Real life: Killed at Christ­mas. The tragic story of one fam­ily’s loss

Dar­ren Bruynel had gone out the day be­fore Christ­mas when tragedy struck. his sis­ter, Me­lanie, 38, re­calls the day her fam­ily’s life fell apart

Woman's Own - - HELLO & WELCOME -

Ev­ery fam­ily has their own Christ­mas tra­di­tions, and we are no dif­fer­ent. From the sparkling dec­o­ra­tions on the tree and stock­ings hung up by the man­tel­piece to Christ­mas mu­sic blast­ing from the stereo – we ap­pear to be the epit­ome of fes­tive cheer. But there’s one thing that’s been miss­ing in our fam­ily since Christ­mas Eve 2016 and it’s some­thing no amount of good food, piles of presents or cheery sin­ga­long films can ever bring back.

Ever since we were kids, my sis­ter, Ch­eryl, brother, Dar­ren, and I had loved ev­ery­thing about Christ­mas. Ev­ery Christ­mas Eve our mum, Linda, would let us open a gift, so we’d gather around the tree in our fes­tive py­ja­mas. ‘Just the one, mind,’ she’d laugh. Of course, Dar­ren al­ways knew what he was get­ting – he’d sneak into the lounge the day be­fore to rip the cor­ner of the wrap­ping pa­per and take a peek in­side. It was typ­i­cal of my mis­chievous and cheeky lit­tle brother.

Fam­ily tra­di­tion

The next day, open­ing the rest of our gifts and de­vour­ing Mum’s turkey din­ner with all the trim­mings, we’d park our­selves on the sofa to watch Mir­a­cle on 34th Street – our favourite fes­tive film.

As Dar­ren, Ch­eryl and I got older, it be­came harder to sched­ule in fam­ily time – we were all so busy. In July 1999, aged 19, I gave birth to my son, Arthur, and just over a year later, in Oc­to­ber 2000, Dar­ren’s son, Al­fie, was born. His sec­ond son, Char­lie, came along in April 2004, fol­lowed by Oliver in No­vem­ber 2009. Dar­ren and his part­ner were sep­a­rated so when the boys weren’t with their mum, Dar­ren, who worked as a builder and scaf­folder, spent all his free time with them, tak­ing them to play foot­ball in the park or swim­ming at the lo­cal leisure cen­tre.

No mat­ter how hec­tic life was, when it came to Christ­mas, there was no ques­tion about where we’d all be. It didn’t mat­ter that Mum’s house was barely big enough to fit the eight of us in – we made it work. The kids would eat first – there wasn’t space round the ta­ble for all of us – then we’d spend the af­ter­noon play­ing Monopoly.

In De­cem­ber 2016, we were all look­ing for­ward to an­other fam­ily Christ­mas, es­pe­cially as it was Dar­ren’s turn to have the boys. He was ex­cited to spoil them with the lat­est com­puter games. ‘And then at

‘dar­ren had been in­volved in a traf­fic col­li­sion’

least I can play them too,’ he’d laugh.

Then on the af­ter­noon of the 24 De­cem­ber 2016, I got a phone call from my mum. When I an­swered, I was met with the sound of her hys­ter­i­cal scream­ing. ‘You have to come now, you have to come now,’ she yelled, over and over again.

Pre­par­ing for the worst

Even­tu­ally, she ex­plained that Dar­ren had been in­volved in a traf­fic col­li­sion. My stom­ach churn­ing, I grabbed my keys and raced to The Royal Lon­don Hos­pi­tal’s Ac­ci­dent & Emer­gency depart­ment.

When I ar­rived, I spot­ted Mum in the wait­ing room. ‘He’d only gone to the shops…’ she sobbed. She ex­plained that Dar­ren had gone on his mo­tor­bike to pick up last-minute presents for the kids when the ac­ci­dent hap­pened. Dar­ren had been flung from his bike and sus­tained se­vere head in­juries. He’d been wear­ing a hel­met but it had come off dur­ing the crash.

He’d bro­ken one of his legs and one of

his arms, and paramedics had been forced to drain his lungs of blood in the mid­dle of the street, then at­tempt to restart his heart. He was alive, thanks to an ar­ray of ma­chines, but doc­tors had told us to pre­pare for the worst.

I called Ch­eryl, who was look­ing af­ter all the kids at Mum’s house. We agreed to tell Al­fie, then 16, the truth, but told Dar­ren’s two youngest, Char­lie, 12, and Oliver, six, that Daddy was feel­ing sick and was spend­ing some time in hos­pi­tal.

For the rest of the day, Mum and I sat with Dar­ren in the in­ten­sive care unit. Most of his face was cov­ered with ban­dages, the wounds were so se­vere. We held his hand, cried qui­etly and begged him to wake up.

At around 11pm, there had been no change, and Mum and I were ex­hausted so we de­cided to go home to the kids. But when we got there, as Mum headed in­side, I didn’t have the strength to go in.

‘I’m go­ing to mid­night mass, to pray for Dar­ren,’ I told her. We weren’t a re­li­gious fam­ily, but I just needed to do some­thing. Af­ter I got home, ev­ery­one was asleep. Fraught with worry, I crept into Mum’s bed­room and, for the first time since I was a child, I climbed into bed with her, cling­ing to her as I sobbed.

Slip­ping away

I’d barely drifted off to sleep when, at 2am, the phone rang. It was the hos­pi­tal. ‘You need to come, now,’ a nurse said, ex­plain­ing that Dar­ren was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. Jump­ing in my car, Mum and I raced to Dar­ren’s bed­side while Ch­eryl stayed be­hind with the kids. But when we got there, it was the news we’d been dread­ing – Dar­ren was brain-dead. There was noth­ing more the doc­tors could do. He was only 34. Ly­ing in the same bed we’d left him in, Dar­ren looked so peace­ful. It was hard to be­lieve he was slip­ping away from us. For the next hour, I lay next to him, softly sing­ing the lyrics to You Are My Sun­shine as I clutched his hand. It was a song Ch­eryl and I al­ways used to sing when we were younger, mainly to an­noy Dar­ren, but in that mo­ment, it felt like the right way to say good­bye. Watch­ing Dar­ren’s el­dest son, Al­fie, hug his dad for the last time, it felt like my heart might ac­tu­ally break. We’d de­cided to wait­ing un­til Box­ing Day to tell the youngest two boys – didn’t want to ruin their Christ­mas.

Mum and I de­cided to do­nate Dar­ren’s or­gans – I knew it’s what Dar­ren would have wanted.

At 3pm on Christ­mas Day, af­ter spend­ing al­most 12 hours at hos­pi­tal, Mum and I re­turned home. When we got back, my son Arthur, then 17, had cooked a turkey din­ner for the whole fam­ily. ‘I thought it might help – and I needed to take my mind off things,’ he said as I hugged him tightly.

For the sake of the youngest kids, I nib­bled on my Christ­mas din­ner, but in truth, I couldn’t stom­ach more than a mouth­ful. Later that evening, af­ter the kids had gone to bed, Mum, Ch­eryl and I sat to­gether silently in the liv­ing room. Crawl­ing over to the tree, I dragged out the pile of gifts. On the top were three iden­ti­cal-sized presents, all cov­ered in the same pa­per. One was ad­dressed to Mum, one to me and one to Ch­eryl. They were from Dar­ren.

In­side each pack­age was a cash­mere bob­ble hat and match­ing scarf. Pink for mum, black for me and pur­ple for Ch­eryl. I could barely breathe through the sobs as I re­moved the scarf from the pa­per, rub­bing the soft fab­ric across my tear-stained cheek.

We later dis­cov­ered that Dar­ren’s or­gans – his kid­ney, liver and pan­creas – had saved three lives. It gave us com­fort to know that while our Christ­mas will never be the same again, he gave three fam­i­lies the most pre­cious gift they could ever wish to re­ceive.

De­spite ev­ery­thing, we’re con­tin­u­ing with our Christ­mas tra­di­tions for the sake of Dar­ren’s chil­dren. They live with their mum but still love com­ing to grandma’s for food and presents. Get­ting over the loss of some­one so spe­cial hasn’t been easy, and I don’t think we are quite there yet. But on Christ­mas Day, we’ll eat mince pies, watch Mir­a­cle on 34th Street and play Monopoly af­ter din­ner, just the way Dar­ren would have wanted us to.

‘Mum and I de­cided to do­nate his or­gans’

Visit Me­lanie’s fundrais­ing page for Dar­ren’s chil­dren at go­ 6ktvq-chil­dren-fund

Dar­ren, Me­lanie and their sis­ter Ch­eryl visit Fa­ther Christ­mas as kids

Me­lanie with Oliver, one of her late brother’s three sons

Dar­ren with his two youngest sons, Oliver and Char­lie, on hol­i­day

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