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Christmas without mum

Our father died six years ago, and this year our mother died. As the eldest child, I became responsible overnight for my brother and sister.

I’ve never not looked forward to this time of year. The fact that I get to eat my bodyweight in food without feeling an ounce of guilt plays a big part in my high spirits during the lead-up to Christmas. The lights, the army of carol singers posted on every corner, and the fact that it’s party season would make even a modern-day Scrooge reconsider his hate campaign against Christmas.

Every year, for as long as I can remember, my mum would buy my siblings and me advent calendars. December, her birth month, was her favourite time of the year. According to her, the nicest people were born in December. This year, I had to buy the advent calendars. My mum, Mayfair Danso, passed away earlier this summer, after spending two weeks in hospital suffering with abdominal pains. At 24, I’m the eldest of three children, so I became automatically responsible for my siblings. I didn’t want them to miss out on anything that our mother used to do, even the trivial things. I wanted to make Christmas as normal as possible for them. But I didn’t even manage to get through a week of advent calendar doors before I stopped opening them. I do not want to do a count down this year because I am dreading it. We all are. It is the reason our Christmas tree is not yet up, and why the heart-shaped fairy light decoration Mum would place in our living room window is still gathering dust in a cupboard.

“So much can change in a year”, is such a well-worn cliché, but my siblings and I are discovering the truth of it in ways I never imagined. I never thought that I would one day have to help my sister, Anita, brush her teeth, because she was so depressed she didn’t want to do anything. I considered myself a responsible adult before my mother’s death, but I can assure you, you are not a responsible adult until you have dealt with the joys of a mortgage, house insurance and council tax — all the things you vaguely know about, but have had the freedom to overlook.

The biggest responsibilities have been hard to shoulder. Becoming financially responsible for a household was definitely a tough adjustment, especially since my mum paid for pretty much everything. What I was contributing made barely a dent in what she had been paying. Embarrassingly, my input was never consistent enough to make it easier for her, yet I never questioned if it was manageable because she didn’t complain. Now, I recall her constant pleas to save for a rainy day with painful clarity. I would often spend money without thinking twice, but impromptu shopping sprees are out of the question now. And spending a tenner on lunch every day is definitely not sensible when it’s enough to buy the ingredients for a family dinner.

Speaking of dinner, Mum was a home-cooked meal every evening type, which has definitely been a hard act to follow. As a workaholic, leaving work on time to get home for my siblings was another big hurdle, but it was vital for me to find a healthier work-life balance so I could be with them more. My brother, Ben, is the baby and the man of the house. Although our mother swore she did not have a favourite, the fact that Ben was the last born, the only boy and the most introverted of us all made her his biggest cheerleader. I feel that I must champion him in the same way, and making him successful is my biggest priority. Attending Ben’s parents’ evening wasn’t so hard, but making sure that everything from that meeting was actioned was. Last month, I took him to his first university open day. The number of staff members who thought that I was the prospective student was increasingly amusing.

Though I have my siblings to help get me through this time of year, I know it will be tough. There was already a person missing at our Christmas dinner table, as my father passed away six years ago. My mum had been my best friend throughout this time, so losing her has been doubly hard. I’ve suffered with insomnia (real insomnia that makes life so miserable it makes you feel suicidal, not just a couple of sleepless nights), panic attacks and social anxiety. I frequently find myself comparing my life last year to how it is now, and thinking about what a spoilt brat I was.

This year my sister has vowed not to do anything Christmassy, and my brother has echoed that. I will spend my mother’s birthday and Christmas at her graveside, and it will be hard to get into the festive spirit after that, so their plan suits me just fine.

I’m really only here because of my siblings; and I take the charge of looking after them seriously. They have saved me without even realising. The next few years will be all about them.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

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