These last few days have been a whirlwind of excitement as Christmas approaches. Christmas. A time for families to come together and enjoy and appreciate each other's company. But what for those families who have someone permanently missing from the fold?
I'm asking the question because this morning I received some terribly sad news. An old friend of mine has passed away.
Julia was only one year older than myself but had been fighting a terrible, difficult illness for the last six months or so.
We met at university - we were studying the same course - and became friends as well as housemates. I will always remember her as a vivacious, kind women with a real strength of character and wicked sense of humour.
After graduation, she moved to Australia with her partner and together they created "Wild About Australia", offering all sorts of Australasian wildlife advice, courses and adventures.
But, earlier this year and out of the blue, she developed a mystery illness. The doctors eventually diagnosed secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (or HLH). Her partner made sure her friends received regular updates on her condition and we all wished her a full and speedy recovery, praying for her health to improve.
At times, it seemed like it was two steps forward and one step back with regards to her illness. But, small improvement were being made. Or so it seemed. But last night, she slipped into a coma and passed away peacefully soon after.
I'm sure I don't need to tell you that nothing prepares you for the news that someone you know has died. Julia's death wasn't necessarily surprising - the doctors only gave her a 20% chance of survival - but is heartbreaking nonetheless.
The only scrap of comfort is that she is no longer in pain. During her treatment she endured bone marrow biopsies, internal bleeding, a tracheotomy, chemotherapy...I could go on. She really was a brave woman. I will miss her.
Her partner, as you can imagine, is devastated. I can't even begin to think how her parents must be feeling. On hearing the news I just wanted to hold my children and never let them go - now I'm a mother, I understand that to lose a child would be like having my heart and soul ripped out and kicked around like a football, before being shredded into a thousand pieces.
I am fortunate to have rarely experienced the kind of grief that death brings. It is friends that I have seen taken from this life rather than family but that is hardly any consolation. I think of their families who will be spending another Christmas without their son or daughter. I can't imagine it gets any less painful.
So, this Christmas, I shall be raising a glass to my lost friends. I will think of them, remember them how they would want to be remembered and pray tragedy does not strike again, for a while at least.