Approximately eleven years ago, I helped organize and create The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley. The Compassionate Friends is a nationwide organization that provides support for families who have experienced the death of a child. We are closing our doors effective July 1st of this year, because me and other members of our leadership team have had other categories surface ,impacting our ability to attend to the needs of our families.
There are many memories that I will carry with me as a Compassionate Friends chapter leader. For one, the stories of our parents who graced me with their presence at our support group meetings. What I discovered from their stories became interwoven into the tapestry of the path that I have created due to the challenges arising from my daughter Jeannine’s death over 18 years ago. The other memories that I will carry are from our candlelighting ceremonies which we held during the holiday season, a time when the challenges of grief can be overwhelming for bereaved individuals.
Light Across The Globe
We typically held our candlelighting ceremonies on the second Sunday in December from 7pm-8pm, Eastern Standard Time (EST). All of the approximately 600 Compassionate Friends chapters held their ceremonies at the same time. We created a shining light across the globe, representing the spirits of those sons/daughters, brothers/sisters and grandsons/granddaughters who died too soon.
Our candlelighting ceremonies evolved as our chapter did. We grew from 13 participants in 2010 to approximately 250 in 2019, our final ceremony before the COVID pandemic hit across the world. At that final ceremony, the names of 76 children were read as their pictures flashed across the large projector screen in the First United Methodist Church in New Hartford.
I always volunteered to handle the registration process for the candlelighting ceremony. As part of that process, each family is requested to choose and send a favorite photo of their child. With careful attention and care I would create a slide show, double and triple checking to make sure that every child’s photo was included. That same attention and care was devoted to the movie of our children that followed at the end of the evening. In the days prior to the ceremony ,I previewed each photo in the slide show and movie numerous times, making sure each one was meticulously placed and the background music chosen had the desired effect.
It was important for me to get it right because I vividly recall how one parent cried and cried uncontrollably when her child’s name was not read, or his/her picture shown, at a candlelighting ceremony I attended. For that moment her child was forgotten, and the pain and anguish on her face was palpable. Any parent I have ever spoken with lives each day with the memory of their children etched permanently into their being and their mission is to make sure that their child is remembered. Acknowledging our children’s lives allows us as parents to stay connected ,establish continuing bonds and integrate our grief. We become one with the essence of who our children were in the physical plane and in spirit.
Carrying The Grief of Others
When we commit to a life of service to others due to our challenges experienced with catastrophic loss, we learn to carry their grief as well as our own. The grief we carry comes not only from the actual stories of their loved ones’ lives, but through the unspoken stories that their photographs contain. Whenever I looked at photographs of our children in the weeks prior to our candlelighting ceremonies, I would often wonder what their interests were, what they loved and who they loved, in an effort to create a story to go with that photograph. I would also try to visualize what their parents lost due to their child’s death. I would do the same with their grandparents and siblings, who have their own unique challenges to address. Every photograph represented a shadow that crossed my heart. In 2019, our last candlelighting ceremony, there were 76 shadows that crossed my heart in a one hour period.
When we carry the grief of others as well as our own, it can at times be emotionally draining. But any kind of service work can be, particularly when we can readily identify with the path that other bereaved individuals are walking. That is why I believe it is so crucial for us to have a self-care plan so that we can restore the mind-body-spirit balance that allows us to be in effective service to others. I also view myself a co-traveler on that path with others who have experienced life altering loss. It is a path that can empower us to discover a new perspective, and peace after tragedy.
“We are all just walking each other home.”Ram Dass