I have this poem taped to my refrigerator:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
(Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, published in Rumi: Selected Poems, with English translation by Coleman Barks.)
Joy? Sure! Come on in! A new awareness? Yes, I’ll take it! But meanness or malice, shame or depression…? OK, yes, I know we should feel all our feelings, but welcome them all? On an intellectual level, I understand Rumi’s message. We know that we learn and grow through the difficult experiences. But sometimes those feelings can be excruciatingly painful. I remember after my brother died, going to the fridge to make lunch and reading through the poem. “Meet them at the door laughing!” I forced myself to laugh out loud. It was a mirthless sound. I sighed, took a deep breath and said to myself, “This too shall pass,” as all feelings do. And, of course, those feelings of intense grief and sadness did fade over time.
I want to acknowledge that for many of us, the holidays are a time of mixed emotions. As humans, we find comfort in the expected and the anticipated, the rituals and the traditions that we repeat again and again, whether it’s a simple daily routine or a set of holiday customs. When I was a young child, I naively thought that my family’s traditions would just go on forever. But of course, as the years go by, we grow and change and so does everyone else around us. People move away (or perhaps we move), relationships end, new people marry into the family, children are born and grow up, people we love die.
And then there are the short days and long nights, which are great for getting Christmas cactuses to bloom, but which for many of us humans are a time when we struggle with our mood. I myself used to feel very down at Christmas because of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), before I learned about the benefits of vitamin D supplements and therapeutic light boxes.
The holidays can be especially difficult when we are grieving a loss such as a major change, a death, or a breakup. I think it’s precisely because of the holiday traditions and rituals that our losses often come into sharper focus. We all experience life differently, and that includes grief. And it includes our healing process. Our path of healing is uniquely ours and has its own timeline, which usually is not linear, as you may have experienced.
As difficult as it may be during this time, I encourage you all to find some quiet time to take care of yourself. Meditation or quiet reflection can be very helpful. In sitting with our grief, we can listen to our thoughts and feel our feelings. We can cultivate tenderness and patience toward ourselves. As we do so, we may gain a greater sense of acceptance, and an ability to let go of some of the unhelpful thoughts. We can also practice mindfulness as we go about our days, reminding ourselves to stay present to the moment, and drawing ourselves away from unhelpful ruminations.
A gratitude practice can also help. We can challenge ourselves to sit for a period of time and just repeat the phrase, “I am grateful for…” and fill in the blank. All our body parts, inside and out. Bones and skin. Our house, the heat, the running water, the food in the refrigerator and in the pantry. Whatever you see or think of, name it. This practice really does make a difference. It helps place our sadness and grief a little out of our central focus and move a feeling of abundance and joy more front and center.
And there may be moments when we can see the long view. Even if the “guests” in our house are a crowd of sorrows, we can try to be patient with life, knowing that they may be clearing us out for some new delight. Only time will tell.