SUN CITY CENTER
Jan Bjork says she cried a lot during the "When Christmas Hurts" program Tuesday evening.
The visitor from Worcester, Mass., shed tears for her late son, Richard, 45, who died from cystic fibrosis two years ago in Pittsburgh.
Bjork, 77, and her husband, Karl, 79, were among about 50 people, nearly all seniors, at the annual program in the brightly lit sanctuary of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church. Bjork said her tears were for Richard's memory and two close friends lost in the past month.
One of those friends, Peter Curtiss, 80, lived in Sun City Center. The Bjorks came for Thanksgiving to be with Pidge Curtiss, his wife of 58 years. The tradition of the couples and their families spending Thanksgiving Day together dated to college for the husbands, who were the best of friends since high school.
Curtiss, 79, said she cared for her husband for seven years before his death on Oct. 27. He had Alzheimer's disease. She said she felt comfort and support during Tuesday's service.
Losing a loved one around the holidays can be difficult says the Rev. Paulette Carney of St. John the Divine. Carney, 67, says her church recently lost the person who started the When Christmas Hurts program. Judy Weiffenbach, 74, organized the community event for five years. She died of an illness Oct. 31.
"Judy was concerned about the spiritual needs of people, people who are hurting," Carney said. "Her death was a blow to all of us. Judy was a wonderful woman.
"So many people are struggling with death or divorce and the holiday (season) may not be quite as joyous. The event is to support people by reaching out to the community. Things happen and some will question the will of God and sometimes their faith wavers. Hopefully, we can get them to renew their faith. Some people are very private in their grief and others find solace in a gathering."
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Helen Tharp, 80, of Sun City Center, says she came to light a candle for Marshall, her husband of 60 years. Marshall, 84, is fighting bladder cancer and the illness necessitates "running back and forth to Moffitt (Cancer Center in Tampa)."
The mother of four adult children says she and Marshall have been "snowbirds" from Maine since 1997. They didn't go north this summer because of the illness and the long drive.
Helen and Paul Banco, 79, said they came to the service because they live nearby. They moved to Sun City Center 13 years ago from Maryland, but are originally from Pennsylvania. The Bancos said they saw an ad on a billboard and thought it was a Christmas program. They thought it would a good way to usher in the season and to focus on the Lord.
"That's what it's all about," Helen said. "Lots of times the focus is on the hustle and bustle."
Taking refreshments in the adjacent fellowship hall after the program, Helen said she found the service to be "very impressive, very nice. There's a nice spirit here (in the church)." The mother of an adult son and daughter was among the folks to light a hand-held candle near the end of the service.
"I lit it for my grandson, Joshua, 27, and his salvation," she said. "He's a good boy and I hope he will find it useful to know the Lord."
Jane Hollis, office administrator at St. John the Divine, says, When Christmas Hurts started small, but has grown over the years. Tuesday's hourlong program, presented by Faith Communities of Greater Sun City Center, included singing, prayers, readings, a homily and lighting of four Advent candles.
Starting next year, a group of seven churches will expand the program and rotate it each year among St. John the Divine, United Community Church, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, Unity Community of Joy Church, Redeemer Lutheran Church, Sun City Center United Methodist Church, and Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
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There will be a similar program in the area next week at LifePath Hospice in Ruskin to provide solace and offer hope during the holidays.
Hospice's "Lights of Love" program begins at 6 p.m. at Hospice House, 3723 Upper Creek Drive. The seventh-annual event on Thursday is free and open to the public. It will include a remembrance ceremony, where candles are lit and loved ones are celebrated. The program culminates with the lighting of the cedar tree on the hospice house grounds.
LifePath's Patricia Klein says during the holiday season a lot of people who have lost someone want to remember them in a community setting. In the past, she said, about 100 people attended the observance each year.
"People find it encouraging," Klein said.
She adds that the ceremony isn't just for people who lost someone in hospice. She said, if they lost a relative or had an unexpected loss, they are welcomed to attend.
Ed Evans, 54, a bereavement specialist in the LifePath Hospice facility in Temple Terrace, says hospice deals with life and death.
"We help families of patients deal with grief after death," Evans said. "They want to honor their loved ones. This service helps them cope with their grief. I've heard that grief shared is grief halved. Around the holidays can be a very hard time for grieving people, who feel very much alone.
"The (Lights of Love) service helps give comfort in a time of sorrow," he added. "It helps develop a healthy acceptance of a loss. It helps (remember) happy memories of a lost loved one and to show that this person is still part of their life."
Henry Howard can be reached at email@example.com.