Winter, Grief and the Dark Night of the Soul

Winter, nature’s dark night of the soul, has been viewed in many faith traditions as a time of spiritual questioning and aridity, a time of turning inward in a search for what is personally important, a quest for spiritual union.   This journey can be a difficult one, full of sadness and loneliness.  Our losses can be felt most poignantly at this time.  It can be excruciatingly painful as the holidays remind us of times when our loved ones were with us.  The pain of our losses, coupled with the darkness and holidays, can seem too much to bear at times, and we try to cover our pain with liquor or other escapes.

Rather than resulting in permanent devastation, the dark night of the soul is viewed by mystics and others as an opportunity for profound personal and spiritual growth.  Growth comes from touching into our pain, not turning away from it.  The dark winter months can actually aid us in this process if we allow the darkness to envelop us like a sweet blanket of warmth, protecting our hearts as we feel our pain.  As expressed by psychiatrist Gerald May (2004) in his book The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth:

“The dark night is a profoundly good thing. It is an ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions and empowered to live and love more freely. Sometimes this letting go of old ways is painful, occasionally even devastating. But this is not why the night is called ‘dark.’ The darkness of the night implies nothing sinister, only that the liberation takes place in hidden ways, beneath our knowledge and understanding. It happens mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control. For that reason it can be disturbing or even scary, but in the end it always works to our benefit.”


The following are some suggestions for turning in to our pain and finding growth and spiritual union:

  • Journal – This act of expression can be powerfully helpful in pushing out the swirling confusion of emotions so that they become workable.
  • Engage in meaningful ritual – Light a candle in honor of your loved one, set an extra place at the holiday table, go to your loved one’s resting place, make a donation in your loved one’s name or any other activity that helps guide you toward peace.
  • Take care of your health – This time of year, with the added burden of grief, can be extremely stressful, and it is important to attend to our physical health.  Make sure to drink lots of water and eat healthy food.
  • Move your body – Take a walk in the fresh crisp air, do yoga or any other physical activity that engages your body and mind.
  • Practice mindful walking – notice each step and connect to Mother Earth.  Notice your breath, breathing in peace and nourishment, breathing out stress and pain.  Feel that sense of peace and nourishment and letting go of stress and pain first for yourself, and then for all others (which is everyone!) who are experiencing pain and suffering.
  • Give yourself a gift that your loved one wanted for you, whether a material gift or a gift of relaxation, such as a massage.
  • Spend time in nature, with compassionate friends, and schedule “dates” with yourself, treating yourself kindly as a friend.