On Grief, Winter, and Kindling Lights

On Wednesday December 17, I had the honor of being one of two invited speakers at the annual Candle Lighting Service at the historic and very beautiful Mount Auburn Cemetery. All 600+ families who held burials at the Cemetery this past year were invited; in addition, there are families who’ve been attending every year for many years. Though I do regularly perform funerals for members of my community, over most of the past decade I’ve worked primarily with Harvard students (still do, but we are now multigenerational and open to the public as well) so thankfully there haven’t been too many deaths. It was daunting to think of what to say to a diverse audience, with death the common thread among them. Below, in a lightly edited format, are my remarks. ***

Greetings, and thank you to Dave Barnett and the staff at this beautiful institution. Thank you Tom Johnson for the beautiful, sensitive work you do in this chapel, and for inviting me today. I work as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and, and as you can see in your program, I’m here with you today because I’ve been here with some of you over the months and years to help say goodbye to your loved ones.

What an honor that has been for me, and it’s an honor to be with you now in this beautiful place, to light candles, to remember, and to reflect on the love we continue to feel for those who are no longer living, as well as to reflect on the love we feel for one another, and even on the compassion we might feel and offer to ourselves, because life is not easy for any of us. I understand this is an annual event, here at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, and that at this time of year every year, families like yours gather for a special kind of remembering.

It is a time where all around us, lights are being lit for different reasons. It’s the second night of Hanukah. Christmas lights are going up everywhere. Those are religious holidays, of course, and its a beautiful thing that in this space right now there are people of so many backgrounds and beliefs, including all manner and shade of nonreligious persons as well. What we all have in common is, we’re all dealing with the changes of the season. It’s getting colder and darker right now: we can all see it and feel it. My father died just before I graduated high school, but in college this would always be the saddest time of year for me, though he died in May.

I  think it’s because with darkness and cold, as with the loss of love’s presence, naturally come feelings of sadness. We can’t change the season any more than we can change the reality of why we’re here. And yet, we light lights, both to physically warm and brighten our days, and also to symbolically remind ourselves: the light returns. Warmth returns. Love remains. The darkness is worthwhile and beautiful because it is part of a cycle that includes so much illumination.

Despite our many beliefs and philosophies, what I think this season and this occasion can both mean is that in the coldest, darkest times in life, we can make light for one another. We can acknowledge the cold, be realistic about the dark. This gives us more, not less of an ability to clearly see the hours of light. And at every moment, even in the darkest moments, there is something or someone being born that can give hope, even if not directly to us then to someone else, and maybe eventually, when we’re ready, that someone will give hope to us or to someone we love so much we’d rather they feel the hope than feel it ourselves. Pa rum pum pum pum.

Earlier this week, Peter, a member of my community  who describes himself as an “orthodox atheist,” was moved to tears when a devoutly Catholic neighbor brought him a little statue of St. Francis. Peter is a big, tall man: 40-something, handsome and strong, with a square Jaw. He’s a professor at one of the local schools, married to a Catholic woman. They don’t have kids– that is, other than their beloved dog Henry, a playful black lab who is dying of cancer. Peter’s neighbor, whose dog is one of Henry’s best friends, brought the statue to say she cares. Peter was shocked by how much a religious gesture meant to him– how beautiful it was that she was able to give him a symbol of her love, a symbol of her concern.

That’s what these candles are.

We light candles because we need to remind ourselves and one another that we have the strength of fire in us. When we feel least powerful and least significant, when we feel the darkness and cold has long since surrounded us, we are capable of taking little every day actions, like swiping a tiny stick of wood covered in glass powder against a strip of red phosphorous, and the friction turns a very small amount of the red phosphorous into white phosphorus, which catches fire in air. In other words, we light a match.

And then we touch that match’s flame to a piece of cotton string surrounded by bee’s wax that is transformed into fuel and then, by the grace of a physical process called capillary action, the wax defies gravity to travel upwards toward the flame and continue burning. The lighting of a candle is amazing, it’s extraordinarily complex, it’s beautiful, it matters, helps us see. Its warmth can penetrate into our very bones. When it happens by the thousands it can light up an entire dark night, or inspire a nation. And yet every single candle ever lit was finite just like every one of us.

My friend and colleague Greta Christina makes this point with particular eloquence in her new book, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God:

“Because all the things that give life joy and meaning — music, conversation, eating, dancing, playing with children, reading, thinking, making love, all of it — are based on time passing, and on change, and on the loss of an infinitude of moments passing through us and then behind us. Without loss and death, we don’t get to have existence. We don’t get to have Shakespeare, or sex, or five-spice chicken, without allowing their existence and our experience of them to come into being and then pass on. We don’t get to listen to Louis Armstrong without letting the E-flat disappear and turn into a G. We don’t get to watch “Groundhog Day” without letting each frame of it pass in front of us for a 24th of a second and then move on. We don’t get to walk in the forest without passing by each tree and letting it fall behind us; we don’t even get to stand still in the forest and gaze at one tree for hours without seeing the wind blow off a leaf, a bird break off a twig for its nest, the clouds moving behind it, each manifestation of the tree dying and a new one taking its place.

And we wouldn’t want to have it if we could. The alternative would be time frozen, a single frame of the film, with nothing to precede it and nothing to come after. I don’t think any of us would want that. And if we don’t want that, if instead we want the world of change, the world of music and talking and sex and whatnot, then it is worth our while to accept, and even love,  the loss and the death that make it possible.”

So, now look around you: this is an incredible moment because almost every one of us is tempted, though intellectually we know better, to think of ourselves as the one and only person, or the one family, to whom these experiences have come. But look around. It has visited all of these people. And if you’re one among the many of us who has had trouble being compassionate to yourself this past year, had trouble letting yourself off the hook for the things you didn’t say, didn’t do, didn’t understand, or maybe in your heart of hearts you’ve had trouble letting them off the hook for the things they didn’t say to you, didn’t do for you, didn’t understand…here you are, you can look around, and recognize that you’re in a group of people who may be feeling some of those same feelings.

There is nothing I or anyone else can say to make it better, to make it fair. Maybe it isn’t fair. But then, maybe you don’t have to feel okay. Maybe you can let yourself feel however you need to feel, and maybe there are others who will appreciate how hard it is for you, and maybe they can love you and hug you and sit there and just be with you. So go out into the darkness, and be a candle, at times. But when you can’t be, seek out other candles– other people who can remember, who can love, who can just sit with you and be present. That’s how we can acknowledge the darkness and find beauty in it, even as we create light anew.

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