ST. GEORGE — Just a month into 2021, Stephen and Janna Hughes got a crash course in grief.
It started out with a text from their 21-year-old daughter Emalee, who was living in Seattle. She had received a text herself offering condolences for the passing of her little brother.
That was how the Hughes had their first indication that something terrible had happened to their 18-year-old son Lucas, and their worst fears were realized when it was confirmed that Lucas Hughes died at his Cedar City apartment on Jan. 27.
For St. George residents Stephen Hughes, an officer in training to be a sergeant with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and wife Janna, who was in school working on a psychology degree, that first night was one without sleep. And at 7 a.m., there was a visitor.
“There was a knocking on the door and they just gave us a big hug,” Janna Hughes said. “And from that moment on it was non-stop.”
What the Hughes family said they learned is that the grieving process is not something to face alone. For that reason, the Hughes’ have created a new non-profit devoted to help other local families deal with the premature loss of a loved one.
The Hughes have formed Heavenly Hearts to do for those experiencing loss what the Red Cross those for those who just went through a flood, fire or other disaster. Based on their own experience, the Hugheses and others at Heavenly Hearts will provide aid from food and drink, to tissues to helping around the house. But the most important help, they say, will be just someone to be there and listen.
“We kind of want to pay it forward and give it back to the community because so many people rallied around us. The first night, we got a amazing piece of advice. It was to leave our door open and to leave our hearts open,” Janna Hughes said. “We would be surprised by the outpouring of love that we would get. We were in just this cocoon of love and this outpouring of love from people. So that’s what we want to do for others.”
The Hugheses don’t want to talk about the circumstances of their son’s death, preferring to say he died prematurely. Lucas Hughes and his roommate Ethan Rapoza, both grads of Desert Hills High, were found stabbed to death in their apartment.
“Honestly, we don’t know why or everything. We know what we did and how we’re moving forward,” Stephen Hughes said. “Our main thing is Lucas passed away and that was his story. That’s his story to tell, not ours. Our story began the night that we found out.”
Their biggest step forward is to help others who are shocked into losing someone they love without the warning of illness or age.
The love you make
At least once a week, the sound of music can be heard in Tonaquint Cemetery. Stephen and Janna will come to Lucas’ grave – sometimes with their other two kids Shane, 16, and Nayson, 12.
The grave is not the usual headstone, but a comfortable metal bench built by family friend Victor Huerta of Vector Welding. On the chair are the words “See you at the top” marking Lucas’ love of climbing.
“He loved to get to the top first, anywhere we went,” Stephen Hughes said. “We would get to the highest point and he would find another highest point.”
The family will put up an umbrella in a built-in slot and wear the mismatched socks and checkerboard Vans that Lucas liked to wear. The sound comes from music from some of Lucas’ favorite groups, be it the new school of indie rock band The Backseat Lovers or the old school of The Beatles.
It’s the closing of one Beatles song – “The End” from “Abbey Road” – that has become a slogan of Heavenly Hearts. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
“We want to be able to make sure that everybody has that same experience to be able to sit with our grief and to fill it and to, to have that space and that time,” Janna Hughes said.
She says that the stages of grief aren’t always in order or neatly timed from anger to acceptance. And it isn’t a one size-fits-all either, other than the acceptance that it is OK. “Grief is the most messy thing that I have ever experienced. It’s just kind of all over the place in at one time you could feel so many different emotions and not understand what in the world is happening,” Janna Hughes said. “I think that people need to understand that it’s OK to not be OK. That you can feel OK one day and turn around and be completely a wreck the next day. Nine months in since losing Lucas and it it’s different every day for us.”
He wasn’t an officer investigating what caused a car crash. He was a father.
“I withdrew myself and actually was surprised in how I handled it differently from what I did at work, because it was so personal. Dealing with the passing was something totally new because I’m on the other side of that spectrum of being the one that had somebody pass away rather than telling somebody,” he said.
Hughes got a few weeks off from his Highway Patrol duties, but his co-workers and friends didn’t take time off from him. Some came to do the dishes, others fixed baseboards that were out of whack.
“Everybody’s experience is going to be a little different. The common denominator is that people need time and they need distractions and some things in life taken away so that they can have that opportunity to heal,” Hughes said. “We didn’t have to focus on other things in life at the time. So our objective is to give other people that same experience.”
During the grieving process, the Hugheses said their trajectories changed. Janna withdrew from her classes and Stephen’s sergeant exam had to wait. While dealing with a feeling of emptiness, a purpose came to them in the form of other families turning to Stephen and Janna for help and comfort.
The couple said the idea to turn that help into a non-profit came to them one night. Initially, the idea was to name it “Heavenly Winks” after what the two called each incident that reminded them of their son. But whether it was a slip of the tongue or some other intervention, Stephen Hughes said a different name came up during a drive the couple made.
“We were talking about the name, and (Janna) said, ‘Heavenly hearts, I mean, heavenly winks.’ I’m like, ‘Wait a second. That works,” he said. Nevertheless, both of the Hugheses are convinced they are still being guided by Lucas’ heavenly winks. “We all recognize heavenly winks in our life every day. It was just kind of our way of knowing that Lucas has winked at us and is pushing us along in this process.”
While Janna was on the road to a career in psychiatry, the Hugheses say they aren’t pretending to be psychologists and aren’t intending to provide professional therapy. But they still think they can provide emotional support.
“The only thing that qualifies us is our desire to help. We’re not trying to fix people. Our objective and mission is to learn, love and serve other people in their grief,” Stephen Hughes said. “We’re not trying to fix, fix the world. We’re just trying to make things a little better for those that are going through this process.”
Lukas Cox, half of the “Lukas and LaRae in the Morning” morning DJ team at radio station Planet 105.1, is friends with the Hughes Family (St. George News is a sister entity to Planet 105.1 at Canyon Media). Cox said he’s not surprised that the Hugheses have turned their grief into a way to help others.
“They genuinely care about people. They invite people over to their house for dinner. People that maybe they don’t even know that well. He’s a police officer. And so you know he’s always looking out for doing, trying to do the best he can for the community,” Cox said, adding that having a son himself gives him empathy for what his friends have gone through. “My son is almost the same age as their son. And so I thought about that and I thought if that happened to me, how would I even be able to function or even move forward? I don’t know if I would be able to.”
But Cox is helping the Hughes and Heavenly Hearts move forward with a was to raise funds for the group through a popular St. George pastime: Pickleball.
Pushing awareness through Pickleball
Stephen Hughes said he has a great deal of commitment to pickleball, taking to the courts a few days a week. The Hugheses said Stephen’s fellow players have been like a part of the family as far as helping them heal.
So to raise funds and awareness for Heavenly Hearts, they’re turning to the pickleball courts.
“I love pickleball. It’s what I know. And so we were looking at a fundraiser and I thought, ‘Let’s do pickleball,” Stephen Hughes said.
From December 2 to 4, a Heavenly Hearts Pickleball Tournament will be held at the Little Valley Pickleball Complex, located at 2149 Horseman Park Drive. Potential players have until Monday to register at this link. There is a $35 registration feed and n additional $10 event fee.
Events will be held for ages 50-plus, teams of different levels of skill and an even where adults will be teamed with a child under 18.
Hughes considers himself a mid-level player but once finished first at a tournament when he teamed with Cox.
In fact, Hughes said the radio host is too good, and asked him to just emcee the tournament.
“I’ve played in a couple of tournaments with Steve so we have that kind of bond in common,” Cox said. “Steve has asked me that I host it. So I’ll be on the microphone, screwing up everybody’s names. Cause I’m terrible at names. So as I’m calling out names on the microphone, people will be offended.”
While building financial support for Heavenly Hearts is an aim, Stephen Hughes said it isn’t the goal of the tournament. He hopes the event will just get the charity’s name out and let people who need healing know there is now someone to help.
“My main focus in this pickleball tournament is to get our word out of who we are and what we’re doing,” Hughes said. “I want people to understand what we’re doing and who to call when they need something. It’s more than likely it’s not going to be the family that loses somebody that calls us. It’s going to be somebody they know.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.