MANY FAMILIES are suffering through their first holiday season without a loved one. Four years ago, I had my first dreadful holiday without my son, Mikey. He ended his own life on Nov. 10, 2008, after suffering a delusional episode.

I've spoken to dozens of suffering families while bringing Mikey's story to the community. I see the anguished eyes of other grieving parents, beseeching me to give them some magic words that will somehow lighten their sorrow. In me, they see another parent who has lost a beloved child, and wonder how I still manage to laugh and smile and speak of my son's death without choking back sobs.

Of course, the sobs come when I am alone with my thoughts and aching for Mikey with every cell in my body. Like me, these parents will learn how to navigate through their days, and welcome the freedom that moments of solitude bring in the night. We relish the freedom to cry without stopping, without apologizing, without causing others around us to feel the need to console us. Tears wash the soul clean. Our souls should be spotless by now.

But in my tearful solitude, peace settles in. Without the clamor of voices and noises around me, somehow Mikey draws nearer to me. I hear his voice, behold his grin, and admire the gracefulness of movement he possessed. I can envision his feet propped on the ottoman beside mine, and his presence is as palpable as the pile of soggy Kleenex next to me. Alone with my thoughts, I am not alone.

I wish I could carry these other parents in my arms and gently set them down on the other side of the tunnel. I'm acutely aware of how the holiday season is looming over them like a monster, threatening to engulf them in misery. But it won't. Like me, they have a new awareness of what it means to be truly thankful for the love around them, to be grateful for the loved ones who are still sitting at the table, passing the mashed potatoes. The dreaded first holiday will bring with it a surprising feeling of gratitude, along with the obvious grief. We give thanks for those are still with us, as well as those who only join us in spirit. We feel thankful for the joyfulness of the children around us, but we also feel thankful that cranky old Aunt Flo is still here and, well, cranky. We take nothing for granted anymore, and that is the gift of grief.

For this holiday, I am grateful for the support I've received while bringing Mikey's story to others. Mikey didn't let autism affect his ability to succeed in life, nor did it handicap his capacity to love. Mikey was always thankful for any act of kindness that was shown to him, and that is the true spirit of the holiday season. May your day be blessed with the love of family and friends, and please pass the gravy.

Diane Bucci is former president of the Autism Society of Colorado and member of the Autism Society and AngelCoaches.org.

Risky and expensive

It's just tragic that Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque, 28, of Monroeville, Pa., lost his life in a rescue mission that could have been avoided. It should be obvious that the Taliban would like nothing more than to kidnap Americans and claim them as trophies. Americans traveling to Afghanistan, or any other nation hostile to America, should do so at their own risk. Not only can rescue missions be dangerous and deadly, but they cost big bucks as well. And besides, we don't have to travel far and wide to find folks in need. There are plenty of sick and hungry folks in our own backyard . . . many of whom live on the street. Instead of traveling to Afghanistan, why can't Dr. Dilip Joseph help needy Americans right here in the good old U.S.A.?

JoAnn Lee Frank

Clearwater, Fla.

Help needed at home

Where is the help from the government for the people in New York and New Jersey whose homes are full of mold or unlivable? These are not summer homes, but homes of working-class people who don't have heat or clothes or a place to stay. Where are all the countries that we send aid to when we could use a little help? Instead of worrying about some little jerk in South Korea playing with missiles, get the FEMA trailers to these people so they have some place to stay, and the National Guard there to protect the people and their property.

Lou Gerner

Philadelphia

You call that justice?

Mafia turncoat Philip "Crazy Phil" Leonetti is nothing more than a violent sociopath who places no value on human life. He committed 10 murders yet only served five years in prison. Nice "justice" system we have, isn't it?

Rob Boyden

Drexel Hill, Pa.