Deck the Halls With Grief

Making darkness visible during the holidays.

My memories burn brighter in December. When the lights twinkle and the carols play, I remember my mother kicking at the sheets and saying “I have to go” before she died. Families with dazzling teeth exchange gifts on television while I think about holding my father’s hand, so cold and paper-light, as a doctor said all he could offer was prayer, which did not work. Most of all, I remember the words I did not say and the things I wish I’d done. Grief is fiercely isolating. Only we are aware of the voices missing from our lives. The sound of a loved one’s feet padding down the hall. The heat and history pulsing beneath the way they said good morning. Grief can arrive with a shift in the light or a half-heard snippet of conversation on the street. It always arrives just in time for the holidays.

One particularly hard day before Christmas, I wandered through the supermarket, lost in a memory of childhood shopping trips with my mom, remembering how she held my hand as I gazed up at the fluorescent lights, wondering if that was heaven. Now I was a confused adult, staring at the rafters while shoppers pushed past me — and I finally realized the obvious: Everyone here has lost somebody too. Or they will. We are all carrying the ghosts of parents, lovers, and even children. So why should I feel so alone? Our dark emotions often feel indulgent, even shameful, because if everyone else seems to be carrying on happily, why can’t we? As I left the store empty-handed, the city’s chipper billboards for gadgets, diet soda, and endless youth felt especially tone-deaf that night.

We live in a visual culture that seems hellbent on denying sadness in favor of telling us to be sexier, eat all we can, and always stay entertained. And the holidays twist the knife. Moments of loneliness and regret feel almost criminal in a season of market-driven cheer that leaves too many of us feeling isolated and diminished. But this is by design. Advertising only works when we are unhappy. Happy people don’t tend to want things. Yet once the sensations of need or doubt or jealousy are lodged in our brains, what are we supposed to do? The booming self-care industry sells us overpriced candles, crystals, and tuning forks that promise to blunt our existential pain while reducing us to customers. Yet this caters to the individual. Where is the public acknowledgement of our difficult emotions?

As the year draws to a close, I find myself retreating into museums. It’s become an unexpected tradition, sitting before paintings of solitary saints and sinners praying in darkness. These images do not treat my state of mind like a problem to be solved. Rather, they leave me feeling less alone by transforming tragedy, regret, and doubt into something dignified, even beautiful. Now when my mother’s last day comes to mind, I try to recast her death in Renaissance oils, imagining strips of light from the parking lot falling across her face as she dreams of a better world. When I remember holding my father’s hand as the beeping on his heart monitor became a dial tone, I imagine the cosmic hush of a bronze Buddha holding his seat no matter what cataclysms may come. It helps.

These scenes feel more necessary than ever. As I click and scroll through chipper snapshots clamoring for hearts and stars, I long for a visual landscape that doesn’t leave me feeling alienated or unworthy. This is something I strive to create in my work with Candy Chang. Shared rituals that speak to this unsettled moment. Spaces where we can gather to reflect without any promise of a quick fix. After receiving thousands of handwritten reflections from visitors to projects such as Light The Barricades, we’ve seen firsthand that loss, loneliness, and doubt bind us together more than anything. Sometimes these moods don’t need to be solved, they just need to be seen. Some of us find solace through worship, ceremony, and family tradition, but for many of us, these do not apply. I found consolation by spending time with moody paintings from distant centuries, and I hope anyone grappling with dark material this season claims their own moment of refuge from the glare of mass-marketed cheer. Because I promise you, you are not alone.

Notes from the end of a world. Searching for faith in the digital age.