When I was just eight years old, Christmas Day came to have a different, bittersweet meaning for me, compared to most lucky souls. Because when I was meant to be celebrating my eighth birthday (yes, I was born on 25 December), my Uncle Eddie, who lived next door, and to whom I was extraordinarily close, passed away in the early hours of that morning.
Our family friends from Bolivia were staying that year, and Aunty Martha had gone mad beforehand, decorating the windows with spray snow and you couldn't move for boughs of holly, surreptitiously liberated from neighbour's hedges, decking any surface that could take Sellotape. Mistletoe was dripping down from every door jamb and the tree was bursting with baubles. But in the cold, shocking light of that Christmas morning of mourning, the festive decorations seemed alien and almost taunting. Even to a newly eight-year-old little girl, I remember almost not being able to breathe at the sadness of it all.
Uncle Eddie's wife, or rather widow then, Aunty Doris came round with the three Gillett children, the closest I have to brothers and sisters, all just a few years older than me and who I'd grown up with living next door to, and the palpable numbness and shock was shared between all us three families. Aunty Martha and Uncle Luis had lost their eldest son Peter earlier that year - he had drowned at sea in a boating accident in the Solent near where they lived - so they more than anyone else knew bereavement. Being Seventh Day Adventists, their faith seemed to help them, but to me, even though I was brought up a Methodist, their words of God that Christmas Day were as comforting as dust. 'And this, on the day that Jesus was born into the world', was all that seemed to reel around my young head.
From then on, every Christmas Day saw my mum and dad accompany Aunty Doris to the local crematorium to lay flowers at Uncle Eddie's memorial. Obviously I understood, but it was always upsetting that every birthday meant being left on my own for a while. Just having your supposed 'special day' being punctuated with something so sad can't help but be upsetting, although I always remembered him in my heart too and never for one minute felt sorry for myself. I wished with every bone that things had been different.
Naturally, as I got older, I understood more and more why the crematorium pilgrimage was necessary, but could never quite face going there myself on my birthday.
Then so many more years down the line, my dad became ill. He always still loved Christmas and although his faculties weren't fully there that Christmas Day when we went to see him on the ward that awful day in 2001, a spark in his eyes told me he still knew what day it was. He wasn't well enough to open the presents I bought him, and I still treasure the book I'd wrapped for him, but he never opened, to this day.
He died on 27 Dec, I swear because he hung on for Christmas and my birthday. My mum has never got over his passing - they'd known each other since they were eight years old, and he literally pulled her pigtails in the Yorkshire mining village they grew up in - and they'd been married since 1962.
Yet again, when we got back home that dreadful night, the Christmas decorations I'd put up mere days earlier seemed to mock us.
So now Christmas is doubly difficult. Mum and I try and make it festive and celebrate what we have, but the memories of those lost make it difficult. Mum struggles very much with not having dad around at this time of year, especially as he loved it so much - his Mick Jagger-dancing party piece was something to behold. And there are hundreds, if not thousands of people like her this Christmas time in Britain, and so many are totally on their own without an annoying daughter trying to chivvy them along.
There's a reason why calls to the Samaritans and other help lines go up this time of year - bereavement is magnified and loss brought into sharp relief when it seems that everyone else is having so much fun. Some will find it difficult to cope when all everything the telly and more tells you is solely about tinsel and turkey.
So please, when you're gathered around the Christmas dinner table, put aside any petty differences, be truly grateful for what you have, and raise a glass for those who aren't there, and those who are missing them dreadfully.
And if you have the time, maybe volunteer for services that can help make this time of year that little bit better for those missing others. Merry Christmas.
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