Getting through the first Christmas without Mum

“Christmas was always really special in our house. Growing up, I was what some would call ‘Christmas mad’, shutting myself away to busily create more garish and over-the-top Christmas tree decorations than should be allowed, spurred on by a backdrop of festive films, and mince pies.

I would relish the moment of the final reveal of the decorated tree to Mum and Dad, complete with their parental faux admiration and pride at my festive monstrosity - as I retrospectively realise. However, that was exactly what Mum (and Dad) were good at; encouraging and nurturing whatever crazy idea I had set my sights on. Mum was never the type to say no to something, she loved to be adventurous, and she loved me to be adventurous too.

We usually reserved our Christmases to be spent with just the three of us, seeing extended family on other days, but for us, Christmas Day was our special day, just for the three of us to be together, and I loved it that way.

Mum’s Illness & the Aftermath

Cancer first came into our family life when Mum was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, which returned as breast cancer again a decade later, and then years later, a secondary incurable cancer was found in her liver. 

Mum was never one to dwell on her mortality, always remaining as positive as she could be in the trying times, when her body was failing her. My childhood memories from her second cancer were how she always stayed very upbeat, continuing to outwardly portray normality in her life, shielding me as much as she could from the trauma of the illness.

A close-knit family - Johnny with his mum and dad 

Her final days were spent being cared for at Trinity before she passed away in February 2022. In the weeks after Mum’s passing, I completely shut down, remaining in my bedroom trying to process my grief and loss. Despite family and friend's attempts to pull me out of the grief, the loss was so encompassing I really struggled to begin to move on in this new life without Mum.

Gradually, as the months went by, to get myself out of the house I started going to a local leisure centre, using the gym and pool. I found that exercise let me focus my mind, immerse myself in activity and escape the grief and anger over the loss, helping me to eventually open up to my support network when I felt able. 

It was during this time that I realised that I wanted to run the London Marathon for Team Trinity as a means of channelling my loss, and I took the leap, first of all by signing up and running the Royal Parks Half Marathon, with no training! The race was amazing! I knew that running the London Marathon the following year was what I needed to do, and so my marathon journey began.

Changing the focus of Christmas

I felt apprehensive about the first Christmas without Mum, specifically about how emotionally tough it was going to be to deal with what was usually a special day without my special person.

I realised that I needed to reinvent what Christmas was going to look like for myself in that first year. I knew I couldn’t handle the whole Christmas and New Year season at home, surrounded with all the reminders of the void that Mum’s death had left in my life.

Instead, I booked a solo six-week trip to Australia for just after Christmas, knowing I needed to escape for some time. I planned my trip to stay with Mum’s sister and my cousins in Sydney. Knowing I had this trip masked the impending nervousness about Christmas as the festive season ramped up, replacing it with a different sense of excitement and adventure.

Making plans to make it bearable

On that dreaded Christmas Day, Dad and I got up like it was any other day, had our basic bowl of oats in the morning and went to see Mum at the cemetery, bringing her flowers and spending time with her.

We didn’t try to re-create how Christmas had been, it wouldn’t and couldn’t have been right for us. We just kept things like it was any other day. This Christmas wasn’t a special day in the calendar as it usually was. Instead, it represented everything that had been lost since the Christmas prior, and the best way to celebrate it, was to not celebrate it at all.

Sunshine and strength

I left for Australia on Boxing Day, leaving behind the doom and gloom of wintery England for the baking hot summer ‘down under’. I planned to backpack up the East Coast, in the hope that travelling and meeting new people, who didn’t know about my family situation, would help some normality to return and also help me socialise again.

A group of people stood in front of the Sydney Opera house

Sydney with extended family

Running on my own by the coast and through country trails, I trained for the London marathon. Even in very hot weather, finding the intense running conditions a perfect background to immerse myself in activating breath control, as a form of active meditation. I even took part in the Sydney Half Marathon while I was there. When it was over, I knew coming home to the UK in February was going to be hard. 

Mentally and physically stronger

February 2023 brought the one year anniversary of Mum’s death and coupled with the greyness of late winter, I found these weeks some of the hardest I had faced since Mum’s passing.

However, drawing on seeing Mum’s own strength during her illness and my own personal growth from backpacking through Australia, I channelled my continued grief into my marathon training and fundraising. I organised a sell out ‘fundrave’ in the student union which raised over a thousand pounds for Team Trinity in a single night of dancing and celebration.

Finally, in April 2023, fourteen months after Mum’s passing, I successfully completed the TCS London Marathon as part of Team Trinity, in five hours and twenty-nine minutes.

I can only feel joy and celebration when I look back on that day and the whole journey. I had personally fundraised nearly £3,000 for a charity I now consider to be part of me. I feel Trinity is somewhere that keeps me closer to her.

My marathon journey has birthed a new love for long-distance running. My growing runner’s medal collection hangs proudly on the curtain pole in my room – a constant reminder that even in the lowest moments of one's life, new experiences can be found.

For anyone going into their first Christmas, the advice I would have is; "you can’t emulate how it was, instead it could maybe be an opportunity to do something differently.”

A journey that took him around the globe, crossing the line stronger 

Royal Trinity Hospice would like to thank Johnny for telling his story about his bereavement journey. 

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