The first holiday season after someone dies is often difficult for people who loved him or her. It’s full of traditions and gatherings that used to include an important person now gone. One woman says she’s channeling her grief into improving the lives of others because that’s what her son did.
Melody Hilbert raised three children. Jonah was the second born, sandwiched between two other boys with "J" names.
"He was a teddy bear, big guy, you know, 6’2”. Here I am, 5-foot-3, and I have a 6’2” son. Best hugs ever. Biggest smile – smiled with his whole heart, always," Hilbert says.
Jonah was 31 years old when he died on April 14, 2016.
"He was at my house everyday even up until before he got sick and passed, taking a cookie out of the freezer and a can of Diet out right of the refrigerator, sometimes for his breakfast. And me saying, ‘Hey, you need to eat better than that!’" Hilbert says.
Hilbert says she wants people to stop being scared to ask her how her child died.
"Not that I’m comfortable, but I’m not embarrassed and I’m not ashamed of my son in any way," Hilbert says.
Hilbert says Jonah was battling addiction. She says he decided to detox, but years of drinking ravaged his body too much to recover.
"My son was an alcoholic," Hilbert says. "He died of alcoholism, and it stinks, and it’s a bad thing, but if one person would stop drinking because I could tell them that this is what happened to my son, that would be wonderful."
Hilbert says she sees her son in the mannerisms of her other children, in the way her husband leans against the wall at her office. Still Jonah lives in other ways.
"He was able to donate his corneas that helped two people with sight in North Carolina and then helped many other people with tissue donation," Hilbert says.
Because Jonah died, others see.
Cary Wencil is Avera’s hospital liaison with LifeSource. He says he knows someone has to lose something precious to make organ donation possible.
"People often ask me, ‘How can you ask people that?’" Wencil says. "And I say, ‘I’m not asking for anything. I’m offering them an opportunity to have something good happen in this tragic situation, that their loved one is going to leave a legacy, that they’re going to be a hero, that there are people who need these gifts.'"
Wencil says organ donation doesn’t take away the pain of someone’s death, but he says it’s a way for families he meets to find purpose.
"They laugh. They cry. They remember. And, by the time we’re done, there’s always something about, ‘Well, he was a wonderful guy. He would have given the shirt off his back. He always wanted to help people.’ And we go, ‘Well, he still can,’" Wencil says. "And that’s when they realize that this gift is going to be one more chance, the one last good thing that their loved one is going to be able to do."
Several years ago, Avera McKennan installed a Wall of Heroes in its main hospital. It honors dozens of people who died and became organ donors.
Because of his last good deed, Jonah Hilbert’s picture rotates among other donors on a digital screen. His mom Melody Hilbert can gaze at that photo. Hilbert says she knows the corneas invisible in the picture now deliver images of the world to people who would be blind if not for her son.
"I wish I could see that person and look in their eyes right now, and it just made my heart happy that someone else was being able to see because of him," Hilbert says. "Just maybe because I would see him? You know, I don’t know. Or it would just be… it would just give me comfort."
Hilbert says people seem afraid to say his name because it’s painful. She’s not afraid; Jonah lives on beyond her memory.
The Hilbert family participated in an evening event that brings together friends and families of people who donated life and are new features on the Wall of Heroes.
People can opt to include an organ donation note on driver’s licenses. You can also register to be a donor online by following this link.