The twinkling white lights on the Knauss family’s Christmas tree weren’t exactly sad, but they weren’t exactly happy either. Christmas was Dalton Knauss’ holiday. He once made a star out of toy construction sticks, fixed lights to it and hung it on the roof.
Bill Knauss recalled how his son used to sort through strings and strings of Christmas lights, methodically testing bulb after bulb on a string that refused to glow.
“We probably had 6,000 lights,” Marilyn Knauss said. “That was really hard, to put up lights,” this year.
After lighting his own house, Dalton would decorate the neighbor’s too.
On a recent afternoon, Marilyn, 52, sat on the couch wearing a silver necklace that had a tear-shaped hole in the heart that dangled from it. A friend gave her the necklace after her son Dalton had died.
Bill, 51, wore round tortoise-shell glasses and smiled in a straight smile, not like the crooked smile of Dalton, who is forever 15.
Dalton died nine years ago. He was playing the choking game, which involves strangling oneself to achieve a euphoric state. Theoretically, teens release the pressure on their neck before they die, but Dalton passed out and the pressure was never released.
Bill found him. “I performed CPR,” he said. But Dalton was gone. The game is more common than one would think, Bill said. A lot of choking game-related deaths are instead reported as suicide.
Dalton’s stocking hung on the family’s mantelpiece, and although some might say he was in the room, no one could see him.
Robert Graham, 78, said that he used to be skeptical of spirits making contact. “I’ve heard enough people talk about it to know there’s got to be something there.”
Marilyn has seen Dalton. He came to her in a dream, vivid and comforting. He told her he is OK.
The Knausses met Graham through The Compassionate Friends, a support group with chapters worldwide for parents coping with the loss of a child.
Rim Country’s chapter meets the second Tuesday of each month. Some members are newly mourning and others are still filling old wounds.
On Sunday, there will be a Candlelight Vigil at 7 p.m. in Green Valley Park to honor lost children. The event is held worldwide, so as candles are extinguished in one time zone, they are lit in another.
Strong friendships have been formed through the group, but as Bill says, it would be better if they had never been acquainted. That would mean Dalton was still alive.
The couple moved to Payson from the Valley roughly five years ago, and finding no support group for their loss, they founded a chapter of The Compassionate Friends, which had helped them cope prior to the move.
The Knausses say it’s easier to relate to those who have lost. They, along with Graham, also feel responsible for helping the newly bereaved.
The group discusses various topics — dumb things people say or how to respond when people ask how many children you have. The conversations are designed to teach those who have
lost someone how to delicately approach the sometimes unavoidable topic with those who have not lost.
“Sometimes we say (we have) three children, one is in heaven,” Bill said. Other times they say two children. “I hate to do that because we feel like we’re not honoring Dalton.”
“At the same time, you don’t want to overburden someone,” Graham said.
Graham, who has lost two children and his wife, says he’s from the “old-school, stiff upper lip, sweep it under the rug” era.
His daughter, Barbara, died in a car accident in the 1970s. His son, Jim, died of AIDS in the 1980s.
Graham’s wife, Mary, offered him stability and nourished Graham through the loss of Jim, who was Mary’s stepson. Graham, on Tuesday, chose not to talk about his daughter.
After Mary died of skin cancer seven years ago, no one was left. “I really didn’t deal with any of this until my wife died,” Graham said.
The hospice workers helped the ex-firefighter begin to deal with his grief, finally, after decades.
“The reality of it never quite goes away,” Graham said, although the stabbing pain of it fades.
Some people, even friends of the bereaved, try to avoid the subject. Perhaps the bereaved would like to, but they do not have the luxury of avoidance.
“You learn different ways of coping,” Graham said. Especially during the holidays, grief can resurface and one needs to learn again that life will go on.
“Most of the time the anticipation of the holiday is worse than the actual day,” Graham added.
“You plan for the day,” Bill said.
“To keep busy,” Marilyn added.
After Dalton’s death, Bill, who was in the semiconductor business, started designing a Dalton memorial Web page. He now creates pages for a living. Marilyn, who had always sewn, turned Dalton’s favorite shirts into a quilt.
The shirts remain whole, and the quilt features collars and buttons and sleeves. “I didn’t cut them apart. It didn’t seem right,” Marilyn said.
The Knausses didn’t sort through Dalton’s closet until two-and-a-half years after his death.
People say you need to move on, said Bill.
“You get a lot of good advice,” said Graham.
“I had a friend one time who told me I need to buck-up,” said Bill.
“There are no rules,” Graham said. “Frankly, anything you do is OK.”
Dealing with guilt and regret is a substantial part of grieving, and Bill said the difference between the two comprises another meeting topic.
While guilt is knowingly doing something, regret features the perfect vision of hindsight.
“We talked to him about smoking and drugs and sex,” said Bill about the dangerous game Dalton played.
“I regret that we didn’t know about it,” he added.
Dalton’s best friend is marrying soon, and Bill and Marilyn plan on attending the wedding. Even though Dalton is forever 15, life goes on.
Bill and Marilyn likely wonder what the then-fifth-grader who taught his teacher how to make a PowerPoint presentation and invented a boat made of Legos would be doing.
A stupid game took their son, a horrid disease took Graham’s.
The mourning will perhaps never stop, although the pain will lessen.
And every day near Christmas, as the lights twinkle on the tree, Bill and Marilyn Knauss will acknowledge that hole in their hearts and keep on moving.