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“Helping other families gives us a focus beyond our own pain.”

By Isabel Hernandez-Torres

Our daughter Gabriella died of DIPG, a rare brain cancer, on November 7, 2015. She was six years old. Losing her was numbing for me and my husband. What made it even harder was seeing our other two children lose their sister at such a young age.

It was hard to change our tradition by not being home for Christmas, but being around loved ones made the holiday easier.

Because Gabriella passed away just a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, the fall and winter holidays are extremely difficult for us. We knew it wouldn’t be the same without her. Fortunately, in that first year, we had a lot of support from loved ones. A group of close friends opened their home to us for Thanksgiving dinner. Then, a month later, family invited us to spend the holidays with them. It was hard to change our tradition by not being home, but being around loved ones made the holiday easier.

At times during the season, I did break down. And if I was sad, the kids would follow my lead and be sad too. They were still young, so they often took cues from me about how to feel. It was important for me to let them know that it was okay to be sad. I think knowing that helped them cope.

We expect to hear from them, and instead there is silence. That hurts. 

It was also difficult for the kids because a lot of their friends didn’t reach out during the holidays. Their friends felt awkward and didn’t know how to talk about death. And a lot of my adult friends were the same. To this day, many people are afraid to contact us on key dates, like Gabriella’s birthday or the holidays. We expect to hear from them, and instead there is silence. That hurts. But it made us want to be a part of ending the silence for other families who’d lost a loved one to DIPG.

In honor of Gabriella’s birthday this year, we sent cards to kids who are fighting this disease. My husband and I knew this would make an impact, but our kids were hesitant to help and didn’t understand why we were doing it. That changed when I showed them pictures of the kids we were sending letters to, giving a face to the cause. It made my kids excited to join us and send their own cards to children with DIPG.

Helping other families gives us a focus beyond our own pain, and it reminds us that we are not alone.

Giving back to these families will now become part of our holiday tradition. It won’t fill the hole that Gabriella left, but it helps keep her memory alive. Helping other families gives us a focus beyond our own pain, and it reminds us that we are not alone.

A month before she passed away, Gabriella told us about a dream she had. In it, she saw me and my husband giving money away to people in need. She kept saying how it was good to help people, and how nice we were to help people. Her words continue to inspire me. By writing holiday cards and supporting others year-round, we hope to live out her dream. 

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Isabel and her husband have established Gabriella Smiles Foundation to help families affected by DIPG. Together with their children Jadon and Amaris, they continue to honor Gabriella’s memory and help bring smiles to children’s faces. 

Image credit: Norma Mitchell with Bloom Photography and Design in San Antonio

Grief & Loss Bouncing forward Children Finding meaning Loss of child Post-traumatic growth Supporting others Rare disease Cancer DIPG Holidays