Light of Love Burns On

In my Parting Ways Column in the Orange County Register, I share the story of a community grieving together. As the holidays draw near, lighting a candle and reflecting on loved ones can be healing. Read below:

At sunset the day after her son’s birthday, Karen Knee, 52, gathers with more than 100 other families from across Orange County to light luminarias, or lanterns, to remember and celebrate lost loved ones.

Overlooking the waves crashing on Laguna Beach, the families sit at picnic tables and color their lanterns, marking them with names: Emily, Aaron, Don, Connor, Mom and Dad. The participants introduce themselves and ask, “Who did you lose?” or “Who is your luminaria for?”

“This is a perfect evening,” Karen says as she welcomes everyone to the ceremony. “I have to say happy birthday to my James. Yesterday, he would have been 29 years old. So, this is a bittersweet event for me. It’s always hard, but I love gathering with everybody and remembering and remembering your loved ones as well.”

On the morning of July 8, 2003, Karen woke to find her bedroom light was still on. Their ritual was, if James was coming home late, she would leave her light on, and he would turn it off as a signal that he was home.

She thought he just forgot, until the police arrived at her office in Costa Mesa. They told her that her 19-year-old son, James Anthony Rodrigues, was in a fatal car accident. “What am I supposed to do?” she repeated. In her deepest grief, she vowed James would not be forgotten.

She began going to a bereaved parents support group at the YMCA in Tustin. There she met a community of people who spoke this new language of loss. Soon after, she started a nonprofit organization called Memory JAR, with a mission to collect memories and create experiences that help families generic cialis no prescription remember loved ones within a community of compassionate people.

JAR are her son’s initials. Karen runs the nonprofit with the help of her parents, her sister and her son, James’ younger brother, Robert. In 2007, she organized the first Memory JAR ceremony to remember James around the anniversary of his death. Karen and a group of parents released butterflies in memory of their children while a choir of girls sang Eric Clapton’s song “Tears in Heaven.”

In 2008, she went to Laguna Beach and wrote in the sand “You’re Invited,” took a picture and sent out an invitation to the first candle-lighting of remembrance in honor of his birthday. All of the families loved this ceremony so much, they asked her to organize another one, and today it’s a tradition for Karen and Memory JAR.

As Karen walks from picnic table to table, families embrace her with gratitude. The aroma of chili, James’ favorite food, fills the air.

The lyrics “Life carries on” from Seal’s song “Prayer for the Dying” resonate as Melodie Ybarra sits beside her 6-year old, Aiden, and four adopted children coloring luminarias in memory of her husband, Don, and three boys – Brandon, 7, Connor, 4, and Jacob, 2 – who died in a fire that engulfed her Placentia home in 2002. Melodie was 36, and in the ashes of her loss, she rebuilt her house, fell in love with a man named Michael Chapman and gave birth to Aiden.

Together, they adopted Jacquelynn, now 17; Eoin, 7; Maize, 9; and Keira, 12.

Aiden inscribes a luminaria for Jacob. And Maize colors one for Connor. Eoin does one for Brandon.

“We still feel our family members are a part of our daily lives,” she says.

At the sound of a chiming bell, they leave the tables and walk down a hill to place the lanterns on the beach. Karen follows the procession and hands out electric tea lights to the families.

Bernard Dobine, 54, and Judy Small, 48, of Laguna Nigel, reflect on their son Aaron’s brilliant smile as they light their candles that ignite a string of colorful luminarias on the beach. Aaron was 29 when he died in a motorcycle accident Sept. 10. The family look at pictures of Aaron and his brother, Matt, when they were children. Still in a fog, Bernard, Judy and Matt struggle to make sense of the reality that Aaron is gone.

Just a few lanterns down the beach, Alex Evans, 36, and his wife, Sara, 36, and their son, Jacob, 12, sit on the beach writing Emily’s name in the sand and building sand castles around their luminarias. Six months ago, they lost their 8-year-old daughter.

“Seeing her name on the lantern, hearing people read her name means to me she did exist and she will not be forgotten,” Sara says. Alex basks in the community of people who don’t make him feel like an alien when he talks about his daughter.

“It’s only been six months,” he says. “But people make me feel like I should be over it by now. Here, I’m free to talk about Emily. And we’re not alone.”

Jill Martin, 62, of Yorba Linda, sets her luminaria down and reflects on dancing with her teenage son, Eric, who died at 16. It’s been 26 years.

As the sun bows into the Pacific, the coastline glows with more than 300 lanterns illuminating the lives of loved ones and the connections between those who live on. At the closing of the ceremony, Melodie and her children surround Karen and sing “Happy Birthday” to James.

“It’s our way of saying thank you,” Melodie says to Karen, echoing the sentiment of the parting families.

After Karen cleans the beach with a crew of volunteers, she sits at the picnic table and smiles with relief.

“I’ve kept my vow. James will not be forgotten.”

Denise Carson wrote the book “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing” and blogs at The book is available at University of California Press or

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