At only 15 years old, Maryssa Kessie already has experienced a lifetime of loss.
The local teenager had a place to help her remember her lost loved ones and to grieve, along with dozens of other attendees, at the Remembrance Tree event, Nov. 9 at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne. The occasion helps local families memorialize lost loved ones by decorating special ornaments for Christmas trees displayed inside the hospital.
Clear plastic ornaments are crafted by Lutheran volunteers, and are then personalized by family members however they see fit. Some write their loved ones’ names on the Christmas globes. Others attach meaningful trinkets to honor their memories.
Inside each of the decorations, blue- and silver-colored ribbons were placed, as well as a delicate white feather. Occasionally, a miniature charm was put inside, as well, such as tiny, ruby hearts and other faux shimmering jewels.
“The display offers the entire community a way to commemorate loved ones who are gone but not forgotten,” according to a news release.
One volunteer working to create ornaments was Natasha Ward, a registered respiratory therapist, who said she’s continually surprised by the event’s popularity.
“Every year, the amount of people who want to do this seems to go up and up,” she said. “And it’s a unique thing to be able to give back to these folks.”
Volunteers even offered small dog tags for some families to attach to their ornaments, if their lost loved one had belonged to the armed services. Families could write their names on the replica tags in their loved one’s memory, Ward said.
“People lose family members, and it’s hard to get through the holidays without them,” said Lutheran Registered Nurse Sherry Cotner, one of the Lutheran volunteers helping to work the remembrance. “So, this makes it easier, and lets them know that we do remember.”
Because the ornaments have such sentimental value, families are allowed to come back after the new year — when the trees are taken down — and reclaim the ornaments, Cotner said.
About 10 decorated Christmas trees adorned the hospital’s South Lobby, each covered with twinkling, white lights, silvery tinsel, and dozens of the clear-plastic dedication ornaments.
The event, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., also featured Christmas music performed by the St. Therese School Children’s Choir, as well as several other solo performers throughout the morning and early afternoon. Familiar Christmas songs — such as “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” — floated through the lobby as families and their loved ones walked among the trees and hung their memorials.
A children’s craft area also was set up just off the lobby to host youngsters who had come with their families to spend some time remembering their relatives. Some kids in the craft area worked on holiday tablecloths by writing memorial messages on plastic table coverings with crayons and markers, while others used jigsaw puzzles and glue to embellish cut-out shapes that were meaningful to them and their families.
Begun in 2009, the Remembrance Tree has become increasingly popular over its 10-year existence. Cotner, a 30-year employee of Lutheran, said that last year, more than 600 ornaments were created.
Kessie, who found out about the event from her boyfriend’s mother, who also works at Lutheran, was working in the children’s craft area, using Elmer’s Glue to attach puzzle pieces to a truck-shaped cut-out.
The South Whitley teen said the truck was special to her because her grandmother, Cheryl, who passed away about a week before, used to drive a pickup. She was using camouflage-colored pieces to decorate the truck, because her grandma also used to love the outdoors, she said.
That day, she also had created memorial ornaments for her other grandparents, as well as for two of her aunts who had recently passed away.
“It just nice to do,” Kessie said. “Grandma used to like puzzles, too.”