Dad Starts Meaningful Christmas Tradition with 2-Year-Old Son After Wife's Death

Dennis Cosgrove is hoping to build traditions with his son in the years following his wife's death due to complications from childbirth

A single father is putting up his late wife’s Christmas tree this season, two years after her death, so he can start a new tradition with his 2-year-old son and continue their journey toward healing.

When Dennis Cosgrove met his future wife, Megan, in February 2013, things moved quickly for the two lovebirds: Dennis moved into Megan’s apartment in September, and by January they bought a house together. They kept up the pace in the months that followed, becoming engaged in July 2014 and marrying that December. By February 2015, Megan was pregnant.

In those few years, Cosgrove says he lived more fully than he had for the previous 32 years of his life, and it was all thanks to the energy and enthusiasm that stemmed from his sweetheart.

“We just ran through everything. And we got a chance to experience everything,” Cosgrove, 37, from Stewart Manor, New York, tells PEOPLE. “Megan was the strongest, most confident, beautiful woman who lit up a room with her laughter and personality. She’s just one of those people that makes everyone around her better and brings out the best in people. She truly did that to me. I thrived as a person being with her.”

Dennis Cosgrove

But the day after Thanksgiving 2015, Megan’s water broke while the couple was exercising at the gym. When they arrived at the hospital, Megan was induced, but quickly started showing symptoms of pre-eclampsia—a potentially threatening complication characterized by the onset of high blood pressure.

Doctors performed a C-section to deliver their son, and that’s when Megan developed eclampsia, a rare but dangerous condition where high blood pressure causes seizures. Megan also developed a brain aneurysm, and when emergency brain surgery didn’t help her condition Cosgrove made the wrenching decision to take his wife off of life support, just hours after the birth of their first child.

Megan passed away on November 29, the day after baby Declan was born.

“It’s still very hard, it’s the best day of my life, followed by the worst day,” Cosgrove says, adding that he is thankful Declan’s birth and Megan’s death did not occur on the same day. “It still just gives me a little bit of separation to where we can celebrate his birthday and try to make it a happy day, then mourn her the next. It’s always going to be hard.”

In the two years since Megan’s death, Cosgrove has received help from friends, family and strangers, who have generously donated money and supplies to support the single father after the tragedy.

Dennis Cosgrove

One woman even filled the family’s living room with diapers and formula, and surprised them with a bag full of Christmas gifts for Declan, which were already wrapped and addressed ‘From Santa’.

“For me, the big things aren’t hard,” Cosgrove says. “But it’s those little things like that, like wrapping packages, or gifts. Knowing that I had to get my son gifts and trying to celebrate the holiday … She took care of this stuff. We were just in complete shock that someone would come and do that for us.”

This generosity inspired Cosgrove to pay it forward, and he joined Family Lives On, a foundation that works with families who are grieving the loss of a parent. The organization — which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary — has a unique program that focuses on carrying on the traditions that were previously created by the child and the lost parent, such as going to a sporting event or listening to a favorite musician. Though Declan never had a chance to create a family tradition with his mother, Cosgrove was inspired to help other families grieve through the program.

“I didn’t have a chance to establish traditions with my wife, and my son didn’t either,” says Cosgrove, who is now on the board of directors of Family Lives On. “I couldn’t imagine one of those things that you always did with your parents, and then not being able to do it because you lost your parent. It hit home with me. That’s how I ended up there and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Dennis Cosgrove

This year, to help Cosgrove start a holiday tradition with young Declan, he is bringing out his late wife’s Christmas tree, the same one she used to decorate with her mother until it was “perfect.”

“My mother-in-law misses that, so I just told her ‘You know what? We’re going to do it again, and we’re going to do it with Declan, and he’s going to see it,’ ” Cosgrove says. “We’re going to set up the tree, because I know how much my wife loved to do it. This is what our tradition is going to be. It’s not moving on. It’s always moving forward. That’s what it always is.”

This year’s Christmas tree will be a symbol of the woman who changed his life forever.

“What we had was something that a lot of people chase for their whole entire lifetime. Some people get it and get to do it over the course of a lifetime, and some people never get to have it,” he says. “I consider myself lucky in the sense that I did get an opportunity to have that and know what it feels like.”

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