The Anne Arundel County chapter of the Compassionate Friends will sing songs, recite poems and offer prayers to celebrate young lives cut short during a memorial ceremony Sunday in Annapolis.
It is the ninth annual service for the chapter, which invites friends, other relatives and the public to join parents who have suffered the loss of a child.
"To me, it's uplifting," says Pam Haley, the chapter leader. "At Christmas time, it's so hard to be without your children. I like to celebrate my son's life instead of dwelling on his death."
Mrs. Haley and her husband, Jerry, lost their only child, Brian, in a 1990 automobile accident, when he was a promising junior at Arundel High School.
The Haleys, of Crofton, will be among families that receive a flower as they enter Trinity United Methodist Church on West Street for the service at 3 p.m.
A single candle will be lighted in honor of all of the children. The service, arranged by Shari Velario of Annapolis, also will include brief sermons by a minister, priest and rabbi.
"We expect at least 250 people," said Michele Esterling of Annapolis. She and her husband, Joseph Sr., began attending Compassionate Friends monthly support meetings after their son Joseph Jr. was killed 3 1/2 years ago when his car crashed into a tree.
Mrs. Esterling said she needed to learn to cope with her grief, and she benefited from discussing her feelings with parents who also had buried children.
The message of the 9-year-old chapter is twofold: parents who lost a child will be forever changed, but they will emotionally survive the loss.
Often, the holidays are especially difficult for people who expected to be celebrating with their children. "People feel, 'Oh, it's Christmas, it's 3 1/2 years already; you're OK, you'll be jolly.' But Christmas will never be the same," Mrs. Esterling said.
She and Mrs. Haley spend more time in the small groups helping recently bereaved parents than tending to themselves. They hope their experiences will help newcomers, just as the experiences of other parents helped them, they say.
Compassionate Friends is one of many organizations that lost its county funding due to government budget constraints. It had gotten $1,650 last year, Ms. Haley said, but this year received nothing. The organization accepts donations, most of which go toward its newsletter.