When Nate Berkus met Angela, Jeff and their 12-year-old son, Aaron, he thought he was just helping them create a plan for Aaron's growing cookie business. Little did he know that he would be helping this family heal from the pain of losing Aaron's twin brother to brain cancer.
From the womb, Aaron and Eric were inseparable. "In the sonogram we saw once, they were holding hands," Angela says.
Their bond grew as Aaron and Eric got older. "We were alike in a lot of ways, except for he didn't like blue," Aaron says. "We played games together. We were always together, and all the times that we were, it was just so fun."
When the twins turned 6, Angela and Jeff noticed Eric started falling down the stairs. "They walked those stairs since they were, what, 10 months old? And he would fall down the stairs at night trying to go get some water or something," Angela says. "We padded the stairs. We figured he was just going through an awkward stage."
At a cookout, Angela noticed Eric couldn't hold his plate without shaking. "The alarm bells started going off," she says.
Eric was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Treatment reduced the tumor to nearly nothing, but it came back. This time it was cancerous. Three months later, Eric died at age 9.
Aaron's grief was overwhelming. Jeff says he didn't even want to come back to the house. "He didn't do well at all," Angela says. "The teachers would say, 'All he does is look out the window and cry.'"
Aaron says he felt like he was just going through the motions. "It didn't feel like life," he says. "It felt like I was just there."
Nate says he immediately recognized himself in Aaron. In December 2005, Nate and his partner, Fernando Bengoechea, were vacationing in Thailand when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck. Miraculously, Nate survived, but Fernando and 200,000 others lost their lives.
Nate says some days he didn't have the energy to get out of bed. "Nothing was important for a really long time," he says.
After seven or eight months, Nate says he started to feel guilty if he got excited about anything. "Family or a friend would come and stay with me, and I was so excited to see them," he says. "Then I'd think to myself, 'I don't really have the right to be excited because Fernando's still dead and I'm still not.'"
When Nate met Aaron and his family, he knew he was sent there to do more than just a business plan. "[Grief is] not a road that you just pass these landmarks and then eventually you're fine," he says. "I know that it's a road that you're on that some days you feel really strong and then some days you're back to, like, a complete horror. And I felt that in their house."
Angela says small things remind her of Eric. "There's always something. There's a song on the radio. You've got his birthday," she says. "Then you've got the day he died. And that month I have to scratch off completely because I can't get anything done."
Nate shares some advice that helped him work through holidays and anniversaries. When Fernando's next birthday was approaching, Nate says he felt "horror." But when the day came and went, and Nate felt fine, he wondered what was wrong with him. "What I really realized for me was that the date actually doesn't have any power. The memory had the power," he says. "When I decided that I wasn't going to just automatically be sad in August and just automatically be destroyed in December, all of a sudden August and December weren't scary to me."
Angela says she's grateful to talk to someone who can relate to her situation. "To hear it from Nate and know that he's experienced a loss that great, I'm thinking, 'Okay, I'm going to give it a try.'"
Before Nate walked into their life, the family took their first steps toward healing after an unusual prescription from Aaron's pediatrician.
After Eric's death, Aaron said something that terrified his grieving parents. "He said that he didn't want to be here anymore," Angela says.
Desperate for help, Angela and Jeff called their family pediatrician. "When he came into the office, it was not the Aaron that I knew," Dr. Corder says. "As I talked to him more, I said to him, 'What do you like to do?' And he said, 'I like to cook.' I said to him, 'We're gonna cook for your brother.'"
Dr. Corder gave Aaron $20. "I'm gonna be your first investor," she says. "And I want a business plan."
The moment Aaron left the office, Angela noticed an immediate change in her son. "We got in the car," she says. "He was grinning from ear to ear."
On the ride home, Aaron made a shopping list and named his company DoughJangles. A week later, Aaron returned to Dr. Corder's office with a tray of cookies and a list of how he spent her $20.
Since that appointment, Aaron and Angela have been baking cookies, selling them to friends and Jeff's co-workers. Aaron even pays his big brother, Bryce, $2 a day for helping. A portion of DoughJangles' proceeds go back to the charities that helped Eric when he was sick. "Donating to the charities that helped my brother, it made me feel good about myself," he says.
Aaron says he thinks about his brother with every cookie he makes. "I think he would be proud of me," he says. "I think he'd be happy that I didn't just give up."
Aaron says one of his favorite recipes is inspired by his favorite chef, Paula Deen. When Paula heard Aaron's story, she decided to surprise him on Oprah's stage!
Paula says she knows the healing power of the kitchen. "It really pulled my heartstrings when I heard your story because I, too, turned to my kitchen out of grief. I've never lost a child. I can't fathom the pain," she says. "But I was a child when I lost my parents, and the pain was so terrific. I would get in my kitchen, Aaron, and I would cook so that I wouldn't think about anything else but what was going on in my pots or my oven."
To help take DoughJangles to the next level, Paula offers her advice on expanding a small business—and presents the family with a $10,000 gift card to Lowe's for new kitchen appliances. A portion of every Lowe's gift card purchased before Valentine's Day will also be donated to the charities that helped Eric.
But that's not all—Nate and Paula have cooked up a few more surprises for Aaron. The family will fly down to Savannah for a behind-the-scenes look at Paula's business, and their story will be featured in Paula's magazine, Cooking with Paula. "Live your life as a tribute to your brother," she says. "Celebrate his life through yours."