. My son connected to her partly because they shared the same birthday and because her son and my son are the same age.

Growing up in a small town where most of my extended family lived within its borders of one square mile, I felt very attached to all my cousins and aunts and uncles. However, because Margie and her family shared a house with my maternal grandparents, my cousins and I may all have had a special connection to her and her siblings.

Perhaps then, the theme here is more about family than it is about grief itself. If we don’t have family, we need to create one—an intentional community when we are not born into one.

There is a downside to family and community to be sure. Everybody knows everybody else’s business and sometimes boundaries are blurred and autonomy is misunderstood. Monica McGoldrick, a family therapist who has studied various ethnicities, talks about how families with Polish roots often have a “Greek chorus” murmuring in the background. I laughed out loud when I read this in her book, Ethnicity and Family Therapy, forty years ago, recalling the Greek chorus of my mother’s family. It seemed to me that when anyone in the extended family was about to do anything a little different, there was a stir of voices. “Oh, they shouldn’t do that.” or “Do you think that is wise (or safe or proper—or whatever)?” this was a way I think of keeping the wagons in a circle, doing things different from the family’s mode of operation—stepping out, differentiating oneself, was considered risky business.

Of course, the upside of this cohesiveness and wish to keep the circle tight is that it does feel safe when it doesn’t feel smothering. The delicate balance is holding the tension between the polarities of wanting to be held in the security of the group while at the same time wanting to be an autonomous individual.

Having moved away many years ago from the circle of the square mile of my hometown, I all the more appreciate the benefits of family connection.

My cousin Margie lived with one of her brothers and his wife, her sister, and all their children—until they were adults. They are there for each other even though they may not share political views. Her younger brother noted how their older brother helped her live by donating his kidney, but that their older sister was also instrumental in keeping Margie going through her constant care. This is a testament to love and connection—the circling of the wagons when we need it.

This is the value of family and community—we may hanker for an island’s peace, but we cannot be islands unto ourselves. To face the dark, we need each other’s LIGHT.