Vigil commemorates lives of lost children

A bell tolled once as the name of each child was read from a list during a candle lighting ceremony Sunday night at Grace United Methodist Church near Manassas.

About 60 people attended the ceremony, hosted by The Compassionate Friends, a self-help organization founded to help people through the grief of losing children, siblings and grandchildren due to illness, accident or violent crime.

Those gathered at the church remembered their lost loved ones with prayer, music, poetry and song in a ceremony that ended with everyone holding lighted candles to remember.

Gay Shelby said the organization was her salvation after her 7-year-old daughter Chelsea died of cancer a little more than a year ago.

“When you lose a child there are no words … I’ve lost a father … I’ve lost other people, but when you lose a child, it’s just the worst thing in the world,” Shelby said.

Shelby said the friends she made when she found The Compassionate Friends helped her back to sanity from the madness she felt herself slipping into after her daughter’s death.

“You feel like you’re in another world. One minute you’re yelling at God and the next minute you’re asking him ‘Please, please help me,'” Shelby said.

The Compassionate Friends was established in Coventry, England, in 1969 by two couples who simultaneously lost their 12-year-old sons.

They began having tea together to commiserate over their shared loss and the organization grew.

The first chapter in the United States was started in Miami in 1972.

Today there are chapters in 72 countries throughout the world and more than 600 chapters in all 50 states.

Each year, on the second Sunday in December, members from all of the chapters gather to light their remembrance candles at 7 p.m.

The candle lighting begins in New Zealand and continues around the world as clocks in successive time zones reach the appointed time.

“It’s just to remember their kids and know that their light did shine,” Shelby said of the ceremony.

Shelby said the people in the organization are able to offer those who are grieving a unique perspective because they too have lost children. Additionally, she said, group members are often more empathetic than those who have not lost children.

Sometimes people abandon those who are grieving out of discomfort, Shelby said.

“I think you lose friends because a lot of them just don’t know what to say,” she said.

“I have the same everyday worries as everyone else, but now that I’ve lost my daughter, it’s like you have a hole in your heart. And really the only people you can identify with are people that know that feeling,” Shelby said.

“I think the group just helps you with not feeling alone,” she said.

Linda Guinn of the Prince William chapter of the group said the death of a child hits people harder perhaps than other losses because it goes against the natural order of things.

“We expect our parents to die before us, but we never expect our children to die,” Guinn said.

“It’s everyone’s worst nightmare and no one wants to talk about it,” she said.

Guinn said people in the organization understand why someone who has suffered so is apt to unexpectedly break into tears.

“You want to buy Honey Bunches of Oats and you realize that no one in your house likes Honey Bunches of Oats anymore and you find yourself crying in the middle of the grocery store,” she said.

Shelby said the organization’s mission is reach out and help anyone who has lost a child.

Bereaved parents, siblings or grandparents can contact Linda Guinn of the Prince William chapter at (703) 754-9664 or visit the Web site at Gay Shelby with the newly established Woodbridge chapter can be reached at (703) 584-1204 or at [email protected] The international Web site is

Staff writer Keith Walker can be reached at (703) 878-8063.

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