(L-R) Nat, Charlie, George, and Amy Fenollosa
Navigating one’s way through the holidays can be so overwhelming and painful following the death of a loved one — especially in the early years when the loss is still so raw and the sadness runs so deep.
And, for someone who has lost a spouse and has young children, managing his or her own grief as well as trying to do what’s best for the kids is no easy feat.
It’s not easy to ignore all the fanfare and holiday cheer that can add to one’s grief, and the acute awareness that such a significant person in our lives is no longer with us.
Amy Fenollosa of Guilford, CT was faced with the holiday dilemma starting with the first Thanksgiving after her husband Nat succumbed to cancer in February of 2013. Their two sons were just seven and nine years old and it was going to be the first big holiday they celebrated without Nat at the dinner table.
“I knew it was going to be hard,” Amy recalls. “I approached it by trying to [maintain] the traditions that were special to us and also try new things.”
One of these new traditions was to include both sides of the family and host the dinner at their house. Before Nat became ill they would alternate celebrating holidays with each other’s families.
“We included everyone. It was important to me and for the kids’ sake that we celebrated all together,” Amy says.
Next, she thought about the seating arrangement. Typically, Amy would sit at one end of the table with the boys, and Nat would sit at the opposite end.
“Because we’d be noticing his absence, I tried to think of ways to change it up,” she says.
So she had the boys sit together at the end of the table across from her and other relatives were seated in between them.
“It was a way to acknowledge Nat’s absence and also to create something new, and not try to give more significance to one person over another,” Amy explains. “It worked really well for the family in terms of the physical layout.
“It was a very emotional holiday and I really noticed his absence,” she adds, “and I kept imagining that he would walk in the door because the whole family was coming together and that’s what you do at the holiday season.”
But she also discovered later, after speaking with her sons that what she was feeling was less significant for them.
“For me it was a really poignant moment, reliving the memories of all the past holidays we spent together,” she says. “And for the boys, it was more about celebrating all the family that was together. They were less immediately affected by his absence even though it was really at the forefront of my mind.
“It’s important to recognize that we as adults are grieving in different ways and at different times than our children,” Amy stresses.
Christmas was soon to follow and Amy says she and the boys started thinking about it during the previous summer and weren’t sure what they would do to handle the holiday.
They decided to do something completely different and go to Australia where Amy’s cousin lives. Amy and Nat had never traveled abroad with the kids. She booked the flight in September and they began planning the trip.
“Instead of focusing on what we weren’t going to be doing with Nat, we were focusing on this new, exciting adventure,” Amy notes. “It became about the experience and time together, versus the gifts.”
But because the boys were still young and focused on presents, she bought them little trinkets and gifts. And because they had gone together as a family every year to cut down a fresh evergreen tree, they did something completely different and put up a white “disco” tree that her sister, who is a teacher, had in her classroom. They decorated it with their favorite ornaments before leaving for Australia.
“Instead of baking cookies and doing what we had always done, we really did something [out of the ordinary] in a totally different culture and climate,” Amy says.
She says it was a way to “remember Nat, to try to honor the past, and to celebrate the future together.”
This Christmas, Amy doesn’t think she and the boys will travel and she doesn’t know exactly what they’ll do yet.
“[The trip] felt like the right thing to do the year he died,” she says. “We did well and got through it.”
Amy points out that the holidays are stressful in an intact family, let alone in a fractured family that has the added challenge “of figuring out how to keep the children okay and how to navigate grief in a new way.”
She reiterates that it’s really important to keep in mind that the holidays may not be affecting kids in the same way as adults.
“They miss Nat and are very sad at different times and in different ways,” she says. “But for them, the excitement is about family coming together at the holidays rather than noticing Nat’s absence.”
Kids Hugs — Honoring Nat Fenollosa’s Memory
Amy Fenollosa established Kids HUGS after her husband died to help children—who had a parent with a critical illness, chronic disease, injury or impairment—cope and find understanding and support.
“When Nat was sick, we looked for resources in the community for our kids and they just didn’t exist,” she says.
And so, because she understood that grief often starts prior to the death of a loved one, she established Kids HUGS in collaboration with the Women & Family Life Center in Guilford. The program for kids ages 5 to 12 incorporates creative expression, and there is a support group for parents and caregivers that meets at the same time.
Volunteers, along with a child life specialist, facilitate Kids HUGS. A grant provides the funding for volunteer training by the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine, which has offered a similar program—Tender Living Care (TLC)—since 1987.
“We were lucky to get them to come and do our training for us,” Amy says.
Although Nat died before Kids HUGS was fully established and they knew their own children wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate, Amy says, “We did it for other kids and families in the community who are going through what we’ve been through.”
For more information about Kids HUGS in Guilford, CT visit www.kidshugs.org and to learn more about TLC in Portland, Maine visit www.cgcmaine.org/programs-and-services.