This Christmas Eve night, Lisa Aldred will carefully hang five stockings over the fireplace for her children to discover on Christmas Day morning.
But one will still be untouched on Boxing Day.
While Hannah, Leah, Ben and Sam eagerly open the gifts in their stockings, thoughts at their Wigan home will automatically turn to Christmases past when their 14-year-old sister, Rachel, was happily opening her presents, too.
This is the second Christmas that Lisa will spend without her beautiful, bubbly and determined daughter, who died last year. “Looking back on photos of our first Christmas without Rachel, I’ve realised I don’t actually remember anything about it at all,” says Lisa.
For so many bereaved parents who rely on Derian House for specialist support to help them get through the festive season this will sadly sound all too familiar. “For some families, it may simply be closing the door and pretending that Christmas simply isn’t happening,” says family support worker Jean Holden. “Others may go through the motions for the sake of other children and some may develop a whole new routine. For many people, Christmas isn’t a time of happiness and celebration; it’s a sad time when their loss feels even more painful.”
Lisa said: “At Christmas we’ll have more time together as a family. It’s really nice that we do that, but there’ll always be someone missing.”
Being able to open her heart to talk about her beautiful daughter, who had a smile and laugh for everyone, has been a tough journey for Lisa but she had got there thanks to the help of specialist staff at Derian House and a support group for bereaved parents run at the children’s hospice in Chorley.
“When I first went to the support group, I would never have been able to have had a conversation about Rachel,” says Lisa. “After Rachel died I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. At the support group I was among parents who were in exactly the same situation as me – we could share our experiences and we all understood.”
It’s that on-going support that helps Lisa reminisce about the Christmas joy she shared with Rachel – from her starring as the angel in a Nativity play; her love of sensory toys she received as Christmas presents and the many little decorations and ornaments she made that still make an appearance every Christmas.
“She was so excited about being an angel in the Nativity,” recalls Lisa. “It was the first time I’d ever seen any of my children in a Nativity so it was truly a special moment that I’ll treasure for ever.
“We had a lovely photo of her taken on that day that was made into a calendar. When Rachel got excited, she really got excited and you could see she was overjoyed at the whole experience.”
And it was that poignant photo of Rachel that took pride of place over her hospital bed during many of her prolonged stays, facing surgery and rehabilitation: a constant reminder of the bright and bubbly little girl that Rachel had once been.
“The little girl who loved to perform on stage, play with her friends and had an extra special bond with her little brother, Sam.
Rachel was born prematurely, at 28 weeks, weighing only 2lb, leading her to develop cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and hearing loss. She attended mainstream school before her condition deteriorated, leading to a brain injury at the age of nine, which meant she needed respite care at Derian House regularly.
“Rachel really loved it at Derian,” says Lisa. “And it was an absolute Godsend to me as I knew she was in a safe place, with the very best of care and surrounded with love.”
Lisa added: “Christmas is a time for families, for sharing memories but for us there will always be someone missing. It’s not a fairytale time for everyone, it can be the toughest time of the year when you’ve lost a child and the world seems to revolve around children – it’s everywhere you look.
“For me, when I put the star that Rachel made for the tree on top and get out the ornaments in clay that she made, I’ll be remembering her – we’ll have the stockings out but these little things will be the most important decorations we have this year.”
Bereavement support is available indefinitely for all families who have lost a child at Derian House.
It is easy to make a donation and help support this vital work – visit their website at www.derianhouse.co.uk or call 01257 271271 to find out how you could help make a difference.