On Christmas Eve 1996, I’d been out drinking and came home at 1am to find my dad, Bill, asleep. This was unusual – he was usually awake at that hour, worrying about money. My sister, Felicia, said he wasn’t well. He had caught pneumonia. Later, I heard him coughing, so I went to him. He was coughing up blood. I called an ambulance, which took him to hospital at 4am on Christmas Day.

Felicia, Mum and I thought, OK, Dad’s in hospital with pneumonia, but let’s have Christmas, he’ll be fine. Mum started peeling potatoes and putting the turkey in the oven. Then we heard that, because of an intensive-care bed shortage, Dad had been moved from Darlington – where we lived – to Bishop Auckland hospital 10 miles away. The oven was turned off. Our neighbour took us to the hospital. We stayed there all day, sitting in the waiting room and by his bedside.

Dad died on Christmas Day. But then, only a few days later, we discovered that Mum had caught pneumonia from him. She died on 30 December; she was 50, and Dad 52.

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My mum’s twin sister came to see us with our cousins. Our family doctor showed up, as well as a teacher from my sister’s school. Neighbours came, too. It was surreal. It’s overwhelming dealing with other people’s shock when you are grieving yourself.

Legal discussions started on probate. When it was granted, we found out Dad owed all this money, but we didn’t know why. Dad had lost his job as a door-to-door insurance salesman five years before, and never got salaried work again. His creditors wanted the money from the sale of our house. I was a first-year broadcasting student at Leeds University, about 60 miles away. I wasn’t sure who could care for Felicia, who was 16 at the time. Neighbours and the family doctor brought us food, checked in on us and tidied up, but they had their own families. Then our story was picked up by the press and we were called “the Christmas orphans”.

When I returned to university, everything was a blur. I was in such a state that whole time, thinking things couldn’t get any stranger. One day, my course director asked me to meet the vice-chancellor, Alan Wilson, in his office. He had seen the articles about Felicia and me, and wanted to help. He immediately made me feel that everything was going to be all right.

I assumed I’d have to give up my studies and sell the house, but Alan said that wasn’t going to happen. He set up a trust fund (along with three others) and got donations to buy our house in the name of the trust. Felicia told me to go back to university, but I was worried about her. In the end, they arranged for me to do some lectures via video, and I was only away for a couple of days a week; Felicia’s boyfriend and his parents would spend time with her. Everyone knows everyone in Darlington, so the adults were quietly watching over us.

With hindsight, I can see that the experience had affected me deeply. After university, I did a lot of crazy travelling, and didn’t want to stay in one place, or one relationship. The house was sold when I was 24, and what remained was divided between me and Felicia. I wanted adventure, which explains how I ended up writing about the Sahel region in Africa and becoming a Foreign Office analyst for west Africa.

Now I have children, I can see how shocking it all was, especially for Felicia. It’s made me pretty resilient, able to laugh at almost everything, and very conscious that we have only one life, and to make the most of it. Felicia and I are close and see each other every Christmas; we mostly drink and eat cheese. For the first few years, we used to talk about our parents a lot and it was hard, but so much time has passed now.

I’ve stayed in touch with Alan. I’ve had to chase him down a few times, as he’s a very successful man, but you can’t let someone who’s done that for you leave your life. He saved us. Looking back, I’d tell my 19-year-old self that it would all be OK. I would also tell Alan not to worry about us – fortunately, he could stop doing that years ago.

As told to Anna Derrig

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