Christmas is always a bad time for me because my father died just before Christmas when I was fifteen, having been preceded by my fourteen year old sister three years previously at the same time of year. I was not to know then that my brother would die seven years later. What I remember most about all this was the empty chairs at the family table. The spaces were filled of course by friends and well wishers, and later a new family with it all the joys and sorrows that are part of life. But you never forget the pain of loss, which is why I have worked for Cruse Bereavement Care for thirty eight years. Training as a bereavement volunteer was the most single helpful thing I have ever done in my life, primarily for myself because healing yourself is the first step to being any use to other people. The Times has just published some moving accounts of the work Cruse does by way of personal stories. Once I told my own for an important Sunday magazine and the response was both moving and uplifting. The thing I learned which was most useful was that the grief you feel is not a mental illness, it is sadness and loneliness, which is something quite different. The wonderful thing about Cruse Volunteers is that they don’t set themselves up as experts in the treatment and understanding of serious mental health issues, and they cleverly, do not call themselves counsellors, a label which has become sadly misused in the last few years. The mantra with Cruse is whatever you feel is probably normal and part of the mechanism you have been given to deal with the worst thing that can happen to you, which is to lose someone you love.
Last night we heard of the death of a wonderful man who was the dean of Exeter Cathedral during the time my husband was the member of Parliament for that fine city, he was greatly revered by all who knew him, and he and his wife became close friends with whom we shared many hours of laughter as recently as this September. Next week we will be joining all those who knew and loved him at Exeter Cathedral to celebrate his life. He had a marvellous sense of humour and a canny twinkly sort of wisdom. I suppose he was a man to whom you could say almost anything and he would not be shocked. But he would not have agreed that you only live once, which is the YULO thing, which is one of the buzz words going about at the moment. Actually he will be there with a sage and loving take on it all next week. But I feel terribly for his lovely family , this was a giant of a man and his empty place at the table will be very hard for them to fill this Christmas. But “in altro i cuori” it is what my beautiful Italian cousin said to me this morning.