My first encounter with grief occurred in a stint in hospital when I was very little. At 3 years old, during my recovery from my strokes, Rothchild paediatric ward in Guy’s hospital became my home from home. I spent Christmas there. I have fond memories of Dr Charlie Fairhurst rocking up to the ward as Santa, and my dad in a friendly battle with him as to who got to carve the turkey. I met lots of children there, but I got on best with my friend William, also very young at 2 ½ years old. We would spend so much time playing together in the ward playroom. On my morning walk around the ward, I visited William’s cot as per usual – but something was different.
That morning, he wasn’t there. I was wondering where he could be when I saw my mummy cuddling his mum, as I got closer, I realised William’s mother was crying and my mummy was consoling her. I remember so vividly rushing over to see what was wrong. She told his mum that she would meet her in the canteen and my mummy turned to me and said, 'I’m so sorry Sarah but William is no longer with us, he died in the night'. She cuddled me and I started to cry, as unfortunately, I knew what death meant. That is one of the heart-breaking things about being a hospital for an extensive time. It was however, the first person I knew and had been friends with who died. Nothing can prepare you as to how to act and what to say. I remember the first thing I said was, ‘are you ok mummy?’. Because she was crying too. This whole experience made me think about the fragility of life.
Three years later, my mummy became very ill and was hospitalised for quite some time. We visited her in the hospital most days, but we all thought she would receive treatment and come home. One morning, my dad wasn’t up but my mummy’s best friend Kathy was in our kitchen. I found it strange for a moment but thought nothing of it. She was making breakfast for me and my older brother, Sam. When she asked us what we would like, she offered cereal and toast. I remember saying to her quite directly how mummy didn’t allow toast on a weekday, and I was chuffed it was on offer and got very excited at the prospect. At this point, Kathy’s husband, Tony walked in, I noticed Kathy started to cry, and Tony rushed to hug her. Sam and I weren’t sure what was going on, but Tony turned to us both and said, your dad will be down shortly. Sam and I just continued to eat breakfast and dad walked in. He asked Sam and I to join him in the living room for a chat. We followed him through, sat on the sofa in front of him as he began to speak. To this day, I can’t imagine how difficult this conversation was for him. He said that mummy had died over night and wouldn’t be coming home. We sat there and all broke down into inconsolable tears. We managed this situation as a family the best way we could. Unfortunately, no bereavement guide can truly equip you – a lot of it is trial and error. All I know is that I am thankful to my brother, Sam, and my dad for how we got through it, our family dynamic is still challenged at times, but it is strong, resilient, and built on love. Still now, I refer to her as mummy because that’s how I capture her in my mind because our relationship hadn’t matured past this phase. She will always be my loving mummy and I cherish the purity of that gentle memory.
When I got married, three years ago, I chose to speak. I felt a need to mention my loving mummy on this truly magical day and how much she’d have loved to be there and celebrate with me and my amazing husband, Ben. During my speech, when I was approaching the bit about mummy, I turned to Sam - who was standing right next to me – and we shared a moment that only he and I would ever truly understand – I looked at Sam and we both teared up – in that moment I felt so supported by him and he encouraged me on to finish my speech - which did end on a few jokes to lighten up the beautifully decorated marquee once more. It’s a feeling that occurs at every milestone in life, every life event – big or small – it can catch you when you’re least expecting it – the realisation and wonder of how it would be to share a simple look or a loving embrace with them, in those precious moments that are scattered throughout life’s great tapestry.
Going through parental bereavement as a child really shapes the way you view the world. I can only speak for myself; but for me, it enhanced my ability to empathise and certainly deepened my understanding of the complexity and multifaceted nature of human emotion. One thing that I feel had an important bearing on how I dealt with my own experience of grief, was the film The Lion King, released the same year of the passing of my mummy. The way that it very carefully approaches the concept of losing a parent and the need to deal with it on your own terms. It helped me construct my own version of life after death without the need to refer to religion. My simple reasoning came to be, ‘she lives in me’. I carry her passion, her spirit, her values, and her strength. Years ago, I was sitting at the breakfast table, in my family home, having a cup of tea with my dad casually chatting and I laughed – a creased over, head-tilt-laugh, and my dad said, ‘Oh, Sarah – that’s how your mum used to laugh’ – we smiled and shared a lovely moment, and perhaps a tear or two. This is such a lovely thing and I’m so happy she lives on in me. Friends of hers and old family friends often say to me how much I resemble my mother, in looks and personality. This used to be a tear-jerker, triggering emotions I couldn’t handle, and even a topic of avoidance for me. Now, I’m happy to say that I’m humbled, honoured and truly touched, I take it all as a compliment – not least because it helps to keep her memory present, in all our lives.