An ache settles into the hearts of the Mirenda family every Nov. 12. Fifteen years ago on that day, Rob Mirenda died of skin cancer at the age of 32.
It was cold, his widow, Vicky, 47, remembered, as she sat inside her Altoona home on the day after Thanksgiving with daughters, Frankie, 20, and Lexie, 16, sitting nearby.
She said she remembers how the limousine smelled, and once again sees the pallbearers struggling to keep sure footing while climbing a hill with the casket.
"The day he died, our lives changed forever," she said. "There wasn't a book out there for young widows. I was part of an exclusive club that I don't wish on anyone. The grieving process can break you."
While Vicky worked to deal with her own grief, she also had two young daughters to care for and support through their grief, as well. Vicky and Frankie began attending a grief center for children and their families in Pittsburgh.
The Home Nursing Agency's Healing Patch opened in 2007, and the program became a refuge for the family.
Frankie and Lexie have each gone through the program twice, Vicky said.
They've experienced a parallel journey, but on different levels, because Frankie was old enough to remember her father, but Lexie was too young, she said.
Frankie said she had a lot of anger about her father's death. She felt lost and empty. She would tell her mother she hated her. She took out her anger on other kids, too.
Lexie was only 18 months old when her dad died. She could not talk about it or comprehend what happened, but she could sense the feelings of those around her, she said. Later, she would ask questions about her dad constantly.
"It helped me realize everything I was going through was normal," she said of the program. Lexie doesn't share her emotions easily. The program helped her break through a wall, she said.
"It frees us," Frankie said of talking about and acknowledging the pain.
As she gets older and now working in the catering business, Frankie can't help thinking about who will walk her down the aisle.
"But I'll make it, and the Healing Patch helped me realize that," she said. "It always comes up to surface, but the Healing Patch taught me I can move on and grow. Life still goes on even though it hurts. That's the biggest thing it gave me."
Frankie and Lexie both feel their dad is watching over them.
Vicky said she tells them he is always with them. His presence is felt in the family home he renovated.
Rob grew up in Altoona and had a bond with Blair County, Vicky said. The community has supported them in the years since he died. Community members brought toys and dressed as Santa for the girls' first Christmas without their father.
The family has given back to the Healing Patch through volunteering and more.
On their 16th birthdays, Frankie and Lexie forfeited gifts and instead collected money for the program. Each raised $1,500, and contributed to the program's lending library and the purchase of memory books for children to journal their feelings.
The most important element of the Healing Patch is that it is a free service, Vicky said. Sometimes the resources of a family suffering a death are limited.
Frankie, who once competed in pageants, had the Healing Patch as her platform, and became a speaker for the program. Now, Lexie is a speaker for the program.
Giving back to the center helped her, Frankie said.
"It's our turn to give back for what the community did for us all those years ago," Vicky said.
One never gets over losing someone they love, but they can find a way to live with it, she said.
Every milestone brings an opportunity for the healing process to continue, Frankie and Lexie said.
Today, Frankie is living her dreams in New York, studying fashion at Parsons the New School for Design, and Lexie is preparing for college.
With the help of a friend, over the years they sewed three quilts from Rob's clothing and other fabrics with special meaning such as dance costumes and material from bathrobes given to Vicky and Rob when they wed. One quilt went to Rob's parents, and one to each daughter.
After giving away the first quilt, and between each subsequent quilt, Vicky struggled with a pain that felt like Rob had died all over again, she said.
But when they would sit and cut out the squares, they would share family stories.
Frankie and Lexie each have a quilting square made with Rob's clothes that is hanging in the Healing Patch's Altoona center. Lexie's square has one of the few photos of her and her father in its center.
"Life gets whole again," Vicky said. "The center gave us a chance to be healthy and whole."