Artisan spreads relief to hospice patients, families
BY STEPHANIE SHOMIN
AP Member Exchange
TRAVERSE CITY– Jim Sommerfield wondered how to handle his grief after Mary Ellen, his wife of 47 years, passed away from lung cancer last January. A few months into 2018 Sommerfield happened upon the answer: start a project.
“I have a pretty good handle on building things,” he said to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “I helped my uncles and dad with building and I did counters for airlines.”
He said he wanted to give back to Hospice of Michigan — the organization that helped his family and wife at the end of her life. So the Traverse City resident started making small white crosses and donating them to the nonprofit.
“It started when somebody dropped off a little wooden cross and gave it to Mary Ellen,” Sommerfield said. “It meant a lot to me. I found it comforting to have that cross.”
He has made about 1,200 crosses so far. He said he began with 100, and then interest prompted him to make more.
“It started out pretty small,” he said. “I’m surprised it’s taken off, but people hang onto them. My plan was to have hospice give these to children or anyone in the family.
“Those are the things you want at the end of life.”
Sommerfield works almost every day in his shop in Williamsburg. The process begins with cutting cross shapes out of a sheet of Corian, a material often used in countertops. Sommerfield said he chose Corian because it is durable and easy to clean. He then sands the crosses to smooth the edges.
He said he decided to build the workspace as a sanctuary while Hospice of Michigan staff took care of his wife.
Hospice of Michigan Registered Nurse Case Manager Beth Urban and Nursing Assistant Loretta Kekalos worked with the Sommerfields. Urban said they got him into support groups, which led him to create the crosses.
“We looked at them and decided this was so perfect,” Urban said. “It fits into any hand or can be worn as a necklace. It’s similar to worry stones. It brings people joy, peace and comfort.”
She requested more crosses just a few days after the initial drop-off. HOM now possesses about 450 crosses to give to patients and their families.
“It’s about connections,” Urban said. “When their loved one is gone, they have that presence and something that is so small that you can carry it with you. The crosses affect people, especially with grief.”
Urban keeps a cross in her car. She said it helps her feel safe in her daily travels around northern Michigan for work.
Tina Kigar also takes her cross — secured inside her purse — with her everywhere. Kigar said her mom, who had Alzheimer’s disease and experienced a couple of strokes, received one about a week before she died.
“She wasn’t responsive, but we couldn’t take the cross out of her hand,” Kigar said. “She held that cross till the night she died. She had great faith.”
Kigar sent that cross to her sister in Florida and soon after obtained her own.
Sommerfield said he made a couple of wooden crosses for his parents’ graves several years ago, but they did not last long in northern Michigan weather. He replaced them with larger versions of his Corian crosses about five years ago. They are still there today.
He added that he hopes to continue crafting the crosses for hospice patients, nursing homes and churches throughout Michigan. He is also working on bone-shaped crosses that can mark pet graves.
“I’m not trying to push religion on anyone, but it seems to help,” he said. “It’s good to help people.”