TCF Worldwide Candle Lighting – A Look Back Over the Years

As the major holidays approached in late autumn of 1995, I was filled with anxiety and deep sadness. In May of that year, my 15-year-old vivacious and beautiful daughter Nina was senselessly and tragically killed by an alcohol-impaired driver. With a shattered heart, I agonized and wondered how we would ever get through the holidays. Who would bake the traditional Spritz cookies with me or help set up the Christmas village she loved since she was a toddler? Who would shop with me until we dropped looking for just the right gifts for friends and family? The thought of it was incomprehensible and unbearable.

I realized early on in my grief that I would need support from others whose lives had also been irrevocably altered by the devastating death of their child, grandchild, or sibling.  In December of 1995, I attended a candle lighting remembrance program at the St. Paul, Minnesota chapter of The Compassionate Friends.  There were approximately 50 people in attendance that evening. We sat together as poems were read and music was played. Through my tears, I barely remember that first candle lighting, however, I recall it to be an intensely moving experience as together we shared in the memory of our beautiful children who would be missing from the holidays forever.

In 1997, the national organization of The Compassionate Friends (TCF) USA created the first Worldwide Candle Lighting to be held on the second Sunday of each December. TCF successfully lobbied the US Senate in 1998 to make this a national day of remembrance. President Bill Clinton signed a formal proclamation encouraging Americans to participate in the Worldwide Candle Lighting in remembrance of children who have died and “to bring comfort to their families.”

What began as a small internet observance, the TCF Worldwide Candle Lighting (WCL) is believed to be the largest mass candle lighting in the world.  Hundreds of formal candle lightings are held by Compassionate Friends chapters in the United States and thousands more are held in the U.S. and around the world by allied organizations, churches, funeral homes, community centers and in private homes.

Candles are lit at 7 PM in each time zone, as they burn down in one time zone they are lit in the next, creating a virtual wave of light for 24 hours around the globe honoring the memory of all children who have died.

In 2013, TCF of Ventura County, California had one of the most highly attended WCL programs in the USA and had grown from 250 to 800.  Meticulous planning of their program begins months in advance and includes strong support from local newspaper and television coverage.  The TCF of Ventura County in Thousand Oaks, CA chapter leader Janice Anderson says, “great care is given to each detail to create a WCL program that is a beautiful, emotional and sacred evening for all who attend.” Anderson, added, “We provide a safe haven for comfort to let all know that our children’s light will always shine.”

The TCF of Ventura County, CA program begins with a bagpiper playing and music is also provided by a singer and pianist. When their candles are all lit their custom is to play Alan Pedersen’s song, “Tonight I Hold This Candle” or Paul Alexander’s “Light A Candle”.  Anderson says, “when their program is over attendees “walk away with peace in their hearts.”

Kelly Pelster, has been involved in the planning of the TCF WCL in Omaha, Nebraska for many years.  Pelster says “after we moved our program from a church to a hotel a few years ago, the attendance grew from 120 to 600 people. The Omaha WCL, like most programs, includes a slide show presentation featuring photos provided by the families of their children, siblings and grandchildren.  Pelster remembers one grandfather in particular who sent a photo of his daughters entire family for the slide show   “I couldn’t imagine how he even had the strength to get it into the envelope and mail it.”

The Omaha WCL also includes a “mixer” – a pause in the program to reach out to someone and say hello and share something about their child together. “Oftentimes people come to the candle lighting every year who have never attended a meeting; the mixer helps these people not feel so alone.”

Most WCL programs welcome extended family members and friends to attend.  This gives an opportunity for families to share this time together to focus on the child, sibling and/or grandchild who died separate from their family holiday gatherings.

Tanya Lord, who serves as the TCF Regional Coordinator for New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, attends the Manchester/Nashua Compassionate Friends chapter’s WCL each year with her husband Glen.  She says “the WCL is a special time we get to spend together remembering our son Noah.  By taking that time to remember and honor him, we can face the rest of the season with a lighter heart, especially all these years later.”

Worldwide Candle Lighting events are held all over the world.  Los Amigos Compasivos in San Juan, Puerto Rico welcomes more than 500 attendees at their event each year.  Nivia Vázquez, co-leader of the Los Amigos Compasivos chapter, says “our program continues to grow because families who attend for the first time look forward to it each year and never want to miss it.”  Vázquez adds, “What makes our program so special is all the love that we pour into dedicating that special evening to our children’s lives – we celebrate their lives with joy because they lived and will always live in our hearts – it’s their day, it’s their night, it is their activity.”

I personally have been honored to lead the St. Paul Chapter’s annual Worldwide Candle Lighting program for many years. From my vantage point looking down at our program’s attendees, I clearly see each tear-stained face.  As the harpist softly plays, one by one, each attendee comes forward to light a candle for their loved one gone too soon–and speaks their name: Though the room is dimly lit in the beginning, the room becomes brighter and brighter as each candle is lit until we are bathed in a peaceful glow of togetherness, illuminating us as we unite in the love we have for our children, siblings and grandchildren. 

The WCL allows all who attend to feel a strong bond and connection to everyone worldwide who has lit candles for their loved one.  After the last person lights their candles, we hold our candles high with the belief that our children look down and see our lights shining, reminding us that though gone is the life, never is their light.

My husband Greg and I will light our candles this December 8th —and every year hereafter on the second Sunday of December for the rest of our lives–one for our daughter Nina and another for son Chris—signifying that our love for them shines bright and lives on, and “…that their light will always shine.”

For information about attending or hosting a WCL program in your community, visit our website


 Cathy Seehuetter

Written October 2014 for We Need Not Walk Alone TCF’s magazine (with some revisions made in December 2019)

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Comments (9)

  • Cathy, Thank you for sharing your loss and also for the dedication you have shown to CF. I am sorry to know you have lost two children in tragic circumstances. I, too, lost a daughter in a vehicle accident, where an oncoming car came left of center and hit her on her motorcycle. He was never cited for the accident. Carly was 27, very adventurous, but not reckless. Our loss was in May of 2005, 10 years after yours. It took me 9 months, before I got up the courage to go to a CF meeting. Very gut wrenching, but so helpful! It was 2006 before I was at a candle lighting service. More heart wrenching, but rewarding. It feels like the least we can do, as a tribute to our children. We never forget them, at Christmas, or year round. CF has been a great comfort to me, over the years. My brother committed suicide in 2002 and I wish I had known about CF then. I believe they would have helped my mother. I do look forward to this Sunday’s service. I have one remaining daughter and have been blessed with her two daughters. We sit and listen to Christmas music around some lit candles and a small tree I decorate for Carly each year. Lorelei was 2 when her Aunt Carly died, and Scarlett was not born until 2008. So they do not truly know or remember their Aunt Carly. I share favorite photos and stories with them all the time! I attend CF chapter meetings in the Knoxville, TN.

  • This so eloquently says exactly what this event means to me after 40 years since our oldest son Mike died. It is about him, my brother who died 59 years ago, Clint’s two younger brothers who died 13 & 2 years ago. It is a day we dedicate to them.
    I need that this year for sure after we went to our cemetery to hang wreaths on the nice expensive plant holders we purchased long ago to find this year some on stole mike’s right of the grave site and put a cheapie one there!! How can anyone stoop so low? I am totally bewildered this can happen.

  • I will be at our WWCL Service on Sunday remembering my son, Vaughn and my brother, Ronald, but I will be holding you close in my heart, Cathy, as you and Greg remember Nina and Chris. May their lights always shine and my we continue to work to make sure that TCF is always there for parents as they remember their children and grandparents their grandchildren and siblings as they remember their brother or sister as I remember mine. I appreciate you and all you do for TCF with a beautiful and loving heart and I wish for you a gentle holiday season with many warm memories. Many blessings and much love I send to you!

  • Thank you to everyone who is a part of Compassionate Friends, and to the families who help keep it going with their attendance. Tonight, I am hosting a Candle Lighting at my home, to remember my beautiful son, Mason. He died just 3 months ago. He was 26. My heart goes out to all of the friends who have lost a child. There is some comfort when you have others who share the same kind of loss.

    • Thank you for your comments, Brianna, and so very sorry for the loss of your son Mason only three months ago at the young age of 26. OUr heart also goes out to you and your family at this difficult time of year. Maybe you would like to see if there is a TCF chapter near you – after my daughter died the meetings are the one thing that kept me going and gave me hope and understanding. We will be thinking of you this difficult holiday season, Cathy

  • The closes candle lighting group ceremony was about 30 minutes away and we decided not to attend. We were worn out and it was also our son’s birthday (he would have been 15). It is our first year that he has not been with us on his birthday and it is our first holiday season without him. We lit a candle for him at home, and I posted the event on Facebook and had several family members and friends throughout the US that said they were lighting a candle for Christopher at 7 pm. That really touched my heart. I also finished decorating “Christopher’s tree” – with angel wings and cardinals. Maybe next year we will be able to attend the ceremony in Greenville, SC.

    • Dear Cathy, I am so deeply sorry for the loss of your son. Thank you for sharing what you did by lighting a candle for Christopher this past Sunday. The programs are very nice to go to and the chapters work hard to make a special place for bereaved siblings, parents and grandparents to be together with others who also are missing a precious loved one so much at the holidays. Next year may be just the right time for you to give it a try. We will be thinking of you and all who have lost their beautiful child, brother or sister or grandchild. Sincerely, Cathy

  • On Thursday, December 5th we held my son’s memorial. He was 40 years old. My life has been altered forever. Some days I feel I ‘have this’, I can do this only to be twisted inside out when seeing a reminder of what my son drove, what dish he enjoyed the most, or the plants that were given during his memorial.

    • I am deeply sorry for the loss of your beloved son All of those things are hard – seeing things that remind you of what you no longer have. In time, and that time is different for everyone, you will find these things will be gentler and it will be reminders that they lived, not just that they died. We will be thinking of you and keeping you close.

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