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

Just Posted

Chilliwack burn survivor Keira McKenzie, 13, and her family (including mom Terresa McKenzie) are encouraging people to buy tickets to the Hometown Heroes Lottery which raises money for the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund, a charity that has helped the family in more ways than one over the past three and a half years. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
13-year-old Chilliwack burn victim supported by ‘Heroes’ lottery

Keira McKenzie, family, encouraging people to buy tickets to lottery which supports Burn Fund

BC Housing has purchased the former Travelodge Hotel on Yale Road in Chilliwack, pictured here on May 18, 2021, to house people experiencing homelessness. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
BC Housing purchases Chilliwack hotel to house homeless moved from downtown shelter

44 rooms at former Travelodge were being rented for over a year to house vulnerable amid pandemic

Chilliwack’s Sierra Bergen is one of 25 girls chosen to join the full-time Vancouver Whitecaps women’s REX (Regional Excel) program. (Submitted photo)
Chilliwack soccer standout Sierra Bergen selected for Whitecaps REX program

Only 25 players from Western Canada born between 2004 and 2006 were chosen for the full-time program

Thirteen-year-old Allison Hickman was last seen in Chilliwack May 14. (RCMP photo)
RCMP say missing Surrey teenager was last seen in Chilliwack

Allison Hickman was last seen in the downtown Chilliwack area on May 14

The Portal homeless shelter on Yale Road in downtown Chilliwack on April 7, 2021. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress file)
The Portal’s days are numbered in downtown Chilliwack

Homeless Shelter that faced opposition by neighbours closing its doors even earlier than expected

A prowling coyote proved no match for a stray black cat who chased it out of a Port Moody parking lot Friday, May 14. (Twitter/Screen grab)
VIDEO: Cat who chases away coyote asked to join Port Moody, Vancouver police 

Caught on camera Friday, the black cat jumps out from under a parked car and runs the wild animal out of a vacant lot

A forest of dance-protesters outside the BC Legislature on April 11. These participants were doing the Dance for the Ancient Forest in support of the Fairy Creek blockade and against old-growth logging. (Zoë Ducklow/News Staff)
Arrests begin at Fairy Creek blockade on Vancouver Island

Five protesters arrested as RCMP begin to enforce injunction

A thunderstorm, with lightning, pictured in Fraser Valley in 2021. (Black Press Media/Jaimie Grafstrom)
Wildfire concerns sparked after 320+ lightning strikes blasted B.C. yesterday

Approximately one-quarter of the province is currently listed as being at moderate risk of fires

The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit released a poster Tuesday, May 18 featuring the names and photos of more suspects involved in the Lower Mainland gang conflict.
Police issue warning for 8 more men involved in Lower Mainland gang conflict

B.C.’s gang task force says it’s expecting ‘violence to continue and escalate’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A restaurant server on White Rock’s Marine Drive serves customers on a roadside patio. Indoor dining and recreational travel bans have been in effect since late March in B.C. (Peace Arch News)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate falls to 411 cases Tuesday

360 people in hospital, up slightly, two more deaths

The Banff National Park entrance is shown in Banff, Alta., Tuesday, March 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Minister asks Canadians to camp carefully in national parks as season starts

Kitchen shelters in Banff National Park closed, trails on Vancouver Island will only be one-way

Names of those aboard the ship are seen at Komagata Maru monument in downtown Vancouver, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The City of Vancouver has issued an apology for its racist role in denying entry to 376 passengers aboard a ship that was forced to return to India over a century ago. Mayor Kennedy Stewart says discrimination by the city had “cruel effects” on the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims aboard the Komagata Maru, which arrived in Burrard Inlet on May 23, 1914. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver mayor says sorry for city’s role in turning away South Asians in 1914

Kennedy Stewart has declared May 23 as the annual Komagata Maru Day of Remembrance

A crew of WestCoast WILD Adventures employees tackled an onslaught of litter left at the ‘Locks of Love’ fence at Wally Creek on May 2. (Anne-Marie Gosselin photo)
Litter woes consume popular ‘Locks of Love’ fence on B.C.’s Pacific Rim

Popular view spot near Tofino plagued by people hanging masks and other unwanted garbage

Most Read