“Magic happens around these trees”
Lights of Life and Lighting the Memories evocative hospice rituals make grief tangible and public
By Heather Conn
Lighting the Memories
Several dozen people, cold and damp, huddle in thick coats and sweaters on a rocky beach in Snickett Park in Sechelt on January 1, 1993. As the wind hurls whitecaps towards shore, they stand in a circle around a ceremonial bonfire. Although dark clouds in a grey sky suggest soon-to-be rain, the small crowd remains dry, for now.
The voice of a lone female singer soars across the waves. Some in the gathering begin to cry. A few gaze at the swirling flames while others look out to sea. A sixtyish man in black boots bends down and stirs the fire with a long piece of driftwood.
Six years after hospice care began on the Lower Sunshine Coast, Mark Lemon, former minister at St. Hilda’s Church in Sechelt, facilitated a contemplative public ceremony of grief, letting go, and honouring the memory of loved ones. This marked the first Lighting the Memories ritual on the Sunshine Coast—the only such hospice-related event of its kind in western Canada, possibly even in Canada and beyond.
Lighting the Memories invites the public, especially those grieving the loss of someone dear, to join with others to hear heartfelt songs and publicly honour the memory of a loved one. They place handwritten cards, with loving personal tributes, into the fire as a symbolic release of the sentiments expressed. Meant as a poignant follow-up to Sunshine Coast Hospice Society’s Lights of Life campaign, Lighting the Memories uses the hundreds of cards written and displayed during the previous month’s Lights of Life event (see description below).
Lighting the Memories, held in rain or in shine, has remained an evocative annual tradition ever since. It now takes place at Mission Point Park in Davis Bay and features the Sunshine Coast’s Threshold Choir, a women’s group that sings at the bedsides of those who are dying. In 2017, 500 cards were burned. Today, anywhere from 50 to 80 people attend, lingering after the event over home-made cookies and hot apple cider.
“A really lovely feeling”: participants appreciate tender event
“What a magical thing,” says Heather Blackwood, a co-founding hospice volunteer, of Lighting the Memories. “Other places like Whitehorse had Lights of Life trees but we hadn’t heard of anybody Lighting the Memories. Maybe they do now. That was a new initiative. I think that’s a diamond.”
She explains how participating in Lighting the Memories in 1994 held special poignancy for her. “My grandfather had died on New Year’s Day. He was 99 and was coming into his hundredth year. I had done a card for him for the [Lights of Life] tree. Part of our ceremony is that anyone who would like to can take a handful of cards and put them in the fire.
“I had a handful of cards and I threw them onto the open fire. One card fell open — and it was my card to my grandfather. I just wept. There was my card, releasing what I had written. Rosemary [Hoare] came up. ‘That’s my grandpa’s card.’ She gave me a big hug. There was an eagle right ahead. My card, of all those cards, and there was grandpa just connecting with me. People tell about these experiences all the time that they’ve had that have been facilitated through hospice. I think that’s something that is hugely to be celebrated.”
Hospice co-founder Rosemary Hoare, interviewed in 2014 at age 93, shared her impression of the Lighting the Memories ceremony. “There’s a really lovely feeling there. Everyone comments on it. It’s genuine and it’s true. It’s a very special time. It usually rains and blows a great wind and it’s howling and the waves crash in. That actually adds to it. It’s very beautiful.”
Grant Thompson, former hospice volunteer and board president, described Lighting the Memories in 2007, “There is something uniquely special about the words spoken during the candlelit ceremony and the roar of the sea happening at the same time. It seems as if people are truly communicating with those being remembered in a very personal way. It is an honour to recall those who have touched our lives. Their memories will live with us forever.”
Hoare chuckled while recalling her husband Eric’s participation in Lighting the Memories and a related comment by another Sunshine Coast hospice volunteer and co-founder, Mary Macdonald. “Eric was the person who used to make the fire [for Lighting the Memories]. Since it was usually always raining, he would bring dry wood. To start it, he would have sticks in a tin with coal oil so that it would go quickly. When he died, Mary Macdonald said, ‘Eric is lighting fires in heaven.’ I always remembered that. It was sort of sweet.”
Origins of local Lighting the Memories
Hoare recalled how the idea for Lighting the Memories came about: “I said to the group, ‘What are we going to do about the [Lights of Life] cards?’ Somebody said, ‘Why don’t we light them on fire and let all the messages and the hopes and dreams of people go up into the ether?’ I said, ‘That’s a brilliant idea, but where are we going to do it?’ We couldn’t figure it out. ‘Well,’ they said, ‘we can’t do it in somebody’s backyard. You can’t have the whole of Sechelt trotting through somebody’s backyard.’
“There was a young girl, a dental assistant, who said, ‘Why don’t we do it down by the sea?’ I said, ‘That’s a brilliant idea. We wouldn’t be offending anybody.’ We didn’t ask [permission] because I believe that if you ask authorities, authorities say no on general principle because they think it might hurt something. If they come to me and complain, I’ll say, ‘It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have done that.’
“Ever since then, we’ve lit the memories. It’s become a ceremony. It’s a lovely one. We brought thermoses of hot mulled wine and apple juice and stuff like that. Cookies. That was sort of convivial. We stood around. Because it’s so informal, the children come and the dogs come and the dogs all sniff at each other. They don’t ever fight. They just enjoy each other. People walk by and smile and think: What is this all about? It’s fun.”
Hospice volunteer coordinator Bernadette Richards described the symbolic significance of Lighting the Memories in The Local on Dec. 25, 2013: “As one year ends and another begins, it seems fitting to gather at a place where we can celebrate the four elements – fire, air, water, earth – and the four directions. It’s a great way of setting memories free and welcoming new possibilities.”
Lights of Life: a “very special time” begins in 1992
Thanks to coordinator Evelyn Flynn and a committee of about a dozen hospice volunteers, the first Lights of Life event on the Sunshine Coast was held from Dec. 4 to 23, 1992 in Trail Bay Mall in Sechelt. Flynn said of working with the committee, “[There was a] wonderful think tank atmosphere. Ideas just flowed. Never had to beg or assign a task. Someone always said, ‘I’ll do that.’” Evelyn’s husband Martin created the donation box, which the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society still uses today.
Lights of Life invites people who have lost a loved one to write a tribute in a small card, provided by hospice, and hang it on a Christmas tree. The tree began with blue candle-shaped lights; each time a card was added, a hospice volunteer changed a nearby light from blue to white. Today, with the change to LED lights which cannot be changed, only blue lights are used. Every person who writes a card is welcome to make a donation, big or small, but this is purely voluntary.
“That [Lights of Life] is a very special time for people to be able to identify that this time of year [Christmas] is hard,” says Blackwood. “I felt a great surge of pride that that was a big initiative. We have children coming to hang the tags and starting to understand that grieving is a normal part of living when you acknowledge something tangible.”
Community member Mrs. Casey, whose daughter Debbie died in 1992, lit the first Lights of Light candle in Sechelt. The Casey family donated money to fund the purchase of this real tree; today, artificial trees are used. Debbie’s sister read a poem she’d written called “Remembering Debbie,” which included the lines “Our lives have changed forever/You’ve taught us how to live/To cherish one another/To love and laugh and give.”
“The tears running down our cheeks said it all,” commented hospice volunteer Martha Scales.
Before week one of first Lights of Life was over, hospice volunteers had to purchase a second tree because all of the lights on the first tree were already white. Community participation was high. In its first year, Lights of Life raised about $3,000, used to coordinate and train hospice volunteers.
Two little boys make Lights of Life extra memorable
For Evelyn Flynn, one young participant during the first Lights of Life was particularly memorable:
“A little boy who had sung in the school choir [at the opening event in Trail Bay Mall] came back later in the week to light a light for his father who had died that summer. A mentally challenged girl asked how much the tags cost. [We] told her they were free for her. She said no, she had to pay for it or it would not mean anything. She had 35 cents in her purse and insisted on putting all 35 cents in the donation in memory of her friend. The telephone man [a phone company employee] was emptying the money from the pay phone box. He put all the money in our donation box.”
Rosemary Hoare recalled how another special visitor to Lights of Life helped teach hospice volunteers an important lesson:
“A little boy came up to the table. [He said] ‘I’ve got a friend and he died.’ I said, ‘We have a book [about death] called Freddie the Leaf. Would you like to read it?’ [He asked] ‘Can I write a card?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I sat him in the chair and gave him this little card. I said, ‘You can put it anywhere on the tree. He said, ‘I’d like to put it right there.’ He said, ‘Gee, thanks’ and off he went. Well, he came back a week or so later to show his friend his card on the tree. He couldn’t find it. The tree had been moved. We learned a big lesson. We could never, never move the trees. Children, particularly with logging — it’s a dangerous profession — are very aware of death.”
Gibsons gains Lights of Life i 1994
By 1994, Hospice added Lights of Life to Sunnycrest Mall in Gibsons. Evelyn Flynn recalled, “There were only about 30 to 35 hospice volunteers at that time, so it was a real scramble to staff the [Lights of Life] trees in Sechelt and Gibsons. But we did it!”
Two years later, Hospice program manager Stephen Garrett said of the annual tradition, “Magic happens around these trees. People laugh, smile, tell stories, and sometimes cry, but most of all, they light up as they fondly remember that special love.”
Evelyn Flynn reminded a Sunshine Coast newspaper in 1996 that families of those who have died are not the only ones who benefit from Lights of Life. She said, “It is such a wonderful experience for the volunteers who share in the celebration of a life, a love or a memory.”
Ever since, hospice volunteers and community members have been participating in, and sharing their appreciation of, Lights of Life in both Gibsons and Sechelt.
Note: Any opinions expressed in this content are those of a specific individual. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society (SCHS) or any SCHS volunteers, past, present or future.