By DANIEL KITTREDGE Yessenia Acosta said that since losing her 10-year-old daughter, Taniya Bonilla, in February 2017, she has struggled in many ways. "e;It was hard. It's a parent's worst nightmare . It's probably the hardest thing I'll ever have to go
Yessenia Acosta said that since losing her 10-year-old daughter, Taniya Bonilla, in February 2017, she has struggled in many ways.
“It was hard. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare … It’s probably the hardest thing I’ll ever have to go through,” she said of her daughter’s death.
Yessenia was pregnant with her youngest daughter, now 3, when Taniya passed away due to epilepsy. Despite her health challenges, Yessenia said, Taniya was a joyful young girl.
“She was super friendly, so happy, always had a smile on her face,” Yessenia said of Taniya. “She loved baby dolls. Every time we gave her one, she named her Emily, so there were all these dolls named Emily.”
Since then, her son, now 9, and husband, David, have worked to overcome the loss. The Warwick-based organization Friends Way – which offers free support for grieving children and families – has played a significant role in helping them cope, especially her son.
The connection with Friends Way recently led to another, unexpected boost for the family as the holiday season approaches – the installation of Christmas lights and décor at their Alto Street home in Cranston, courtesy of SeaScape Lawn Care.
For Yessenia – who has refrained from decorating her home in the past and particularly struggled with how to celebrate the holidays in the last three years – the display has brightened both the neighborhood and her family’s spirits. Taniya, she recalled, “loved lights.”
“My son said that it feels like the house is bright,” Acosta said, “like her spirit’s with us.”
Ryan Loiselle, program director for Friends Way, said this is the second year his organization has arranged for a holiday display at a client’s home through SeaScape. In each case, he said, the selection of the family has been a surprise – and a difficult decision.
“We have 140 families we’re serving, so it’s really hard to pick one,” he said. “But knowing a family that has younger children who are going to literally light up, and help them know that even though the holidays are sad sometimes and they’re dark, having Christmas lights just brings that cheer and joy to the kids as well as the adults … Just that little thing as you’re entering your home after your day of school or your day out, just knowing that you’re coming home to something that feels warmer and more joyful is great.”
Ryan said the selection of Yessenia and her family carried particular meaning for him. The family connected with Friends Way in March 2017, just weeks after Taniya’s passing, through a supervisor at Yessenia’s job with Lifespan.
“Yessenia and her family have touched my heart,” he said. “I meet with all the families for enrollment, and when she called three weeks after the death of her daughter, I was not sure if it was going to be the right time, because typically we say to wait several months sometimes given the grief. But seeing her and David and Starlin come in, and now three years later, seeing them thrive and grow up, and seeing her youngest, who is technically now able to be in a group … just the light and the joy that this family brings to us at Friends Way is the reason why [they were chosen].”
Yessenia said she and her husband kept the light display a surprise for their children, who typically arrive home in the afternoon after sunset. She got her first look at the lights through a picture from David.
“My husband is the one that told me their smile was huge, especially my toddler,” she said.
The display has generated excitement among other family members as well.
“We sent a picture to my mother-in-law. She said, ‘Wow, it looks like it’s from a magazine!’” Yessenia said with a laugh.
As with nearly all aspects of life, the pandemic has changed the way in which Friends Way conducts its peer-based support services for grieving families. Sessions are now conducted via Zoom, and while Ryan said it’s “not the same” as the in-person gatherings, he noted that some group members have kept up the tradition of enjoying pizza and salad ahead of meetings even while apart.
“We’ve been struggling a lot, like everybody, to pivot a program that you thrive on the in-person connections – to see, to feel, to touch,” he said. “And when you’ve got to do it over Zoom, it’s considerably different. But we’ve been doing a pretty good job, and I think even more so giving the families the expressive arts activities and the tools that we’re using on Zoom, I think that’s helping with participation.”
Yessenia said her son continues to look forward to his weekly sessions.
“He’s super excited when his Wednesdays come up,” she said. “Even doing it remote, he loves it.”
Of Ryan and Friends Way, she added: “Anything I need, I can just text Ryan and he always has an answer … I count them as family.”
Ryan said Friends Way serves children between the ages of 3 and 18 who are experiencing “any death loss,” as well as their families. He said roughly two-thirds of the children the organization serves have lost a parent – in most cases a father – but others have lost grandparents or, like in the case of Yessenia family, a child and sibling.
“Kids need to know that it’s OK to express their feelings, to have a safe space to talk about it,” he said. “Kids are pretty resistant sometimes to opening up to their parents about it, because they don’t want to make them even more sad.”
Yessenia said being part of Friends Way’s support services has made a major difference for her and her family.
“Just to hear other families’ stories and know that you’re not alone – not everyone there is for a child, but we’re all grieving … You sit there and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m not doing this alone,’” she said.
To learn more about Friends Way and how to support the organization’s work, visit www.friendsway.org