PAMELA Neilson didn’t feel like getting a Christmas tree this year.
As she sits in her front room, she remembers an old expression: that it’s not what’s under the tree which matters, but who’s sat around it.
But this year there will be someone missing – her three-year-old son, Kai.
It’s been almost a year since Kai Laidlaw passed away from leukaemia, having spent most of his short life on a hospital ward. Now Pam, 39, and her partner Calvin, 50, are faced with the prospect of somehow finding a way through their first festive season without their bubbly young son at their side.
“I think every year is going to be the hardest because it’s always going to be a case of ‘what if?’,” Pam said. “What would he have been doing, what would he have been playing with, what would he have liked?
“Round here there’s quite a lot of children, which is lovely and our neighbours are fantastic, but you’ll always think what would he have liked, what would he be doing?”
But while the couple admit they are taking each day as it comes, it is in fact the loss of their son which has inspired them to fight so fiercely for other families in need of support.
And they aren’t doing things by halves, with not one but three projects on the go in a bid to honour Kai’s memory while helping other families through their darkest days.
Speaking to the News from their home in Leith, Pam said that supporting others going through the trauma of childhood illness felt in some ways like a “coping mechanism”.
She said: “It doesn’t help to the degree where it takes away the pain of not having Kai, but I think it helps to think that you’re helping other children and their families.
“It could never be turned into something that you can say is positive [but] the knock-on effects it can have, can be positive.
“You can help other charities or you can help other families and other groups, and I think that gives you more focus.”
One focus for Pam and Calvin has included a £20,000 fundraising campaign to create a new room near the Sick Kids Hospital for babies and toddlers with cancer.
The couple launched the bid earlier this year and have already surpassed their target thanks to a number of fundraising events and generous donations from the public.
It is hoped the room will be open by the end of next year and it will be kitted out with soft flooring, sensory lighting and toys for children up to the age of five.
Pam said they teamed up with the charity CCLASP (Children with Cancer and Leukaemia Advice and Support for Parents) to help make it a reality in their new building, The Howat Foundation CCLASP centre.
The building will be situated opposite the new Sick Kids hospital in Little France.
She said: “The children [with cancer] can have very few platelets, very few red cells and yet they still want to play, they still want to zoom up and down the ward.
“So the idea we had was to create Kai’s first legacy, through this room, to give something back to families like ours.”
Raising awareness of childhood cancer is another big focus and something the couple have thrown themselves into through the Glow Gold campaign.
The initiative saw buildings up and down the country – including several in the Capital – light up in gold to mark Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.
The idea behind the project was to shine a light on to childhood cancer research and funding, and promote early symptom recognition.
As if that wasn’t enough, next year is set to get even busier as Kai’s family look to secure charitable status for their new cause, Whispers and Light.
Launched in memory of both Kai and Leon Rendle, 16, who passed away from cancer earlier this year, Whispers and Light also has awareness at its heart.
“Light” refers to Leon’s journey, while “Whispers” was inspired by a memorial service during which family and friends sent up balloons with tagged messages, or “whispers”, to Kai.
Another vital aspect of the new charity will be the ability to offer parents counselling as well as practical support – things Kai’s family didn’t know when Kai was ill.
The advice will cover areas such as what financial support is available to how families can tackle the painful task of drawing up an order of service for a child’s funeral.
Pam said: “We have walked in the path that they are following us down. When a family is told that their child is terminal, they need increased support.
“The news is devastating and often the families don’t know where to turn. There’s things that you don’t want to think about or want to face. But that’s where we want to be able to help and assist, and relieve the burden.”
While Pam and Calvin’s Christmas celebrations will never be the same, they have also been using the run-up to the big day to give other Edinburgh charities a boost.
The couple have been inundated with donations and have able to hand over toys to the Lorraine Rourke Kids Appeal, as well as everyday items to local foodbanks.
Pam is now appealing for anyone who is able to make a donation to a local charity of their choice this Christmas, knowing first-hand just what a difference this can make.
“People are just so supportive and kind that it restores your belief in humanity when you think about all the doom and gloom there can be this time of year,” she said.
“We can be out somewhere and someone obviously knows who we are and people will still say we are sorry about Kai which is nice.
“It’s a brutal battle for any family when a child has a long-term illness ... The bond you share with other families and staff is unbreakable.”
This is certainly true for Kai’s relations, who are still in regular contact with other families from Edinburgh and Glasgow hospitals. Pam said: “It’s like you’re part of a club – a club no-one wants to be part of, but without the support of the parents and the other families you wouldn’t survive.”
For more about Kai’s journey, or to help, visit www.facebook.com/kai.laidlaw.