Speaking the Name, Among Friends and Strangers

Last week, at my hospice’s annual Lights of Love ceremony, music was played, candles became flamed reminders of deceased loved ones, a “holiday tree” was lighted in the midst of a busy outdoor mall, and nearly four hundred beloved names were read aloud.

Lights of Love is one of the simplest things we do for the year-end holidays.

Lights of Love is one of the best things we do, especially for grievers facing a holiday season that can seem . . . endless.

I was one of the readers, probably speaking close to a hundred names, one after the other, on a portable stage, surrounded by a crowd of “strangers.” And yet not strangers. With candles held aloft (real, drippy, cheap, wonderful, burn-to-a-nub wax candles), with kids crying and playing and wriggling, with shoppers scurrying from store to store, with a Santa’s Workshop plying its trade not far behind the stage, I read names written in large permanent ink on 3×5 cards.

In the California town where I live, there’s an abundance of ethnic groups. We have first and tenth generation folks here from lands afar. We have parents that dubbed their children with wondrous names that could be pronounced in a multitude of ways. The hospice volunteers filling out the 3×5 cards often ran out of paper real estate and squeezed vowels and consonants together.

In the dark, with barely enough light, reading was an adventure!

And some names had more syllables than I have fingers!

And some I probably mispronounced!

And some I did mispronounce!

Hey, it’s challenging to shift from one card with an Armenian name to a Hmong name to a Russian name to a . . .! Local legend claims there are over 80 different languages spoken by families in our school districts. I had most of those languages represented on the cards gripped in my hand.

Names matter.

Those of us who shared in the reading did stumble with pronunciation. At one point, I gazed at the crowd and apologized, inviting them to silently correct our mistakes in their hearts.

Oh, how names matter.

Here, north of the equator, we are in the darkest of seasons. Though not in snow country, the long nights are chilly in California’s Central Valley. And the brisk weather can turn mean. People hurry home from work, showing little interest in lingering outside. And if you are bereaved, in the holiday season of fake snowmen and multiplying Santas and dazzling lights and 50% off sales, it’s a hard to slog through a strident, grim December.

There is, for some, a name missing. A person gone. A beloved who once lived and laughed, worked and played, who drove you crazy and embraced life with you . . . that is now absent.


And gone. Maybe it’s a recent death. Maybe it’s from years ago. But dead is always for a lifetime for the ones still living.

Faith may offer solace. Nearly every religion is bold enough to call on followers, in one form or another, to light a candle. Truly, whatever faith anyone embraces, this darkening season also has traditional words that may help, songs which may ease the pain, and prayers that may kindle comfort. “May” is the key word in the sentences above. Sometimes a once deep-felt faith only seems like an old rut, a raw gash in the soul.

But don’t forget, please don’t forget, to say the name.

On we read, into the night.

Everyone in that huddled crowd of strangers remained to the last name. Each person attending probably knew a few of the names read. They certainly knew who’d died in their lives. But did they know the loved one of the person behind or across from them? Did the Armenian know the Hmong? Did the Hmong know the Russian? Did they know the Marine who died, whose name was proclaimed and then immediately followed by a voice in the crowd bellowing, OO-RAH! No these were strangers. They would soon go their separate ways.

Still, they stayed.

Name after name.

After the ceremony, moving through the slowly dispersing crowd, I greeted a man who’d joined one of my grief support groups. The group had met one or two years before. His eyes were rimmed in red. Two friends, clearly supporting him, stood nearby. He thanked me for reading the names, and added that it was good to come tonight.

Gently, carefully, I asked him one of the dreaded questions for grievers: “How are you doing?”

He sighed. He wiped away tears. Softly, and so honestly, he replied, “Not so good. It’s hard.”

We hugged.

Here’s the truth. I don’t remember his name. He was one of a dozen people in a group. Since then, I’ve led more groups with more people. I felt bad. I can’t recall all the hundreds of names. But the hug mattered. And, in an insignificant but precious way, I was glad I could stand in front of him and have him truthfully share that the death of his beloved still hurt. I was also glad he had those friends accompanying him. They were part of his fractured, still hopeful life. He came out in the dark and the cold, with friends and strangers, to hear and honor his beloved’s name.

This is a hard season.

Oh, how I wish I could remember every name. Every person. Everyone who died. Everyone who grieves.

I can’t remember.

And you can’t either.

But each of us, as we experience this beautiful, bittersweet season, does know someone who is grieving. Who has tears in their eyes. Who can’t muster energy for the obligatory shopping. Who’d prefer to delete December from the calendar. Who’d rather not to be inundated with syrupy Christmas carols and plates of cookies absent of taste. But there’s no escaping these days.

So, I hope, with the people who matter most to you, that you don’t hesitate to speak the name of the loved one who had died. Will naming the name cause tears? Of course! Will naming the name bring a rush of sadness? Sometimes! But naming the name, telling the favorite stories, remembering the best of times . . . is part of the healing.

With a few colleagues, I stood on that portable stage, in the midst of a bustling mall, trying to help strangers remember what they shared in common: loss and love, absence and presence, fresh wounds and treasured memories.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I wish I had know the date for the service, as I would have been there for sure. I wish I was there to hear her name again. Norene Keppler.

    Another great post. Always look forward to reading them.

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