Circle of Lights

Story by Wanda Kelsey-Mendez

The sun was disappearing behind the iconic silhouette of the Plaza as I squeezed the shutter of my camera. The luminaries had begun to glow in the twilight and the sound of the fountain provided a backdrop to the murmur of voices. A hand touched my shoulder and I turned. “Excuse me,” said the man with his family waiting shyly behind him. “Can you tell me what is happening here?”

I told him about Circle of Lights and how we gather each year to remember those we lost and to find comfort and strength with the community. “You won’t believe this,” his voice quavered. “I lost my mom this morning up the hill at the hospital and I brought my family to the Plaza to walk around. We’re still in shock.”

Smiling, I asked him if he would like to have a luminary for his mom and to light a candle for her. “We can do that?” he asked tentatively. “This service is for the community,” I explained, “And, we’d love to have your family join us.” I led him to the table where volunteer calligraphers were inscribing luminaries and left them with another volunteer who would help them place the luminary and light it.

Circle of Lights is a beloved tradition at Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care. It began as a way for the many caregivers on our staff to remember those they cared for, while bringing comfort to the families who lost someone dear to them. From there, it grew into a community event open to everyone who wished to remember, celebrate the lives of their loved ones, and find hope for the future.

With a pandemic keeping friends and families isolated, it’s more important than ever to find ways to remember loved ones and share memories. Kansas City Hospice invites you to create a complimentary online memorial that you can share.

Visit to learn more.

The simple, nondenominational ceremony of remembrance always incorporates the lighting of candles, a tradition that crosses many cultures and symbolizes remembrance for people of many faiths. Over the years, it has grown from a few luminaries to more than a thousand twinkling lights of comfort and healing. It is always scheduled for the Tuesday before Memorial Day.

I heard a squeal of delight. I turned and saw a family embracing one of my co-workers. Aleisha must have come directly from work. She was still in her blue scrubs and tears were glistening on her cheeks. As each family member gave her a big hug, she noticed me with my camera.

“Wanda, can you get a photo, please?” she asked. “This is the Johnson family and I helped care for Mr. Johnson last winter. They gathered for a family photo and an elderly lady touched Aleisha’s face. “You’ll always be part of our family,” she said with certainty. “Bob’s face lit up every time he saw you coming. You were his angel.”

Around us I recognized nurses, aides, doctors, social workers, and chaplains interspersed with people of every age and background. Children gazed in wonder at the luminaries, the chairs began to fill for the service, and the familiar backdrop of the Plaza helped remind us of our community. The people of Kansas City joined together for a few moments to reflect.

Last year as the pandemic overshadowed events, the Circle of Lights was held virtually, as it will be once again this year. But, we look forward to gathering together once again in the community, to remember. More than 560,000 people have died in the pandemic, in addition to those who succumbed all of the life-limiting diseases that have not taken a hiatus. Sudden and unexpected deaths continue. In times of struggle and sadness, we need ways to express, embody, and release our grief. 

By coming together to hold one another in care and community, we bear witness to the grief of others and find more compassion for ourselves and those around us. Supporting and being supported by others expressing grief helps us understand that we are not alone. By connecting as a community we can begin healing, individually and collectively. 

“Grief expressed out loud, whether in or out of character, un-choreographed and honest, for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.” ~ Martin Prechtel

On May 25, 2021, virtual candles will flicker as families gather in their homes for a simple service that means so much. To light a virtual candle, visit