Hawaiian shirts and gravy: Christmas tributes for loved ones lost to Covid

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Christmas is different for everyone this year but especially for the thousands of UK families who have lost relatives to Covid-19.

Here, nine people reveal how they plan to remember the loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate the season with them.

My dad, the Welsh gravy king

Dean, Cardiff

"My father was an entrepreneur, raconteur and creative maverick - but he also had a huge heart," says neuroscientist and author Dean Burnett.

"He was also pathologically obsessed with gravy."

Peter Burnett died in April at Morriston Hospital, Swansea. He was 58. In the 1980s and 90s, Dean's parents ran a pub in Pontycymer, in the Garw Valley north of Bridgend.

"My dad was a big community figure and his exploits are still talked about today," says Dean. "It was a bit like growing up in Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, but with different accents."

Image source, Dean Burnett
Image caption,
Peter and Dean Burnett, and a pan of Dean's gravy

Last Christmas, Dean received a video message from his dad - which was just him delivering festive tidings while stirring a large vat of gravy.

"He always used to practise the gravy beforehand," says Dean. "He'd make it in a big saucepan on the stove, tweaking his secret recipe a little each time."

This year, Dean's in charge of the gravy. He too has practised in advance.

"I hope I can do my dad proud - and that my wife and children like it!"

I'll toast my action man and his Hawaiian shirts

Gail, Cheshire

"Harry thought of himself as a bit of a Bear Grylls. He was a passionate canoeist and loved being in charge of a good barbecue," says Gail, of her late husband.

Harry worked for Manchester University for nearly 40 years, before taking early retirement a year ago. He died in May aged 62.

"My sister in Sydney was always sending him Hawaiian shirts - and the week before he fell ill, he'd posed in a different one each day for Facebook."

At Harry's funeral, each of Gail's sons wore one of Harry's shirts.

Image source, Gail Pickford
Image caption,
Harry (L) and Gail with her three sons

Gail joined a widows' support group, but says it was the couple's seven-year-old dachshund - Daisy - who helped her most through the past few months.

"She saved me through the grief. She's part of him now. She's always looking out, wondering where he is."

Image source, Gail Pickford
Image caption,
Harry with Daisy the dachshund

Gail is spending Christmas with one of her sons - and Daisy of course. A new album filled with photos of Harry - and the Hawaiian shirts - will be open for the family to look through.

"We'll make sure we toast Harry and do our best to remember him."

Mum's Christmas hamper lives on

Heather, County Down

"Mum came to us every Christmas and I'd make her a hamper of nice things. Her favourite jam, lovely smellies, things that she really liked," says Heather, who's a teacher in Belfast.

"A few weeks ago, it struck me that I wouldn't be able to make her a hamper this year."

Andree died with Covid in hospital in June. She was 92. Heather wanted to carry on the hamper tradition.

Image source, Heather Houston
Image caption,
Andree with her daughter Heather

"I suppose because of my grief over Mum, it made me think of the number of elderly people alone," she says.

On Facebook, Heather asked friends and family to become a "Silver Santa" and provide a personalised present, for about £10, for care home residents.

But her initial post travelled far and wide. "Within one week I had 800 offers!"

"Because of data protection, we only had the resident's initials, gender and what their favourite things were. One elderly man liked Manchester United and brandy."

The gifts have been delivered to more than 40 care homes in North Down.

Image source, Heather Houston
Image caption,
Heather delivers some of the donated gifts

Andree was always on her sewing machine. When Heather cleared her house after her death, she found hundreds of handicrafts her mum had made over the years.

"I put some of Mum's crafts into a few of the gifts. A little bit of Mum is living on and doing good this Christmas."

Gifts from my son, so we can remember him

Dorothy, Birmingham

"He was a wonderful son, brother and uncle. He'd buy me lunch and take me shopping. He was always there, always thinking of other people."

Stephen died at the end of March. He was 39. His family weren't able to bury him until May.

"It was terrible, we were in bits. He was all alone and we couldn't see his body," says Dorothy. "And then one night I had a dream. I was holding him and he told me, 'Mum don't worry, I'm all right.' I felt like I'd said goodbye."

Image source, Dorothy Gayle
Image caption,
Stephen with Dorothy. and his personal items

At Christmas, the family will light 12 candles and say a prayer for Stephen. His brothers and sisters have already each taken one of his personal possessions - "gifts from him for Christmas", says Dorothy who has kept a few things for herself.

"A necklace with a lion's head which he had in the hospital - and one of his favourite T-shirts with Bob Marley on the front."

My mum, the agony aunt

Rhys, Nottinghamshire

"My mum was the agony aunt of Kimberley," says Tina's son, Rhys.

Tina had worked for most of her adult life in two supermarkets in the small Nottinghamshire town. She knew everyone.

She died aged 53. Rhys and his brother Anthony were allowed to sit by her bedside, in PPE, until the very end. Their father, Tina's partner Mick, was recovering at home after his own battle with Covid-19.

Image source, Rhys Watkinson
Image caption,
Tina Cooke, funeral tributes and enjoying a family meal out

On the day of her funeral, hundreds of people stood outside their homes waving football flags and blowing whistles. Tina was a big supporter of the Rams - Derby County FC. Her football shirt would end up on her seat at Pride Park Stadium for some of the remaining games of the 2019-20 season.

Christmas will be tough says Rhys, but the family are working towards a fitting tribute. Tina will be remembered on an engraved memorial brick at the football ground, with her ashes interred inside.

I'll be on shift, just like my sister would have been

Kazeema, West Midlands

"We got married on the same day to two brothers. I looked after her kids and she looked after mine. She was my heart and soul," says Kazeema of her sister Areema.

A newly qualified nurse at the age of 36, Areema died where she worked - at Walsall Manor Hospital. "She started at the hospital as a housekeeper in 2003," says Kazeema. "Sixteen years later she fulfilled her dream of becoming a nurse."

Image source, Kazeema Afzal
Image caption,
Areema Nasreen with her sisters and at graduation, and Kazeema Afzal (r)

Kazeema is a healthcare assistant in the department where Areema worked. Inspired by her sister, she's now trying to become a nurse herself.

"I want Areema to be proud of me. It's so difficult for some British Asian girls to get into higher education and study. They're expected to bring up families. This is so important."

The hospital trust has set up a scholarship in Areema's name, which will fully fund a nursing degree for someone who cannot afford the fees. Kazeema says work has kept her sane since Areema died - and over Christmas she'll be on shift.

"Areema would have worked too if she was here," she says.

My mum, the angel who always spoke her mind

Joanne, East Lothian

"My mum was a bit of a shopaholic. She used to get taxis to the shops and banter with the drivers," says Joanne. "When she died, I had nice messages from them saying they'd miss her blunt Glaswegian wit. She was funny, but I don't think she always realised it."

Josie died in April. She was 77. Joanne lived near her mum in Dunbar, to the east of Edinburgh. She and her two daughters have bought a wreath and wicker robin to put on Josie's grave - and a new ornament for their Christmas tree.

Image source, Joanne Ross
Image caption,
Josie, Joanne and the angel ornaments and robin

"So we now have angel wings on the tree sitting together. One for Mum - and one for Dad, who died in 2008."

With money her mum left her, Joanne has bought her daughters a final Christmas gift from their granny - some jewellery.

"Mum was a very bland eater. She always insisted on soup and roast beef for Christmas dinner. It's going to be strange not having her to focus on. We'll all miss her at the table."

The tree near the sea

Denise, Cornwall

In the corner of a country garden, barely a mile from steep cliffs that overlook the sea, there's a newly planted crab apple tree.

It has already borne a couple of handfuls of bright red fruit and Denise is looking forward to spring - when it will come alive with scented, white blossom. She planted it in memory of her husband John. He always liked fruit trees.

John was 78 and had a long-term, painful medical condition. He was admitted to a hospital ward thought to be Covid-free - but soon developed symptoms. He died in the early hours of a Monday morning. "That was the longest night of my life," says Denise.

The couple moved to their smallholding 20 years ago. For much of that time they reared a flock of sheep. Now though, there are just three animals to look after.

Image source, Denise
Image caption,
John and Denise in 2000, their sheep, and the crab apple tree she has planted in his memory

Denise has seen few people in the months since John's death, but she's hoping to see family at Christmas. She likes to sit on a bench close to John's tree.

"We'd like to scatter his ashes around the tree. I want the family to be there and they'd want to be there too. But if it can't be done at Christmas, I'm prepared to wait until spring - when the blossom arrives."

We pray for my father daily at the cemetery - we'll do the same at Christmas

Ven, West Yorkshire

"Hard-working, that's how I would describe my father," says Ven. "On the day of his burial, we passed through Pontefract Hospital. Some NHS staff and managers were waiting to pay their respects. It was very moving."

Policarpio, who was originally from the Philippines, died in April aged 67. He was a nurse for more than 40 years before his recent retirement. For the last 18 years of his career he worked for Mid Yorkshire NHS Trust.

Image source, Ven dela Luna
Image caption,
Policarpio with his granddaughter and as a younger man

Since Policarpio's funeral in the spring, the family - who are Catholic - have visited the cemetery every day. Over Christmas, they'll do the same.

"It's very traditional. In the cemetery we take our rosary beads and recite a special prayer for the deceased - the 'Panalangin para sa mga Yumao'. It helps us think back to better times when my dad was with us. We miss him terribly."

Interviews by Paul Kerley and Matthew Tucker.