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 daughter’s 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 https://www.compassionatefriends.org/event/23rd-annual-worldwide-candle-lighting/
Written October 2014 for We Need Not Walk Alone TCF’s magazine (with some revisions made in December 2019)
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