Angie Smith for Reader's Digest
After Stewart and Debbie Wilder lost their 17-year-old son, Cameron, to suicide in 2013, the last thing on their minds was decorating for the holiday season. “We haven’t put anything up in three years. It has all stayed boxed up,” Debbie told KTVB in November 2016. “All of Cameron’s friends come home for Thanksgiving to visit their families, and we don’t have him.”
But in December 2016, the house was lit up like, well, Christmas, with strings of white bulbs cheerfully lining the roof and eaves. It wasn’t the Wilders who’d finally made the house twinkle, however. Instead it was a stranger, 30-year-old Carson Zickgraf, who hangs lights professionally through his business, CZ Enterprises LLC. The Treasure Valley, Idaho, man is on a mission to brighten the lives of families affected by suicide, especially during the difficult holiday season—and it works. “I started crying,” Debbie says about seeing the lights for the first time. “It was really special.” (Here’s how you can support someone who’s lost a loved one.)
Zickgraf has been donating his light-stringing services since 2015 and has decorated the houses of more than two dozen families so far. They are mostly strangers whom Zickgraf learns about from Not One More Suicide, a support group. When Zickgraf arrives at a home to hang lights, he’ll knock on the door to tell the family his plan, but if everyone is away, he’ll put up the lights as a surprise. At one of the surprise houses, he began to work without realizing the owner was home. When she discovered what Zickgraf and his crew were up to, she ran outside—and gave them all hugs.
Zickgraf started the project by chance. He was hanging lights on a client’s home when the owner mentioned that some neighbors were having a hard time that holiday season because their son had recently died by suicide. On the spot, Zickgraf had an epiphany. “I sent my crew there to decorate that house too,” he says. The family was delighted.
Zickgraf realized that he’d found a kind of calling. In fact, he had two friends who had died by suicide, and he’d always wished he could ease the pain for their loved ones. Now, he’d found a way. “You can mow their lawn or take them for a meal, but you always wish you could do more,” says Zickgraf. “There’s something special about Christmas lights. They warm the spirit.” If you know someone who’s grieving, these kind words can make all the difference.
After he gets the names of families from Not One More Suicide, Zickgraf often hangs the lights himself with help from a friend, Sean Miner. When he sends his paid crew members to do the job, he doesn’t tell them the backstory out of respect for the family’s privacy, though the workers sometimes figure it out. “A few times when my employees have found out we were doing lights for suicide survivors, they stopped the clock and wouldn’t take pay.”
The lights go up around mid-November and are taken down after the New Year. Each job takes about an hour, though Zickgraf often prepares before arriving at a home. If he speaks to the family before starting, he asks what color lights the deceased would have liked. But when the job is a surprise, he takes the matter into his own experienced hands. He reads online memorials and obituaries to get a sense of the person, then picks the color he thinks would have pleased him or her. Zickgraf knows his efforts can’t completely lift the veil of grief from these families, but he can make the holidays a little cheerier. “I wish I had a bigger company so I could do more houses,” he says.