Adam Houghton is bracing for the first Christmas without Nichole, his wife of 16 years. He almost has gotten used to answering his children’s questions about their mom — he has a photo of her saved on his phone to show the younger ones every time they ask why she’s gone.
He’ll never have an answer, he said, but he pulls up the photo because he doesn’t want them to forget her smile.
Her absence will be felt the most when the family gathers around the Christmas tree in their new and sparsely decorated living room, the kids eager to open donated gifts.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Adam, 37, his voice dropping to a near whisper.
Nichole died on Sept. 21, two weeks after she fell down a flight of stairs in the couple’s rented home. She was 34. The autopsy report lists her cause of death as a toxic combination of pain medication and muscle relaxant — prescribed for the back and neck injuries from the fall — along with an antidepressant and cough medicine.
For the last few months, Adam has been attending grief counseling sessions once a week. He talks to a therapist about the dreams the couple had for their family. They had been saving up to move out of the 1905 house they had been renting since moving from Las Vegas in 2015. The house had plumbing problems and leaks, Adam said. The only working bathroom was in the lower level — down a steep flight of stairs.
Since Nichole’s death, the family has moved, thanks in part to Goodfellows, The World-Herald’s charity. Goodfellows paid the rental deposit so the family could move in at the beginning of November. The townhouse is not the home the couple had dreamed of buying, but it has three bedrooms, a full basement and a safe area for the children to play outside.
“It’s definitely an upgrade,” Adam said. “I’m so grateful to Goodfellows for getting us out of that place. I didn’t want the kids to have to stay in the place where they lost their mom.”
Help came from other agencies, too.
Nichole didn’t have life insurance and the couple had little in savings, barely enough to cover the burial and funeral, even with the help of a GoFundMe page and donations from Lifegate Church.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Adam said. “The people of Omaha are so genuine, so willing to help. It’s humbling. It’s made this easier for sure.”
But it’s still a struggle. Being a single dad to six children — three on the autism spectrum — is a full-time job on its own. Adam hasn’t worked since before Nichole died.
Without a job, he tries to make ends meet on about $1,500 of monthly disability payments. Because Nichole was on disability insurance for mental illness, the children receive survivor’s benefits. One of the autistic children also receives disability benefits.
After paying the $1,100 rent, there’s not much left at the end of the month.
Lifegate Church and Catholic Charities have stepped in to make sure the kids have Christmas presents this year — something Adam said he otherwise might not have been able to afford.
“All that help has really lifted a huge burden,” Adam said. “It’s allowed me to focus on moving forward.”
A sign hanging in the kitchen of the townhouse reminds him of what he says are his priorities now: love, faith and hope. Another sign on the opposite wall reads “Some of God’s miracles are small.”
It’s those small miracles that keep him going, Adam said. Every day, he tells his children that their mother will always be with them.
She’ll be there in her own way on Christmas, too, he reminds himself aloud as he twists his wedding band around his finger. He has lost 30 pounds since Nichole died — the ring is loose now.
“She would want us to stay positive,” Adam said. “She’d want us to be grateful for all the ways people have helped us out. I know the first thing she’d say if she were here would be ‘Thank you.’ ”