Christmas grief: Coping with the empty chair

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DadImage source, Joe Kearney
Image caption,
It will be the second Christmas without my father, Joe

I'll never forget the trifle. It was my father's one offering to the Christmas dinner menu - indeed pretty much his only culinary contribution throughout the calendar year.

Shop-bought sponges, tinned fruit, jelly and copious quantities of cream were hardly going to make it into a Heston Blumenthal recipe book.

But yet the finished product was presented with all the pride of a caveman who single-handedly had taken down and cooked a woolly mammoth.

It was great, and so was my dad, also called Joe, but this year - like countless other fathers, mothers and children - the chair he sat in will be empty.

Ideally, Christmas is all about celebrating with our nearest and dearest, but the reality for many is that that simply isn't possible.

So how can we get through the holidays when those who helped make it such a special time are no longer here?

Image source, Esther Simpson

'We lived one breath by one breath'

Esther Simpson came from London to study at Queen's University in Belfast in 1992 and a year later met Colin, the young architect, who'd make her stay in the city.

A wedding in December 1995 made that Christmas extra special and by the time their 10th anniversary rolled around, four children, Hannah, Rachel, Ben-Judah and John, had been added to the mix.

Life in east Belfast was an idyllic, family one, brought to a shuddering halt by the doorbell ringing in October 2017.

"The first we knew of Colin's death was police liaison officers arriving. I think there was a lot of numb shock for all of us," explained Esther.

Colin had turned 50 five days earlier and had completed a 80km cycling sportive the week before. As Esther says: "Death from a massive heart attack was not on anyone's radar".

The family survived "one breath by one breath".

In November, Esther sat her children down - then aged 20, 18, 15 and 12 - and asked them about Christmas.

"I tried to give them as much choice as possible and do things democratically. In the end we put up a tree, but didn't send cards. We did presents and bought one for Colin, too," she said.

"We did part of the day by ourselves but went to friends for Christmas dinner. They're the kind of friends who would have let us curl up in silence or sob on their sofa."

Esther also took comfort in the Willowfield Parish church where she and Colin were active members, but nothing had prepared her for "just how painful and how long grief is".

"I happened to know the children and young person's co-ordinator at Cruse and she sent an information pack after Colin died with a note saying the waiting time for counselling was four to five months," she said.

"I referred myself and my three younger children about seven weeks later. We had counselling the following summer.

They 'get' grief

"We went on a Get Together residential weekend for families affected by bereavement six months after Colin died. This was especially helpful for my children, to meet other young people who just 'get' grief.

"Unfortunately, the Get Together project has just finished as National Lottery funding ended and no new funding has been found. That leaves a massive hole in bereaved family support in Northern Ireland.

"I also joined WAY (Widowed and Young) which provides online support and meet-up options with other local people.

"I am blessed with an amazing network of friends and family who are extraordinarily good at listening."

Image source, Esther Simpson
Image caption,
The Simpson family on a special day out on their bikes

Last Christmas was, as Esther puts it, "easier and harder".

Easier because they had done it "and survived", harder because grief caught the family unaware and the numbness that, in some ways, had protected them a year before had now been swept away.

The fact that the children, who were all at key stages of their education when Colin died, have done so well is a huge source of pride for Esther.

"One of them, after I commented on how amazing it was that they had even done their exams, let alone got the grades they had, turned round and said: 'Death has taken enough. It's not having any more'."

Esther says she thinks about Colin all the time - and offers this advice.

"Something that has helped me when the days I dread are looming is the thought that on the morning after I am likely to still be breathing.

"Sometimes the next breath is all you need to choose to do."

Image source, Kirsty Doherty

'How will I ever cope?'

Last Christmas was "horrendous" for Kirsty Doherty. Four months earlier she lost her precious baby, George, at just seven months.

"I didn't cook, I spent the day in my pyjamas and cried on and off. We visited his grave and I just broke down. This wasn't normal or what any mummy or daddy should have to do on Christmas Day, it was absolutely heartbreaking.

"I just thought to myself, 'how will I ever cope having to go through this every Christmas?' It was so so painful. To see everyone's happy photos on Facebook with their complete, perfect families just broke me."

When Kirsty and her partner, Johnny, who live in Coleraine, found out they were expecting their second child together, George, they were thrilled.

But a routine scan near the end of the pregnancy showed the baby's brain hadn't developed as it should.

A rare condition called Agenesis of the corpus callosum meant the part that connects the two hemispheres in the brain had failed to develop.

Image source, Kirsty Doherty
Image caption,
Grace pictured with baby George

Having already had a son, Riley, who has autism and severe learning difficulties, Kirsty was naturally worried about how she would cope.

George was born on 25 January but had breathing difficulties.

"We were told to prepare for the worst but, after a week, he came off life support. He was being fed by a tube but he was improving and after four weeks we got him back to our local hospital."

Kirsty and Johnny brought their new baby home to meet his brother Riley and sister Grace.

They knew George would have complex needs, but Kirsty said: "He was our beautiful son and we would deal with it".

However, just three weeks later feeding problems saw him brought back to the Royal Victoria Hospital where staff carried out tests.

"In their opinion they didn't think he'd make it to a year old. Our world shattered before us, our wee son was going to die, something no parent ever wants to hear, it's the unthinkable... the unimaginable."

Kirsty didn't want her son to spend his final weeks in a hospital.

She said: "It was then the NI Children's Hospice was mentioned. They offered for us to go stay there as a family and make some lovely memories in George's final days.

Four precious weeks

"It was so lovely we got to stay altogether as a family, take him swimming and do lots of arts and crafts. We had four precious weeks."

On the day that George died, Kirsty was numb and heartbroken, but relieved his suffering had ended.

To help process what she was going through, she started a Facebook blog called George and the Giraffe to document her feelings and encourage other bereaved mums to reach out.

Kirsty said: "In January 2019, I set up a private support group page called Stars above the Rainbow for anyone who'd experienced miscarriage and baby loss.

"I've made lots of friends through it. I've got to know one mummy, in particular, who lost her little baby a few months after we lost George. She only lives two minutes from me and also used the services of the Children's Hospice."

Facing her second Christmas without George feels "slightly easier than last" for Kirsty.

A few weeks ago, she other the other mums, who meet once a month, had a Christmas wreath-making night, "all in memory of our little babies".

Image source, Kirsty Doherty
Image caption,
Kirsty treasures memories of her baby, George

"I wanted to do something special on Christmas Day that devoted my time to George, it was then that I saw the NI Hospice was arranging an event on the beach in Portstewart called Freeze Knees.

"Basically I have to run into the water and have a splash about. I must be crazy."

And Kirsty has some advice when it comes to surviving Christmas after the loss of a loved one.

"Be gentle with yourself. Don't feel forced to attend any events, just do what you want to do. People will understand if you cancel at the last minute.

"Cry lots if you have to. It's totally normal."