The heart-warming Norman Rockwell scene of a family about to partake in Thanksgiving dinner is often times tempered with sadness for families who have lost a loved one during the year.
For two Rockford families, the holiday season serves as a time to remember their deceased family members while participating in traditions to honor their memories.
After a 2004 car accident took the life of 14-year-old Kari Lotko, her parents, Andy and Joanne found the greatest solace in their faith and in staying in touch with Kari’s friends.
“We got to the hospital and we got to see Kari and be with her … while they were running tests … we went down to the chapel and just left it up to God. We knew it was in God’s hands … we just asked for the strength to get through this. There was nothing we could do,” Joanne said.
Prayers and support for the Lotko family poured in from the Boylan Catholic High School community, where Kari was a student; from fellow parishioners at St. Rita Church and from St. Rita School where all four Lotko children had graduated.
In the years since Kari’s death, her parents and three other siblings, Michael, Anne Marie and Mitchell have celebrated her life by hosting gatherings of Kari’s friends at their Rockford home. These informal get-togethers have helped both family and friends deal with their loss.
“When Kari’s friends were all still here in town, they’d meet at our house, then go to Hilander and get a birthday cake and decorate it with all sorts of sweet foods like gummy bears, jawbreakers, M&M’s and they would just put a ton of candy on it and say ‘Happy Birthday, Kari’ … we’d sing Happy Birthday and celebrate her birthday with her friends,” Joanne said.
“It’s pretty ironic that I felt like a lot of times we were helping Kari’s friends deal with their grief as much as they were helping us handle our grief,” Andy said.
In 2010, Kari’s friends and family marked the milestone of her 21st birthday by having a pizza party complete with a few adult beverages to mark the occasion.
Remembering Kari in daily life and at holidays has also been a big part of helping to strengthen the Lotko family. Candles and prayers at mealtime “… keep Kari in front of us and remind us that she’s not gone, she’s with us,” Andy said.
At Christmas time, the Lotko family celebrates their Polish and Slavic roots while honoring their daughter.
“A big part of what we do on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is to share Oplatki (a thin wafer bread). We get the whole family together, we go to Mass and then we go to the cemetery. We all share our Oplatki there and we leave Kari a piece,” Joanne said. “She’s there, with us, just in a different way.”
The Lotko family has also honored Kari by establishing the Kari Ann Lotko Scholarship fund at St. Rita School. The scholarship is given out at the end of the school year to an eighth-grade student going to Boylan Catholic High School who demonstrates the qualities of faith, leadership, kindness and participation in scouting.
An angel statue dedicated to Kari adorns the foyer of St. Rita Church and the 2004 On the Waterfront 5K race was held in Kari’s memory. In 2014, Andy and Joanne became first time grandparents to a little girl aptly named Sophia Kari.
The word patriarch best describes the late Joseph Scordato. An active member in his community and church, the father of eight, grandfather of 31 and great-grandfather of three died on Oct. 13 after a seven-year battle with vascular dementia. For his daughter, Mary Jo LeGrand of Rockford, sadness and uncertainty will be the theme of the Scordato family’s 2015 holidays.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” she said. “I think his death has meant different things to each of us and our families. I know he will be missed and there will be moments that will jog a memory of him … and the tears will come. I’ve heard that’s pretty common where something will touch your heart or mind in a way that it didn’t before.”
The nature of Scordato’s illness meant that he wasn’t able to be fully involved with his family’s holiday gatherings. Nonetheless, family members continued to treat him as their beloved father and grandfather.
“It’s been a while since my dad was an active participant in cooking the meal or getting the house cleaned, but we would always try to engage him in conversation or make a point to talk to him,” LeGrand said.
Continuing a family holiday tradition passed down from his parents, Scordato and his wife, Mary Sue would get together with their children and make Sicilian cannolis for Christmas.
“Everyone from our family would come and we would have a day where we would make dozens and dozens of cannolis. My brothers are all very talented cooks…and they would make the pizza and it would be a big, fun party with cannolis, pizzas and all sorts of good stuff,” LeGrand said.
The Scordato children are now the ones carrying on the family cannoli tradition as LeGrand’s brother Pete hosts the event at his house.
“Last year, we did not have our ‘cannoli day’ because Dad was in skilled care and it was hard to think about doing that without him,” she said. “This year … we’ll have our day on a smaller scale in kind of a remembrance of him. Next year, we’re set to have the celebration where we get together and all of our family comes. Maybe it will be a little easier after some of the scars of his death have healed.”
The death of a loved one, young or old, is one of the most emotionally difficult experiences one can undergo. As the Lotko and Scordato families have learned, the best way to honor a deceased family member is to find meaningful ways for their legacy to live on. Whether at the holidays or every day, the path to handling grief is best traveled one step at a time, “I don’t think it’s gotten harder, I don’t think it’s gotten easier,” Joanne said.
“The cruel thing about life is that life goes on, death is part of life and life takes on a ‘different normal’,” Andy said. “But to us, Kari has always been there. That has not changed.”
“We both live from this day forward,” Joanne said. “There’s nothing you can do, nothing you can change; and you have faith that God will get you through it.”
— Rockford families coping with grief at the holidays —