12/13/2010 11:51 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Death and the Holidays

This post is dedicated to Warren and Lisa.

Sunday, December 12, 2010, would have been my brother David's 58th birthday. He died suddenly of AIDS two days before Christmas (suddenly--he was diagnosed and died three days later), and this is the 25th anniversary of his death. Last year, on the 19th of December, my mother passed away after a long battle of cancer. I bring this up not to be maudlin, but because in the past week, two dear friends had their mothers die (one suddenly, and one after a long illness). And I'm sure there are many of you out there who also have experienced tragedy and loss around this time of year, and can't help but associate this time of year with a hollow pit in the stomach and a sense that someone or something is missing. No matter how we felt about those people who have left us, the leaving is so final. And we are the ones left to deal with the aftermath, whether it's regrets or houses filled with things or drawers filled with memories.

It's tempting, I think, to either try to soldier on, or to sink so deeply into the misery that the rest of our lives stop. I've seen both. My mother never quite recovered from my brother's death. And as a result, we lost a big part of our mother on that day 25 years ago, too. Sometimes, the healing is quick and life goes on, and sometimes it takes a long, long time. I am a believer that it takes work to heal fully. That each of these deaths is a part of the story of our lives that we must seek to understand, and integrate into our being, and learn from.

After my brother died, the first time we left the house was to go to a Christmas Eve candlelight service at a local church. I could barely sing those familiar Christmas songs as tears streamed down my face. My brother David and I loved to sing together. He was the star in all the high-school musicals, and we would sit together at my grandmother's player piano and belt out show tunes; West Side Story was our favorite. This was our karaoke before there was karaoke. (I am one of those alone-in-the-car singers now!) Since then, every year when I've gone to a Christmas service (which truthfully, is the only time I go to services--and it's usually my kid's vespers service for school), I can't help but cry when I sing a carol or a hymn. My husband thinks it's cute, and my kids think it's funny and embarrassing.

Recently, I've been working on healing my past--specifically, that time in my life when my brother died. Oh, I could have forgotten about it and buried it deep in my soul--perhaps to relive in a future life. But like cleaning out a closet, I moved toward healing instead of closing my eyes to it. And a funny thing happened this year...

This year, at my daughter Eve's Christmas Vespers service, I sang every song and every verse and did not cry a single tear. I was able to belt out those songs as if my brother was still alive, and I still could sing with a full heart--a heart filled with joy and love instead of loss and sadness. I'm not sure exactly how it happened--that's part of the mystery of life and love. But I know it happened because I made an effort to heal, rather than letting things stay buried.

Now, you all know that I'm more of a pagan than a Christian. What I really am is a traveler on the Path of Love. But one thing that is consistent across many cultures and religions is that this time of year is a "festival of lights." I believe it comes from the fact that December, in the Northern hemisphere, is the darkest time of the year--and light symbolizes the return of longer days and the hope and faith that spring will come again. One of the thoughts that have stayed with me from my father's funeral (20 years ago!!!!) was when a rabbi said that without the misery of death, we wouldn't understand and appreciate the joy of birth and new life. Yes, it's a Disney moment--the Circle of Life we are all a part of--and there is beauty, mystery, and sorrow and sadness, but also hope and rebirth...and we know full well that one day it will be our turn to go, too.

So, to all of you facing sadness and loss this holiday season, there is hope! Spring will come again. You just have to believe and do the hard work that it takes to get there. You, too, can sing again without crying--whether it's in this world or the next. Light a candle and allow yourself to believe it.

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