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

Bears are waking up hungry and starting to forage, Conservation Officer Service said on April 9. Prince Residents are advised to keep garbage in sealed containers to lessen bear attraction. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Keep bears wild – they are not teddy bears

Conservation Officer Service warns bears are waking up hungry

Prince Rupert couple Alvin Tait and Loni Martin have postponed their wedding two times due to COVID-19 affecting the marriage rates in Prince Rupert. (Photo: supplied/L.Martin)
No marriages in Prince Rupert in 2021 so far

Weddings down 23.9% in P.R. since COVID-19 with B.C. wedding industry loss at $158 million

Three North Coast organizations are granted funding to promote multiculturalism and support anti-racism, Jennifer Rice MLA announced on April 8. Conrad Elementary School students recognized the first Black Shirt Day on January 15, 2021, to advocate for anti-racism. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
North Coast organizations to benefit from anti-racism funding

$944,000 granted in provincial funding to aid multiculturalism

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

The new 3,500 hectare conservancy in Tahltan territory is located next to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (BC Parks Photo)
New conservancy protects sacred Tahltan land near Mount Edziza Provincial Park

Project is a collaboration between Skeena Resources, conservation groups and the TCG

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

Most Read