It’s the most poignant Christmas tree, each branch hung with heartfelt words for family and friends who have died.
Some dedications are written in childish crayon scrawl, some include delicate drawings. And in all, empty space on the card is filled with kisses for lost mums, dad, sisters and brothers.
The Light up a Life memorial tree is the centrepiece of remembrance services organised by Thames Hospice in Maidenhead.
Jess Selby, who is “seven and three quarters”, has carefully written on her Christmas tree card: “I miss you mummy but I know you are resting now.”
Her mummy Blanche died, aged 43, in February. She was diagnosed with stage four cancer in December 2018.
Brave Jess, from Windsor, wrote and delivered a speech at her mum’s funeral and will turn on the Christmas lights at the service.
Her dad James, 45, says: “It’s really hard facing our first Christmas without Blanche. But the service, and chance to write a message, feel like small steps of comfort.”
Having precious memories to look back on makes the loss easier to bear too. The hospice helped Blanche come home for 48 hours last Christmas, even though she was really ill by then.
“As horrible as it was knowing it would be our last, it was also our best because we appreciated the true Christmas spirit,” says James. “We stood back, looked at our relationship and realised what we would lose. It felt as the world had stopped and there were just the three of us. We’ll remember it all our lives.”
In the week between last Christmas and New Year, Blanche and James sat Jess down and gently explained that mummy’s medicine couldn’t make her better.
James, who was married to Blanche for 16 years, says: “Blanche knew she couldn’t let Jess go that night so we all had a sleepover at the hospice. Jess felt at home there, but had been intimidated by the hospital where covid rules made things difficult.
“Blanche shared a bed with Jess and wrapped her blanket around her, knowing that when she was missing her mummy she could cuddle it. She snuggles into it on her sad days.
“Although Jess is robust, she is only young so at Christmas time there’s still fun to enjoy. So we will still dress as elves to deliver presents, as we’ve always done. I want to make family life as normal as I can for Jess, even though we are hurting.”
Ten-year-old Tomas Melton-Barroso is still thinking about what he’d like to write on his Christmas tree message for his Papa. There is so much to say.
He could tell Martin, who died aged last February aged 33, he is looking after his mum Tanya and three-year old sister Morena by bundling them together in an embrace whenever they feel sad.
Tanya, 39, says: “If I’m feeling a bit wobbly, Tomas will shout, ‘Quick Morena – cuddle mummy!’ and they hug me until I stop crying. But he struggles with missing his Papa too.”
Martin, who was originally from Argentina, was fit and active even after doctors found a malignant lump on his neck in February 2019. Cancer then spread to his lungs, lymph nodes, stomach and brain. In November 2020 medical treatment was deemed no longer effective.
“Somehow, Martin managed to keep his strength and spirits up throughout Christmas and it was a really lovely time for our family which Tomas will never forget. Sadly, after that, Martin’s health declined.”
Martin and Tanya, who had been a couple since 2008, married in the garden room at Wexham Park Hospital on 6 February 2020 and moved to Thames Hospice that afternoon.
“We joked that we were in the honeymoon suite,” says Tanya. “The nurses had put flowers in the room and made it feel so cosy.
“Martin hadn’t wanted to talk about dying but instead asked that everything felt normal. Nurses let his family stay all day with him. They gave me an extra bed so I could lie next to him and cuddle him, which felt so much more normal than reaching across from a bedside chair.
“Our former boss and good friend came to visit and we talked about horses and the yard as if everything was normal. That’s when Martin passed away.”
Hospice staff took care of everything that would have caused Tanya stress at the time. “They helped me deal with funeral directors,” she says. “I didn’t expect to be doing that in my 30s.”
They have continued supporting her, Tomas and Morena ever since. “Tomas’s specialist social worker Sonia Binge has found ways of getting him to express his emotion through creative activities like a puppet show, comics, drawings and a diary,” says Tanya.
“It takes time to adjust to life without someone you love. I kept making dinner really late in the evening and realised I was waiting for Martin’s call to say he was on the way back from work before I started cooking.
“I miss lots of little things. Each morning Martin left for work earlier than me and used to de-ice my car. When I go out and see my car frosted up, it stops me in my tracks. And he used to drive me mad when he played the PlayStation, but I’d give anything to hear the noise of exploding tanks again.”
There is a special Christmas heart-shaped bauble for Papa on Tomas and Morena’s Christmas tree. Leaving a message on the Light up a Life tree and attending the service is a vital way for them, and Tanya, to pay tribute to Martin.
Tanya says: “It’s hard grieving. Your world stops but the rest of the world moves on. It can feel like people have forgotten the person who meant everything to you.
“So visiting the memorial Christmas tree at the hospice will be emotional but comforting. It gives us a chance to all stop and just think of the people we love and miss so much.”
Thames Hospice will be caring for families like James and Tanya’s this Christmas. help Light Up Lives at www.thameshospice.org.uk/LUAL or by calling 01753 842121