The premature death of a child is the worst thing imaginable to a parent, but a Japanese couple who has been through one of life's great tragedies is dealing with their grief by providing hot meals to people caring for their sick children, reminding them they are not alone in their time of worry.

The couple, whose son died at a pediatric center northwest of Tokyo following a yearlong battle with leukemia, is trying to support distraught and worn-down families by providing them with nutritious and well-balanced homemade meals at the facility.

Keenly aware of their own travails and unhealthy eating habits when caring day and night for their son Kazuma before he died four years ago, Yuta, 40, and Masumi Aoki, 37, now treat families to discounted healthy meals outside the prefectural pediatric center in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture.

Yuta (L) and Masumi Aoki stand in front of their food truck in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, on Nov. 29, 2023.(Kyodo)

The Aokis open their food truck once a week. On an afternoon in late November, families, including children in wheelchairs, waited in line for delicious menu items such as tomato and potato soups and other fare, including tuna fish rice balls with bonito flakes -- all homemade, additive-free and nutritionally balanced.

"We want to warm people's hearts as well as their bodies," said Yuta in a recent interview with Kyodo News.

Tomomi Shimamura, 38, who also lives in the city and whose newborn is hospitalized at the center, said, "I end up putting my own needs on the back burner. I really appreciate the home-cooked food."

Kazuma developed acute lymphatic leukemia at the age of three. The couple would take turns caring for their son, with Masumi nursing him in the daytime and Yuta at night. This led to the couple feeling they lived "completely separate daily lives," consisting of a continual back-and-forth between work and the pediatric center, he said.

After battling the disease for one year, Kazuma died when he was 4 years and 8 months, on Oct. 11, 2019. As a way of showing their gratitude for the support of so many people during their time of grief, the Aokis thought of how they might contribute to other families going through difficult circumstances of their own.

First, they opened a kid's cafeteria that feeds sick children and their siblings at a community center near the facility, and on Oct. 11, 2022, the anniversary of Kazuma's passing, they set up a food truck for the first time, borrowing the vehicle from a friend.

"It probably started out as my mission," recalled Yuta, who had no previous experience in the food industry.

As time went by, he said, he came to feel that interacting with people in similar situations using his experience caring for Kazuma in a hospital helped him process his bereavement.

"It made my bereavement feel more meaningful. I didn't want it to be only about grief," Yuta said.

In an effort to lessen the financial burden on others in the community, the Aokis introduced a discount "support ticket" for family members caring for their loved ones at the pediatric center.

Discount "support tickets" with handwritten messages for family members caring for their loved ones at a pediatric center in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture. (Kyodo)

They cost 300 yen each and can be purchased by anyone online or at the food truck window. Users pick up their discount tickets, which have personalized messages written on them by the couple on behalf of the purchaser, or customers can write them directly if they buy them at the food truck. "I want people to feel connected with others even when they're battling illness," Yuta said.

In September, they raised enough money through crowdfunding to purchase their own food truck. Looking ahead to 2024, the Aokis are preparing to provide retort-packaged homemade curry featuring messages to hospitals around the country.

On the couple's aprons are pictures of Ultraman, which was Kazuma's favorite superhero character. "Kazuma's death has become a part of our lives. We hope we can be a place of refuge for someone who comes to the center."

With those thoughts in mind, Yuta and Masumi stand inside their food truck and share the warmth of home cooking with others.

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