Letting the Candles Burn Down
At the start of autumn, we welcome the holiday season with rituals focused on light and fire. From glowing Jack-o-lanterns and bonfires in October to festive string lights, twinkling Christmas trees, menorahs, and wood stoves in November and December, we bring the light inward when there is less light outside.
I find candles, in particular, to be warm and inviting during New York’s cold, barren winter months.
My daughter loved candles. She collected them with a kind of wild delight, displaying them throughout her bedroom alongside tumbled crystals, incense holders, and other treasures.
She burned candles for their simple beauty or because she liked their scent or to admire the miracle of captive fire in her bedroom. She had to stop burning them in the last weeks of her life because of the oxygen tanks.
“An open flame can cause a flash fire where the tubes go into her nose,” the hospice nurse had said. “No candles, incense, or petroleum-based lip balm anywhere near the tanks.”
The thought of her face catching fire was so terrifying that my daughter refused to use the oxygen until the very end of her life. By then she had no interest in burning candles.
She’s been gone since March. It’s cold outside now. The days are darker, shorter, and I’m still sorting through her belongings, deciding what to keep, give away, or throw away. It’s a form of hell that only bereaved parents truly understand.
Though, admittedly, some things were easy to dispose of.
I called the respiratory equipment company the day after she died. “Come get the tanks,” I’d said. “As soon as you can.”
I threw out the extra pillows, humidifier, and fans my daughter had used to get a modicum of relief for the constant pressure in her chest. Within twenty-four hours, I’d cleared out all evidence of the cancer that had dominated my child’s life for five years.
When it was gone, I cleaned her room, washed her bedding, and made her bed. Then I did nothing. Grief swallowed me completely.
As weeks passed, her room—and the objects inside it—became a constant reminder that she wasn’t coming back. I visited it often, surveyed the spotless quiet, and wept.
After months of leaving most of her possessions untouched, I couldn’t bear it anymore. I went through her bins first, throwing out the easiest things (empty notebooks, broken toys, a frisbee she’d never used). I turned to the clothes next, giving some items to my younger daughter and a few things to her two best friends. I saved some special pieces—pajama bottoms she’d worn for years, a Christmas sweater dress she’d worn the previous December, a vintage skirt she’d loved—and gave them to a friend to turn into a quilt.
Her tidy bed haunted me. Looking at it conjured up the last few, awful days of her life.
So, five months after she died, my husband and I threw out the bed. I turned her room into my home office, preserving much of the artwork and layout as she’d left it, but repurposing it into a lived-in space. I kept the things she’d cherished the most: tapestries, stones, small, perfect bowls she’d made in her high school pottery class, and, of course, her candles.
She left about a dozen behind, some of them partially burned, some of them untouched—jewels within a finite trove of treasure from a life not fully lived. During the first few weeks in our shared space, I moved her candles around, but couldn’t bring myself to burn them. I’d wipe the dust from them every few days and put them back on her nightstand or shelf.
We buy candles for the sole purpose of burning them. They’re like metaphors that reflect the irrefutable impermanence of life. Yet my daughter’s candles sat untouched. Like her pristine bed, they’d become another painful reminder that she wasn’t coming back.
It seemed like such a terrible injustice that these objects of wax and fiber should exist forever, waiting for my daughter’s slender fingers to light them. That’s how the candles helped me realize that I was stuck. They weren’t waiting for her to come back. I was.
Summer was already fading by the time I burned her first candle, a tea light in the shape of a mushroom. It burned down in under ten minutes and I let it smolder until all the wax was gone. It was an incredible relief to throw out the little metal cup where the candle had been, now nothing more than a scrap of tin and a blackened wick.
Next, I burned two votives that had been on her bedside table for nearly a year. They were pretty—lavender and blue. They didn’t burn well and after several failed attempts, I threw them away.
Then I selected a round beeswax candle that reminded me of an apple and burned it throughout October and into November. It burned slowly. I looked forward to the ritual of lighting it every morning and announcing my intentions out loud, invoking my daughter’s memory—and her spirit—as the flame flickered to life.
“Today I will think of you and look for signs.”
“Today I will be productive and focused.”
“Today I will let myself grieve, but not give in to despair.”
On Halloween, I burned a black candle shaped like a skull until it was nothing more than a formless pile of dark wax.
And now, as the cold has begun to settle in and get comfortable, the nights longer, the days greyer, I’m anticipating burning her winter candles—a pine scented votive, a moss green pillar, the special Christmas-themed beeswax candle I bought her last year…
Grief can’t be rushed. Some days it burns hot and fierce, like that first mushroom-shaped tealight. But, often, it burns slowly, riding days that turn to weeks, then months, then years at its own pace, its own intensity.
As December approaches and I steel myself for this first Christmas without my daughter, I will continue to burn the candles down. Their flame shines a tiny light into the darkness of my grief and helps me feel connected to my daughter without holding too tightly to objects meant to be as impermanent as we are.
Jacqueline Dooley has published essays about parenting a child with cancer and parental grief on WashingtonPost.com, HuffingtonPost.com, Pulsevoices.org, and Goodhousekeeping.com. She also blogs at www.healingana.com.