Smiles. Hugs. Tears. Conversations that ranged from light chatter to whispered, solemn condolences.
Those were among the sights and sounds Tuesday night as families from the Bereaved Parents Support Group — parents, grandparents, children — gathered at Heartland Mall to decorate the Angel Tree in honor of loved ones who have died.
The Angel Tree is actually two trees now, each one 9 feet tall and located near the entrance to the JC Penney store. Family members began the process of hanging 400 ornaments that contain a remembrance of their loves ones on the tree.
The group gathers around the Angel Tree the evening of Sunday, Dec. 9, to honor their angels in a candlelight memorial service.
The Angel Tree tradition began 15 years ago to honor children who have died, but grew to include spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents and friends.
"This is a way, during the holiday season, to spend time with our loved ones," said support group founder LaFreda Kilburn, whose son, Scotty Purcell, was killed in a train-car accident 19 years ago.
"Most of us have lost children. We don't have our children to spend the holiday with, and this is a way we can come out and honor their legacy, keep their memory alive."
Decorating the Angel Tree is a bittersweet event, Kilburn said, noting that "the first years are so hard for people. It just tears your heart out for the reality of it.
"But yet, it also gives them a way they they're still living in their hearts. They still love their children forever."
Kilburn is a cheerful and upbeat woman, but she hasn't "gotten over" the loss of her son. You don't "get over" a death of a child, Kilburn said, and "there's no closure, either. So we just basically are working positive ways on our grief, to find a way to get through tomorrow.
"We're having to find a new normal. My son died 19 years ago … we're thrown into a depth of trauma and grief, and we just have to learn to live a new way. It's never going to be the same again. It will never be the same because part of your heart is missing."
The Bereaved Parents Support Group offers ornaments free of charge to the public. Contact Kilburn at 325-752-6025 or 325-998-1567.