Widowed Mom of 4 Gives Back to Nonprofit That Helped Her Family Before Husband's Death

"He would be overwhelmed to share his story and legacy [but] I think it's amazing that other people will know about him," Melissa Geist says of her late husband Jason

A mother of four is giving back to a nonprofit organization after they provided an invaluable day with her family during the final days of her husband's life.

Just one week before Jason Geist passed away at age 37 from stage IV pancreatic cancer, One Day to Remember, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that helps kids make memories with a terminally ill parent, organized a special outing for him and his family.

The Geists — including wife Melissa and their four children, Riley, Raine, Raelynn and baby Jason — enjoyed a fun day at the Pittsburgh Zoo before going to a hotel for a father-daughter dance, something Jason had regrettably missed out on at his daughters' school due to his illness.

"I knew that the girls needed one last day with Daddy," Melissa, 33, tells PEOPLE. "It was a mix of emotions. It was overwhelming with how sick he was, but the look on the girls' faces during that father-daughter dance made everything that day worth it."

"Looking back on the pictures and videos, you can never get something like that back," she adds. "We would've never had those pictures or those videos if it wasn't for One Day to Remember."

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Jason and Melissa Geist with their kids. Lauren Renee Photography

After that memorable day, which marked Jason's final outing, the father of four's health continued to decline. Eventually, he was put on hospice care on May 15, 2018, before he died two days later on May 17.

"I gathered all the kids around and told them, 'We're going to have to tell Daddy goodbye,'" Melissa recalls. "Riley was 11 and she grabbed his hand and she's like, 'Daddy, it's okay to go. We'll be okay. I promise we'll be okay.' And within seconds, he was gone."

Following his death, Melissa remembered how she promised Jason she would do everything in her power to ensure their kids would never forget him, so she sent her mother out to buy journals.

As she handed them to her three daughters, the Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania mom encouraged them to write down their favorite memories with Jason, draw pictures of them together and Jason’s favorite things and describe how they were feeling.

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Jason Geist with his daughters and wife. Lauren Renee Photography

"I think it helped them a lot," she explains. "I told [my two oldest daughters], 'Someday, I want you to share these memories with your brother and sister because they're not going to remember Daddy like you guys are.'"

"I just hope that someday they can look back and be happy and proud that they wrote those things down and never forgot him," continues Melissa, who also has her own journal. "We just do everything we can to keep his legacy alive."

A few months later, One Day to Remember's founder Rachel Antin, who had been keeping in touch with Melissa, called the mother of four to check in and see how the kids were doing. It was then that the idea for Jason's Journals was born.

"She asked me how the girls were doing. I told her that I had my mom go out and get these journals... and it helps them to write down their feelings and memories," explains Melissa. "She just thought that was an amazing way to remember their dad."

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Raine Geist's journal entry. Melissa Geist
one day to remember org
Raine Geist's journal entry. Melissa Geist

Now, in memory of Jason, Antin is beginning to pass out these blue journals, aptly named after the late father, to other families that her nonprofit helps — all thanks to Melissa's idea.

"We're just rolling out the project now. We've given it to a few families," Antin, 34, says. "I think everybody in this situation needs so much support and I hope that this provides a platform for some conversation, for some healing, for some self-reflection, even in the little ones."

"I watch them draw pictures and there's a little folder in the back of our journals for pictures and keepsakes," Antin explains. "I just think it's something special that we can offer, in addition to the outings."

Though Melissa says she never expected her idea to turn into this, she knows Jason is smiling down on her, as well as Riley, 12, Raine, 9, Raelynn, 4, and baby Jason, 19 months.

"I think he would be really proud of us... for sharing his story and legacy," shares Melissa, who now helps Antin with One Day to Remember. "I think it's amazing that other people will know about him."

"It's also amazing to show that you're not alone," Melissa adds. "You hear about people losing their spouses... but you never think it's going to happen to you, so I guess it just shows to never take life for granted."

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Jason's Journals, the idea inspired by Melissa Geist and her daughters. LAUREN RENEE PHOTOGRAPHY

For Antin, who started the nonprofit in 2016 after working as an oncology nurse, she says getting to help families like the Geists is what makes doing this difficult work so worthwhile.

"A lot of what we've seen from our families is that this gives them hope and gives them an opportunity to feel like they're still living and they're still here and they should continue to build memories with their families," she explains.

"It's a lot emotionally, but I feel like this is what I'm meant to do," continues Antin. "Watching [Melissa] and the strength that these people have during the darkest moments of their life makes me want to keep going."

"It's been truly a labor of love, but it's worth it," adds Antin. "It's worth it for every child who gets to see their parent out of the hospital. It's worth it for every parent who gets to see their kid happy and know they're going to be okay. It's worth every second."

Those interested in getting involved with, donating to or nominating someone for One Day to Remember can so do here.

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