Holding Joy & Sorrow Together

By Sara Barry

Light and dark.

Joy and sorrow.

December is a time for these extremes that are parts of the same whole.

Darkness sneaks in early and lingers in December. I don’t mind much these days. I cozy up to the fire, hand the kids headlamps to run outside. I admire the dusky purple colors of the settling twilight.

Eleven years ago the darkness fell heavy. With light already dimmed, these long winter nights were long and lonely. Grief settled harder with the dark and cozy eluded me.

I’d wrap myself in his blanket, the one my nana made with yellow yarn and love. I lit candles, turned on memory lamps. Sit in the blue glow of my computer seeking other stories of loss and love, missing and memories.

Eleven years has brought big change from my first holiday season without Henry. It’s brought two births. It’s brought a growing sense of light and a greater comfort in the darkness. It’s brought new traditions and new ways of experiencing this full time.

And still, this month challenges me, every year different, every year emotionally complex and extreme.

I have learned to sit with light and darkness together. I have learned to hold both joy and sorrow cupped in my hands. I’ve learned that they don’t have to pull me apart, but that both can have their place.

I look forward to the solstice, when we turn back toward light. I look forward to sitting in stillness and quiet as the dark peaks. Days before this my own darkness peaks as we mark another year from Henry’s passing.

I will shut down my computer and silence my phone. I won’t take calls for appointments or show up for basketball practice. I’ll set aside Christmas shopping and my to do lists.

On that day, I will make space for quiet and stillness. I will make space for breakfast with a friend who knows what this day means and that I won’t know what I need until we are in the moment, and perhaps not even then. I will make space for a walk in the woods and a visit to the cemetery. I will make space to sit by the fire. I will make space for tears, and memories and reflection.

I will make space to break open, once again, to the enormity of his life and my loss.

Our life has gotten busy. I get my girls off to school and settle in to work, deadlines to meet, client calls. I bring my girls to piano and Girl Scouts and basketball games in two different places each week. We go to the library and the winter farmers market and the bank. We go and we do and we come home and read and snuggle.

But on this one day, each year, I make space. Even 11 years later, I give this day to Henry. I give it to myself.

I give myself over to the light and dark of this day. I allow for the joy even in the sorrow. I held his life and now I hold his death. And I make space for all of it.

In this season of busy and bustling joy, may you find space and stillness.

In this season when darkness hangs low, may you find peace and light.

In this season of giving, may you give yourself what you need most in this moment.

In this season of tugging extremes may you find a way to sit with the light and dark, hold both sorrow and joy knowing they both need space and both are complete and full.

Writing Prompts from the Retreat

By Sarah Nichols

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We recently held Empty Arms' first day-long retreat with ten parents gathering at our offices in Florence for a day of writing, community, and crafting. Jess also led a lovely session of gentle yoga, using an amended version of Joan Halifax's guided meditation on grief. It was absolutely magic to gather together! Here we've shared some of the writing prompts we used-- we invite you to write to any of these that moves you, and welcome you to share any part of what you write in the comments!

Prompt #1

In her book Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Bhanu Kapil writes:      

“From January 12, 1992, to June 4, 1996, I traveled in India, England, and the United States, interviewing Indian women of diverse ages and background. Originally, my question to them was, ‘Is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say, not even to the one you have spent your whole life loving?’

Over the course of the last four years I asked these women—strangers I met in theaters, forests, Laundromats, temples, and diners—to respond more specifically to one or more of a predetermined selection of twelve questions. They agreed, on the condition of anonymity, to submit a spoken (tape-recorded) or written response in thirty minutes. My aim was to ensure an honest and swift text, uncensored by guilt or the desire to construct an impressive, publishable finish.”

We gather today to write in this same spirit—with the urgency and depth of shared company, setting aside of perfectionism in the name of writing what feels most true for us today. We will take the next twenty-five minutes to write towards a selection of Bhanu’s prompts. Feel free to write to all of the questions, one of them, or none at all if you have a question of your own making in mind.

"Who are you and whom do you love?

What is the shape of your body?

What do you remember about the earth?

What are you waiting, or what are you wanting, to be asked?"

Prompt #2

Letter writing is one of the most intimate forms of address. In a letter, we can say what we might otherwise be reluctant to voice aloud, or what must cross a great span of distance to reach the recipient. The act of writing a letter can be a threading or line of rope between you and the recipient, a pulling in or towards. Or, a lit match in the dark where you wish their voice could answer in response.

Write a letter— to the addressee of your choosing. Since we have gathered together as Empty Arms community members, you may wish to focus your letter on your loss. This can look all kinds of different ways. Here are just a few possibilities for whom you may write to:

To your baby  

To a nurse or doctor who was there with you, what you’re grateful to them for, what was particularly comforting about their care, or about the ways their actions angered, disappointed, or deeply hurt you.

To your partner or dear friend, what they said or did that stuck with you, the ways your paths of grief ran parallel, and the ways they diverged. An offering of the truths and stories you have forged together and alone.

To your younger self, about what has happened since, the ways you’ve healed, changed, and the places that are still tender. What you’d want to tell her, if you could. The ways you carry her with you.

Prompt #3

In her book It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok, Megan Devine writes about what tending to her grief has looked like since her partner’s untimely death. She offers several writing prompts— some are short, like the seedlings of prompts here:

"Today, my grief feels like…

I wish I knew…

Kindness to, and patience with, myself could look like…"

And a longer prompt here:

Imagine Recovery (p.176)

"There are many ways to craft an image of your own recovery. To get started, you might write your responses to these questions:

1. Given that what I’ve lost cannot be restored, given that what was taken cannot be returned, what would healing look like?

2. If I step outside cultural norms of “rising above loss,” what would living this well look like?

3. How will I care for myself?

4. What kind of person do I want to be, for myself, and for others?"