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DEBORAH POTTER, correspondent: Everywhere you look it’s “happy holiday” time, and despite the bad economy shoppers are still buying. After all, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year,” as that old Christmas song puts it, with everyone telling you “be of good cheer.” But for some people, the season is not merry and bright. For Kate O’Dwyer Randall, Christmas is a time for missing her brother, Jim, who died of a sudden heart attack five years ago at the age of 37.
KATE O’DWYER RANDALL (Associate University Chaplain, University of Richmond): If you’re grieving, there’s always the sense that there’s a chair there that’s empty, that the person that was here once, last year, is no longer here. It’s personal, and it’s private, and it’s very pronounced.
POTTER: But Randall does not grieve alone. On this day in early December, a small group gathers for a special service at Cannon Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Richmond, where Randall is associate chaplain.
RANDALL (speaking to congregation): Friends, welcome to Blue Christmas. We’re so glad that you’ve joined us, and we’re so sorry for the reasons that you have.
POTTER: Susie Reid came to mourn the death of her brother, Billy, just six weeks ago.
SUSIE REID: I thought this would be a good way to kind of accept that the holidays are here and that we’re going to have them, you know, without Billy this year, and just be with other people who are also, you know, that understand, you know, that sometimes the holidays are not happy.
CARNISHA JONES (speaking to congregation): I’m not really a singer, but I thought I would share what’s in my heart.
POTTER: Carnisha Jones is mourning the death of her mother.
JONES (singing): Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long, long way from home.
POTTER: Others have brought their own private pain to the service, one of hundreds being held in churches across the country this month for people facing the holidays with a heavy heart.
RANDALL: People can be honest about that grief, so they don’t have to go and sing “Jingle Bells.” They can actually come and cry with other people who are grieving. The church is going to say we’re not going to give you a platitude. We’re going to say to you this is hard, and God is in the midst of this, and this is hard—all at the same time.
POTTER: The interfaith service is quiet and simple. There are no scripture readings, just personal stories and poems.
ELIZABETH BOONE (speaking before the congregation): My God, you call to me in the silence: Do not be afraid. I am with you. And I answer behind tears: I’m trying. Stay there.
RANDALL (speaking to congregation): We feel, particularly in this season, that grief is permanent and hope is fleeting, but I encourage you and remind you today that it’s actually the other way around.
POTTER: Randall invites everyone to light a candle, put a name to their grief, and join in saying the names together.
RANDALL: Stay in your seats if you’d like. Think, reflect, and pray. But for those that choose to come forward, your brave statement will be met with the congregants repeating it.
Congregant: I light this for my friend, Patrick.
Congregation: For Patrick.
Congregant: For Valerie.
Congregation: For Valerie.
Congregant: This is for my mom, Addie
Congregation: For Addie.
Congregant: I light this candle for my brother, Billy.
Congregation: For Billy.
POTTER: For four years, Billy Reid battled cancer with his sister by his side. The loss has hit her hard.
REID: I had never thought about how true it is that people—I think they think that they’re going to upset you if they mention, you know, the person’s name that’s passed away. It doesn’t. I’d like to hear it. I want to talk about him like he’s, you know, still around, like he’s still important, you know, and not talking about him and not saying his name emphasizes his absence, and lighting a candle in a church, you know, is just very meaningful. And I know he watched me do it.
Singing of “Silent Night.”
RANDALL: Something happens in this service. I don’t know if it’s being with other people who are grieving, or being able to say the name out loud, but something happens in this service every year, and people are so touched and moved. I know it helps healing. I know it helps.
POTTER: As the service ends, the candles burn on.
RANDALL: We thank you for the lives of those that we’ve named today. Let us be people of faith and hope, always and often.
POTTER: There may not be joy this season for many here, but today there is comfort.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Deborah Potter in Richmond, Virginia.