‘I don’t think I’ll ever celebrate Christmas again’ – woman whose parents died of Covid within 12 hours of each other

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Last Christmas Fiona Vallely was thinking that things could not get any worse.

er beloved dad Christopher, better known as Arty, was in hospital while her mum Isobel and the rest of the family were praying for the west Belfast man to make a full recovery.

Little did they know that, compared with this horrendous year, 2019 was virtually as good as it gets.

Tragically, 2020 brought not only the death of Arty (79) but that of 72-year-old Isobel too – just 12 hours apart in the same room at the Mater Hospital as a result of a deadly new virus few had even heard of this time last year.

Fiona Vallely (41) is one of far too many people mourning the deaths of their loved ones to Covid-19 over the past few months.

Mr and Mrs Vallely died on March 29, during the height of the first national lockdown, having just marked their 53rd wedding anniversary.

The stringent restrictions imposed at the time meant that Fiona and her brothers Chris (47), who works in advertising, and Mark (43), a civil servant, were unable to give their late parents the send-off they would have wanted.

Her dad was cremated and her mum buried, according to the last wishes of the loving couple, who lived near the Falls Road.

And although the Vallely children could not be at the crematorium, they attended the burial, and were able to watch Requiem Mass via Facebook from home.

Now, eight months on, Fiona, who lives in Tenerife with her partner Ian (45), told the Belfast Telegraph that she “hasn’t really had closure yet” as a result of the ongoing disruption to daily life.

“Like everyone, I just want this nightmare to finish now,” she said.

“I really want to get back to Belfast, to sort out the grave. And my dad’s ashes are there, and we have to decide what we want to do with them.”

Fiona said Ian, who works in travel, has been a tower of strength for her in recent times.

“He’s been a great support through all this,” she said.

“It’s hard for him too. He was close to my parents, especially my father, who spent a lot of time with us here in Tenerife over the years.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done without him, my family and friends to help me through the pain of losing mum and dad so close together and in such a cruel way.”

She added: “I want to keep their memory alive. My parents were the two most important people in my life.”

Fiona, who was made redundant from her office job as a result of the pandemic, said she speaks to brothers Chris, who lives with wife Clare in Kent, and Belfast-based Mark, who is not married, “all the time”.

“We would’ve liked to have spent this Christmas – the first Christmas without our parents – together but was just impossible with all the rules and regulations,” she said.

“I was booked to go back in October but my flight got cancelled and then they brought in the 14-day quarantine.

“My mum’s sister Eilish (70) lives around the corner from Mark so he speaks to them often and, luckily, he’s spending Christmas Day with our aunt so he won’t be his own.”

Adjusting to life without her parents has been difficult for Fiona, who was in contact with them constantly.

“I used to call or video call them every day,” she said.

“It was my birthday last week, which was hard, because normally I’d be in Belfast with them to celebrate.

“The hardest thing is this Christmas. In the 22 years I’ve been abroad I’ve only spent two Christmases away from them because I promised them I’d always try to be home for the festivities.

“I’d normally be in Belfast now. It was such a big thing for our family. Mum absolutely loved Christmas, loved us all being together.”

She added: “This time of the year was always my favourite but now it’s the worst. I suppose it’s always going to be, from now on. I don’t think I’ll ever celebrate Christmas again, which is sad.”

This year, Fiona, her partner and a neighbour will have a low key dinner in a restaurant near her home – during which time they will try not to think of Christmases past in Northern Ireland.

“Normally I’d go to Mass on Christmas Eve with mum and her sisters,” Fiona recalled. “We’d open presents in the morning, then I would help mum make dinner. Mum loved opening her presents – and she always seemed to end up with the most.

“Dad would have the Christmas songs on from early morning and we’d listen to the Pogues about 20 times…Fairytale of New York was probably his favourite song.”

Fiona admitted that she will be glad to see 2020 draw to a close.

“The ironic thing was, 2019 was such a bad year for our family because mum had a stroke and then dad got ill,” she recalled.

“We had a horrendous Christmas Day last year because dad was in hospital.

“We had a horrible 2019 but, luckily, he was out in time for New Year’s Eve and we all saw 2020 in together.

“I remember us saying at the time that the incoming year could not be any worse than 2019. Little did we realise what was just around the corner.”

She added: “A year ago we weren’t fully aware of just how ill my dad was. We didn’t realise he had cancer until February. We’d been hoping things were going to get better and then obviously it got worse. Let’s just hope 2021 will be better for everyone.”

Unsurprisingly, Fiona has made no plans for this new year.

“I’ll be playing it by ear,” she confided.

“Let’s hope they control this virus soon and get the new vaccines out to everyone, and let’s hope we can all get back to some sort of normality.”

Fiona also told how she lost her Aunt Kathleen Vallely – her father’s sister-in-law – earlier this year.

The 78-year-old Belfast native died from lung cancer in October, yet another loss that is “so hard for the family, especially at this time of year”.

One bright light, nevertheless, pierced through the clouds a few months ago when a child came along for her oldest brother.

“Chris and Clare’s new baby Arthur was the only good thing to come out of 2020,” Fiona said.

“My dad’s name was Christopher Arthur, so he’s called Arthur after him. He’s gorgeous.

“He was born on October 20 and would have been my parents’ first grandchild.

“I had plans to travel to England to see him in October but it was cancelled. These days you can never be sure of anything.

“Mum knew that Clare was pregnant but we never told dad because he was so ill and it would have broken his heart knowing that he would probably not be around to see him.

“Mum was very happy with the news. In the end, neither of them got to see him. Now, though, I’m sure the pair of them are looking down on him, and loving him to bits.”

Fiona added: “All they ever wanted was a little grandchild.”

Source: Irish News