Meander through nearly any suburban community at this time of year and you are likely to see a wide range of outdoor holiday décor, from inflatable snowmen to wooden sleighs to ropes of multicolored lights.
But in Carlisle, on Dec. 20, yards, porches, and roadways will twinkle green for the second annual Brighten the Night, a luminaria event honoring the memory of William Wolfgang Shaw on what would have been his 13th birthday.
When William died in a skiing accident in February 2019 at age 9, the community rallied around his family — his mother Susie, his father Nick, and his younger brother Kai, then 6 years old. But as the months went on, the parents of William’s circle of friends found themselves increasingly bewildered about how to comfort their own children. It was a discussion that resumed in fall 2021 when families reemerged from their pandemic seclusion.
“We discovered that we all found it hard to talk with our kids about how they were feeling, especially with William’s birthday coming up in December,” said Bridget Ferrari, a mother of four whose daughter Caroline was one of William’s friends. “We thought it might help our kids if we could think of some way to honor and recognize the day in a way that was respectful of the solemnness but still in some ways celebratory.”
William was born on a date that falls near the shortest day of the year and amidst numerous celebrations marked with lights in the darkness, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and the solstice.
So the group, comprised of parents and kids who knew William and had remained close to his family, started assembling luminaria kits, which they sold that fall at community gatherings, holiday craft fairs, and online.
The instructions were simple: put the electric candles — which were green, in honor of William’s favorite color — inside the white paper bags, and on Dec. 20, place them in yards, along driveways, on porches, or in windows. On the day of last year’s Brighten the Night luminaria display, the Shaws gathered with the other organizing parents and kids on the steps of the Carlisle Public School at dusk. Teachers who had purchased luminaria kits had arranged them in a heart shape in the schoolyard. Without any direction from the adults, as Susie Shaw remembers it, the kids spontaneously began to sing Happy Birthday.
Among that group was Eli Svatek, one of William’s best friends since first grade. “After it got dark, we visited the cemetery to leave luminarias there and then drove around town looking at all the displays,” Eli, now 13 and in seventh grade, recalled. “It was awesome. William’s birthday is a very sad day, but it’s also a day when we all think of him, and it made me feel really good to see all those lights and know that everyone was pitching in to remember my friend.”
It wasn’t only private homes that displayed green candles. Electric candles glowed outside of Ferns Country Store, the library, churches, and the police and fire stations. At Clark Farm, luminarias were arranged to encircle the silo.
Last year, each luminaria kit contained 12 candles. This year there are 14 — 13 in honor of William’s birthday and one more that participants are invited to place on the Town Common to commemorate someone else they have lost. “Grief is a universal experience, but too often we try to do it on our own,” Susie said. “The candles on the Town Common are a public display of remembrance. It is so much better if we can all share in this together.”
Over the past year, the group of parents whose earlier conversations formed the idea for Brighten the Night have founded a nonprofit organization called William’s Be Yourself Challenge. Both Susie and Nick Shaw are board members of the nonprofit, which brings speakers to the community to talk about grief, resilience, and mental health for parents, children, and educators. Sales of the luminaria kits are just one of the projects that support the programming; other recent fund-raising efforts have included parkour exhibitions, a carwash, and a team of kids and parents who took part in last summer’s Falmouth Road Race, near the beaches where William spent summers with his family.
As an offshoot of the official William’s Be Yourself Challenge organization, some of the kids who knew William have formed a club at school. His good friend Eli Svatek is president. “We try to help kids find ways to manage their grief through community service and other activities,” Eli said. “Our motto is ‘Movement helps mental health.’ In the fall we raked leaves for some elderly people, and in the spring we’re going to hold a community kickball game.”
William’s younger brother Kai, who is 10, is a member of the school club. “Giving our kids ownership of heavy material helps them grapple with a lot of the feelings they are having,” Susie said. “Taking action makes them feel good about what they are doing, and it frees them from having to talk about him in any particular way. We aren’t sitting them down and saying, ‘How are you feeling today about William?’ This creates a very comfortable way for them to process their feelings.”
Although Kai has always spoken openly with his parents about his brother, Susie was surprised when earlier this month she heard him talk about William in public for the first time, at an event where the William’s Be Yourself Challenge group was selling luminaria kits. When she praised him for his openness, he told his parents that being part of the group helped him feel comfortable doing so.
“We are a country that doesn’t grieve much,” commented Nancy Rappaport, a Harvard-affiliated child and adolescent psychiatrist who was the first speaker in the lecture series presented by William’s Be Yourself Challenge. “Something like the luminaria event in Carlisle is a way of embracing a ritual that anchors the grief. One of the main components of resilient kids is they feel valued and they believe they have something to contribute. This organization has given the kids a way to do that, and with Brighten the Night, they see their community coming together to say that love lasts longer than death.”
“We’ve created something that brings the kids together organically,” remarked Ferrari, whose children were among the group that gathered at the school for Brighten the Night last year. “When they all started running around and singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ they were taking what could have been a sad moment and instead creating a moment of joy for themselves. They were remembering their friend with happiness.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.