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Christmas after the loss of a loved one: Real-life heart-rending stories

Christmas traditionally is a time for family, but how do you cope after someone close dies? Three NI women who went through that devastating trauma tell Claire O'Boyle how they have managed their grief and kept the festive spirit alive for the sake of young family members

Kate Devlin
Kate Devlin
Kate Devlin with her late husband Paul
Sally's sister Lucinda
Sami Cullen
Sally Kavanagh at her home in west Belfast

By Claire O'Boyle

Mum-of-three Kate Devlin was on holiday in Co Cork with her husband Paul and three young daughters when he died suddenly in 2015.

Here the psychologist, who lives in Belfast but is originally from Salisbury in England, explains how she and her family deal with their grief at what was once the happiest time of the year.

Paul and I met when we were studying at Queen’s University. I did psychology, he was studying English and we were both part of the Drama Society. He really was everything to me: my best friend, my husband. We were together a long time, more than 20 years, by the time he died.

He was only 43. He had been healthy, or we thought that anyway. We were on holiday in the countryside down in Co Cork when it happened. The girls were small. Edie was five, Poppy was three and our youngest, Maille, was just five months old.

I had just finished feeding her in our bed when I heard Paul gasping and realised that something was wrong.

I did CPR. When the ambulance arrived, they tried to save him, but they couldn’t.

The grief at the start was overwhelming. Everything just went on auto-pilot. I’d never experienced any grief on that level and people came to help us with the most basic and practical things.

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For a while at the start I thought I’d take the girls and move back to England, either back to Salisbury or to Birmingham, where Paul’s brother lived.

But someone advised me then not to make any major changes in that first year, so we held on.

We lived in Derry at the time, but eventually I took the girls back to Belfast, where Paul and I had lived for a long time. That was a big change.

We’re a few years down the line now, but Christmas is still hard. I always feel a bit more lonely because it’s all down to me.

I think as time went on, people returned to their own lives. You can’t expect them to be right on hand for you.

A lot of those big family things I do now on my own with the girls.

Going to see Santa, or going to the school fair, I know they have fun, but it still stings that we’re not the whole family in the way we were.

For Christmas Day itself, the way I looked at it from the very first year was that we had to completely change the traditions. We couldn’t just do the same thing we’d done.

I couldn’t replicate it for the girls the way they’d had it in the years before.

Paul was by far the better cook and he always did Christmas dinner. He dressed as Santa for the girls.

I was so desperately sad putting up the decorations and the tree without him that we had to go away. That’s what we’ve done every year since.

We go to Paul’s brother in Birmingham, where the girls have their cousins. The fun and magic is there. We go to Salisbury to see my family too. It’s a distraction. It’s a way of making them feel the fun and excitement of Christmas and masking the gap a bit that we have without Paul.

The main thing we’ve done in coping with what happened has been to talk all the time. I never stop them talking about Paul and I try not to shut them down if they ask me anything about him or what happened.

I think that part of it was not to mystify it, not to say that he was asleep or anything like that.

At the first Christmas, Edie hatched a plan that she would ask Santa to bring her daddy back for her. I’ve heard that that’s quite a common thing for children to do, but it was heart-wrenching and I had to tell her Santa couldn’t do it.

It does get better, I suppose. As the children get older and enter different phases of their, lives it can take you by surprise. You get unexpected moments that really catch you and you have to try not to be caught out by a wave of sadness.

Having the girls has helped me enormously in getting through it. The last couple of Christmases, I’ve managed to enjoy putting the decorations up in the house and even enjoy a couple of Christmas tunes on the radio.

We’ve had great support from an organisation called Widowed and Young, which allowed us to go along on a couple of group holidays with families who had gone through the same thing. That sort of peer support can make a massive difference.

We also got some support from the Cruse Bereavement charity last year too.

It all really works towards helping you come to terms with what’s happened.”

For more information about services, go to www.widowedandyoung.org.uk

Support worker Sami Cullen had just turned 18 when her brother Jay took his own life in September 2007. Now a mum, 30-year-old Sami, from Carrickfergus, tells how she links in with the suicide prevention organisation the Lighthouse Charity at Christmas to keep her brother's memory alive.

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Sami (9) and Jay (8) at Christmas

There were only 18 months between me and Jay. He was younger and we were always really close. At the time, it didn't feel like there had been any signs of why he took his life. It felt like a bolt out of the blue. Looking back, we just don't know if there were things we could have spotted.

The day it happened, Jay had come back from a school trip. He seemed tired, but it might have been a sign of a low mood. It's difficult to pinpoint, but it's one of those things too that we'll never know.

Jay died in September - it would have been his 17th birthday in October - and before we knew it, it was Christmas. I honestly don't know how the family functioned in those early days, weeks and months.

It was numb. It was an absolute blur of people coming and going and not understanding what had happened.

Slowly, as it went on, the numbness and shock turned to anger and you'd ask yourself over and over again if you'd done enough.

It's really difficult with suicide. It leaves a lot of questions and I've accepted now that we'll never have the answers.

When it comes to Christmas, for a long time it was just a case of getting through the day. Sometimes it was close to impossible and you'd just have to rely on your support system - your good friends and your family - but it's hard in that situation because everyone is grieving.

We had lovely Christmases together as kids. We'd race each other down the stairs to see who'd got the biggest pile of presents.

Jay wasn't as quick at helping out with the cooking stage, but it's like all those other things we've missed out on, we just don't know if he would have done that in the future.

I've had support from the Lighthouse Charity since Jay passed away. At the start I thought I'd go for six weeks and then I'd be fine, but that's not how grief works.

Over the years, if I've felt low, I contact Lighthouse to set up some support and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone.

I have a daughter now and Christmas is lovely and we do the family stuff and Santa comes. But we also link in with Lighthouse for their annual event to celebrate the life my brother had and remember what a lovely guy he was.

He was a big football fan and he loved Glentoran - he'd go quite regularly. He loved getting to go to the big match against Linfield on Boxing Day before getting home for a big family dinner that night.

When I talk about Jay to people, I describe him as funny and happy. He was gentle and he had great manners.

When you think of suicide, you wouldn't put him in the picture, but looking back and understanding a bit more about it, I think it's actually not all that uncommon for people to seem happy, to sort of mask the reality.

He was a lovely person. He loved his family and having a great time around Christmas.

Now, in among all the Santa stuff and the getting together with the family, Jay is always at the forefront.

He's the missing piece, the empty chair at the dinner table. It might sound like a cliche, but it's all true.

No matter how many Christmases he's been gone, he's always here and he's always missed."

Find out about more about the support charity at www.lighthousecharity.com

Sally Kavanagh (64) lost her younger sister Lucinda O'Lenny to womb cancer in August 2014. Less than a year later, Lucinda's husband Michael - an incredibly close friend to Sally - died from cancer too. Both Lucinda and Michael spent their final days at the NI Hospice. Here, assistant sales manager Sally, from north Belfast, opens up about her grief and tells how she feels closer to her sister than ever at Christmas.

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Her sister Lucinda with husband Michael

Lucinda was two years younger than me and we were always so close. She married Michael and they were absolutely devoted to each other. While I had two children, she never had any, so she was wonderful with mine.

Lucinda was godmother to loads of children and to my girls she was like a second mum. At Christmas she'd come into her own. She spoiled them rotten and she loved to do it. I knew she got so much joy out of it.

In the weeks before she died, Lucinda stayed at the NI Hospice and the nurses were amazing. I remember one of them laughed when they saw my daughter giving her a spray tan out the back, but it lifted her spirits - and she looked great.

Lucinda was diagnosed with womb cancer in November 2013. She'd had a bit of pain and discomfort, but the tragic and awful thing was that earlier that year in the February doctors had found a tumour in her husband Michael's eye and they'd had to remove it.

She was so focused on him that she had just put up with her symptoms and by the time they found the cancer it was too late.

On the same day doctors in Belfast told her the only option was palliative care, Michael was in Liverpool finding out his cancer was terminal.

I remember when I found out just how bad it was for both of them, I completely broke down. Then I saw the look of fear in Lucinda's face and I knew right then it had to be all about her, so I pulled myself together.

From then on, both of them were completely focused on staying alive for the other one. They wanted to make sure the other one was cared for properly. In the end, it was Lucinda who died first. It was just devastating, but by that time Michael was very sick, so all of our focus had to be on him. When he died 11 months and 11 days later, at the NI Hospice too, it was like the grief hit doubly hard because the shock of it finally sank in.

Coping with that level of grief is harder than I can say. It's the saddest and most lonely feeling. I got a lot of solace from my family, of course, but as well as that I got support from the NI Hospice after both of their deaths.

One of the counsellors there had helped Lucinda through her final weeks, helping her cope with the fear of what was coming. When she died, I had help from the same counsellor. She also helped me again when Michael died.

I would recommend it 100%. It's the saddest, loneliest time in your life and you just need people to be kind to you. When you've got all those feelings, sometimes you don't even know how you feel. It's all inside you with no words to get it out, but they can help you explain it and come to terms with it.

Christmas is hard. Lucinda absolutely loved this time of year. When they died, they left me their house and it might sound strange but at Christmas I feel closer to them than ever.

Lucinda had this huge 6ft Christmas tree and so many decorations - far more than I'd ever had in my house.

But I live here now and I put their Christmas tree and their decorations up every year and I feel closer to them for it.

I have three grandchildren now too and they love it all.

I go to the NI Hospice Service of Lights every Christmas with a candle for Lucinda and Michael.

One year, even though we were right at the back of the crowd, when we started to walk up to the tree, me and my little granddaughter somehow ended up at the front beside the tree.

She was there with her little hood up, holding her candle beside all the lights on the tree and she looked like a little angel. It's a moment that really stuck with me.

It felt like somehow Lucinda was there and made it happen because it was a comfort I needed at the time.

I volunteer with the NI Hospice now a couple of hours a week. It was a place that gave Lucinda and Michael such comfort - and me after they died - that I had to give back. Being involved in such a warm, wonderful place has helped me cope with my grief."

To learn more about the NI Hospice, visit https://www.nihospice.org/

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