When she heard William Cook's name called, Donna Johnson-Cook rose from her chair and walked to a Christmas tree standing tall at the front of the room.
She studied the tree for a moment, gently tilting her head from one side to the other as she looked for the perfect place to hang a heart-shaped ornament in memory of her late husband. And as she found it, her face bore a look that somehow combined sadness and satisfaction. Sadness, because she will spend her first Christmas without him. Satisfaction, because she found such a prominent place on the tree to display his name.
A few minutes passed as several others made the same pilgrimage as the subtle tones of a harp wafted angelically throughout the room.
Then it became Bonnie Newton's turn. She, too, took great care in hanging her ornament, guided by the thought that Frank Newton would have loved to been there to tell her exactly where he wanted his memorial ornament placed.
"He always liked being in control," Bonnie Newton said with great fondness in describing her older brother, who died in September at age 63.
In this manner, these and scores of other people began to cope with the fact that their loved ones won't be home for Christmas in body, but can still be there in spirit.
Through its fifth annual tree-decorating ceremony, Community Hospice offered a moment of remembrance and healing. The organization needed two nights this past week to accommodate all the families it has served during a year of helping their loved ones get the most out of life while easing into death. About 400 people attended the ceremonies.
Carolynn Peterson created the event after becoming Community Hospice's chief operating officer five years ago, in time to see the annual Christmas tree lighting at Memorial Medical Center.
"It's a beautiful ceremony," she said. "But I realized there was nothing intimate for the families. Our families are looking for new ways to celebrate, but don't want to forget a loved one."
She understands this as well as anyone, having lost two brothers.
"That first Christmas ... it just hits you," she said. "Having gone through personal loss, it makes me feel good to see them. I know what they're feeling."
Peterson worked previously at a hospice organization in the Fresno-Visalia area, which has offered such ornament ceremonies for many years. She modeled the tree decorating ceremony here after them, seeing that the need here was just as great.
Johnson-Cook said she grieved tremendously after her husband, William Cook, died in February.
"In the early stages, I'd get in my car and drive around for hours at a time," she said. "I did that because I didn't want to go back to my house."
She's attended one-on-one bereavement sessions every other week since his death, and two months ago began volunteering at Community Hospice.
A few a weeks ago, she came to another event there — best described as a primer on what to expect with the holidays approaching — in which family members brought photographs of their loved ones.
"What got to me most were the pictures," Johnson-Cook said. "It was almost like I felt the pain of all those people. And there was a woman singing — she'd written her own song. The words were wrenching my heart. I had felt all the feelings she sang about. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. But that's OK because crying is healing."
The ornament ceremony offers another stage of that healing, Bonnie Newton said.
"I came to be in a place with lots of people who feel the same as I do," Newton said. "They're all acknowledging someone they loved. I also want to pay tribute to the people who took care of Frank."
The ornaments will remain on the tree throughout the holidays.
"Families will bring others in and say, 'See? There's his ornament,' " Peterson said.
The families can pick their ornaments up after New Year's Day and take them home to hang on their own trees next year and thereafter.
"Then it does feel like their loved one is part of Christmas again," Peterson said.
The program made an impact on Newton, among others.
"I wanted to get in the mood for Christmas," she said. "OK, I can start now. Frank's going to be part of it."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.