I first had contact with Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice in 2002. My mother-in-law, Joan had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a nurse from Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice had cared for her at home. She was lovely. Joan had wanted to pass away at home and Birmingham St Mary’s had helped with this. They were extraordinary, I loved Joan very much and the nurses from the Hospice were so lovely and caring. Who was to know that Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice would be instrumental in supporting my children, and with my own mum’s death years later?

My mum was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer late August in 2012.  I remember it being a very surreal time. I heard the word ‘terminal cancer’ and saw the dark shadows on the CT scan from inside my mum’s body, but I could not digest my mum was going to die quite soon.  Hang on a second mum, you are only 63 years old and I still have a lot I want to share with you.  Oh no, how will I tell my children?  As a single parent (their father resides in Australia), my mum became their other parent.  Sorry, my mum was their world. Full stop.  And she was mine.

It’s funny as the only thing my mum cared about was my place at University.  I had just done an access course with my mum’s help, as my children were very young.  It had brought us all together I guess and we were so excited when I was accepted at Birmingham.

My mind could not connect with reality.  I started to plan things with my mum, like asking her to come to live with me and my children (I would have drove her mad!) or planning trips to the cinema, and then I went home and would cry a lot.

We decided to tell my children.  We did and it did not sink in.  It was very hard to accept.  She was going to write them letters to keep, plan her death (if you can do that, we did our best!), we would spend lots of time talking and laughing, I was going to make her a beautiful memory book and it was all going to be OK.  My mum decided she wanted me to care for her after all, as long as I got a letter from University to say I could go the following year.  She was very adamant about me going to University after she died.  I took my mum to Lourdes and this was a very special time we shared. 

We attended the Day Hospice at Birmingham St Mary’s once.  I went along and I remember there was a man singing all of these old songs and me and my mum joined in.  We ate fish and chips and had a real giggle. There was also a trolley going around with tea and cake.  The nurses were so good and the social worker was particularly helpful. I wasn’t sure about my mum going on holiday and she helped me to understand how it was my mum’s choice and that I needed to respect her decision.  She also told me about the services at the Hospice for children as this was the one thing my mum and I were most concerned about; how would my children cope with her death?  We could never have known my mum would never return to the Hospice but rather it would be my children and I needing the services of the Hospice to help us when my mum died.

My mum went on holiday with her friends and died the night she came home.   I am very grateful as I went to see my mum and was able to be with her.  She had wanted to go to Accident and Emergency to see if she could get well.  I remember calling the Hospice at 9pm asking them to pick her up.  I think I had lost my mind a bit.  I went home to my sleeping children and my friend but could not bring myself to tell them.  The worst thing was, my children still thought Nanny Lilly was on holiday and would be back soon.  When I looked in my mum’s suitcase, she had even bought us presents from her holiday.  This has ended up being one of my most treasured possessions from my mom.

The big problem was there was no ending.  My children said goodbye to Nanny but to them, she didn’t come back from holiday.  Silly as it sounds, but we didn’t make it to the cinema, mum and me, and she didn’t get to see the memory book with shiny flowered paper I had made for her.  It was like we were falling through the sky with no parachute and we simply could not process the grief we felt.  Let alone plan a funeral. 

The next day after mum died, the very same person who I had spoken to from Accident and Emergency the night before, phoned me to see how I was.  And this is where our journey with Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice started.  We were introduced to Karen, the lead bereavement counsellor.  I could not go into the Day Hospice, so Karen came out to us.  While we have some beautiful friends, we had no family to help us through the grief we felt.  We were very broken for a long time. 

The problem was, I was trying to deal with the death of my mum and be a parent too, and cope with my children’s grief.  My son started to show signs of lacking confidence and this was at school.  He is quite shy anyway but he became very low and this happened when reality hit.  He had lost not only Nan but also the sanctuary of her little home and garden and he struggled a lot.  Karen visited Nathan a lot at home and played games with him, which made him laugh.  My daughter went into shock.  She has really struggled to process her Nanny’s death.  She loved her so much and was so important to her.  She lost a lot when my mum died and it has taken a few years to come to terms with the death of my mum.  She was only 63 years old.  She was the kindest and most special mum and she was there for us in so many ways.

As a mother, this has been hard to watch my children feel so sad.  I couldn’t even talk about my mum without breaking down for about 18 months.  I think I would have felt very isolated without Karen and the Hospice.  I am quite a resilient person and Karen helped me process my grief.

I shall always be eternally grateful to Karen.  She has spent many hours here at home and at the Hospice.  It was so lovely to see my children laugh and play games.  She became a very dependable figure in their lives. 

We have a lot of memories of Nanny.  I often try to make a trifle as my mum was known for her trifle recipe, but it isn’t quite the same, which we can laugh about.  We read lots of books, like ‘Tear soup’ and these helped.  We went on holiday for the first time without my mum and we sat and watched a lot of sunsets and talked about my mum.  We loved the idea of how a dragonfly flies above the surface of the water and can see everyone below but can’t go back (the Dragonfly story) and this reminds us of my mum.  We have a real love for dragonflies now.  We can still hear her voice as she would phone every day, just to say hello and my children laugh about that now.  We include her in our lives and we have gone on to recovery, all thanks to Karen and Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice.

Nathan (my son) loves secondary school and it has been voted he makes the best ‘Nanny Lilly trifle’. My daughter Niamh spoke about her Nanny and how Karen has helped her at the Hospice’s ‘Light up a Life’ service in December 2015.  She sees Karen and she is a great gymnast, that medal she won was for Nanny Lilly you know!  And I made it to University.  We went to The Makings of Harry Potter, as my mum had liked Harry Potter too.   My mum left me some money and we used some of it to go around Australia where my children swam with dolphins.  This was great.  I had never been to Ireland before so we went to Ireland to see where my mum came from.  We went to Drayton Manor when I finished my first year at University.

Niamh's speech at Light Up a Life

Life continues when someone dies but it was a great big mess for us for a long time.  I learned pretty soon that grief has a mind of its own and even almost four years on; it gets me in the car, when I hear a song or see something that reminds me of my mum.  In my first year of University, I achieved a First and for a second, I thought my mum was still alive so I could tell her.  But she spurs me to be the best I can be every day and I am grateful for that.  She had a stone with the word ‘grateful’ on it and I have it on my kitchen shelf. 

I read a lot about grief and especially about the experiences of grief of other daughters who had lost their mothers.  I spoke with Karen for over two years and so did my children.  I became involved with the Hospice and this has helped enormously, for my children and me.  We have completed the Chocolate Run, held a Bake off Sale at my children’s School and taken part in the Midsummer Walk. I am going to do a skydive or a mud run when the children are older! Also, I am an Ambassador for the Hospice and have recently given a talk at an event.  I would like to go into end of life care for families when I graduate next year. 

I took grief at my own pace and after a while, I accepted I could not control it and went with it.  I surrounded myself with some amazing friends and I talked about my mum to my mum’s friends.  I made sure my children felt loved and supported and helped them realise that life has ups and downs.  

Occasionally, I can have quite upsetting flashbacks or think of things I wish I could have said to my mum.  I can still cry and this is OK.  My mum was beautiful and gentle and I try to be grateful for the times we had together and for the times my children had with her. 

We had so much fun together and I miss my best friend very much.  But I have managed to forge a life of my own with my two children and I know my mum would be really proud of us.  Our lives are celebrated as they are precious and we want to try to live them as best we can.  Quietly, we feel we have come through a lot together and are a very close family.  I catch myself smiling and feeling grateful for all we have.

All thanks to Karen and Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice.   They saved us in so many ways I couldn’t even begin to put it into words.

Ensure Birmingham St Mary’s can continue to be there for families like mine by getting involved and fundraising!