I had a very close colleague who was diagnosed with cancer, she didn’t want anyone to know and that was such a hard thing to keep to myself. Just before she passed, I had gone to visit her in the hospice, and although I had seen my grandparents ill, I don’t think I had ever seen anyone ill with cancer before. I had visited weekly when she was ill and although I thought I saw the decline I didn’t really see it. If anyone was going to die elegantly it was Celia and I know that sounds really odd but she was beautifully presented in the hospice. She was like a mum for me when I moved to Somerset, and then she passed and in true Michelle style I just kept going, kept going to work like ‘Everything was fine.’
A year and a half later my sister-in-law was diagnosed with bowel cancer, she was 39. This was Keith’s sister who he was very close to. She came to visit us one weekend, and when she walked in, I thought she didn’t look right. As I had experienced Celia being ill, I really noticed that she had lost a lot of weight, but her tummy was really protruding. We had a conversation about how she didn’t feel right and was having tests. She had recently fainted and found blood in her stools. I remember saying to Keith when she left that she wasn’t going to get better, that she had cancer. He was so angry with me, but it was like I just knew. She spent a year living with Keith’s mum and dad and then went into a hospice. I was very lucky with my job in that I was very much supported to be there as she has an eleven-year-old daughter, and somebody had to provide her support. So, I again watched my sister-in-law decline and then die over four weeks. The hospice care was amazing but her experience of death in comparison to Celia’s was brutal. It felt like she was being kept alive when she needed to die, in my opinion it was a horrible death. She was 40 when she died and for us that was shocking as she was so close in age to us. She died on the 15th of November which also happens to be my second daughter’s birthday, and that was tough because she was so young.
Then in April 2018 my mum was diagnosed with lung cancer. I wasn’t expecting it, but knew she hadn’t been right for a while. She visited in the February, and I asked her if she was alright, as again she just didn’t look right. She said she was fine and had been really busy at work. In May she decided to go for a lung resection, she knew she could die but we, her children did not know that. Nine days later she did die, but it wasn’t straightforward. She was put into intensive care, she had kidney failure, heart failure, you name it she was on every kind of machine keeping her alive. That was the most brutal death and I still can’t talk about the experience in the hospital. I knew that something had gone wrong and I started asking questions immediately after she died and that has led me on a three-year journey fighting for answers. I was summoned to an inquest that was requested by the hospital, I had to speak, and nobody should have to do that, it is a horrendous situation where there are people in charge that make you feel you are the s**t of the earth and I had never experienced anything like that. I was there for my mum, I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I definitely felt like I had because I dared to question things. The pathology report cited a body that was four stone heavier than my mum, was a metre taller than my mum. So it was a very complicated experience, and at that time there was no grief but a lot of anger and fighting for her.
Another colleague amongst all of this was diagnosed with breast cancer and she came to WHY. I remember them saying to me that she had used you. After initially trying a different telephone service without success, we had gone into crisis mode because we couldn’t bury my mum for five weeks. I was just looking around thinking ‘I don’t know what to do’ but I know I need something. Looking back now I was really ill, and I didn’t know how ill I was, and I’m not somebody who is great with vulnerability and saying, ‘I need some help’. I’m not great on the phone when I’m anxious so I emailed We Hear You, they emailed straight back which then kind of panicked me as they wanted to talk to me. I then emailed back thinking ‘I don’t know what to do’, then whoever emailed me back kind of said ‘I get it and that this is hard’. She didn’t quite word it like that, but it was something like that and I remember thinking that this may be ok, as they made it a warm experience. I think I am quite confident; I do a job where I am out with the public, but I just couldn’t put myself out there at that time because I was in grief. So, someone reaching out to me at that time was pivotal to get me through the door.
Then I had an initial assessment on the phone. When I recounted my story she said ‘Gosh you’ve been through a lot’, and I said ‘but I can’t cry about it’ and then promptly burst into tears, because she was listening to me. She wasn’t filling in the gaps, she wasn’t quick to tell me how many sessions I could have, it wasn’t like that. She told me there was a waiting list, they would get back to me, and could I get to Street. I was at the point where I just said ‘Whatever. Whatever you can give me I will take.’ I was prepared to do anything because I knew I was in crisis.
I stupidly went back to work just before the summer and then I met Kate my counsellor. I remember vividly going to Street, walking towards the door, and pacing up and down thinking ‘I don’t know what to do’. Do I ring, do I not ring, then this smiling person appeared in the doorway, almost like she knew if she hadn’t come out then I would have run off. I thought at the time, maybe I could work with you. I remember sitting there and Kate said ‘so what’s brought you here?’ and I started to tell her my story. During those first session it really helped me to understand the enormity of what has happened, as when I tell people they kind of go ‘oh gosh that’s such a lot’, but I just got on with it because that’s what I do. It was such a hard experience because I knew that I had to be out there with her and that was an excruciating place for me to be. I beautifully told the story of what had happened, and I left out any sign of how it had impacted me. I wasn’t anywhere near grieving; I was still too busy fighting a hospital trust. I was so angry, and it all became about justice, I wanted to get justice for my mum. To have Kate receive me and provide the validation was massive. She very much acknowledged my need to do this, and I felt very heard and very seen.
In one session, there was a particular place we had to go, and we went there. I sobbed and cried, and it was so difficult. I said, ‘that was really hard,’ and just to have her say ‘I know’ was enough, it was what I needed. What people don’t know about grief is that it steals things, it steals your happy, it steals your calm, it steals you being you. I disappeared and I became a kind of non-person for a while. Like I was just functional. I knew my GP and she was amazing, she phoned me while I was in Yorkshire saying, ‘I will do a sick form for you and take it to school’. She was good at checking in on me but my options down that route were limited to medication. I was in grief, and I didn’t want medicating, I remember saying to Kate ‘It’s supposed to hurt, I need to know if I’m coming out the other side of it, so how will I know if I anesthetize myself?’ I am not at all against medication, because I know it works for some people, but it wasn’t an option for me, for many reasons.
I suppose in grief there is often a misunderstanding of what is needed. It wasn’t until my mum died and having experienced all of this in a short space of time, I understood that it was different. When my mum died the noise I made was the same noise I made giving birth, it came from nowhere and I looked around thinking ‘who’s making that noise?’ and it was me. I was not in any way prepared for grief to feel like that and yet I had lost grandparents and Celia and my sister-in-law. I realize now that when Celia died, I was just walking around in this zombie type state, just getting through stuff and then Julia died and I just carried on getting by. Then mum died and this wave hit, and I really was a mess. I don’t think until now, that I am coming through and there are still some points where I feel like I haven’t grieved fully but I am definitely better equipped to deal with the grief now. I feel like I have been on a very long journey in that grieving process, and I suppose I knew that my grief would be halted by the court process. But grief needs to be seen and witnessed, I didn’t know I needed someone to say to me ‘what happened to you was awful.’ But that’s what I needed because I couldn’t process it. Kate said to me ‘I think you need to take some time off work’ and I remember saying ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t take time of work, what will they do without me, I can’t do that.’ You just didn’t take time off work in our family and so I just carried on. Now I look back and think I was really ill, or was it grief? I just didn’t expect grief to physically hurt.
I remember leaving the hospital in Yorkshire after my mum died and thinking that night ‘I don’t know what to do now, what does a world without your mum look like?’. During counselling I said to Kate ‘Well who’s going to be my mum now? Who’s going to look after me now?’ Kate was just so gentle with me through all of this. Giving constant reassurance about the enormity of what had happened. I now know I really needed to hear that and that I wasn’t actually losing my mind. It was a time when I wanted to disappear, I didn’t want to die but I just couldn’t see the point of anything. Grief made me feel like I had no purpose and yet of course I do have a purpose, I am a mum, a wife, a teacher, but at the time I had nothing to offer and I felt insignificant.
There were lots of other complicated things going on that Kate had to help me clamber through before I could get to my grief. I now know why she told me why I needed to take the time off work and I look back and wonder how I functioned, because I did go to work but I was hypervigilant about everything. I kept asking myself ‘Am I doing a good job? Am I being a good mum? Am I doing this right?’ All this time there was also Keith who had recently lost his sister, he didn’t even get to say goodbye to my mum as he was here with the girls. So it felt like we had two people drowning with just one piece of driftwood to hold on to, one would go under whilst the other held on and then the other would go under whilst the first would then hold on. Keith couldn’t grieve for his sister as now his wife’s mum has died. Our house became a really intense space, both trying to deal with our grief but also all the complications with estates and the inquest.
I just wanted to feel calm again, I wanted it to come back and Kate helped me not to give up. It sounds really little but it was just enormous for me. I was so distrusting of people at the time and Kate just offered the solace of going there for an hour each week where I could tell my story and I could tell her what had happened in my week. I knew what was coming each week and I would often dread it but welcome it at the same time. I would drive there, and my mood would shift as I would get myself into the headspace I needed to be in. Kate showed me that vulnerability was impactful and powerful and that wasn’t something that came easy to me and now I can see it.
I genuinely don’t know what would have happened to me if I had not met Kate, and that’s a really difficult thing sometimes to reflect on. If I hadn’t got help, I think I could have just been medicating for years and I think that could have been so damaging for me and my family. I don’t think I will ever be able to say how much it has impacted me. The only way I can share it is by telling my story and the enormity of what has happened. It’s only been three years, which isn’t really a long time for the grief that I have experienced and whilst I am nowhere near through it, I can now be happy at times and feel joy. The weekly timing was important to me, knowing I would be going on a Thursday morning every week allowed me to hold on to my emotions (which Kate told me wasn’t always a good thing) because for a really long time the only place I would cry is with Kate.
If someone hadn’t had the foresight to tell me that WHY existed I really think I would have been really ill and I just don’t think I would have come out the other side of it. Whereas I know I will come out the other side of this, as me, rather than a lesser version of me. It was such a valuable process; it was so human and gentle but pushed me when needed. The validation was so important, being there every week ready to listen to me and accepting me. It then became a really relaxed process.
There is nothing more helpful than sitting in a room and telling them your story and it just being accepted. She wasn’t telling me what to do, she didn’t provide me with the solutions, she helped me process it and helped me work through it and cope with it. Its so hard to articulate what it actually does for you, but it is transformative. It hasn’t just helped with the grief; it has provided me with a completely different perspective that has made me prioritise things in life. I do feel hopeful now and I feel happy. I have a different outlook on life. Counselling helped me be present again and be part of life again and to see life in a completely different way.