What I’m about to write about is deeply personal. Everyone will experience it, there’s no hiding from it and it’ll be different for each of us.
But I hope this will, in a small way, help those going through it or help at least understand the process.
I had, up until 2016, had few deaths in the family or friends/work colleagues. Earliest memory was the death of my step grandfather, Grandpop. I was quite young, remember mum and dad leaving for the funeral and my step grandmother, Nanny Gwen, telling me the brightest star I the sky was him, watching over all of us. I don’t think I truly grasped at that age what happened. Later I would go to a few funerals for my mum’s uncles. I hadn’t really spent that much time with them, I saw the grief on the faces of their closest family and friends, it didn’t connect with the feelings of loss. Again, I was still young.
It would be my our cat Snoopy 1.0 that I would cry and first feel real grief. I couldn’t tell you how old, a few years younger than 14 at least – I know this because it was this age when I experienced my second. We were at the vets when he put her to sleep. It came as a shock for some reason, maybe I had deliberately blocked out what he was saying to mum, but I thought she was sleeping, I mean he used the word sleep… To say I was upset was an understatement. Joe (who would look after all our pets for many years) just killed my cat. That’s how my child self saw it and was inconsolable for hours. But I had JoJo, my dog, my best friend to lick the tears away.
JoJo – hands down the best dog any kid could hope for. Poodle crossed with what the breeder suspected a spaniel of some sorts (her prize bitch had escaped and returned pregnant) He had been poorly for just a few days, he was straining when pooping and nothing was coming out. We thought constipation, so did Joe. However whilst in surgery they discovered a tumour and called mum to ask what she wanted to do. They could remove it, but he’d likely to be incontinent and if it was cancer, a lot of pain. He was 14, had a good life, so we let him go. Well, I cried for days, I bloody loved that dog. Would have dreams where he was still around and wake up still thinking it before realising. Sounds daft but his death did imprint and though what I would experience 22 years later was far more intense, there are similarities between both.
First death and funeral of a human I felt grief was for Nanny Gwen. I was an adult by now and the feeling of loss was heavy, I had been ill for her birthday and couldn’t attend the party, I would never get the chance to see her again before she passed away. This would haunt me for years.
So let’s fast forward a bit.
2013 mum was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I had never felt shock like that before, the phone call floored me. However, there was no way I was going to allow this to kill her, so I asked the universe for a favour, allow her to get well, don’t let the cancer return and I promise to do some mad charity stunt to raise money. *I need to make clear, we weren’t raised to any particular religious doctrine, but to be spiritually mindful and look for magic everywhere. I was trained to Reiki II by the age of 19, taught pagan rituals to protect the home and loved ones, had crystals around my rooms. I believed in a conscious greater than myself, but he wasn’t white with a beard* So when I made this promise, I was in my head talking to something, the universe as a whole.
So, mum had surgery, they removed the tumour, a section of her colon and surrounding lymph nodes. Following a course of chemo, mum went into remission and I breathed a sigh of relief and thought that’s it. A year later I cycled from Lands End to John O’Groats in 10 days on my own, with Stace and my friend Aitch as my backup crew. I raised over a grand and genuinely thought, I’d done my part, said my thanks and didn’t have to worry about mum. I always did but I worry about everyone, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Mum didn’t bounce back, Dr’s suspected scar tissue from the surgery that meant she was never completely pain free, but the regular scans and blood works coming back clear, kept everyone’s nagging worries at bay.
December 2015 mum’s scan comes back as clear.
Beginning of 2016 I have lost one of my cats Dory to suspected poisoning, and my beloved rescue horse Frodo finally tells us he’s had enough after years of multiple flair ups from laminitis. And of course this was the year a lot of heroes left us, I even made a joke on Facebook suggesting we need to protect Sir David Attenborough, death wasn’t allowed to have him as well.
Over the winter mum is under the weather a lot but not enough to think anything sinister is happening. I knew she wasn’t well at my grandfather’s 90th but kept telling me she was fine.
May 2016 mum came home from a trip to Germany with dad, with what we thought was a fluey cold. She took my Grandparents to a funeral later that week, got completely soaked from the rain and became ill very quickly. Breathing issues brought on by a cough. Scans are taken and they show “woolly” patches in her lungs, and diagnosed pneumonia. On oxygen whilst in hospital, Stoke Mandeville, I’m assured that yes pneumonia is a serious illness, but mum was on antibiotics and slowly improving.
Mum is discharged late May/early June. I go to Chinnor to visit and I take one look and know the “pneumonia” has battered her, she’s still finding breathing hard and in pain around her lower back and stomach. My anxiety levels increase but I do my usual, I bury it because I’m worrying over nothing and soon mum will be well again.
June 2nd,(dad’s birthday) mum is rushed back into hospital as she is in need of oxygen and stronger pain relief.
I start rearranging my work diary so I visit Milton Keynes and Bedford more, so I can go visit mum at Stoke Mandeville. I have a permanent pressure in my chest and my anxiety starts hitting orbital levels but I keep telling myself, pneumonia with (now) C-Diff on top, it’s going to take time, but she’ll be ok.
I was at home when dad called. I don’t know how or why but I knew I had to take the call when every fibre of me wanted to ignore it, to run away, “Are you home and is Stace with you?” Mum’s cancer was back. The scans from her pelvis showed a large mass. The scan back in December was re-examined and we are told with this most recent evidence, side by side they can now see that there were indications, which of course at the time were dismissed. The woolly spots in her lungs were likely to be more than pnemonia, and they wanted to check her liver. She was given 3 to 6 months at most.
To this day I don’t know how dad managed to make that call to me? How he managed to hold it together when I broke on the other end of the line.
Time line gets a little fuzzy at this point. I know I got to work researching alternative treatments, diet plans asked friends to send reiki healing, barely slept. I wasn’t going to let this happen, can’t happen to us, nobody deserved life more than my mum and I honestly prayed to every deity I could think of, let me go through it instead, spare mum.
No one was listening.
Mum was discharged to go home, a treatment plan would be put in place as she was a candidate for radiotherapy, palitive care was arranged and we all got to work in building mum’s strength. All she asked for was to be able to go back to Germany in September with Dad. I carried on with my research because medical miracles happen all the time, I invested all my energy to finding hers.
Once home the pain kept increasing and so did the morphine. Mum also developed cystisis, and it was on a Saturday evening, I broke the speed limit to get to a pharmacy before they closed, Chinnor to Asda High Wycombe in under 10 mins. This is also the last night I sleep more than a few hours.
The following day (Sunday) it’s clear mum is going downhill rapidly and an ambulance is called for to take her to the Sue Rider hospice in Nettlebed. I go with her and am holding her hand the entire time. My sister is called for and Quantas fly her back from Oz.
Weirdly there was some period drama being shot at the hospice, dad and I spent a lot of time avoiding the crew incase we met anyone we knew. First time I almost slapped a crowd AD, after telling me to wait before heading back up to mum’s room. Very surreal.
The staff were lovely, it wasn’t just mum there, I didn’t leave, neither did my sister when she arrived. Dad only went home once after my sister and I told him to try and get some sleep, but was back by mum’s side as it was very clear the end was near and nobody wanted to leave her. Wednesday we asked to take mum home, as beautiful as the hospice was, it’s not home.
I went with mum in the ambulance on her final journey.
Two days later, Friday 1st of July, The Martian DVD had been playing quietly as it had become a favourite but was turned off when the moment we had all been dreading started to happen. 12:00, surrounded by her family, mum took her last breath.
I ran into the garden and I howled and I screamed, my whole world suddenly darkened and lost all its magic. I was broken, the whole family were.
It wasn’t peaceful. Cancer and Sepsis took my loving and caring mum, she fought till the very end but it came at a cost. Mum always told my sister and I that death wasn’t something to be afraid of, it was all part of the journey that we either come back to live another life or the universe takes us home. I lost my faith in the universe that day, we are no longer on speaking terms and I am still angry.
Today marks 4 years. I still have nightmares and the waves of grief still catch me unawares. The day may haunt me for the rest of of my life but…I’m glad I was with her. She bought me into this world and I was there when she left. When you’re first in grief’s grips, the waves of emotion are constant, chaotic and all consuming. In some ways it’s easier to deal with, because you’re living with it every waking moment. It’s down the road I have found the hardest. Life does settle, you don’t believe it in the beginning but it does, but then the waves seem bigger, they catch you off guard when you aren’t expecting it and the heaviness in your chest returns.
My grandfather passed away a couple of years after mum, and felt like another connection to both mum and my childhood lost. I drove from Norfolk to Bristol when I got the call, he passed away 15 mins before I arrived. I knew the moment I saw gran in the carpark waiting for me. He did go peacefully, with my gran and aunt by his side.
I am aware the older I get, I’m going to more funerals than christenings and weddings. Now I no longer work in the film industry, it feels like the only time I get to meet up with everyone is at ex colleague’s funerals. Take the piss how much older we all look, the extra greys, the extra pounds we’ve accumulated, toast fun times.
The realisation and acceptance of death is what it means to be an adult. Children who lose parents or siblings tend to grow up a lot faster than their peers. I was very lucky, my awareness happened into adulthood.
So don’t run from it. Don’t hide from it. Unless you plan to live your life alone, we all will face this again and again. We only have one life, appreciate every moment, love and look out for everyone in it. Be positive and thoughtful, don’t live in fear and doubt, it only brings hate and negativity.
All I can do is ride out those waves when they hit, wait until I am able to settle myself and feel like I’m no longer drowning. Luckily my husband is supportive and my dogs seem to instinctively know when I’m struggling or having bad dreams, they are by my side until I settle – dogs are the best therapy! Even in very dark moments, they are like a beacon to lead you out.
So now I have to try and live my life in a way mum would want for me. I think of her daily, after 4 years I can say my thoughts are more of happier times than those last few weeks.
I love you mum, always will.