Christmas can be the loneliest, saddest time of year for some people. They may not even be alone, but there may be that sense of loneliness that comes even when in a crowd. It’s a feeling of not quite belonging, or of missing someone who should be there.
For some, the feeling is a result of having lost a loved one forever close to Christmas. Anniversaries are always hard, but especially so when they fall close to a time so much associated with family gatherings.
Today, I am thinking especially of the Morcombe family. It is the day that Daniel Morcombe would have celebrated his 23rd birthday, had he not been abducted and murdered at the age of 13. Twelve days ago, on December 7, I sat alone in my lounge room and watched Daniel’s funeral on television, nine years to the day after he disappeared. I watched in tribute to parents who never gave up on finding their son – one way or another – and were determined his life and death would make a difference to other families.
In one of the most moving parts of the service, Daniel’s father placed on his white coffin the gift-wrapped Christmas presents that had been waiting nearly a decade for him to open. It was the moment that brought me undone, and like many around Australia I wept for this boy and his family.
Daniel went missing on 7 December 2003, while waiting for a bus on a busy Queensland highway as he went Christmas shopping. In August 2011, a man was charged with his abduction and murder. Daniel’s remains were found a week later, buried in bushland, and he was finally returned to his family in early December 2012.
Daniel’s parents, Bruce and Denise, were relentless in their campaign to bring their son home, to find out what had happened to him. Daniel’s bright smile and sparkling blue eyes became familiar to us, his name a household one. His face was in the newspaper, on television, on the side of milk cartons. My eldest daughter – just a year older – came to refer to him by his first name alone, as if he was someone she knew personally. Each piece of news, each potential sighting or witness report was greeted with hope that he might be found.
Along the way, Denise and Bruce Morcombe set up the Daniel Morcombe Foundation to help teach children how to protect themselves and to help young victims of crime.
“We have formed the Foundation not only to keep Daniel’s innocence alive and to honour our son, but to help other families from ever having this nightmare happen to them,” Denise Morcombe writes on the foundation’s website.
The red t-shirt Daniel was wearing when he was abducted became the symbol of the Morcombes’ search for truth and justice. Most of the 2000 people who attended his funeral wore red, or at least a touch of it.
This Christmas the Morcombes – Denise, Bruce, Daniel’s twin Bradley and older brother Dean – will know with certainty that the empty place at their table will never again be filled by their son and brother. I can’t imagine what that must feel like for them. But I know that I am just one among hundreds of thousands in Australia who have watched their stoic and dignified journey over the past nine years, who admire their courage and tenacity, and who feel for them.
I feel, too, for the parents of the 20 children senselessly gunned down in Connecticut this week. The death of your child is every parent’s worst nightmare. There will be little comfort for those families as they gather for Christmas this year, or any other.
My children are adults now. One will be at my Christmas table, the other will not. But I know that she will be among people who love her. Families today are often spread far and wide, and coming together for special celebrations is not always possible.
My other daughter and I will be spending Christmas Day with close family friends whose husband and father died just a few weeks ago, after a long illness. Their house is bright with Christmas lights and decorations. It will be a day of laughter, good food and wine, and – as it is likely to be very hot – dips in their backyard pool.
There will be empty places at the table. But our memories will fill the space, and we will raise our glasses to absent friends. Hold your children tight, if you have them close by, and celebrate life and love this Christmas Day.