The older I get the more conflicted I feel about the holiday season.

On the one hand, it can be a very beautiful time of year: the lights, the smells of gingerbread and pine nettles, the sounds of bells and carols.  It’s a time when we can experience the wonder of hope and the tangible proximity of love of family and friends.

However, it’s also this time of busy-ness: countless holiday parties to attend, endless trips to outlets for gifts, long hours wrapping, baking and cleaning.

As a human being, I know all-too-well the mythic mindset of busyness: the feeling of needing to get everything accomplished and the fear of what might happen if it doesn’t.

The more I work with grieving people, however, the more I realize that the myth of busyness at the holidays is perhaps the most distressing myth of all.

This is because when we lose a loved one, our lives are put on pause.

Our worlds come to a grinding halt.

What once was is no longer, and the things that used to matter, simply do not seem to anymore.

But the world around us keeps racing, and it leaves those of us who have loved and lost seeking refuge because we need time to stop and acknowledge the weight of this pause, and to know that there are others around us doing the same.

We need to know that we are not the only ones resisting the myth of busy-ness in this season.

At Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg, we realize that


This year’s Light-Up-A-Life Tree

taking time during the holiday season to stop, to remember and to reflect is essential to the grieving process.

Each year, Hospice House hosts a “Light-Up-A-Life” ceremony as a way for those who have loved and lost to collectively pause and remember those who have gone before them.

It is a beautiful ceremony comprised of reading names and hanging ornaments in memory of our loved ones.   This year, due to the cold we gathered in our sun room and remembered more than 80 loved ones.

Below is my reflection from this year’s ceremony.  May this inspire you to pause, to remember well and to know that you are not alone as you do.


For those of you who may not have been with us last year, you may not know that this year’s Light-Up-A-Life ceremony is slightly different.

On the one hand, we are more inside than out this year.  It’s a bit chillier today than it was last year.

But, there is something else that is different as well.

It has to do with the focal point of our gathering here today: our tree.

You see, this summer, we experienced a couple of deaths on our gardens and grounds here at Hospice House.

Our beloved and very askew pine tree that had been the centerpiece of our tree-lighting ceremony in years past was uprooted.

The tree had become increasingly unhealthy, and it was time for a new centerpiece in the midst of our gardens.

So we planted a new tree, a young sapling from the northern regions of the continent.

We were all so excited to see its green fuzziness gracing the side yard.

It was one of those trees that you just kind of wanted to hug with how cute it was.


Then July rolled around – that very hot and very, very dry July.

Our young sapling protested its place in the sun.

Gradually its nettles turned brown with exhaustion, and, like the tree before it, it returned to the ground out of which it came.


Losing both of our trees in one year has required quite a bit of rearranging for us as Hospice House staff – especially as this holiday season has drawn near.

We’ve rearranged our plans to have a real tree and to instead use a faux tree.

We’ve rearranged our furniture in the house to accommodate an indoor crowd versus an outdoor crowd.

Volunteers have rearranged their schedules to find time to dig up trees and plant new ones.

There’s been a remarkable amount of moving things around in the wake of these losses.


And the more I got to thinking about our tree, the more I realized it was a reflection of what happens when we lose a loved one.

We end up rearranging and rethinking things – because our whole lives have been rearranged by our loved one’s absence.

And the traditions that once bound us together sometimes lose their weight – especially during the holidays.

Sometimes, our traditions need to change in order to reflect the weight of absence in our lives.


This manifests in different ways for everyone.

Some of us just need to skip the holidays – the parties, the lights, the gifts.

So we change our holiday destination from the homes of families and friends to the beaches of a distant shore.

We stay in with folks who are good listeners rather than venturing out to parties to make small talk.

Our itineraries get rearranged.  The kind of company we pick changes.


Others of us just need to throw out all of the traditions we’ve ever had, and find some new ones.

Instead of carrying on the tradition of going out to sing Christmas Carols, we may need to go out to a movie.

Maybe instead of cooking our favorite dishes, we might order takeout.

Perhaps instead of buying everyone else a gift, we will buy a gift for ourselves that we imagine our loved one would have gotten for us.

Maybe we find ourselves needing to spend a day in service to those less fortunate than a day surrounded by gifts.

Our activities change.


And yet, others of us need to keep our holiday traditions, as we always have, and maybe add just a new tradition or two.

This is OK too.

Maybe the new tradition is simply saying our loved one’s name.

Our ornaments from this year’s ceremony.

Maybe that new tradition is giving ourselves permission to cry or laugh.

Or maybe that new tradition is simply being here at Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg for our Light-Up-A-Life ceremony.

Whatever changing and rearranging you do this holiday season, know that you do not have to apologize for it, feel guilty for it, or much less explain it to anyone – for your life has been forever rearranged and changed by your loss.

And as you hang your ornaments in memory of those who you have loved and lost, as you arrange them on this tree today, know that you are not alone in your grief journey.  And know that your loved ones are very much present with you today as you arrange their names on this tree and both keep and rearrange your holiday traditions.

Audrey Smith is the Executive Director of Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg (HHSCW). HHSCW is a social-model hospice that cares for people at the end of life, comforts the bereaved and empowers others to do the same. The Hospice House itself is a spacious residence that is a home away from home for our guests and their families. Support care services range from companionship in families' homes to extensive bereavement programs provided to families throughout the community. Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg is a 501(c)(3) organization that is entirely funded by contributions. No family or individual ever receives a bill for our services and support; nor do we accept Medicare, Medicaid or other reimbursements. For more information or to make a gift, please call Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg at 757-253-1220 or visit



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