When Zak lost his mum Emma to pancreatic cancer, in August 2019 at the age of just 41 – and only four months after her initial diagnosis – he received support through Rennie Grove’s bereavement counselling service. Here Zak, now 22, from Hemel Hempstead, discusses how working through his feelings with someone emotionally removed from his family situation really helped him to move forward.
“Mum started experiencing severe pain in December 2018, and kept going to see her GP as well as visiting our local accident and emergency department at Luton and Dunstable Hospital,” Zak said. “It took five months for her to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but as soon as she was, we knew it was going to be terminal. We were told that more than 90% of patients with the condition only live for three months after diagnosis.
“Mum and I were always extremely close – I’m the oldest of her four children, and my siblings were aged 18, 16 and three when we lost her. She was very positive at the start, so we took our outlook from her, but she deteriorated very quickly. She was offered chemotherapy at Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood, but it was to extend her life, not cure the cancer.
“Before developing cancer Mum was very active, and had actually ran the London Marathon in 2018. She worked as a health and safety advisor for the National Trust in St Albans. During her illness she would try to get up and go for a walk each day, and she also managed to make the trip to Broadstairs in Kent to see my Nan – who was also travelling up regularly to support us and spend as much time with Mum as possible.
“At the time mum was diagnosed I had been training to be an accountant, but I had to put my qualifications on hold and started working from home, as I became Mum’s main carer. My girlfriend Julia was able to get a few days off work here and there to help, but I covered most of the care, making meals and protein shakes for Mum, making sure she took her medication and working from her bedside. At this point Rennie Grove’s nurses were coming in regularly to care for Mum at our family home, which was very helpful. She wanted to stay at home for as long as possible and Rennie Grove helped make this happen.
“As the eldest child in our family I’ve always had a lot of responsibility, and I think I’d got used to helping Mum to manage. When she became very ill it was just instinct to care for her. My dad was working away from home overseas at the time, so as well as caring for Mum I was also supporting my brothers and sisters. All of these circumstances meant I felt I was carrying a lot of the burden when Mum was ill.
“During her last month she was living in a bedded hospice because it had become impossible to treat the level of pain she was experiencing at home. I was visiting her every day. My Nan lived with her in the hospice during this time and did not leave Mum’s side once. We used to talk about what I wanted to do with my life. I know Mum was very proud of me.
“After Mum passed away in August 2019, I went straight back to my studies. I just wasn’t ready to accept losing her, and channelled my energies into work and revising for my exams. Coming up to that Christmas though things got really hard and I started receiving counselling through Rennie Grove.
“Quite early on I went for one face-to-face counselling session at Grove House, but it wasn’t the right time. I was still very angry at this point. I felt like no one understood what I was going through. I kept asking myself: ‘Why my mum? Why my family?’ I also felt that I’d be more comfortable with a male counsellor, and Rennie Grove was very happy to support me with this.
“I soon started seeing counsellor Gareth, who works part time for Rennie Grove. At first he would come to see me at our family home, but a few months later I moved in with my girlfriend, and then he would come to see me at our flat. Initially for me, the counselling was about being able to let off steam with lots of thoughts and feelings. It gave me some much-needed stability during that time. I was getting support from my girlfriend Julia, but I needed to speak with someone who was emotionally removed from the whole situation. Gareth gave me a different perspective on things and that was a huge help.
“I had two blocks of six counselling sessions, with my last one in April 2020. In person counselling sessions worked the best for me – I like to be able to see the facial expressions of the person I am talking to. The sessions were very focused on me talking through my family problems and about the family dynamics. There were no easy answers, but I learned that talking was the only way that I was going to heal. Now, looking back, I feel like I’ve done really well.
“It was hard to speak honestly about things at first, I think I’d locked so many things about losing Mum away. But I didn’t have to feel anxious about how what I was saying was being received by Gareth. At the end of our sessions I thought about carrying on with the counselling, but I felt like things had improved so much from where I started that I was okay for now. I know that I can always come back to Rennie Grove if I need more support in the future.
“I feel very different now to how I did in the months immediately after Mum died, and that I have matured a lot. I’ve tried to focus on myself and making sure that I am happy. If you don’t do that you can’t move on.
“To someone else struggling after a bereavement, I’d say try to allow yourself to open up to someone like a counsellor. Of course you can speak to family and close friends as well, but when you’re very angry after someone has died it can help if it’s someone not too close to the situation. Just speak up though, don’t bottle things up.
“One of the things that Gareth said to me that has stuck is that I needed to think about Mum, and he’d ask me lots of questions about her which not everyone does when you’ve lost someone. I’m very focused on my career, which I think comes from Mum, and I’ve recently won an award, AAT Apprentice of the Year. I wrote a special LinkedIn post dedicating the award to her.
“When I think about her now I remember how positive she always was and how much she did for us, how much she gave up for her children. I’ll always have those thoughts of her with me going forward. I won’t ever forget her.”