The Collegian
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Emotions run high during solemn holiday service

Absent were the celebratory Christmas carols, the brightly ringing bells, the jubilant and joyous greetings of a traditional Christmas service in Cannon Memorial Chapel.

Absent were the cries of joy and happiness, replaced, instead, with cries from quiet sobs in an atmosphere of solemn reflection.

And absent was the customary candle lighting for a somber rendition of "Silent Night." Instead, a procession of people stepped up, one-by-one, to light candles and say the name of loved ones whom they had lost.

For those who attended Tuesday's nondenominational Blue Christmas Service at noon at the chapel, the holidays have been a struggle to find happiness while the rest of the world seems filled with joy.

"This service is for you," Kate O'Dwyer Randall, the university's acting Chaplain, told the congregation of about 35 students and community members at the beginning of the service. "We are all people who are participating in this because we have walked this season with grief.

"We know the feeling of setting the table, only to realize that we've set one place too many. We know the feeling of going to pick up the cell phone to call someone because you've just seen the best thing, only to realize they're gone."

Four speakers, interpretive dance and soft acoustic guitar music were interspersed throughout the service, which culminated in a candle-lighting, during which people were encouraged to say the names of people they were grieving before lighting a candle to commemorate them.

An altar with 51 differently sized and colored candles were arranged in front of the congregation, arranged randomly to represent the chaos that often accompanies grief-stricken people, said O'Dwyer Randall, an experienced grief counselor who lost her brother three years ago.

One of the speakers, Catherine Orr, the events and publications coordinator for the Office of International Education, lost her brother a year ago. She spoke about the role how her brother's hope during a terminal illness had helped her cope with his death.

"There's no doubt that when the odds are absolutely stacked against you, hope can seem foolish," she said in front of the congregation, pausing at times to choke back tears. "It can be perceived as ignorant or blind optimism. But hope is neither of these things ... It is the handgrip of control we are given when we have no control over anything else."

Between tears and laughs, Orr recalled how her brother had taught her to dive into a swimming pool and "how to not tap dance in front of the television while he was watching football."

"Be who you are," O'Dwyer Randall said. "The one rule is just to be authentic."

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Another person at the service said: "I just feel swamped in issues of what is just and what is fair in the world. This will probably be the last Christmas I share with my mother because she's dying. There's a sense that some of us don't really get to acknowledge what's going on in the world."

O'Dwyer Randall said her job was to listen to the community and that the service fulfilled a deeply important and unspoken need. Establishing a community through a service such as this was also critical, she said.

"It's a way of saying, 'You're not alone,'" she said. "There's no other Christmas service in the city where you can cry like some people are crying."

Senior Chandler Whitman attended the service initially to observe how grieving in groups works as part of a communications project. But once others began recalling their stories, she was unexpectedly overcome with emotion, remembering her father, who died from cancer seven years ago, her brother, who committed suicide during Whitman's senior year of high school and her mother, who is battling alcoholism.

"It doesn't go away, and I think that's hard to understand if you haven't lost someone," Whitman said. "I didn't expect to go in there and be as emotional as I was. Once I started crying, I couldn't stop. I can't remember a holiday that I haven't spent either in the hospital the past six years or missing someone. I don't think before today's service I've ever dealt with the holidays being a hard time.

Creating a sense of community among the congregants is necessary because few organizations offer formal support for people dealing with depression during the holidays, said O'Dwyer Randall, who wants to extend the service next year to people going through divorce, too.

Contact staff writer Dan Petty at dan.petty@richmond.edu

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