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Downtown Fort Wayne tree lighting offers ‘sense of hope’ for those grieving during holidays

Attendees gather near the Holiday Memorial Tree to sign “Silent Night.”

From The Nov. 21, 2022, edition of The Journal Gazette

Without the fanfare of a countdown, the white lights around an evergreen tree outside Baker Street Station blinked on at dusk Sunday, twinkling for a somber audience.

Bundled in winter coats and hats to stave off the evening’s below-freezing weather, people clutched battery-operated candles as Fort Wayne Children’s Choir ensemble sang “Silent Night.”

The activity concluded Stillwater Hospice’s 37th annual Holiday Memorial Service and Tree Lighting, an event that memorializes and honors people who have died. The nonprofit, formerly known as Visiting Nurse, received about 250 reservations for the program, and almost every seat appeared to be taken when it began.

Leslie Friedel, chief executive, acknowledged many attendees have participated for years while others are experiencing a painfully recent loss.

“We trust the service will be a time of special remembrance as well as healing,” Friedel said.

Proceeds from the event – people could pay to have a light on the tree represent someone who has died – benefited Stillwater Hospice. Its services include grief support and end-of-life and palliative care.

After contributing to the event for years, Sandy Funk finally made the trip from Roanoke to attend the service.

“It was very inspirational,” Funk said, noting she buys lights for her mother, who died in 2008, and her brother, who received Stillwater’s services before dying in December 2011.

The memorial event traditionally coincides with the beginning of the holiday season, a time that can provoke a resurgence of grief and intensify feelings of guilt, fear, anxiety and dread, said Laura Guerrero, bereavement coordinator.

“Our ambition is that you leave here tonight with a sense of hope about the days to come,” she said.

Guerrero encouraged attendees to evaluate their expectations regarding the holidays and to consider how they’re spending their energy. Is it primarily being used on habits and obligations? Or is it being spent on activities that bring meaning, peace or comfort?

“Grief is exhausting,” she added.

Holiday traditions are another common challenge, but Guerrero said they don’t have to stay the same. Options include saying no to certain traditions or creating new ones.

She advised people to communicate their concerns with their loved ones and to create a holiday plan that fits with what’s best for their family this year.

“Your holidays can still be a significant time for you,” Guerrero said. “They will be different, but they can still be meaningful. They may hurt, but they can also hold hope, even great hope.”