COLUMBIA — There's a reason many holiday songs croon about bringing loved ones together. Home is often a source of warmth and family. For some, though, that spirit is tempered by loss.
Candles were lit worldwide Sunday evening as part of the Compassionate Friends' memorial vigil, honoring children who have died, regardless of age.
"Holidays are really bad," Del McMillem said. "Everybody has family gatherings, and there's an empty chair at the table." McMillem attended the event to remember two sons, Daniel and Dennis, and a grandson, Kevin. She was also a Jefferson City chapter leader for the organization for nearly a decade.
"After my grandson died, I was a complete mess," McMillem said. "When I went to the first meeting, I couldn't even tell you what my name was."
The candle lighting event was held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia. The Rev. Sue Spencer, interim minster, led the meditation. She said the holidays tend to make people acutely aware of a loss. Events such as the vigil serve as a chance for fellowship, she said, "helping people know they're not alone in this."
Only a half dozen people sat in the quiet room, but the glow of candles seemed to drive away the cool chill of the metal folding chairs and the icy scene outside the six large windows.
"So long as we live," Spencer said, "they too shall live."
The Compassionate Friends organization was founded in England in 1969 by the Rev. Simon Stephens. This year's theme for the lighting ceremony, first held in 1997, was names. Participants were encouraged to say the name of the child who had died.
"In the face of death, most of us tend to talk around things," Spencer said. She explained that people often avoid using a child's name when offering sympathy, but that parents often want to hear the name.
Participants shared the names of lost loved ones. Several embraced.
"We never shake hands," McMillem said. A man at a national conference once told her he wanted to join their organization because everyone hugged, without recognizing the emotional significance behind the gesture. McMillem informed him otherwise. "The admission price is too high," she said.
Yet McMillem found solace in leading others through the difficult days of a child's death. "I can get up and put one foot in front of the other, and I can teach somebody else to do this," she said. "As long as I'm helping somebody else, I'm helping myself to heal."