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Coping with grief during the holidays

Two families try to rediscover joy thanks to some special help

FOX 10
December 14, 2017

By: Stefania Okolie

PHOENIX - There are beautiful sights of the season that help bring joy to our lives: the lights, the bells, the music, but in the midst of it all, it can be afflictive.

"She just wanted her daddy back," said Cherie Myohanen.

There are those who carry a different connection to the holiday traditions.

"We would like Eli to be here, but she's not," said Kent Lavine.

Sorrow and pain.

"When I see other people out, I'm envious of it and it stings a little bit," said Jake Thomas.

"People who are grieving a loss are already feeling disconnected from the world," said Amanda Sahli, a Hospice of the Valley grief counselor.

And then you add the holiday season.

"He belongs here and there's nothing you can do about that," said Cherie.

An irreplaceable loss of life. Husbands, fathers, mothers, grandmothers, sons, daughters — no longer here.

"Last year, we knew we were pregnant, we were joking around this is our last Christmas we'll ever have, just the two of us," said Jake.

Jake and Jessica Thomas' sweet baby girl Eli was born June 16 of this year.

"I would just sit there and stare at her. She was so pretty and she looked so much like him, which I loved," said Jessica.

10 days later, they said their final goodbyes. Eli passed on June 26. So this Christmas, it's still just the two of them.

"There's a piece missing... so it doesn't feel like a holiday," said Jessica.

Like any first-time parents, they yearned for their first Christmas with their baby girl.

"She'll have little Christmas dresses and go to church with us, that's really the only Christmas memories we have with her," said Jake.

Memories of what at the time seemed to be a certainty, but never happened. Jake and Jessica likely won't put up too many decorations in their home this year. They just can't bring themselves to do it.

Robbed of their first Christmas memory with their child, they feel a different kind of grief and they're dealing with it exactly how they should — by doing what feels right for them. An important lesson on grief they've learned from Hospice of the Valley.

"I tell them to do whatever feels comfortable for them at a pace that feels comfortable for them, so if they decide that they want to decorate the house, decorate the house. If you decide you don't want to decorate the house, don't decorate the house," said Sahli.

For Cheri Myohanen and her three children, it's not really the holiday they expected either. Last year at this time, they were doing all the joyful Christmas festivities and their father, Sammi, was here too.

"Desert Ridge had the little ice skating rink there, we went and saw Santa Claus there," said Cherie.

On December 20, Sammi went out for a bike ride. It was his favorite pastime.

"After he rode, he was gonna come home and wrap all the Christmas presents," said Cherie.

On that afternoon, "I kissed him goodbye and told him I loved him and that was the last time I got to talk to him."

Sammi was hit by a car while biking. He died in the hospital on December 30.

"The commercials, the movies.. there's a family, there's a dad there," said Cherie.

Getting the house ready feels far from normal for the Myohanens.

"You know you wanna put out the Christmas lights, which Sammi always did and put up the Christmas tree, which he always did," said Cherie.

But in these moments of grief, there are also realizations.

"To find joy in every moment and to hug each other and really embrace what the holiday gives us," said Cherie.

Which is time. Enjoy it because times runs out. That's inevitable, but without time, there's still hope.

"I absolutely always suggest and kind of guide people into finding some way to incorporate their loved one into the holiday," said Sahli.

Because after all, love and life can never be lost as long as it's savored.

"Physically, we wish she was, but she'll always be here," said Jeanine Lavine, Eli's grandmother.

"It's all about just going inside and really just deciding what feels like it's going to be okay," said Sahli.

For the Myohanens, getting in the spirit feels okay. They're surrounded by relics of their father, his favorite holiday and his favorite holiday song.

Grief counselors with Hospice of the Valley stress the importance of not telling anyone who is grieving what to do, but rather asking them what they need. The truth is, no one has magic words or all the answers. Sometimes it simply takes being there.

Hospice of the Valley