For most, Christmas is a season for cherishing the people close to you - but for those who have lost a loved one it can be a time of immense pain.

Auckland father-of-two John Norman lost his wife Becky Baker suddenly in November 2014.

The couple's children Alec and Peter were nearly 4 years old and 18 months old when Baker died of metastatic melanoma a month after being diagnosed, aged just 41.

About three years earlier Baker had had a melanoma cut out of her back and her lymph nodes removed, which had shown no sign of any cancer cells.

Advertisement

When the cancer reappeared, it had spread to her brain, kidneys and hips.

"It was a very aggressive cancer and the speed at which it went took everybody by surprise. We thought she might get to Christmas and maybe January," said Norman.

"Essentially it was very much like she went out of the house and got hit by a car or was in a road accident, or died of a heart attack unexpectedly or anything like that. It was quite difficult to come to terms with that."

Norman is speaking to the Weekend Herald about his pain at losing his "lovely", caring and selfless partner to encourage other New Zealanders, especially those who had lost loved ones, to talk about their grief.

"Talking about grief and death is something that we don't do enough of. Talking has helped me immeasurably," he said.

Although the festive and summer season was difficult for his family, Norman was determined to make sure that Christmas remained as happy as possible.

"Christmas is about fun, it's about family, it's about coming together and enjoying being a family," he said.

"Christmas should be full of joy for kids - and that's tough to do when you're going through grief."

Advertisement

He generally let the kids - now aged 6 and 4 - take the lead in how they paid tribute to their mum.

The eldest, Alec, remembered her love of eating croissants on Christmas morning and Norman and the boys had kept the tradition for the last two years.

Becky Baker died of metastatic melanoma aged 41 in November 2014. She was survived by her husband John Norman and their two young sons. Photo / Supplied by John Norman
Becky Baker died of metastatic melanoma aged 41 in November 2014. She was survived by her husband John Norman and their two young sons. Photo / Supplied by John Norman

Christmas Eve could be tough though because when the children were in bed, Norman would be wrapping presents alone.

"I've got no one to share that with so that's a challenge," he said.

Becoming a solo dad so quickly and unexpectedly had been difficult.

Kiwi charity Kenzie's Gift, which provides mental health and grief support for children and young people whose families have been affected by serious illness or bereavement, had provided Alec with play therapy to help him cope with his mother's death and had also taught Norman how best to support his boys through their grief.

Lorna Wood, a child psychotherapist who works with Kenzie's Gift, said children under the age of 9 believed their parents could protect them from the world.

When they lost a parent in childhood, this illusion was shattered and they would often experience increased anxiety.

Grief wasn't something people just got over but instead learnt to live with.

"In terms of dealing with it, it's not something that's finished and completed. It's something that children will have to relook at, re-face," Wood said.

Although people who had a significant person die always felt the loss, the rawness of the pain was often heightened at Christmas because it became really noticeable when they were absent from family traditions, she said.

Wood said it was helpful for families dealing with grief to try to plan what they might want to do and communicate this with each other.

"It's really hard for people hearing 'Happy Christmas, hope you have a good holiday' at a time when they're not happy," Wood added. "It's really difficult to acknowledge people's grief and their loss and I think as a society we're not particularly good at it."

If you or a child in you know needs support with grief contact Kenzie's Gift or a registered child psychotherapist.