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How Christmas decorations helped a grieving family

BY Rebecca Meiser

12th Dec 2022 Christmas

How Christmas decorations helped a grieving family

Coping with grief at Christmas can be really tough. For this family, their community came together and used Christmas lights to help them cope with their loss

For some, hanging Christmas decorations is yet another holiday chore. But for the Pascucci family, stringing lights and decorating the yard of their home in Bethpage, New York, was always a time of celebration. 

Starting in early November, Anthony Pascucci, the family patriarch, and his older sister, Connie, would visit local stores to check out new decorations and to dream up their ­vision for that year’s extravaganza. 

Anthony’s son, Anthony Jr, and daughter, Sara, shared the home, and they pitched in as well. Anthony Jr helped with the wiring, while Sara hung ornaments on the tree inside the house, playing “White Christmas” to keep everyone in the spirit.

"For the Pascucci family, stringing lights and decorating the yard of their home was always a time of celebration"

In 2020, as in every other year, Anthony Sr. strung colorful lights all around their roof until it looked as if sparkles were dripping onto the porch. On the front lawn, he inflated a large snowman and a Rudolph with a glowing red nose. The place looked like a scene from a Christmas storybook.

Anthony Sr, 60, had outdone himself, as if the brightness of the lights could counter the darkness of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was just such a rough year that he tried his best to make it extra special,” Sara says.

Christmas lights

Decorating the house with Christmas lights was a beloved tradition for the Pascucci family

On Christmas Eve, the whole house twinkled with lights, and gifts were piled under the tree. Everyone was looking forward to spending Christmas Day together as a family.

Then Connie got a call: Someone she worked with had tested positive for Covid. Though Connie didn’t have any symptoms, she decided to get tested right away. Her rapid test came back positive.

Anthony Sr, Anthony Jr, and Sara all tested positive too. Sadly, they agreed their Christmas celebration would have to be canceled. 

At first, everyone’s symptoms seemed manageable. But right after the new year, on January 4, Anthony Sr started having trouble breathing. Anthony Jr took him to the hospital, where he was admitted. 

Five days later, Connie began feeling weak and wouldn’t eat. Sara called an ambulance, but Connie died before they got to the hospital. Less than a week later, Anthony Sr passed away.

Coping with grief at Christmas

Sara says the following weeks were the worst of her life. Grief left her doubled over in pain. On top of that, “we were still recovering from Covid-19 ourselves,” she says. 

In addition to helping to plan funerals for her father and her aunt, Sara had to figure out the mortgage payments and transfer the utility bills to her name. And perhaps hardest of all, she had to try to explain to her 18-month-old son, Robbie, the concept of death. It was almost too much to take.

But when she pulled up to the house at the end of a long day, the twinkling Christmas lights brought her a spark of joy. “It made us happy to see them,” she says. 

Christmas decorations

The Christmas decorations provided a sense of joy at a difficult time

The lights were one of the last mementos Sara and Anthony Jr had of their beloved family members when they were still alive and healthy. Taking them down felt like a final act of closure she and her brother weren’t ready to take. So they kept them up.

One day in February, Sara received a typed note in the mail. “Take your Christmas lights down!” the unsigned letter read.

Sara looked at the paper in shock. Then she got angry. “We were already dealing with so much,” she says.

Sara could have bottled up that anger, but she decided to write about it instead. “I wanted to remind people that we all had a tough year. We all have been through so much and people should be a little more caring toward each other,” she says.

"The prevailing sentiment from friends old and new: Keep the Christmas lights up"

She shared the letter on Facebook, adding a note of her own: “If you know of a person who would do something so insensitive like this, please pass along my message.” She ended the post with this: “Be kind to people because you never know what they are going through.”

Sara’s inbox quickly filled with messages of support. A local news station learned what had happened and ran a segment about it. People started sending Sara letters and Facebook messages about how they’d lost relatives, too, and how it was especially tough to lose loved ones around the holidays. 

The prevailing sentiment from friends old and new: Keep the Christmas lights up. 

“I know what it feels like to lose someone and not want to put their things away. It’s very hard,” one man told her when he stopped by with roses. Neighbours sent meals and cards.

“I wasn’t expecting that much support,” Sara says. “But having it helped us get through a rough time, just knowing that people could relate.”

A community pulling together

And then something strange began to happen. Sara was driving back from work one day when she noticed that Christmas lights and decorations were appearing—or reappearing—on houses in her neighborhood.

The mystery had a sweet explanation: Her neighbors had gotten together and decided, collectively, to hang their lights back up in honor of Anthony Sr and Connie.

“I couldn’t believe that someone would send her this letter,” neighbor Karen McGuggart told the Washington Post. “Losing her wonderful dad, whom all the neighbors loved, and her beautiful aunt, who was always smiling, is such a tragedy. We were heartbroken.” 

Santa

The whole community came together for Sara and her family

The support didn’t stop with the decorations. The man formerly named Frank Pascuzzi—he legally changed his name to Santa Claus—spends the holidays dressing up as Santa and making appearances for local organizations. When he saw Sara’s story on TV, he decided to take his Santa suit out of seasonal retirement.

On Valentine’s Day, Claus rode down Sara and Anthony Jr’s street in a car parade he had helped organize. One of the first cars in line blasted “Frosty the Snowman” while some 60 other vehicles decked out with flashing Christmas lights followed. 

“We wanted them to see that the community was behind them,” Claus says.

"It was as if all of the world were conspiring to make sure Sara and her family had a proper Christma"

Sara, her brother, and her son stood outside their house and waved to the passing crowd. It had snowed the night before, so the neighborhood was covered with a dusting of white powder. It was as if all of the world were conspiring to make sure Sara and her family had a proper Christmas.

“We got a little bit of joy back that night,” Sara says.

She never learned the identity of the person who sent the note. But for the Pascucci family, that one mean-spirited deed was far outweighed by so many more acts of kindness.

"The good does outweigh the bad and most people have good hearts,” Sara says.

A few weeks after the Valentine’s Day Christmas parade, Sara and Anthony Jr finally took down their decorations. Sara said it was hard—“but not as hard as I think it would have been if we didn’t experience all that support and love.” 

The family plans to keep putting on a bright and colorful Christmas. Says Sara: “We are not going to make it a sad holiday. We will keep the tradition going.”

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