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The Globe and Mail

My Christmas wish: to celebrate the ones I lost

steve adams The Globe and Mail

Call him what you want - the ghost of Christmas past, the thief of Christmas to come.

Whatever the name, my family and far too many others know how tragedy during the holidays can last so very long after the deed is done.

The grinch can suddenly sled into lives in many forms - a sick child, the death of a parent or friend, a divorce that divides families.

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Ours snuck in as a house fire that killed our sister and her two tiny children. When they died their presents sat waiting under our Christmas trees.

The fire happened almost 30 years ago in Orangeville, Ont., caused by a wood stove that overheated. Bonnie perished trying to save five-year-old Joe and one-year-old Janet.

After they died, so did something in our entire family. The fire that swept through their home engulfed every aspect of our lives that Christmas, and for many holidays to come. It's a long time to suffer.

While the world went on, ours stopped. Their presents were gently pulled from under our trees and taken to the Sally Ann.

The funerals were held Christmas week in our home church in the small town of Lennoxville, Que. The church was decked out with nativity scenes, colourful lights and signs of a joyous birth.

But we were there for the other end of life - in a horrible twist of fate, a triple funeral.

Bonnie's husband survived the fire, and just getting him through each hour was unbearable for all who watched him day and night.

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The presents Bonnie had mailed came days after her death. They were small - she had no money - but they had been bought, wrapped and sent with love.

Since some of the family members had young children, completely cancelling Christmas was not an option. Santa still had to come.

We went through the motions of merriment while in a constant state of confusion and heartbreak.

That was a long time ago. But for our family - and for our children - the grief and sadness are a lasting Christmas tradition that we so want to break.

As every December neared, that grey feeling kept creeping back. What was there to celebrate? And why did what happened so many years past continue to cloud every Christmas?

The next year, our father, a long-time widower, lay dying in hospital. We spent Christmas Day eating burgers at his bedside. The official cause of death was cancer, but my three siblings and I knew it was a broken heart that killed him.

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There are so many stories like ours. Not a triple death, for sure, but tragedy nonetheless. A miserable marriage, addiction and loneliness are all magnified by others' joy.

They are painful experiences at any time, but when bad things happen to good people at what for many should be the happiest time of year, the whys are impossible to answer.

It's hard for us, and I imagine so many others, to watch - and envy - families who have not suffered at Christmas. Why Bonnie, why us and why does this darkness last so damn long?

It's an impossible feeling to explain to someone who hasn't lived through a heartbreaking holiday. It's not that I don't understand the excitement they feel. It's just that I am sad, and angry that I can't find a way to feel joy too.

Maybe I still cry now because I didn't do enough of it then amid such utter loss. There was so much to do, so many people to worry about. And so much pain.

Getting past it has taken years, and the work is not yet done.

My three daughters are young adults now, and for most of their lives they have questioned why I dread December. I know my kids hurt because their youthful joy and innocence wasn't enough to lift me out of the dark hours.

They never met their Aunt Bonnie or their young cousins. But they have lived the tragic legacy of their deaths. Now it's their lives I want to remember more.

This year I am hoping to be better, working at the things I know make a difference, things that help me fight the grinch. I am determined to not retreat into myself, to get off the couch and see the people I love. Too often I have felt so alone in my sadness that I make it worse by avoiding others.

I volunteer, especially with the Salvation Army. I love ringing the kettle bell, even when people don't give. It reminds me how many others are so much sadder than I at Christmas. Making just one person feel better lifts my spirits.

I have finally pulled the little Christmas present Bonnie sent me out of the basement. The tiny jug and bowl now sit in a special case in my kitchen as a constant reminder of how special she was.

It's too early to tell how the rest of this story will go. It's a long fight that even over time many do not win.

But I can only hope that when I finally do, the gift is having a heart that feels three sizes bigger on Christmas morning.

Janet Lore lives in Calgary.

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