Families mark birthdays of Oregon District victims

Lois Oglesby was thinking about having a pajama party for her 28th birthday.

Or maybe she would head out of town to celebrate.

Whatever she chose, her family expected it to be big.

“That was Lois. Everything that she celebrated was big,” said her mother, LaSandra James.

Oglesby did not live to see her birthday, which was on Sept. 14. She was one of nine people killed during the mass shooting in the Oregon District on Aug. 4.

MORE: Dayton shooting: Latest updates from the Oregon District

Three of the nine people killed during the shooting rampage on Fifth Street had birthdays in September.

The shooting rampage lasted only about 32 seconds, after Dayton police quickly engaged and killed the gunman.

But the pain the tragedy has caused will last for many years, and special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries may be hard on surviving loved ones, said experts who also offered suggestions on how to cope.

"Birthdays and holidays were once a time of celebration, and now that special day is a reminder of what has been taken from them, a reminder of what is missing," said Tracy Hunt, a counselor with Turning Inward LLC in Yellow Springs.

Thomas McNichols’ birthday was Sept. 10. He would have turned 26.

Oglesby would have turned 28 four days later.

Beatrice Warren-Curtis was going to turn 37 on Sept. 28.

Another victim, Nicholas Cumer, would have turned 26 late last month.

MORE: Remembering the victims of the Oregon District mass shooting

Nadine Warren, the mother of Warren-Curtis, told the Delaware News Journal she planned to give her daughter a trip to Rio for her birthday, which is a week from today.

Warren-Curtis, who lived in Virginia Beach, loved to travel, especially internationally. She was in Dayton on Aug. 4 visiting her friend, Monica Brickhouse, who also was killed during the mass shooting.

Warren told the News Journal she wants her daughter to be remembered. Warren-Curtis was buried in Maher, W.Va., near her grandparents.

Every day after the loss of loved one is difficult, and the smallest details of life can trigger memories that carry a complex combination of emotions like pain, sadness, love, loneliness, joy and anger, said Meredith Montgomery, assistant professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of Dayton and owner of Atrium Counseling Services.

For some, special days such as birthdays and anniversaries are especially painful because those dates involve emotionally charged memories and reminders that those events will never be the same after the loss, Montgomery said.

“Grieving is a way of acknowledging that the person mattered,” she said. “Special occasions provide an opportunity to be intentional about honoring the person you loved and the grieving process you are going through.”

Oglesby’s family is very close and birthdays are a big deal that bring loved ones together, her mother said.

Though Oglesby is gone, her family made plans to celebrate her special day in the way she would have wanted and appreciated, James said.

That is “with family, friends, food and memories of our beautiful Lois,” James said.

Oglesby, of Vandalia, had two children.

MORE: The Oregon District victims: Thomas McNichols, father of four and ‘gentle giant’

Birthdays, anniversaries, death dates and other significant dates and milestones can bring on new waves of emotions for survivors as they reflect on happy memories with their loved ones, as well as the pain of their absence, said Nicole Ciarlariello, a licensed professional counselor with Atrium Counseling Services.

Grief is painful, Ciarlariello said, and people experiencing it should consider reaching out for support from loved ones who are also grieving, trusted friends who can talk about what the day means or professional therapists.

She said it can help to do something in memory of the departed or start a new tradition, like visiting their grave, listening to their favorite music or preparing their favorite food.

Volunteering to a cause that was important to the departed or that is related to their passing can help, she said, but survivors should give themselves permission not to do anything that they don’t feel up for.

“For some it may feel to daunting to do something out of the ordinary on a milestone date, this is especially true for holidays,” Ciarlariello said. “There’s nothing wrong with opting out if you aren’t ready to engage in normal celebrations.”

MORE: 9 dead in shooting, but police chief says toll could have been ‘catastrophic’

On Sept. 10, Thomas McNichols’ family went to his grave site in Dayton and sang happy birthday and released balloons in his memory. McNichols, who went by “TJ,” is survived by five sisters and four children.

On the following Saturday, family members and loved ones had an actual birthday party for McNichols, which was a backyard cookout, said Donna Johnson, McNichols’ aunt with whom he lived.

Banners with his photograph were hung. They had cupcakes in red and black frosting, which were his favorite colors.

McNichols would have wanted a cookout or barbecue for his special day, and everyone told stories, joked around and laughed together, Johnson said.

“It was basically how he would have wanted it,” she said.

Loved ones are finding many different ways to remember McNichols.

One son was given a blanket with a picture of him and his father, so they could lay together. On the day of the party, his daughter wore a shirt with their pictures on it.

No one broke down in tears during the party, but the reality of his absence was felt, Johnson said.

They also expect to feel his absence during other upcoming get-togethers over the holidays that he always liked.

MORE: Oregon District shooter’s life was improving. So why did he turn violent?

Surviving loved ones might find it helpful to have a plan for what to do on occasions like holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other special dates, said Hunt, with Turning Inward.

She said some people might find it comforting to decorate a grave, light candles, make a memory book, look at photos of the deceased or support a cause their loved one liked.

Some suggestions include being around supportive people and honoring the lost loved one by sharing favorite memories, going to a favorite restaurant or other venue they frequented, having a memorial, giving a toast in their honor or journaling about them.

Grieving is healing, and it can take many forms, like crying, wailing, laughing, singing, dancing and story telling, said Montgomery.

She recommends choosing a meaningful spot to grieve, such as the place where the person died, a private room in the home, a place where the loved one liked to go, a favorite restaurant or park.

Montgomery said, “Schedule time to grieve. Set aside time from work, family, and community responsibilities that is devoted to experiencing grief. Don’t make big decisions or schedule other intense mental activities on or around those grieving experiences. Doing mental and emotional work is draining.”

Grief and the loss of a loved one is a delicate topic and there's no "one-size-fits-all answer," said Darcie Clark, clinical director of Riverscape Counseling, which has offices in Dayton and Centerville.

Many families and survivors are still dealing with shock and the reality of what happened, and they may not yet be ready to experience feelings that are too great and overwhelming, she said.

People who have lost a loved one should consider talking to others close to them or who had similar experiences and creating a “coping card” that lists things that in the past have worked to make them feel better, Clark said.

There will be rough days, but people should seek professional help if emotions become overwhelming, she said.

“Eventually, hopefully those who lost loved ones on the Aug. 4 mass shooting in Dayton will work through their grief and go on to create meaning and purpose in their life out of tragedy,” Clark said. “I would say that for most if not all of them, though, they are just beginning the healing process.”

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