16/12/2015 5:53 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Christmas For The Broken-Hearted

Broken heart concept: paper heart torn and fixed with plaster on pine tree
Mehmet Hilmi Barcin via Getty Images
Broken heart concept: paper heart torn and fixed with plaster on pine tree

Hubby and I were too shattered to do Christmas last year.

A couple of decades before, when our two girls were kids, it was so different. We could hardly wait until the 1st of December so we could put up the tree. My favourite ornament was an angel Anna made in Year 4. Its body, created from a cardboard cone, listed to one side. Its gauze gown didn't really fit properly and its wings were different sizes. But it had so much character, it looked like it was about to speak. Every year when I unpacked it I was amazed by the expression on its polystyrene face. How could Anna have conveyed that much personality with a few strokes of a permanent marker?

On Christmas Day itself, we used to pile presents into the car and head down the peninsula to spend a week with hubby's extended family -- for many years at his parents' home and later in rented beach houses. Those were sparkly days, when we got to play with a niece or nephew's newest baby and stay up late, lost in conversation over glasses of wine.

Not last year.

Last year, we couldn't face festivity. What we had to face was huge and cold, the hardest thing we'd ever admitted: our cherished younger daughter, the quirky little girl who made the wonky angel, was lost to us. We could still see her, inside her murky bubble of mental illness and addiction, but we couldn't reach her. We had tried so hard to coax and help and drag her out of there. So had a whole squad of professionals, beginning with her first hospital admission at 15. During the past year, she had deteriorated so much she could barely function, let alone celebrate at a family gathering.

A couple of days before Christmas, listening to ABC 774 in the shower, I heard there would be a free breakfast at Melbourne's Federation Square for anyone who needed it. On the morning of the 25th our elder daughter was with her partner's family in the country. Anna was in a virtual coma, after being up for three days and nights in a mania of 'cleaning'; arranging her huge collection of books and DVDs into alphabetical order and classifying every university note by date. So, praying our girl would still be breathing when we returned, hubby and I headed off on the train to the city.

It was a perfect summer morning, the air just cool enough to make the sun a welcome gift. We held hands as we crossed Flinders Street to bells pealing from St Paul's Cathedral. I'd expected a crowd in Fed Square, a queue of homeless people eager for a free feed, but there were just a scattered few of us. Only one or two guys looked a little scruffy. Mainly there were couples and young families, well dressed, quietly speaking a variety of languages. Were they a little subdued and sad? Missing their families of origin? I thought so.

There were long tables set up, personed by smiling volunteers in Santa hats. We took an orange each, a bottle of water and a BLT roll. The croissants looked fresh and delicious. "Want to share one?" I asked hubby.

"You can have one each," the young volunteer chirped. She was so pretty, so alive and healthy. She really wanted us to have our own croissant.

We sat on a sun-warmed step. My grief felt like a jagged frozen lump in my chest. Twenty-six Christmases earlier, I held a perfect blue-eyed baby in my arms and loved her so much it was terrifying. I'm glad I couldn't know then what 2014 would bring to us. The nights of screaming and pleading, begging her to choose life. The locking up of knives. The frantic calls to police, the ambulance rides to psych wards.

I pulled my mind away from that horror and accepted a mince tart from a smiling older woman proffering a wicker basket. I watched a tiny Asian girl in a new dress twirl in the morning light. And I felt one of my own addictions clamouring: I needed caffeine.

"Excuse me?" The Asian man sitting to our left, most likely the father of the little girl, was speaking to me. He gestured toward the next level of the square. "They're serving coffee upstairs."

"You must have read my mind," I responded.

"It was speaking very loudly," he replied in a serious tone.

That made me smile.

Over the year since then, when we've made decisions I never could have imagined we would need to consider, I've often thought of last Christmas morning. It shines in my mind, a little warm splash of quiet goodness. It's made me love Melbourne, my adopted home, more than ever. I'd like to thank the charities and volunteers for dishing out comfort not only to the homeless and the homesick, but to the broken-hearted.


If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131114. For further information about depression, contact beyond blue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.