For many people, this last stretch into the holidays is the pits.
Those of us who grieve, battle depression, or for anyone whose life seems to be seized by other sources of despair, the early arrival of darkness during this season amplifies our pain and anxieties.
While others around us take joy or rush towards a festival of consumption, we’re doubly reminded of who and what we’ve lost. In the depths of this darkness, we’re supposed to remind ourselves that during Winter Solstice, as the world prepares to turn a corner, so can we.
Of course, cultures everywhere have long observed the longest night of the year, celebrating the inevitable return of light with varied rituals. The sun, which may appear frozen at its lowest noontime elevation for several days around the solstice, embodies a stillness that reinforces this heightened time of reflection and spiritual awareness. While many sacred and ancient rituals have evolved, our need to ensure the sun’s daily return endures.
Similarly, we all need to believe in a renewal of summer and hope. Whether through resilience, or avoidance, by facing our pain and trauma directly, or by unhealthy forms of suppression, we muddle through another day.
Especially in this season, it seems easier to shutter our grief, fear, and despair. It is understandable how we forget or deny that dealing with these emotions precisely during the lowest moments of our trials offers a path through the darkest days. This may sound like common sense. But the real question is how do we do this? Whether or not we’re aware of the ancient grounding of this wisdom—expressed by Camus‘ awareness of “invincible summer”—we still need to make a space for it.
Jim and Dolly Sullivan may not be completely out of the woods of despair yet, but they’re making tracks forward.
The Sullivans, who live in central Massachusetts, lost their only son Christopher in Iraq nearly a decade ago. An Army captain, he was killed by a roadside bomb, and since then his parents’ agony has multiplied. His widow returned to her native Germany with the Sullivans’ grandson, a toddler who his father had only known during two stretches of leave and training. She has denied the Sullivans any contact with blonde-haired David, who is now 11. She even became estranged from his maternal grandparents, who had been the Sullivans’ sole point of contact with David. They are fortunate to have other grandchildren and two daughters, but the gaps are growing, their holiday memories of Chris and his son limited to one bittersweet day at their rural home.
At times, their struggles to keep their son close have been compounded by feeling others move away from them. They recall the initial gestures from neighbors in their small community. It snowed heavily before Christopher’s memorial service, and Jim Sullivan, who is a Vietnam veteran, remembers that “Bob Mason up in town plowed a lot. He went in with a front end loader and took every bit of snow out of the cemetery. Things like that get to you.” Their son’s tenth anniversary is January 15.
Captain Christopher James Sullivan’s remains are interred in Section 60, gravesite 8545 at Arlington National Cemetery, which his parents visit several times a year. They usually go there during the spring, on Veterans Day, and always again in December for wreath-laying.
During the years both parents have fought their own internal battles. But they haven’t shirked from facing them. One thing that’s helping them both move ahead is connecting with other military families, including Gold Star mothers, who also need support. It’s often striking what they have in common, and it continues to move both Dolly and Jim how people lift each other up.
The past few years the Sullivans have given themselves a Christmas present.
They join truckers and families in the Wreaths Across America tour, the massive delivery of goodwill and tribute to Arlington National Cemetery started by a Maine couple in 1992. Earlier this month the Sullivans took a week on the tour, which starts at Quoddy Head, the eastern most point of the U.S., winding through New England and down the coast — stopping in small towns, at the Statue of Liberty, Annapolis, and the Pentagon. Then they helped place wreaths on many of the more than 340,000 graves.
Helping with the wreaths “sort of makes you feel better about your son,” Jim Sullivan says. “It’s not that he’s been forgotten. I think that’s the worst thing, feeling that people forgot about your son, that it didn’t mean anything.”
“It’s healing and comforting,” Dolly says. “It’s very emotional, but just spending time with those other families. We’re in the same place, and every year we meet one or two new families.”