'My children and I have had a fresh start in our new home but we just wish that Michael was here to share it with us '
Exclusive: As Joanne McGibbon faces Christmas alone, she explains what life has been like since her husband's killing
this time last year, as she put a light on the Northern Ireland Hospice Christmas tree in memory of her late mum, Margaret, Belfast nurse Joanne McGibbon could never have guessed the horror that the year ahead would hold. Last year was difficult enough, as it was her first Christmas without her mum and, this year, she is alone with her four children facing her first Christmas without her husband, Michael, who was brutally taken from them by dissident republicans in April.
Michael, who was just 33, bled to death in Joanne's arms in an alleyway close to their Ardoyne home after being shot by the so-called 'New IRA' for reportedly having said something that one of the terrorist group's members took offence at.
As well as the struggle to come to terms with the loss of her husband, Joanne (34) and the children are also adapting to a new life away from their community in Ardoyne, where Michael and Joanne grew up and became childhood sweethearts.
Michael died just yards from their home and Joanne has taken her children - Seana (17), Shea (9), Michaela (7) and Corry-Leigh (4) - away from the area to spare them the pain of having to pass the spot where their dad died.
It has been another major change for them all to deal with and has meant new schools for the younger children, but Joanne says they are all coping well - even though Christmas will be harder than ever this year.
She says: "We are getting through it, but it is sad Michael is not here and I just want him to be here with us.
"I do feel him with me every day. We talk about him every day. We have had a fresh start in a new area and a new house and everything is completely new and you just want him to be here to share it.
"Moving was the best thing I could have done, as life where we are now is completely different.
"The younger children had to change schools, but they have made new friends. We are living in a cul de sac with other children and in the summer the kids played outside for hours and I could see them from the window and knew they were completely safe."
Joanne adds: "The neighbours have been amazing.
"They know our background and they couldn't have been more welcoming, or do enough for us.
"My car broke down recently and one of them ran the children to school and then brought me to Belfast to pick up my friend's car.
"It has been a big change, but for the better. I just wish that Michael, I and the kids had done it together years ago."
Joanne's focus since she lost Michael has been on helping her children to cope.
As one of the most sensitive of her four children, Michaela struggled most with the horror of her dad's death and Joanne arranged for her to get counselling, which has helped.
Seana has also found it tough, but coped by throwing herself into her school work and her mum is very proud that, just two weeks after her dad's murder, she sat her AS exams and passed with two Grade As and a B.
The kids and Joanne talk about Michael every day and Joanne believes that keeping him with them in spirit has helped all of them to cope with his loss.
This Christmas, to give them a treat and help build new memories, Joanne has organised a very special surprise from Santa.
Michael, who was the cook in the house and always prepared the family meals, will be missed dearly as Joanne and the children get up on Christmas morning without him.
Joanne says: "It is another first and there have been so many firsts.
"Last year was my first Christmas without my mum and I can't believe that this year I don't have Michael.
"Just going down the stairs to see what Santa brought, without him, is going to be hard.
"He cooked the turkey and this year I will be doing it. I don't even know how to make stuffing, as Michael was the cook in the house.
"A friend bought us a Leeds FC bauble for our Christmas tree to hang for Michael, which I thought was lovely. He was Leeds mad and would have loved that.
"We are all going to miss him and I want to try and make it a positive Christmas and as special for the children as I can, so I have booked a big surprise from Santa, which I can't reveal just yet, but it will be a major treat which I think after the past few months the children really deserve.
"Michael and I always visited my mum's grave and his mum's grave and my father and sister's graves on Christmas Day and now we will have one more grave to visit - Michael's. It is hard to even think about that."
This time last year, Joanne helped the Northern Ireland Hospice to launch its annual Lights to Remember Appeal in honour of mum Margaret, who she had nursed at home in her final months.
Joanne also lost her sister, Shauna, when she was eight years old from a rare cancer and says her parents, Margaret and Joseph Graham, never got over it.
In a strange coincidence, both were 62-years-old when they suffered heart attacks - even though neither had a history of heart trouble in their families.
Her dad couldn't be operated on because of other medical complications and died 11 years ago, while her mother, who was also unable to receive surgery, died on January 21 last year.
Michael didn't even hesitate to support Joanne when she wanted to bring her mum back to their home to nurse her during her final months.
Joanne says: "He helped me look after my mummy and was my rock and my shoulder to cry on; my best friend - ever."
It is that support which Joanne misses now as she faces the future as a single mum trying to help her four children through the trauma of their dad's murder.
"Michael was the one who always calmed me and relaxed me. I miss that. I miss the practical support as well. Michael took up taxi-driving, so that he could take time off work if we needed the kids picked up early from school, or one of them had an appointment.
"My work has been great in helping me to arrange my hours, so that I can bring the kids to school and pick them up again, but I know, if Michael was here, it would all be so much easier.
"I miss him by my side and I miss texting him and even wee texts like 'I love you' and getting the text back that he loved me, too.
"He always had my back and there was always the two of us together, working through it all.
"I know, no matter what, if I had Michael here and something went wrong, I could just turn to him and now I don't have that support and it is hard.
"I would just love to have him to hold and hug. It gets so lonely. I know I have the kids and my job is to protect them, but Michael was always protecting me."
Joanne has touched hearts across the community with the strength she has shown in her brave condemnation of her husband's killers and her appeals for peace across local communities since his murder on April 15.
That day is one which will haunt her forever. Joanne feared the worst when Michael was approached as he picked his children up from school and was ordered to meet two men in an alleyway close to their home that night.
Michael left for the meeting and a frantic Joanne rang a friend to come over and sit with the children so that she could follow him and make sure he was all right.
She arrived at the nearby alleyway, in Butler Place, to find her husband dying in a pool of blood. As a trained nurse, she tried everything to save him while she waited on the ambulance to arrive.
At the time she recalled: "I worked so hard to save him, but the weapon used had blown right through the artery, right through his leg. The blood was pouring from both sides of his knee. I was just grateful that I was there to comfort him when he took his last breath and I thank God for that."
Even though she has left Ardoyne, Joanne's heart is still very much in the community where she grew up and met Michael when they were both just 16.
"I think it is sad that people can't be happy and live peacefully and I think a lot of that has to do with encouraging people and having everyone on the same wavelength.
"Where we live now, people want each other to do well and we aren't here very long and already we feel that.
"The kids are safe to play outside and there is a real sense of community. I know the people of Ardoyne want peace and the men who killed Michael don't have the support of most people living there."