HOLLIDAYSBURG - Pastor Dennis Derr will be wrapping a Christmas present this year that he did not buy but will be for him. The tag will read "To Dennis, From Dad."
Derr's father, Robert, won't be able to give his son the present in person because he passed away in August. His father also left presents for all the family members, and Derr will be set aside a day to carefully wrap the gifts designated for his wife, adult children, grandchildren and his sister.
"My dad lived faithfully and died faithfully," Derr said.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) First United Methodist Church of Hollidaysburg will offer a service for those who may be sad during the holidays. Among those who have suffered loss are church members (from left) Beth Carpenter, Bud Blair and The Rev. Dennis Derr, pastor of the church.
He will speak about his loss during the annual "Service of Light in the Darkness" to be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 18 at First United Methodist Church in Hollidaysburg where Derr is pastor. It is similar to Blue Christmas services held around the country for those grieving during the holiday season.
"It's a very reflective time. People come in there knowing this holiday is different than ever before," he said.
For Derr, it will be the first year without his 89-year-old father, who battled pulmonary fibrosis for three years with his condition becoming worse last January.
Despite his suffering, Robert Derr made sure his family members would have gifts from him under the tree this Christmas. He ordered them by phone, and they were delivered to the Derr home. Robert Derr made all the selections with Diane Derr, the wife of Pastor Derr and his primary caregiver, available if he needed her help.
The Derrs will remember him on Christmas and at the "Service of Light in the Darkness."
For Dennis Derr, who is used to public speaking, the service will be different.
"This is not something I have done before," he said referring to sharing his story of loss.
Although he lost his mother nine years ago, he did not have the opportunity to speak publicly about his pain.
"When she passed we still had a 'home,' and a parent. [My sister and I] joked, we're homeless now,'" he said referring to the loss of his childhood home as well as his father's passing.
Beth Carpenter of Hollidaysburg may only be in her 20s, but she, too, knows the pain of loss.
She shared her story at last year's service and still thinks about that difficult period in her life as the holidays approach.
She married in 2007 and moved to Philadelphia. Two years later, she and her husband were expecting their first child. Only her hope was dashed when she gave birth a couple of months before her due date, and their daughter, Natalie Marie, was still born.
The first Christmas after the loss was "absolute torture," she said, and not just because her child was not alive.
She was bearing another pain that she had not disclosed to her family and friends. A day before losing her first child, she discovered her husband had been having an affair. As the couple tried to salvage their marriage, they chose not to further devastate family with their troubles.
Carpenter said that after counseling, it was clear the marriage could not be saved. She called her parents and moved home in March of 2010.
Willing to speak
As Christmas approached, a member of her home church at First United Methodist Church asked her to speak at the holiday service. The health and wellness committee planning the service was looking for a speaker who could relate to loss.
"I wanted to speak. I know what it's like to feel isolated," she said.
Carpenter said it was odd to be a 27-year-old relating to the loss of a spouse or a child. One of five children, she had been eager to have a married life and family of her own.
Now, Christmas brought forth images of children and families, something she could not bear to recognize.
She said she went through a time of anger in which she asked herself questions like "Why would God kill a child to use as a learning tool?"
Carpenter, who described herself as an academic who seeks answers, said she turned to her Bible.
She said she came to the conclusion that "My reaction is to trust in God regardless."
Carpenter is now preparing for seminary and hopes to impact others in similar circumstances with her story.
Loss of grandchild
Bud Blair, chairman of the church's health and wellness committee, also knows loss. His granddaughter died in 2003 and he remembers grieving during that first Christmas without her.
"It's not a happy time of year," Blair said for those who are going through the holidays minus a loved one for the first time.
The service is one of lit candles, hymns and a recognition that God who gave up his own son Jesus Christ understands loss, Pastor Derr said.
Carpenter said believers can make a recognition of their own as they grieve. She learned that no matter what time of year, God is the God of all circumstances.
She quoted Isaiah 45:7: "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things."
Pastor Derr said the service is also for those who have experienced loss in other ways this holiday season, such as loss of a home or loss of employment.
"It's a time to say, 'Lord, we're hurting but we're here to celebrate your love and grace."