The last Christmas I ever spent with my daughter, Madeleine, is a very vivid memory for me. She was three-years-old then and at nursery had just started to learn some Christmas carols. She also loved doing the accompaniment to Dean Martin’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I can still hear her singing it now. For her present that year we had bought Madeleine (and her younger brother and sister) a kitchen station which we wrapped with a bow and left for her to find when she came downstairs.
I remember seeing her face when she walked in. She was beside herself. She was so excited and got straight to work preparing us all a meal. That was a lovely moment. I have bought a Christmas present for Madeleine every year since then but that toy cooker was the last one I ever saw her open.
In May 2007 she went missing from our rented family holiday apartment in Praia da Luz in Portugal and has never been seen since. This Christmas will be the 11th my husband and I have spent without our daughter. For families like ours who have to live with the agony of a missing child – or indeed any relative – Christmas can be a hugely painful time.
The festive period is a time to be together as a family and for most people is such a happy occasion. That almost expected joy makes it even more difficult for those that are suffering. You learn over time that you simply have to make the best of it and lean upon the support that is out there – wherever it comes from.
It’s impossible to shake off that heaviness ever-present on your chest. But you just have to try
The first Christmas we had after Madeleine went missing I couldn’t do anything. I felt so numb that I couldn’t buy presents or cards or even put up the Christmas tree. It all felt so wrong. In the end somebody else had to do all that and we went and stayed with family elsewhere. Each year I’ve made a bit more effort and we’ve dealt with it as best we can. After all, our other two children who are now 12-years-old deserve a Christmas as well. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. Everything is tinged with pain.
That absence is tangible for all our family, the emotion still palpable. It’s impossible to shake off that heaviness ever-present on your chest. But you just have to try. Before Madeleine’s disappearance I had never heard of the charity, Missing People, which The Daily Telegraph is backing in its Christmas Appeal. My husband Gerry and I stayed in Portugal for months after she had gone, continuing to search in vain.
It was only when we got back that we were properly put in touch by a relative. The work the charity does for families like ours is vital and I am proud to be an ambassador championing their work. Hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year. This is something that affects so many families and it can destroy them.
The charity is there every hour of every day. Without them people would be totally lost. The Missing People charity team are simply very normal, genuine, caring people that you could come and have a cup of tea with. I’m sure that’s part of the secret to the charity’s success. We often talk about our missing persons ‘community’, or ‘family’ and every Christmas get together for our annual carol service at St Martin-in-the-fields united in our emotion and hope.
We are all cushioned and supported by the presence of each other. Unless you have experienced what families like ours have it is impossible to describe the anguish of missing a loved one. I know without the support of so many we would not have made it this far. We have found that support in many places. A candle still burns for our daughter in the village and Madeleine and all missing children still get mentioned in prayers at our local church – and in many others I’m sure.
With so many things in the world to pray for just now, we are very grateful for this. At times the pain of losing our daughter has been almost too much to comprehend. You don’t know how strong you are until you have no option. Gerry and I are united in our aim of finding Madeleine and our love of our children and making life as good as possible for them.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t times when things are emotional, testing or strained. But we’ve got through it so far. In spite of how hard the festive season has been for our family over the years our younger children are still really excited about Christmas and that’s lovely to see. I have to remind myself to be cheerful and get into the Christmas spirit with them. I suppose I have learnt over the years that it’s important to have enjoyment yourself too and, more than that, it is OK to try.
In my head I guess I just want everything for be right for her when she comes back home.
You don’t have to feel guilty. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s real quality time spent with my children; cuddling up on the couch under a throw and watching a DVD together. We do a Christmas stocking for them and also one for Madeleine. The presents I buy for her usually have to jump out at me. She would be a teenager now so I always try and pick something that would be suitable and enjoyable for her no matter what age she is when she gets to open them.
In my head I guess I just want everything for be right for her when she comes back home. The loft is filled with the presents I have bought for Madeleine and her wardrobe, too. Like many families of missing children we have kept her bedroom exactly the same as it was when she disappeared. The irony is I’m sure she wouldn’t want it like that anymore because it’s bright pink.
And in any case if Madeleine was to walk through that door the most important thing is she is with us, not what her bedroom is like or anything else for that matter. But for whatever reason I just can’t bring myself to change it. The police investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance is still active, thankfully, and while it can be incredibly slow and frustrating we continue in hope. That is all we can do. While people gather with their families this weekend and enjoy meals and swap presents together – I would urge them to remember the missing. We must never forget them.
Missing People is a beneficiary of this year’s Telegraph’s Christmas Charity Appeal. To make a donation to this or one of the other charities supported in our appeal, please call 0151 284 1927