Running Full Circle: The Philadelphia Marathon became a surprising part of Josephine Simko’s grief process

Two weeks before she planned to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November 2019, Josephine Simko remembered Regional Hospice. “The organization popped into my mind,” she says. “It was a serendipitous moment.”

Eight years earlier in 2011, running had become an elixir for Josephine. She was grappling with challenges in her life—professionally in her work as a real estate agent and personally as a wife and mother of two teenage sons. “Long-distance running was a way to help me cope with everything that was going on,” says Simko. “It was a tough period.”

At the time, local real estate agencies challenged each other to a realtor’s run to benefit Regional Hospice’s Healing Hearts Center for Grief and Loss, which provides emotional support to children and adults after the death of a loved one. “I had no experience with hospice at that time,” says Josephine, who decided to participate in the friendly competition. “I learned about the grief and bereavement support that Regional Hospice provides through Healing Hearts, and I wanted to support that important work.” 

Simko and her real estate colleague trained hard, and in the spring of 2011, they hit the road for Healing Hearts, running an extraordinary 50 miles over 11 hours and raising $15,500. “It was magical,” says Simko.

Years passed, and while Regional Hospice faded from Simko’s life, running remained a constant. “I signed up for marathons for fun and to also satisfy my competitive nature,” she laughs. But running fed a deeper need—Josephine’s older son, Jonathan, was struggling with addiction. “Running was helping me get through another hard time.” 

On June 7, 2019, Jonathan died unexpectedly at the age of 26. The loss for Josephine, her husband, John, and younger son, Justin, was crushing. “I remember thinking, how do I get through this? How do I put my left foot in front of my right foot?” she says. “I knew if I didn’t keep moving, it would be easy to go down the rabbit hole and be consumed by grief.”

Josephine discovered that a group of her friends had planned to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November. “I knew in the fog of it all I needed something to keep me moving forward, albeit at a snail’s pace, but forward through the haze.” She recognized the need of having a supportive group of fellow runners, structure, and a goal she could work toward. She signed up for the marathon and says, “suddenly there was a little light in the fog.” 

For five months after Jonathan’s death, Josephine trained, a routine that involved praying during her runs. “When I run, I pray. I pray for my family. For other people. It helps ground me so I can function.”

But two weeks before the marathon, Josephine lost all motivation. “I felt hollow and unfulfilled,” she says. This is when life delivered an unexpected gift to her. 

On the radio after leaving Josephine’s gym, a song came on that made her pause. It was “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon, which is also the title of a memoir and later, movie, by author David Sheff about his son’s battle with addiction. The song connected Josephine to Jonathan in a visceral way. “I can’t explain it,” she says. “But I knew I was meant to hear it that day.” 

Immediately following “Beautiful Boy”, another song came on that held meaning: Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom”. It was a moment of profound clarity for Josephine. “I was overwhelmed with emotion and began weeping,” she says. “I knew that I had to run the marathon and that I had to help other people. Everything just came together in that moment.”

That day, Josephine phoned Regional Hospice, telling her story and how she wanted people to raise funds for Healing Hearts as she did so many years ago at the realtor’s run. She posted a fundraiser on Facebook in honor of Jonathan. “I posted it at 5am, and my first donation of $75 came in not even a minute later. I was so grateful.” In all, Josephine raised almost $6,000 to help Regional Hospice support children and adults through the grief process. 

Two weeks later, Josephine ran the Philadelphia Marathon. “Usually I’m so nervous and anxious before races, but this time, I wasn’t. I was so calm.”

Looking back at her experience with Regional Hospice so many years ago, Josephine says it’s ironic. “My son Jonathan was at the realtor’s run, serving ice cream provided by friends of ours. He was there, helping me support Healing Hearts.” Eight years later, through her own grief, Josephine found Healing Hearts again. She says, “Never could I have imagined how this would come full circle.”

Regional Hospice honors the memory of Jonathan Simko in the bereavement work we provide to the communities we serve.