“I have awoken with a fire in my belly, a good fire, one that speaks of life, a beacon in the dark, and if I place it on a high enough peak perhaps you can see it, perhaps it can light a flame in your heart, and when you feel its warmth, then you may be able to light one too, to pass it on, for each of us can be a light in the dark for someone else, and someone else, and someone else, until there is a chain of golden light shining far and wide connecting us one to another.” © Leah Bracknell.
It is the time of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day and the longest night, when shadows close around us. The cold moon is little more than a silver sliver in the sky, struggling to pierce the heavy pall of clouds, and the darkness seems complete.
For many, this is all too apt. While much of the world celebrates the holidays and holy days of the season, for others it is a time of grief, isolation and fear. Some simply long for warmer times and a house full of laughter, rather than the silence of an empty nest. Some carry the pain of recent or impending loss, feeling the empty place at the table like a knife in the gut. There can be many causes… too many to list… but for those touched by grief, the holiday season can be a living hell.
The first Christmas after the death of my partner and lifelong friend, I was lost. Every Christmas greeting, every song, brought tears. I just wanted to curl up in a dark corner and hide. I could not do so… I had the boys… and it was not the way we had chosen to face cancer with him. So, it was not the way we were going to face life without him.
Instead, on Christmas morning we dug a hole in the middle of the garden. In it we planted a winter-flowering evergreen with fragrant blooms. Beneath its roots we buried some of my partner’s ashes… and all his favourite coffee creams from a big box of chocolates. There were, inevitably, tears. But there were smiles too, for by bringing him into our day, we felt his presence. Then I donned the ‘posh frock’ and ‘sparklies’ as the boys expected and we made Christmas as usual.
The winter solstice may well be the darkest hour, but it is also the turning point. As soon as the sun has passed its most southerly declination, the days begin to get longer once more… and spring is on its way. The worst of the winter weather may yet be to come, but the light is slowly beginning to return.
When my eldest son was stabbed through the brain in 2009, he was not expected to live. There was a time of fear that I cannot describe. But he survived. It was little short of miraculous, yet the ongoing grief of watching him try to battle his way back to himself was utter hell. Six months after the attack, he was sent home, still unable to even sit unaided or to do anything for himself, still struggling to speak and with his sight irreparably damaged. But he was home for Christmas.
Eight years later and he is home for Christmas again… this time after an incredible adventure in India. Over the past few years, he has jumped out of aeroplanes, travelled widely, ridden his trike to raise money for charity and won a national award as an inspiring individual. He still cannot walk, his vision has not magically healed, the damage to his body is permanent and the long-term effects are unknown. But, in spite of all prognoses and expectations, it has not prevented him from living.
My son has often said that there is no courage in how he lives, he just puts one metaphorical foot in front of the other. I disagree. Few see the inner struggles; the outer world sees only the way in which we choose to face it… and it is in those choices that courage is found.
It is all too easy to let the darkness overtake us when life turns to winter. Too easy, too, to believe our trials are ‘worse than’ or ‘not as bad as’ those of another, falling prey to judgement or guilt. The Gates of Hell are different for each of us, and none of us can know how we will face them if we are called upon to stand in their shadow. None of us can see into the secret depths of another’s heart and mind. It is not always easy to see clearly into our own, nor to find a path through the mire.
“If I can wake each morning with a prayer of gratitude in my heart, and close each day with the same, I know I am living well.
If I can acknowledge all the blessings and gifts that come my way, now, yesterday and tomorrow, it blows away the cobwebs of fear and grief and confusion and despair, and my life feels sweeter and richer than never before.
If I can plant the seed of hope in the garden of my soul, and nourish it with love and compassion, and fertilise it with forgiveness, and water it with the sweet cleansing rain of faith, trust and belief, then I will witness how it flourishes and grows and reaches its roots deep into my heart and every cell of my being, and blossoms in the winter of my yesterdays lost and blooms on the horizon of tomorrow, with the gift of divine grace and beauty…” © Leah Bracknell.
The words above are from ‘Morning Prayer‘ by ‘actress, yoga teacher, shamanic healer, and cancer-club member’, Leah Bracknell, best known for her long-running role as Zoe Tate in ITV’s Emmerdale. Leah kindly gave me permission to share her words. While the papers may write that she is battling terminal cancer, she regards herself as ‘GLIDING – Gloriously Living In Defiance of Expectation‘. Reading her blog, I would call that an understatement.
As I no longer watch TV or read the papers, I was not aware of Leah’s identity or story when I read her Morning Prayer. I simply found it beautiful. When we are lost in our own pain, the words of another cannot cure, but they can shine a light to help us find a way forward and make our own choices. Read Leah’s Prayer in full on her website, Something Beginning with C, then read her stories; her own story is woven through them. Let her words light a flame in your heart.
Leah will be giving a talk: Cancer And the Art of Living on January 18th 2018 in London. Details and booking below: