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Steph's Story #griefawarenessweek

Steph’s Story - Grief Awareness Week 2020

My Nan was my absolute world when I was young. I have such fond memories of her taking me ‘out on the town’ down to my local highstreet in a small market town in Devon. We’d browse the shop windows and then head for our final pitstop; the cafe where I ordered what I thought was the world's biggest strawberry milkshake. She was always a giggle; a trouble-maker with a glint in her eye, encouraging me to go to that party even if my parents weren’t fond of the idea!

Flashforward 15 years later; it’s nearly Christmas, and my Nan was in hospital with newly diagnosed bowel cancer. She was reassured by doctors that they could operate, they could offer her treatment. She didn’t want any of it. She was tired.

She’d suffered a number of heart attacks years earlier which rendered her bound to her bed in the dining room - her new centre of the world. She had carers throughout the day. She wasn’t able to get out on her own, not able to get outside for fresh air or views of the countryside.

She didn’t want the end of her life to be in a ward in hospital, she wanted to be at home. This wouldn’t have been an easy transition given the care she would have needed, but could have been possible if we’d known how. Getting her home didn't really seem like an option at the time. They kept recommending treatment options, all of which she refused. And then had to refuse again. And then needed my Dad to refuse on her behalf too.

I’ve since worked in NHS, Social Care and the Hospice Sector and now know that there were some things we could have done to help ease this situation. We could have done documentation to help articulate what my Nan did and didn’t want to avoid the questioning over and over. We could have tried to support her to die at home, with her family nearby. Sadly, we didn’t know about the options for this at the time. I’m sure it might have been mentioned, but it was such a blur it was hard to take anything in.

On the night of her death, I went to see her in hospital on my way back from work. She wasn’t saying much, wasn’t eating, but I held her hand and we looked at each other and spoke through our eyes for a moment.

To help fill the silence, I told her what I’d been up to, what our plans were for Christmas and how I was so sorry she was going to be in here for that. I said not to worry because we’d bring some leftovers from lunch and perhaps we could open some presents here too if she was okay with that? I went to comb her hair and she looked up and smiled at me.

As I was leaving I kissed her cheek and gave her a cuddle. She said, “Steph, have a happy life!”

That was 11 years ago now and her home phone number is still recorded on my mobile as ‘Nan and Grandpa’. I’ve often thought if it’s silly to still have her name in there because she’s not here any more, but that house will always be Nan and Grandpa’s. I find myself thinking about a voicemail on my phone from years ago that I had deleted quickly at the time - because it was following a very difficult conversation we’d had. I regret being so brash, wishing for that message to magically reappear so I have an actual record of her voice somewhere to keep, even if it was a painful reminder. I worry that one day I won’t be able to remember the sound of her voice at all. That all the memories and images will just slip through my fingers like sand.

My family grieved very differently, as people do. It’s been curious watching how when one person dies, so does their role they were holding within their relationships to an extent. Someone articulated this so beautifully from their own experience during a Loss Project workshop I was involved in. That comment really struck me and reminded me of how different elements of our family dynamics are now that my Nan is not there to hold parts of the web.

My Nan’s final words to me have always been the greatest gift anyone has given me. I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have been able to spend time with her that evening and to have heard those words. I carry with them wherever I go. I know how many people aren’t afforded that time or opportunity. It doesn’t take away the grief that I still feel when I catch a strobe-like memory of her in my mind, but those words provide some comfort and a handy compass for life.

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