As the major holidays approached in the late autumn of 1995, I could feel my anxiety level and deep sadness intensify. Just months before, on my birthday, May 11th, my precious daughter…my Nina…a bright and vivacious 15-year-old with a promising future, was senselessly and tragically killed by an alcohol-impaired driver while my family and I were vacationing in Orlando, Florida. With a shattered heart, I agonized and wondered how we would ever get through the dreaded upcoming holidays and endure all the other “firsts”, but especially Christmas, Nina’s absolute favorite. Who would bake the traditional Spritz cookies with me or help set up the Christmas village that was her joy from the time she was a toddler, or shop until we dropped as we looked for gifts for friends and family together? Nina always added her own special brand of endless enthusiasm and genuine sparkle to that very special season…how could we possibly manage it without her? The thought of it was incomprehensible and unbearable.
However, I soon learned how other bereaved parents who were further along in their grief had gotten through the barrage of holidays and painful firsts when I joined the St. Paul Chapter of The Compassionate Friends approximately one month after Nina’s death. I realized early on that I would need to be with others who would help guide me as I tried to navigate the unpredictable and complicated grief journey…not just anyone, but those whose lives had also been irrevocably altered by the devastating death of a child, yet, as impossible as it seemed, somehow managed to survive. I knew that they could not walk this road for me, but they could share their own experiences of what things helped them (or didn’t help them), and from that perhaps I could find out what felt right and might work for me.
St. Paul Chapter members told me that at the meeting each December they held a candle lighting remembrance program and that this had become an extremely significant ritual for them because it was a very special way to bring their child (or sibling or grandchild) into the holiday season with them, joined by others who understood the importance of doing so. There were approximately 50 people in attendance that evening. We sat together on cold metal chairs as poems were said and music was played. Through my tears, I barely remember that first candle lighting. However, I do recall it to be an intensely moving experience as together we lit candles for our precious ones who would forever be missing from the holidays.
The Compassionate Friends began observing what became the TCF Worldwide Candle Lighting (WCL) in 1997. It is always held the second Sunday of each December. What began as a small internet observance, the TCF WCL is believed to be the largest mass candle lighting in the world. Hundreds of formal candle lightings are held by The Compassionate Friends and allied organizations, churches, funeral homes, community centers and other locations, and thousands of informal candle lightings are carried out in private homes.
For the TCF Worldwide Candle Lighting, 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.
For the past 10 years, I have led the St. Paul Chapter’s annual Worldwide Candle Lighting program. From my vantage point in front 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: “I light this candle in memory of _____” or variations of the same. 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. At that time we feel a strong bond to everyone worldwide who has lit candles for their loved ones too and we are connected to them by heartstrings. After the last person lights their candles, they are held proudly aloft with the belief that our children look down and see our lights of love lifted heavenward signifying though gone is the life, never is their light. And, forevermore, “…that their light will always shine.”
Cathy Seehuetter, Nina’s mom & Chris’s stepmom
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