Holidays bring remembrance of those lost

“It was anguishing,” Josh Simmons said, holding back tears. “Not just that Scott was gone, but that I wasn’t there with the family, at the hospital, at their house after the hospital.”|

Josh Simmons sat at a cafe table in downtown Petaluma, sipping hot tea and thinking about his brother, who passed away not long ago.

It was a cold December evening, but Simmons was remembering a treasured trip to the beach he took with his older brother, Scott Deihl, while they were visiting grandparents in the late 2000s.

Simmons, a Petaluma native, recalled that moment of tranquil spontaneity on the beach, as he and his brother spent time bonding and connecting as they discussed life and everything that comes with it.

“It felt like an eternity, maybe it was 30 minutes, maybe it was an hour, I don’t know – but we just stood in the water as the waves were rolling in, just talking about everything,” Simmons said. “It really was everything.”

It’s the type of moment that Simmons will forever cherish and wishes he could build more of with Deihl, who passed away last June, the day after Father’s Day, following a medical emergency. He was 43, and left behind his wife Jennifer and their 6-month-old son.

Simmons honored his brother’s life at the “Light Up A Life” tree-lighting vigil that Providence Hospice of Petaluma organizes each year in Walnut Park to honor those who have passed away.

With the holiday season rolling around, Simmons said he is again reminded of everything his late brother was, and everything that could have been but will never be.

“There were four of us. I have three older brothers. Had three older brothers,” Simmons said, pausing to take a deep breath. “I’m the youngest. There’s enough of an age gap that we didn’t spend a whole lot of time together. But you know, as we grew up, we found a lot in common.”

Simmons described Deihl as a family man, always lending a hand to make sure their family had what they needed.

“Growing up, one of the mistakes I made was being too attached to my computer and my online communities,” Simmons said with a laugh. “And Scott, as long as I can remember, made a point of creating family time, spending time with family. He really didn’t waste any time, he had his priorities right.”

More than that, “Scott was the life of the party, an excellent host,” Simmons said. “He always made sure that everybody was comfortable, taken care of, having a good time.”

Without him as their usual host at Thanksgiving this year – the first major holiday without his beloved brother – Simmons said it was a “weird” day for a number of reasons.

“But Scott’s absence was the strangest thing about it,” he said. “And I think we have leaned into some of our familiar traditions, make sure to have some of our favorite things there.” The goal, he said, was to “try to have enough that was familiar to feel like there was some level of continuity.”

‘It was anguishing’

Simmons and his husband Chris were in Montreal, enjoying their first vacation since the pandemic hit, when the horrible news came.

At first, “It was a perfect day, it was beautiful,” Simmons said. But it soon turned upside down.

“We were just approaching the bagel shop and got a message in the family group text,” he said. “The medics couldn’t find a pulse and they were on their way to the ER. That was the first I heard of it. And I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew whatever it was, I knew we had to go home. Immediately I knew we had to go home.”

When Simmons and his husband had finally gotten inside a cab to head to the airport, he got a call from Scott’s wife, Jennifer. Scott had died.

“It was anguishing,” Simmons said, holding back tears. “Not just that Scott was gone, but that I wasn’t there with the family, at the hospital, at their house after the hospital.”

Once they got home, Simmons said he made Jennifer and the baby the center of his universe, also getting wrapped up in planning Scott’s celebration of life as a way to distract himself from letting the reality set in.

“Our grieving was delayed a bit,” he said. “People have a lot of patience and grace in the immediate aftermath of loss. But there’s a clock that’s ticking and there’s a point when people kind of expect you to have gone back to normal. And we’re so far from that. Similar to the pandemic, it’s like, well maybe there is no normal.”

Coping with grief

In a 2013 study published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, researchers found that 57% of respondents who lost a sibling were more likely to have “complicated grief,” or grief so severe that a person has difficulty resuming their daily life routine, and report significantly high levels of depression and somatic symptoms.

Those symptoms are highlighted by milestone occasions and during holidays, said Ashlee Cabral, a licensed mental health therapist and grief counselor in Petaluma.

“What can be so difficult is nothing is the same when you lost someone,” Cabral said. “We’re wanting to do these same traditions but might be lacking energy or enthusiasm or even the ability to make things the way that they were.”

For Simmons, even though the grief is there, he’s appreciative of the amount of support he has received from friends and family since his brother’s death.

“Coping for me is making a really intentional effort to connect with people however I can. So I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends,” he said. “Hiking and being outdoors (also) is really healing for us and brings us closer to Scott, because he was such an outdoors person.”

Cabral said that, especially during holidays, there are ways family and friends can show support for their grieving loved ones, such as lighting a candle for the missed person, setting a place at the table for them, or simply respecting boundaries and asking those who are grieving what is OK for them.

And to a person who is experiencing grief this holiday season, Cabral said if you have plans, it may be useful to have a backup plan as well that fits your needs.

“You just never know what your energy level is going to be like on the day,” Cabral said.

Looking ahead

Simmons still is unsure how he and his family will spend the Christmas holiday, although he feels sure enough there will be some type of gathering. But whatever happens, he said the coming weeks and months are sure to bring a lot of reflection.

“You never know when it’s going to hit you, you never know how hard it’s going to hit,” he said. “The waves come, and sometimes it’s a big wave. Sometimes it’s incapacitating. So I’ve had to be kind to myself, to not put expectations on what I’m able to do.”

And more than ever, Simmons said, his brother’s passing has taught him that the most precious aspects of life should not be taken for granted.

“Work is work, volunteerism is important, (but) the people you love aren’t always going to be here,” he said. “Take every opportunity you can and let them know that you love them.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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