Jaclyn Mountain says her mother, Cindy Mountain, seen in an undated handout photo, would be thrilled to see her Port Coquitlam, B.C., home decked out in Christmas lights for the first time in15 years. Cindy Mountain, of ‘Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, B.C., died of COVID-19 in April at age 59. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-The Mountain Family, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Jaclyn Mountain says her mother, Cindy Mountain, seen in an undated handout photo, would be thrilled to see her Port Coquitlam, B.C., home decked out in Christmas lights for the first time in15 years. Cindy Mountain, of ‘Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, B.C., died of COVID-19 in April at age 59. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-The Mountain Family, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

The empty chair: Canadians face first Christmas without loved ones lost to COVID-19

Here are the stories of how Canadians who lost loved ones to COVID-19 are coping with Christmas grief

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a pall over the holiday season, leaving thousands of chairs permanently empty at the Christmas dinner table.

Many Canadians are contending with a cascade of grief as they prepare for their first Christmas without a loved one who died of COVID-19, said Susan Cadell, a social work professor who studies grief at University of Waterloo.

Special occasions often evoke fond memories of the person who died, sharpening the pain of their absence, Cadell said.

The inexorable jolliness of the season can also make people feel more alone in their bereavement, said Cadell. The pandemic intensifies this isolation, she said, depriving mourners of communal rituals of commemoration and celebration.

Cadell said the COVID-19 crisis has left everyone with some degree of loneliness or loss. That’s why she advises people to “hold space” for grief during the holiday festivities, so we can support one another from afar.

Here are the stories of how Canadians who lost loved ones to COVID-19 are coping with Christmas grief:

AFTER MORE THAN 20 YEARS APART, LAST YEAR WAS THE “BEST CHRISTMAS EVER”

Jaclyn Mountain says her mother would be thrilled to see her Port Coquitlam, B.C., home decked out in Christmas lights for the first time in 15 years.

She’d hoped the extra decorations would help put her in a festive mood, but she knows nothing can replace Cindy Mountain’s exuberant holiday spirit.

Jaclyn Mountain said that she and her sister, Marilyn Tallio, barely got to see their mother over the holidays when they were children growing up with their uncle in ‘Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, a remote village located off the northern end of Vancouver Island.

Jaclyn Mountain said last year marked their first proper Christmas celebration together in more than 20 years.

But she said Cindy Mountain was eager to make up for lost time, spending a full month living in close quarters with her daughters and grandchildren.

“It was the best Christmas ever,” Tallio said.

Only a few months later, Cindy Mountain developed symptoms for what she believed to be a cold, her daughters said. She died of COVID-19 in April at age 59.

The sisters also lost the uncle who raised them this year. And while his death wasn’t related to COVID-19, Jaclyn Mountain said the virus has hit their hometown, and she fears for the elders who live there.

“Every day, I try not to think about it,” she said. “But it just pops into your head and you just cry.”

Despite her devastation, Jaclyn Mountain said she’s determined to give her children the best Christmas possible as she struggles to muster some of her mother’s unwavering cheer.

“She just likes us to be happy and healthy and positive,” she said. “I take a lot after my mom, actually. But there’s those days where it’s just so hard.”

PUTTING OFF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

Paul Doroshenko says his grandmother, Kathren Hartley, kept her hands busy over her 106 years.

An avid knitter and seamstress, Hartley stitched countless garments and toys for her five children, nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Around 20 years ago, Doroshenko said Hartley started gifting him wool socks, on the condition that he remember her whenever he wears them.

Every year, as Christmas rolls around, the Vancouver lawyer said he pulls on a pair and Hartley’s handiwork keeps him warm.

One of his earliest memories is sitting next to Hartley on the sofa as she rubbed his back, her hands so tender that Doroshenko can still feel their touch at age 52.

He spent many childhood Christmases at his grandparents’ Edmonton homestead, where Hartley served stew made with vegetables grown in their “paradise” of a garden, replete with rose bushes to which she dotingly tended.

Doroshenko fondly recalls cobbling together the finest clothes he could find as a university student so he wouldn’t look too dishevelled on Hartley’s arm as he escorted her to the opera.

After moving to B.C. two decades ago, Doroshenko said he would return to his hometown to spend time with Hartley, reminding her of their history as her memory faded with age.

On Oct. 31, Hartley died in an Edmonton long-term care home after testing positive for COVID-19.

Since then, Doroshenko seems to see reminders of his grandmother everywhere: the well-worn pairs of socks in his drawer, the buds in his rose bush straining to bloom in the chill of December, and in the box of ornaments he hasn’t touched.

Doroshenko said he put off buying a Christmas tree until last Friday, leaving decorating to his children so he didn’t have to look through all the ornaments Hartley crafted for him.

There’s one in particular that makes him choke up with emotion — an ornament she made with a photo of a young Doroshenko sitting on his grandfather’s knee.

“I show it to my children every year,” he said. “That one is going to kill me when I see it.”

RITUALS OF RENEWAL

Valery Navarrete said the death of her aunt, Delia Navarrete, has piled “layers upon layers of absence and loss” onto the holiday season.

There was the years-long, anticipatory mourning of watching the “Tia Delia” of her childhood memories slip away to dementia.

Then, in early November, the 84-year-old was one of many residents who died of COVID-19 as the virus ravaged her north Toronto long-term care home.

Like so many people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, Valery Navarrete and her family couldn’t hold a funeral for the sole relative who followed her father to Canada from Ecuador.

For many immigrant families, ritual serves as a crucial link to the place and people you left behind, said Navarrete.

She said the inability to come together and share in customs to honour her aunt’s life has compounded the grief of losing one of her most cherished connections to her culture.

Navarrete, who recently moved to Ottawa from Toronto, said the approach of Christmas has aggravated the ache of disconnection from her family.

Instead, Navarrete has found solace in another holiday ritual — the Ecuadorian New Year’s Eve tradition of burning of the “ano viejo,” or “the old year.” At the stroke of midnight, people set effigies ablaze in a symbolic purge of the past 12 months to clear the slate for the year ahead.

“It’s been a hard year. But there’s still there’s room for sadness and joy to sit next to each other,” Navarrete said.

“I hope everyone has a chance … to do some sort of ritual or reflection to let the year go, and create room for renewal.”

ROOM FOR ONE MORE AT THE TABLE

James McAlpine never met a stranger. There were only people he hadn’t had a chance to talk to yet.

A chartered accountant and Toastmaster public speaker, the Montreal native could strike up a conversation with just about anyone, according to his daughter, Marla McAlpine.

And if he caught wind that someone was without holiday plans, he would ask his wife, Roberta McAlpine, to set another place at the family’s Christmas table.

Roberta McAlpine relished playing hostess to a rotating cast of guests from various corners of her husband’s social orbit.

But this Christmas, Roberta McAlpine will eat a turkey dinner from Meals on Wheels alone, as the same virus that killed her husband prevents her from spending the holidays with her children in Ontario.

James McAlpine, who had dementia, died of COVID-19 in April at age 90 as part of a devastating outbreak in a long-term care home near Montreal.

Even if they can’t be together, Marla McAlpine said her father would want his family to make the most of this pandemic-altered holiday season, and prepare to pull out all the stops for their next big Christmas bash.

“(He would want us) to make up the opportunity as soon as that opportunity was available,” she said. “Maybe not even wait until Christmas.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

ChristmasCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Visitors relax at the natural hot springs located within Maquinna Marine Provincial Park. (tofinohiking.com photo)
Maquinna Marine Provincial Park boardwalk project on track

“The walk down the two-kilometre boardwalk to the springs itself is by far one of the most incredible experiences.”

WILDLIFE TREE: Tofino Poet Laureate Christine Lowther stands next to a giant cedar tree on District Lot 114, the site of Tofino’s controversial affordable housing project. The tree was pinned with an official Ministry of Forests yellow wildlife tree sign to educate fallers that the tree needs to be left standing for food, shelter and nesting. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Tofino author Christine Lowther calling for poetry about trees

“I’m thrilled to be of service to trees through poetry.”

Tofino will elect a new mayor and two new councillors on March 6. (Westerly file photo)
Tofino’s mayoralty candidates lay out key differences

Tofino will elect a new mayor and two new councillors on March 6.

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Clockwise from top right, chamber executive director Jen Dart moderated a Zoom-based forum last week where Tofino’s mayoralty candidates J.J. Belanger, Andrea McQuade and Dan Law made their pitch to lead their community. (Screenshot)
WATCH: Tofino mayoralty candidates face off at forum

Town to elect new mayor and two new councillors on March 6.

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Dasher is back home with mom Christine Girvin thanks to some help from BC Ferries staff. Photo supplied
The cat came back, with help from BC Ferries staff

After Dasher made a dash, staff in Comox found her and got her home safe

BC Ferries experienced heavy traffic on Feb. 27 following cancellations the day before due to strong winds and adverse weather. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries sailings fill up quickly after Friday cancellations due to high winds

Waits expected on Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route

1957 photo shows Six Mile House-sponsored #4 1932 Ford stock car with Frank Morris (from left), Ted Mackenzie, Bill Sim and driver Gerry Sylvester. (Bud Glover/Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame)
Memories race as Western Speedway approaches its finish line

‘It was life to us:’ Vancouver Island racers, crew will never forget what the track gave them

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Most Read