When the first winter arrived after our son Finlay had died inexplicably during childbirth in June 2014, my husband Will and I knew that we had to leave home. And go far away.
We couldn’t bear being in the Finlay-less house with its memories of our previous Christmas when I was pregnant with our first child. Through a set of intuitive decisions, we booked a flight to Copenhagen, a place neither of us had visited before. It felt right to be going to a northern country where so much of the daytime would be in darkness.
On Christmas morning, we went to Frederik’s Church where we attended a rather somber mass spoken in Danish (although I had thought that particular service would be in English). That night we visited the famous Tivoli Gardens amusement park. A bitter chill made being outdoors very painful. Like the darkness that pervaded Copenhagen for much of each day, something seemed appropriate and even comforting about a Christmas Day that began with a stiff and foreign gathering of strangers and ended with a physically uncomfortable evening that threatened frostbite.
One aspect of our time in Denmark that did feel nurturing, though, was experiencing the ubiquitous candlelight dancing on bar counters, flickering on restaurant tables, and greeting pedestrians on sidewalks and in storefront windows across the city. In fact, when we arrived at our Airbnb apartment in the early morning after an overnight flight, our host greeted us with candles aglow. We felt immediately welcomed and could relax. The practice of lighting candles each day contributes to a making-of hygge – the Danish expression for a mood constituted by coziness, well-being, friendship, warmth, and slowing down. Combining soft lighting, comfortable furnishings, and a relaxing activity can generate hygge. Think: knitting or reading in front of a fireplace or enjoying a home-cooked meal with your favorite people.
When the darkness felt a little too dark and our grief felt a little too overwhelming, we stayed in our temporary Danish home, enveloped by the warm glow of candles. This made me think about Finlay’s life inside me – how hygge was that? For his entire life, he knew only a gentle, soft, warm, cozy home created and maintained by the love of devoted parents.
This year, during our fourth Christmas without Finlay’s physical presence, I am bringing hygge into our grief and holiday-filled home that we now share with Finlay’s two-year old brother Phalen.
My plan has two parts. Part 1. A Day of the Dead/Hygge Mashup. Instead of adorning a homemade altar with photos of and favorite treats for loved ones who have left this world (a la a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda), we will use candles, lots of them. This light will evoke our dearly departed and see us through the long winter nights. We’ve lit a candle near Finlay’s urn many nights over the years, and so it seems natural to extend this practice. Perhaps for Finlay’s grandfather Stephen, who stood 6’6”, we’ll light a slender taper. For his great-grandmothers Frances and Dolly, who entertained long conversations with me, I’ll find slow-burning beeswax pillars that stay lit for hours. And for our sweet friend Ivone, a colorful votive holder filled with graceful light might capture something of her joyful energy. These candles can surround Finlay’s, marking an ongoing relationship between all of these lovely souls.
Part 2. I will light a candle for my grief. Since my grief will be showing up for the holidays anyway, why not invite it in and make it feel as welcome as our Danish host made us feel? It is, after all, a dynamic, ever-changing condition into which I live each day. Why not honor that with the flickering energy of candles that produce what the Danish call levende lys or living light?
The challenge will be selecting a candle that can materialize the current state of my grief. Perhaps a candle that floats gently in a bowl of water; this would speak to the shifting currents of grief. Or maybe I need to pour my own candle so that I can collaborate with my grief. Might this creative process produce some illumination about the contours of my grief journey this past year? My grief candle will help to externalize the pain or sorrow that arrives alongside cheery holiday wishes in the coming weeks. It will also act as a reminder that brightness can be found in even the darkest places.
Since the only souvenirs we purchased in Copenhagen were candle holders, these objects will help to activate our hygge grief space. These Danish things carry the history of that dark cold Christmas in Copenhagen and will help us to animate the very present love we feel for Finlay and our dear ones every day of the year.
About the Author: Joanne brings her experience as an educator, writer, and grieving parent to her work at Inviting Abundance. Through workshops, classes, and a To Grieve podcast series, she explores the many forms a creative grief practice can take. As part of her personal grief practice, Joanne studies permaculture design and herbal medicine and makes herb-infused honeys that she sells through Finlay’s Garden.