This is the time of the year that so many families look forward to; the opportunity to get together and celebrate the holiday season with those they love. But while plans are being made and parties are being scheduled, there are some who approach the holidays with a sense of dread and sadness. These feelings act as a dark veil on what should be the grandest of times.
Every year, another family joins the many others before them, who will enter into their first Christmas and holiday season without their loved ones. An act of violence has taken an innocent life.
It could be a husband, a wife, a child or other loved one and the families of these victims are tasked with picking up the pieces and trying to get on with their lives as best they can. And while they attempt to put on a happy face, they know full well that their lives will never be the same; a cruel dichotomy that includes joy and celebration on one hand and sadness and emptiness on the other.
I recently attended a candlelight vigil whereby those persons, who have been lost due to violent crime, are honored in a ceremony to benefit their surviving loved ones. While it was a beautiful ceremony including uplifting speeches and songs, the atmosphere was one filled with unanswered questions. Like anyone would in a situation such as these people have found themselves in, the why factor lied heavy among the group.
Was there anything that they could have done to prevent such a tragedy in their family? Were their warning signs? These and other questions continue to dwell in the minds of those who long for the lives they once knew, but know will never return again.
Men, women and children sat quietly as the names of their loved ones were called out followed by a respectful, yet somber toll of the bell. A sound that is so full of celebration and pleasantries in normal times seems somewhat eerie in these times that are anything but normal. They remain quiet as the list is read, one by one, and the reactions of the toll works its way through the crowd. As the last name is read, a lone bagpiper appears and the sounds of “Amazing Grace” are squeezed from the bag beneath his arm through the pipes that rest on his shoulders and he played into the still air that lies above the crowd.
I have never met any of those who have been lost, but as the ceremony continued, I could look at the faces of their loved ones and see them clearly; the children who yearned for their father, the husband who yearned for his wife, and the parents who desperately tried to cope with the memories of their child. The faces of the memorialized were as clear as the crystal ornaments displayed on the Remembrance Trees.
One after another, as the ceremony came to an end they marched forward and lit their candle from the main unity candle in memory of their loved ones. They cupped the flame to prevent the wind from extinguishing it, as if the flame was all that was left of the lives that had been cut short.
But, as the procession continued to a final stop for the closing prayer and dismissal an interesting thing occurred. In the frigid night, with the only light available being the small flicker from the candles, the faces of those who attended began to change somewhat.
Almost as if it had been scripted, the faces that I had studied so carefully earlier in the evening began to loosen their frowns and furrowed brows. The long lines of apparent sadness began to take an upswing as they looked at each other in the shadows. The frowns began to dissipate. The tears seemed to dry up and their eyes now glistened with hope for the future and not remorse toward the past.
This was a group that was unified by a common bond, none of them alone but bound by a sense of reparation and calm. You could really see it in their faces.
This was no longer a night where questions needed to be asked. It was a night where answers were apparent. The answers, while they varied from face to face, would all lead them to that place of comfort where they needed to be. It was a silent night, it was a holy night. It was a wonderful night and the transformations that I witnessed from start to finish were one of the greatest holiday gifts that I have ever received; the faces of hope.
Stan Hall is director of Gwinnett County’s victim’s witness program. If you would like to have him speak at your next group event, send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.