For many people, the holiday season is a perfect time to spread cheer and happiness while spending time with their families. But for others, it is the most difficult part of the year, especially those who tragically lost loved ones on 9-11.
For the past 16 years, the National Law Enforcement and Firefighters Children’s Foundation (NLEAFCF) has hosted a special Thanksgiving Breakfast for family members of first responders who were killed or disabled in the line of duty that day.
This year’s event took place at Bryant Park Grill in New York City. The venue is located along the route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, allowing guests to get a front-row view of the festivities.
The first NLEAFCF Thanksgiving breakfast was held in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, and provided an opportunity for the relatives of fallen first responders to gather and celebrate the lives of their loved ones, as well as ease the sorrow that can be particularly difficult during the holidays.
Among the attendees this year was Rockville Centre resident Diana Hetzel, who lost her husband, firefighter Thomas Hetzel, on 9-11. Her first NLEAFCF breakfast was in 2004 after attending fire-department gatherings the first three years.
“If I look back on it now, I can say, ‘That was a really nice thing that day did for us,’ because we didn’t have to go there. We didn’t have to get that spot right on the street,” said Hetzel. “I’m more appreciative of it now and I’m thinking about what it did. Even if it’s just for the three hours that you’re there, it takes you three hours away of your grieving. It gives you happiness.”
Hetzel met many families during her trips to the breakfast and said the people who come regularly have embraced their “new community.”
“You see everybody growing up,” she said. “We’re like a family. There’s some of us that are very tight and [our] kids grew up together. They’re like cousins.”
Hetzel’s daughter, Amanda, was just 2½ years old on 9-11 and is now a senior at South Side High School. Hetzel said Amanda recently wrote her college essay about not having her father in her life.
“She’s had a hard time,” Hetzel said. “During the earlier years to her, it was like, “Oh! We’re going to the parade!’ It was fun. [But] in middle school and high school, it became more a transition time.”
Hetzel said the best way for people to cope during the holiday season is to live in the moment and go with your feelings.
“You just got to live in the minute,” she said. “It helps to have the freedom to come and go as you please and be around supportive people. To be alone is OK too. Just take in what your body is asking you to take in.”