Life after loss: ‘How we’re making Christmas special again’

For many, the festive period can conjure up all sorts of complex emotions. 

It’s a joyous occasion for most, spent with loved ones. But it’s also a difficult time if you’re grieving: a day where your loss is all the more pronounced and where absence at a table is all the more felt.

And whether it’s been just a few weeks or many years since a loved one has passed, there’s no doubt that Christmas can be a trying time. 

Here, we speak to three women who have all experienced heartbreaking loss, to find out how they’re making 25 December a day to remember. 

‘This will be the first Christmas without my dad – but my first as a wife’

Justine Thomas, 48, is the co-founder of a broadband company and lives in Norwich with her husband, Pete. She says: 

‘This Christmas is one of firsts.

It’s the first time I’ve bought a card that says ‘to my husband’ but it’s the first time I won’t be sending a card to my beloved dad.

My father, Alan, passed away in March – just four months before I got married in August – so this year has been incredibly bittersweet. 

Relationships change over time, but the one I had with my dad was always fun. He was 89 when he died but he was young at heart, open minded, gregarious and outgoing.

If I ever needed anybody, Dad would always be there, and just knowing that has been such a comfort – when you have someone who’s so solid, it gives you the confidence to go out and be your own person. He was my best mate and I was always his cheerleader, too. 

He had three daughters and three sons so we didn’t spend every Christmas together, meaning we didn’t have firm traditions that I’ll miss, which I think will help this year.  

But there were some funny little ones. For example, there was always a bit of friendly rivalry between me and my siblings over who would send my dad the funniest Christmas card and he always used to joke to the other children when somebody had sent him a better one. 

This year, I’m trying to focus on the really good memories we have, while looking forward.

Although I won’t have my dad and those traditions, this Christmas will be my first one married to Pete – and the first we’ll be signing our cards Mr and Mrs – which is exciting. 

I haven’t officially changed my name as I just can’t let that go yet, because it connects me to my father – I’m such a daddy’s girl!

When Pete and I got engaged last year, Dad was really happy. He was quite old fashioned in the sense that he wanted all his children to be married – I think he thought that because I’m nearly 50 it would never happen. It helped that he loved Pete. 

As he was no longer here to give me away on my wedding day, my brother and son stepped in for the day to do all the ‘dad’ things in his place: my youngest brother came with me in the car and handed me over to my 22-year-old son Henry who walked me down the aisle. 

We paid some small tributes to him on the day but we didn’t want to overdo it because I didn’t want to spend the day crying – and he wouldn’t have wanted that.

For example, he always loved cravats. When he was taken into hospital in March and we knew he didn’t wasn’t going to make it, we put a cravat on him, which he passed away wearing.

Henry wore the cravat as a tie on my wedding day – it was a bizarre colour and didn’t go with the wedding theme at all but we thought it looked great.

We also paid tribute to my dad through the music: one of his favourite songs was Islands in the Stream by Dolly and Kenny, so we put that in our wedding service and asked everyone to sing it during the service.

When I think about Christmas, my biggest sadness is not having realised that last year would have been his last one. Due to all the restrictions, we couldn’t see him, and he spent it on his own – it’s hard to think about that. 

I really wanted to go on a ‘kidnap run’ so many times during the pandemic.

It’s something I’d done many times over the years when my dad’s been ill. I’d ‘kidnap’ him from his home in Wales and take him to Norfolk, where I live, and help him get well again. 

It went through my mind so many times over the last year, but I was worried about putting people at risk, so I decided not to.

It’s sad to think I will never see my dad in a Christmas cracker hat again, which he would unapologetically put on and wear all day. He loved Baileys too and would easily sink an entire bottle in one sitting despite his claims that he didn’t drink.

For him, the day wasn’t about presents: he was very old school and just enjoyed being surrounded by family as he ate dinner and had a few drinks, then would watch Christmas TV specials until he fell asleep in front of the sofa.

I know this Christmas will be different, so I’ll spend the day looking back – but just enough. I also keep reminding myself there’s a big future out there – I’m 48 and I’m planning to live at least as long as my dad!

So although we won’t change or do anything different this year because we’re married, it does feel like Pete and I are starting a new life together. Especially, as we’re hoping to retire in a few years so we can spend all our future Christmases on a boat!’

Justine Thomas is the Co-Founder of SimRush.

‘I’m having a Christmas baby – I can’t think of a better present’

Alice Cracknell, 33, runs a non-profit clothing brand and lives in Devon with her husband Tom. She says: 

‘When I first realised my due date was December 25, I initially felt a strange sense of guilt.

I’d always assumed it would be a rubbish birthday and that people who are born around Christmas always tend to get one joint present rather than two.

But now that my husband Tom and I are expecting after a difficult miscarriage last year, I’ve changed my mind – I really love this time of year, and think it’s a magical time to be born. 

It’s a strange thing, pregnancy. You always imagine it’s going to be fine when you want to have a baby. You spend the first half of your life being told ‘don’t get pregnant’ so you think it must be easy – until you actually want it to happen.

Last September, I had a missed miscarriage, which I discovered 12 weeks in. When this happens, the baby dies, but your body doesn’t recognise it, so you still feel and look pregnant and experience all the symptoms. 

So when I was told, it was a real shock – I hadn’t any bleeding or indication that anything was wrong, which made it even more difficult to accept.

Talking about it helped, as did reading articles and seeing people in the media being honest about their experience. It’s fairly common, but people don’t realise this because it’s just not spoken about.

The NHS staff were amazing throughout the whole procedure: every single person I saw, from the midwives to the doctors were incredible. They were all so understanding and extremely professional, despite the pandemic. Both of our families were brilliant too, so I felt really lucky to have that support.

After my miscarriage, we stopped trying for a baby for a while – I was so upset, but also didn’t want to feel as though we were replacing that one we had lost with another. 

When I got pregnant the first time, it hadn’t crossed our minds that anything could go wrong. We knew a lot of people wait until they pass the 12-week mark before they tell anyone, but we were so excited. I wasn’t drinking at my sisters’ wedding and I wanted to tell everyone why.

So when the miscarriage happened, it was a real shock and after telling everyone about the pregnancy, we then had to take it back. Part of me even felt stupid for believing it was all going to be fine.  

When I got pregnant again, we decided not to tell people straight away.

I don’t think I allowed myself to get excited about it until well into the second trimester. I didn’t buy anything until I was past the six months mark – I was just so scared I would jinx it.

But we had little celebrations with each passing milestone – Tom made me a little card every week we got through. Then when we got to 20 weeks, we thought ‘maybe this one is actually happening’. It took me a while to accept it because I’d convinced myself it wouldn’t work out. 

We don’t know if we’re having a girl or boy yet – it’s a surprise, and we’ve decided we’ll be really happy with whatever we have. I’m thinking of it like a Christmas present; the perfect gift!

I really love Christmas and I’m excited about taking our family traditions and applying them to my own little unit. I love carols, the food, the tree, the stockings – all of it. It’s normally quite a big thing for us but this year, we’re staying close to home and the hospital, so we haven’t made any plans.

Instead, we planned a few fake Christmases with our families in the lead up to the day. One with my parents on the other side of Devon, along with my two sisters. Essentially an extra Christmas Day, where we exchange presents, eat dinner, open crackers – all the usual trimmings. Then we’ll do the same with my husband’s family. 

I never really wanted to be a traditional mum – we run a not-for-profit fashion brand and travel a lot in Africa so a family didn’t always seem to be conducive with our lifestyle and the way we bounce across the globe. 

However, I think when you meet somebody and you fall in love, you often want your version of a family. So we might not fit the regular 2.4 children mould, but I’m really excited it’s finally happening for us.

So whether our baby arrives late or early, it really will be the perfect Christmas present!’

Alice Cracknell is the founder of not-for-profit fashion brand, Origin Africa.

‘Volunteering this Christmas will give me a sense of purpose’

Chinelo Awa, 33, lives in London and runs a cake shop.

‘My mum, Nkolika, passed three years ago yesterday and since then the festive period has been the worst time of year for me.

There’s no ‘best time’ to die but losing someone on Christmas Eve is particularly painful – it’s unfortunate timing, to put it lightly. 

Since Mum’s death, I’ve dreaded this time of year. But, 2021 will be different – in her honour I’m spending today volunteering to feed the homeless and lonely.

I’ve already been taking part in my church’s campaign this month to give ‘15,000 bags of kindness’ to people who are at risk of being alone this Christmas, and being able to help others at this time of year feels very much like a rebirth.

It’s what I used to do when I was a child with my mother and doing it again has given me a sense of purpose that I lost for a very long time.

It’s a return to a childhood tradition – when I was young, Christmas Day would typically be spent cooking and driving around my childhood city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where we’d give food to those in need.

We’d deliver warm meals to the homeless, the poor – anyone who would otherwise be forgotten.

The preparation would start the day before when we’d start preparing the food. I’m talking big, big, pots of food: jollof rice, chicken, turkey, plantain… all sorts.

On Christmas Eve, we’d season all the meat, then the next day we’d fry it, prepare the rice and create the bags. We’d spend our mornings doing that, ensuring we ate too, so we wouldn’t get hungry on the road. 

We’d also stop by people my mum knew personally who were having a hard time and go to orphanages – that’s one of my earliest memories.

My mum was passionate about orphanages in particular, I think it could partly be because she adopted me on the day I was born. Times were different then – it’s not common practice now.

I’m an only child and I was very, very, loved. And we were incredibly close. Not only was she my mum, dad, sister, brother, best friend, she was also my confidante, career adviser, financial planner and bank. Mum was my everything.

She was really funny too, and lit up any room. She didn’t take life too seriously and loved to have a good time. Even so, she was determined to give me a better life at all costs – although I only appreciated this later in life. 

Growing up, Mum always told me I’d come to the UK, and by the time I was 13, her promise came true when we finally came here for a holiday. It was Christmas when I boarded a British Airways flight, and when we touched down in the UK, it was the first time I saw snow. 

She’d promised me this holiday for eight years. At the time, I was frustrated by the constant delays, but looking now with hindsight I see she was a dreamer – one of those people who says to you ‘it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen’ and they keep working at it, until eventually, it does. 

A few years later, when I was 18, I moved to the UK for university. I remember family members telling Mum how expensive it was to study over here and said she couldn’t do it. But she did. At the end of it all, I had four degrees, and she paid for all of it.

My mum brought me up to never understand limitations – I am the way I am, because of her.

At some point I’d love to create a Christmas Eve tradition in her memory, but I haven’t felt ready yet. However, I think this could be it: feeding the homeless at this time of year. Giving back and being mindful of the people who would otherwise be forgotten is something that was instilled in me from a really young age.

So this year, my morning is going to start with exchanging presents with my family, then I’ll meet up with other volunteers at church and head to Earl’s Court, where we’ll give food to those in need. 

It’s bittersweet doing what we used to do together without her. But I think my mum would be really proud.’

Chinelo Awa is the founder of Good Cake Day

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