Sarah Lynham, 1979–2015.

Book dedication: “For Sarah, my sister. Your courage is inspiring.”

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.