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Bereavement Group Offers Help And Hope For Holidays

When a loved one has died Christmas can be a painful reminder of a life that used to be. WNKU’s Cheri Lawson reports on one bereavement group serving Northern Kentucky, Greater Cincinnati and Indiana that offers help and hope during the holiday season.

It’s Wednesday afternoon at Lakota East High School. 16-year-old Clara Elam is using sparkling red and green pipe cleaners and miniature gold stars to make a Christmas ornament for her sister. Tears stream down Clara’s face as she remembers 19-year-old Jessica who died earlier this year of pancreatic cancer.

"This is her favorite time of year..so..uh..she was actually not even supposed to make it past Thanksgiving. She did and uh..she never got to ..sorry..she finally got to graduate high school and she was nineteen."

Clara belongs to Companions on a Journey. The faith-based group offers support to anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one.  Executive Director Sheila Munafo-Kanoza started the group in 1997 following the death of her husband. Now it serves nearly 800 people from ages 4 through adult each month. Volunteer facilitators use techniques such as making ornaments or writing letters to deceased loved ones. They also lead discussions and ask very specific questions.

"We want them to feel safe and we want them to know this is a place they can share whatever they want to," Munafo-Kanoza. "And as long as we are able to create that safe place. because with grief and during the holidays there’s going to be that sadness."

Brooke Hill's grandpa was suffering from severe depression and committed suicide in August, 2014. Brooke says this group has been a huge help because some people said hurtful things about the way her grandpa died.

"I was really strugglin .I kind of didn’t realize I was struggling that much. I tried to talk to my family but they were grieving too. We were all hurting. So when I came here everyone just opened up and they could relate to the pain I was feeling."

On this day 6 students and 3 facilitators share chocolate chip cheesecake, cookies and stories of grief and hope. Ash Terrell shares a memory of her mom who died 3 years ago.

"My mom was always really Christmas-y and would always try to decorate every part of the house....not even kidding. Every part of the house .No matter where it was. Even the bathrooms had something that sparkled."

On December 14th 2011, Joshua Niederman lost his dad to Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. On Christmas morning he and his siblings will eat ice cream for breakfast in memory of their dad who loved ice cream. Joshua says it was his mom who convinced him to attend the grief group.

"I mean you still have your bad days but being able to come here and talk makes the good days outweigh the bad."

According to Sheila Munafo-Kanoza, 1 in 7 Americans lose a parent or sibling before age 20. She says, when that happens, children and teens can be unintentionally overlooked. 14-year-old Rebecca Addison says when her mom died 7 years ago the family didn’t know how to grieve.  She balances a slinky in her hands and says it symbolizes how grief is always changing and moving. The high School sophomore says grief support has been life-changing.

"It helped improve the relationship I have with my family.  Because being around each other was rough because we’d see my mom in each other. And I would spend hours locked away in my room because I couldn’t face them."

Leaning back in his chair, Nick DeWitt says it’s only been 2 years since his dad died of kidney cancer. He’s not sure how his family will remember his dad this Christmas

"I kind a want to go to the cemetery and light a candle or something, you know leave something there," says DeWitt. "Just bring something into our family since this is only our second Christmas…yeah second."

While the stories are sad, the friendships are powerful and the opportunity for healing is palpable, especially during the holiday season. This year Companions on a Journey, has served over 3000 grieving people of all ages. Groups meet monthly at a number of locations in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton areas of Ohio as well as Indiana and Northern Kentucky.