A memorial day for children

A candlelight vigil is held nationwide in memory of deceased children.
Monday, December 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:24 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

When Del McMillen walked into her first Missouri Compassionate Friends meeting, she couldn’t even speak her name.

The grief after her 10-year-old grandson’s death had muted her.

“People don’t understand how badly people hurt,” McMillen said.

Compassionate Friends is a nationwide organization that helps families, particularly parents, deal with the death of a child.

After a child dies a family looks at everything differently, McMillen said.

“You measure everything as before they died and after,” McMillen said.

McMillen went to that first Missouri Compassionate Friends meeting simply to listen. She didn’t stay silent for long.

Within two years, McMillen was running the Columbia chapter’s monthly meetings. Since 1998, she has organized a candle-lighting on the second Sunday of December, which is nationally recognized as Children’s Memorial Day.

Sunday, more than 50 people gathered in Jefferson City to light candles in remembrance of the children they have lost.

Candles were lit in all 50 states and in every time zone at 7 p.m.

“Tonight the Earth is glowing with the light of our love for our children,” McMillen said.

As is done at Compassionate Friend meetings, each family was asked to say the name and something about their child as they lit their candle.

“You must talk about your child every chance you get,” said speaker Sherrie Koechling Burnett. “Talking about them keeps their memory alive.”

One by one, family members communicated their grief in shaking voices heavy with loss.

“I light this for John Richard Millard Jr. This will be his first Christmas in heaven,” said his father, Rich Millard, of Jefferson City.

Millard and his wife, Cindy, said they find comfort in the monthly Compassionate Friends meetings held in Columbia.

“It’s helpful to talk to people who understand what you’re going through. We all speak a mutual language,” Cindy Millard said.

McMillen and her husband, Les, gave participants clear glass ornaments with a butterfly inside.

For Compassionate Friends, the metamorphosis of the butterfly symbolizes the deceased child’s life.

“The caterpillar symbolizes life on Earth, the cocoon is death, and the butterfly is a new and freer life for our children,” McMillen said.

For more information about Missouri Compassionate Friends go to

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