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A night to remember a child lost forever

It's a ceremony marked by deep sadness. On the second Sunday of December, parents worldwide join together and light candles for their dead children.

December 12, 2009|Sandy Banks

It has become a moving holiday ritual, but one I pray never to have to attend as a participant.

For 12 years, parents have been gathering on the second Sunday in December in homes, churches, parks and gyms. Sunday night, families all around the world will light candles at 7 p.m. in remembrance of their dead children. It is a ceremony devoid of political meaning, religious affiliation or fundraising goals, the things that so often bring people together.

The message is heartbreakingly simple: Parents may stop mourning, but they don't stop missing children who die.

"You wish you could be naive again, go back to your life the way it was," said Kristy Mueller, who is organizing the South Bay candle-lighting ceremony in Palos Verdes Estates for the bereavement group Compassionate Friends.

"But you can't," she said. "You don't get over it. . . . And this is a hard time of the year. When you can't help but think about what you're missing."


For many of us, this is a difficult month. Holiday traditions bring families together, but they also spotlight grief and amplify loss. I know, because one week before Christmas 16 years ago, I lost my husband, and my three daughters lost their father.

But while we have made peace with our loss, my husband's 81-year-old mother in Ohio still suffers. She cannot look at her granddaughters without seeing her son's face. The mere mention of his name can still send her, grieving, to bed.

The death of a child you birthed and raised, scolded and praised, worried over and celebrated is unlike any other pain. And it doesn't matter if they are 4 years old, or 45, as my husband was.

That's where Compassionate Friends comes in. The group meets monthly in cities across the country, providing not counseling, but consolation.

Years ago I visited a session in West Los Angeles. I'd written a string of columns about tragic deaths and wondered, how does a parent move on when your 7-year-old is shot to death at the park while picking up his basketball trophy; or your teenage daughter dies in a car accident en route to bring you a Mother's Day bouquet; or your 12-year-old hangs himself in his room because his first girlfriend dumped him.

I had expected to find parents grieving their little children. But I realized that age only deepens the parent-child bond.

"She was a wonderful, loving person and I wasn't ready to let my daughter go," one woman told the group, sobbing. Her child, Francine, was 56 years old when she died.

This week, I visited Arvis Jones, who counsels family members through the Center for Grief and Loss for Children. A year ago, her son -- "he was two weeks from 39," she said -- was shot to death by gang members as he stood on his patio in South Los Angeles.

"For a few months, it was the horror of the way he died that hurt the most," she said. "Now it's the missing him; him not being here. I know how the [grieving] process works, but I'm always surprised when something hits me."

She is trying to follow the advice she gives her clients, clinging to survivors' bromides: Everything happens for a reason. A door closes; a window opens. God never gives you more than you can handle.

Kristy Mueller knows that drill -- that perpetual search for meaning.

Her brother, Keith Konopasek, was a police officer killed in the line of duty in Oakland in 1995. To his parents, he was their the oldest child, the only boy. At 32, he was about to be married. "His wedding invitation arrived on the day he was killed," she said.

"My dad dragged my mom to a meeting" of Compassionate Friends, Mueller said. "She said she would never go back." She spent the next seven years as the group's treasurer.

"Compassionate Friends gave my parents somewhat of a life back," she said. "People who understood what they were going through. They got involved and were able to get help, then be of help to someone else."


The company of other parents is part of what will make Sunday's candle-lighting so special.

Losing a child can make you feel like a pariah, Mueller told me. People don't know what to say. "There's an air of uncomfortableness. They avoid you like it's contagious."

I flinch when she says that, because I've done it.

More than once, I have heard from a reader who has lost a child, and may have a story that might make a column. But I sometimes hesitate before getting in touch, because I don't feel up to confronting their losses: a child's suicide at college; a car accident caused by a drunk driver; an uncommon, incurable cancer.

If these parents were vulnerable, then so am I. If they lost their children, mine could die.

I realize now that my silence may have deepened their darkness.

"You can really easily want to hide and never come out when you lose a child," Mueller said. But tomorrow night, parents like her will stand shoulder to shoulder, lighting the night.

There are readings, a motivational speaker, music, poems. Then each person says their child's name aloud.

"To be able to say your child's name is such a big deal. You can't imagine . . . " Mueller said.

I can't. And I hope I never will.

For more information about Compassionate Friends and the candle-lighting, go to

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