Light and dark, life and death, loss and gain: Always we are faced with the pairs of opposites, the duality of manifested life. What a winter song for caregivers, to witness the paradoxical interplay of joy and suffering.

Winter, like dark times, can teach us to honor rather than ignore natural cycles. Every season has its own rhythm and pace, its own quality of ebb and flow. In spring, we emerge into activity. In winter, we slow down and empty. If we are listening to our nature, we retreat in order to purify, revitalize, and prepare for new life. Here in the quiet, our imaginations find spacious reign; all things become possible as we clear the way. Especially for caregivers, whose role is so often laden with fear and loss, it is critical to accept that the past must die so that greater magnificence can take root. In allowing this natural cycle, we make way for the birthing of something joyous from deep within ourselves.

Berkeley, Calif., psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Mayer is artistic director of a new form of music theater known as the Bay Revels. Each winter solstice her group – one of about a dozen nationwide – performs a pageant drawn from 1,200 years of cross-cultural ritual. Its message is the notion of renewal, of bringing light out of darkness, life out of death. She says, “This is what the turning of the year is all about, whether it’s in a religious tradition or outside. It’s about the death of the old and the coming of the new to further the spirit of human connectedness.”

Connecting to others in dark times brings the magic of hope. By opening to life’s cycles we become part of something larger than ourselves, and find the experience healing even if it cannot be named. It is this very sense of expansion that many people find so challenging. Yet caregiving is only one drama. In the theater of our own lives, myths and misperceptions keep us from learning from these seemingly fallow times. Our need to hold on keeps us from having enough courage and faith to stop and let life move through us. We never emerge from winter in our hearts.

Yet this darkness is not what it appears: It is not a black hole in which we will become forever lost. It is instead a time of slowing, of shedding what no longer serves or feeds our souls. It is a time when seeds of creativity go deep, when life abundantly enters the earth silently and unseen, yet certain and powerful. Philosopher-author David Spangler says this is a time when though all seems most death-like, “the Life, the Light, the Presence of the Beloved is most active. It is a time when the consciousness of the earth bends itself like a mother unto all that has been planted in its womb, and turns its energies inward in deep and potent meditation, that all these seeds whatever form they may take may be blessed with the presence of this life and be quickened.”

What we hold on to holds us back; if we fail to cradle our own lives, we cannot nurture our souls. And so, letting go is the price of becoming part of the human capacity for spirituality. But what is it we must release in order to have greater life? Mostly it is our identities and affiliations, our roles and our fears, our need to feel dominant over people and events – all the stuff of illusion. How do we let go? By accepting what comes our way, by not wanting life to be other than it is, by returning time and again to the present moment. We let go of whatever keeps us from being who we truly are: spiritual beings. In winter, in darkness, it is difficult to believe that we contain our own light within, and that we have the power to turn it on at will. Yet, if we keep moving, life flows more freely through us and our light becomes stronger of its own accord.

Within each of us is the power to transform darkness to light: It is the capacity to care deeply about one another. This is not a mysterious, inaccessible goal reserved for an elite few, but a pervasive truth. Even Princeton physicist Dr. Robert G. Jahn has concluded that love is the driving force of the physical universe. He believes that “in loving ourselves, we can heal ourselves. In loving the world, we can heal the world.”

And isn’t this what giving care is all about? It’s about love, not martyrdom. It’s about turning negative into positive, darkness into light, death into rebirth. And it can happen in any moment. A 65-year-old caregiver told me a wonderful story the other day. Sharon’s husband has had Parkinson’s disease for 10 years, and she gets up three times a night to change his diaper or soothe his nightmares. Recently she was going through the motions when she found herself stroking his forearm and experiencing him as the Beloved. Suddenly her caring was filled with ecstasy, rather than exhaustion. In serving him, she sensed she was serving the spirit of all humankind. Her heart opened in awe, and her pain released in the grace of this communion.

A soul-to-soul connection is the most profoundly healing experience we can know as human beings. For some reason, we seem to touch it most in the darkest times. When we hit bottom, a new doorway is revealed. The key is staying open, being willing to follow inner guidance even when no light can be seen. For light cannot penetrate what is closed; spirit cannot enter where it is not received.

If we are blessed some of the time, we are blessed all of the time. The flow of life is continuous; it is we who shut it off. Fear closes; love opens. Especially in darkness.

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Beth Witrogen McLeod


  • Beth Witrogen McLeod is an author, journalist, speaker and consultant on caregiving, end-of-life issues and renewal at midlife, especially for women. She is a double Pulitzer Prize nominee, and has won many national and regional awards for her work. She has written for Good Housekeeping, SELF, Family Circle, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Her latest book is Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss, and Renewal

    Her expertise grew out of personal experience caring for her parents who were simultaneously terminally ill 1,200 miles away. With a father dying of a rare form of cancer and a mother with Lou Gehrig's disease and dementia, McLeod learned firsthand about the traumas and blessings of this mid-life rite of passage. She turned her experiences into a passion for public service, first writing and producing an award-winning newspaper series, "The Caregivers," for The San Francisco Examiner in 1995. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She developed a weekly column for The Examiner that often appeared on the New York Times Syndicate Web site. Honors for the series included National Hospice Organization, Pew Charitable Trusts, American Legion Auxiliary, Society of Professional Journalists, and many regional and local social service organizations.

    Beth is an Empowering Caregivers featured expert: learn more about Beth