Along with the election next week, I cannot ignore the fact that the darkest, loneliest period of the year begins Sunday with the end of Daylight Savings Time.
Before my husband’s death in April 2009, I never paid much attention to the length of days or the hours of sunlight. During my first six months as a widow, I felt free to go to restaurants, malls and theaters in the evening without worrying about dark streets and parking lots.
Unlike most parts of the country, fall in South Texas holds the promise of a break in the heat, when we can enjoy being outside for exercise and sports, gardening and entertaining. Even on the shortest day of the year, we have more than 10 hours of daylight; so I was unprepared for the depression that settled in like a fog when, overnight, it was dark before 6 o’clock.
I felt trapped at home by the darkness. My sense of aloneness increased. For the first time, I marked the Winter Solstice. While it was the shortest day of the year, it also reminded me that Christmas — with all its hope and joy — was just around the corner and that the days would begin to grow longer again.
In the decade of widowhood that followed, I made peace with the darkness and aloneness. Although the first Sunday in November always carries the threat of depression, I have learned to prepare for it, to fill my calendar with joyful moments of entertaining and preparing for the holidays. I have focused on the word “thanksgiving,” very intentionally seeking to live my life in gratitude mode.
But none of that works this year. Like so many Americans, I have spent most of the year alone, with limited interaction, even with family. We have been bombarded on all fronts by the pandemic, politics and protests; and I see little light at the end of a very long tunnel.
While protests have mostly faded from the headlines, record-breaking numbers of new COVID cases, threats to the election process and concerns about the economy make the outlook for the immediate future even gloomier. Like so many families, we are adjusting to the fact that large family gatherings are simply not safe and indoor parties are out of the question.
“We are adjusting to the fact that large family gatherings are simply not safe and indoor parties are out of the question.”
We are all grieving, but how much worse it must be for all those who have lost loved ones this year. Seven good friends have lost their spouses, and they have been robbed of the customary rituals and ministries that provide comfort, support and encouragement. To a great degree, they have to grieve alone, deprived in large part of the most important ministry of all — the ministry of presence.
After talking both to my widowed friends and to those who are half a couple, I realize that shelter-in-place is totally different when you share the isolation with the person you love most in the world. Many friends’ isolation has been greater and longer than mine, usually due to age and underlying medical conditions. They are my role models when I grow discouraged about this pandemic that seems to drag on forever, because this is the world some of them live in all the time.
In October 2017 I posted a blog titled “Hope for the Holidays.” It began:
… or would today’s blog be more appropriately titled, “Help! It’s the Holidays”? When holiday promotions start showing up in the stores, when the days grow shorter, when Daylight Savings Time ends, I am again reminded that I am approaching the time of year when I struggle to find joy.
If you have experienced loss in the past year, if the holidays this year will be different, if celebrating sounds impossible, I am writing to you. It doesn’t have to be death. Divorce, loss of health or income, loss of home — too common along the Texas coast and throughout the country this year due to hurricanes, wildfires and floods — all tend to rob us of our joy.
Substitute Louisiana and California for Texas, and that pretty well describes all of us, doesn’t it? I went on to describe what helped me reclaim joy after Lev’s death. The list is still applicable today, although implementation is complicated by COVID.
First, start by being thankful. Make a list of all you have to be thankful for. Thank God every day for the blessings you receive. Try to include at least one moment of joy and beauty in your life every day — a phone call, gardening, exercise, time to read a book or listen to music that lifts your spirit.
“The year Lev died, I sent out Thanksgiving cards instead of Christmas cards. That may be a good idea this year.”
Second, thank those who are meaningful to you. The year Lev died, I sent out Thanksgiving cards instead of Christmas cards. That may be a good idea this year — a note or card to those we are thankful for, to reach out and touch some of those we have lost contact with during these long months of staying home.
Third, plan early for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. That’s a hard one because we can’t really plan anything with any certainty now. But I have started. I’ve had the annual conversation with my daughter and daughter-in-law. We have penciled in our small Thanksgiving gathering on our calendars, and my thoughts turn to decorating the house, planning meals and setting a beautiful table. I will start worrying about Christmas later.
Fourth, look for ways to give. Gratitude leads to generosity, and the happiest people are those who find joy in giving to others. This year calls for creativity. I haven’t come up with answers yet, but I am searching for meaningful gifts that won’t require hours of shopping in crowded malls but will add a little joy to the lives of the those I love. And I’m looking for ways to give back to God and to the community.
That brings me to the final question, which I don’t have an answer for: How can I serve others significantly but safely when masks and social distancing separate us physically?
Ella Wall Prichard is a journalism graduate of Baylor University who is known as a philanthropist and advisor to Baptist causes in Texas and beyond. A longtime member of First Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, she has served on committees and boards of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She was a member of the Baylor Board of Regents and a director of the Baylor Alumni. A portion of this column originally appeared in her book, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, which recounts the story of her husband’s untimely death and her suddenly finding herself the president of the family oil business. That content, © 2018 by 1845 Books, an imprint of Baylor University Press, is used by permission.