Just before 9am on 1st May 2015, my sister, Sarah Lynham, died.
In 2013 Sarah was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix. In early 2014, after long chemotherapy, she was pronounced all clear — with the proviso that the cancer could return. In October the same year, a few days before her 35th birthday, she received the news that the cancer had returned, had spread into her lungs, and was treatable but not curable. She had further chemotherapy to try to arrest the spread and give her a little more time. In April 2015 the cancer had spread to her brain and she fell unconscious and was taken to hospital. After a few days she was moved to a hospice where she was kept sedated to avoid pain. And there she spent her final days.
I now understand the difference between grief and mourning. I grieved when I heard the news of Sarah’s cancer, again when it returned and the forecast was terminal, again when she went into hospital, and once more when she died; grief occurs in phases. You mourn only once, when someone is gone. Grief is sharp, it rolls over you in waves, it hurts, it racks your body with sobs. Mourning is blunt, flat, an absence.
Grief is unfair on those who can’t process it. Sarah has three children, who each dealt with death as their understanding of it allowed. On finding out that Sarah had gone to hospital the youngest child (aged seven) screamed that she couldn’t live without her mummy. But after that, through the weeks of decline in the hospice and the death, she barely revealed any sadness at all. Grief will find her in a different way, and it won’t be nice to be around.
For the first few days of her hospital stay, Sarah would wake up occasionally and you could exchange a few sentences with her. Sometimes what she said would make little sense, which was largely because she was on a high dose of morphine and having rich dreams. One time I asked her if she was okay, and she said yes, she was just rediscovering the island. But as the tumours in her brain became more aggressive, her happy hallucinations turned into nonsense, before she stopped speaking entirely.
She died in Spring, with skies that were blue and largely free of clouds. This weather felt indecent. The trees were in rich blossom and the fields around the hospital in Dorset full of new-born lambs. A rude and mostly welcome reminder that life goes on.
Because her dying was extended over weeks, and because life goes on, the mundane routines of the day-to-day had to happen. You still have to take the bins out when your sister is dying, you still have to make phone calls to British Gas. I took my nephews and nieces to Nando’s for lunch, but felt too ashamed to check in on Swarm in case people thought I was enjoying myself and not being sufficiently solemn. I was enjoying myself, I was with my family, but felt I had to self-censor to give the appropriate appearance. Also, there are a lot of hours involved in waiting for someone to die; you have to pass the time between the peaks of grief with banal and trivial activities: reading, social media, television.
Questions of propriety… when I heard she was dying and went to visit I needed to pack a case, but found myself completely paralysed by indecision: what clothes do you wear to your sister’s death? And what is appropriate behaviour at the side of the death bed? One time all my immediate family were around the bed and someone made a rude joke, and we all fell around laughing. I don’t know if I’m meant to feel guilty about that.
I’m not angry about any perceived unfairness at her death; I know that life seems cruel because it’s impartial. But I get angry at the mysticism around death. I know people have different beliefs to me, and if it’s comforting for them to believe that Sarah’s gone to a better place, then I welcome the sentiment. But it hurts me to hear people say that Sarah has become an angel, she was flown to heaven on the wings of a dove, she’s smiling down on us… It’s not true. She’s dead, and she’s gone, and she’s never coming back. Perhaps that’s unreasonable, I don’t want to tell people how to deal with loss; but for me, the end of her considerable pain should be sufficient solace to take from her death.
I dread having to talk to people about her death. I don’t know what to say. There is nothing nice or original to be said about death. On the night she was admitted to hospital I took a taxi home, and the driver tried to make conversation. Was I visiting someone? Yes, I replied, my sister. Well I hope she gets better soon, he said. How could I respond to that? I didn’t want to make him feel bad for asking a question with a horrible answer. All I could say was, unfortunately not, then we sat in silence for ten minutes.
This post doesn’t have a conclusion, it was about me trying to make sense of the past few weeks, putting my thoughts into some kind of order. And really I just wanted to write that I loved her, and I’ll miss her.
To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.
Postscript: Sarah’s end was made easier for everyone by the gentle and humane staff of the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust. They made Sarah’s last days more comfortable, and helped her family — especially the children — come to terms with the loss. I’ve made a private donation to their trust, but wanted to do more to help other families dealing with cancer.
Because of this, I took part in the Nightrider 2015 event, a 100km overnight cycle around London, and I chose to raise funds for Marie Curie. Although the event is over now, donations are still open. If you could spare a few pounds, you can donate through my Just Giving page, or if you’re in the UK you can text your donation to 70070 using the code PGNR72. For example, to donate £5, you would send: PGNR72 £5
Im very grateful for every contribution, which all go to help thousands of families going through the pain of losing someone they love.