To All the Ones We’ve Loved Before

December 24, 2019

Anneliese Sorrentino, MSS, MFT, works with individuals and couples at our University City office. Read how Anneliese’s holiday traditions inspire constructive moments of reflection. 

It’s late December, just a few days past the longest night of the year.  For people around the world, this is a time of collective anticipation and preparation, tinged variously with shades of joy, apprehension, and longing.

I was not raised in any faith tradition, yet Christmas has been a defining ritual for my family of origin for as long as I can remember. It’s the one time of year when we reliably gather under the same roof – an increasingly rare occurrence, given full lives and geographical separations. This ritual is sacred to us, thanks to my mother’s deep appreciation for the importance of “punctuating life,” as she likes to say.

My mother grew up in Austria, a country with extraordinarily beautiful Yuletide customs. By far the most lovely and magical of these are the candles on the Christmas tree. Depending on the size of the tree, it may hold anywhere from 15 to 25 slender beeswax candles along its branches, each about ten centimeters long, fitted snugly into miniature candleholders crafted for this purpose. We initiate the tree on Christmas Eve, one candle at a time, beginning at the top and moving down until all are lit. Then, we switch off all lamps and find a cozy seat from which to watch the play of light and shadow, basking in the gentle glow of these tiny flames. The effect is one of deep Geborgenheit, which translates to something like at-homeness.

For my mother, each flame represents the life of someone she has loved and lost, and she likes to keep vigil until the last candle has burned down. You can tell when a candle is about to go out by the motion of the flame, which quickens its dance for just a few moments before it expires, exhaling a smoky sigh that fades into the deepening shadows.

Reflecting on the meaning of my mother’s candles, I begin to remember the faces and names of former clients – I recall their quirks, their struggles, their strengths, their courage, and their grace; I wonder what their lives are like and how they are doing now. I want them to know I still think of them and still care. And I want to thank them – for the gift of their trust, for all they taught me in allowing me to be part of their story, and for being part of mine.

At this time of year especially, there seems to be little room for acknowledging life’s shadow side. Yet impermanence, suffering, and loss are as much a part of being human as joy, laughter, and light; they make life precious, and they grow more bearable when we can name and hold them together.

As the year draws to a close and the holiday frenzy peaks, may you find time for quiet reflection. Light a candle for yourself and for those whom you have loved and lost. Let there be space, within and between, for both sorrow and joy, and gratitude. And as you remember, may you feel yourself held. Happy Holidays.