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
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.
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.
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 gofundme.com/ 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