7) “So how are YOU doing, Mark?”

It’s probably the question I’ve been asked most but find the hardest to answer. So why not blog about it, I hear you (probably not) ask.

I don’t mind at all being asked how I’m doing, I’m always grateful for people enquiring, but my response is initially the same most of the time: “I don’t know.”

That’s because I genuinely don’t. One minute I’m dealing with things quite well and the next I’m a blubbering wreck because something has pushed the ‘grief button’ and set all the emotions rolling.

I try and be reasonably composed when I have company. I don’t like the thought of disintegrating into an emotional mess around other people, just because others might rightly be unsure how to react and indeed it might upset them too. I know it’s an expected scenario and nobody would begrudge me being upset, but I try and keep the more serious ‘wobbles’ to when I’m alone.

Those tend to be numerous. I might go a day without one and then the next day I have several. Following on from the incredibly difficult job of sorting through Nicola’s belongings, in the last couple of days I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures and videos that have Nicola in them from throughout the last 11 years, sometimes doing it with Grace. Needless to say, it’s sent the mercury rising to the top on the ‘griefometer’.

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One of the many memories Nicola and I created that involved a bar in a foreign city somewhere – this one in San Francisco as part of our honeymoon

Pictures and videos are so important and I’m realising that now more than ever. Thankfully I’ve always been one to whip the camera out given half the chance and I have thousands that feature Nicola. Whilst they’re of course hard to look at right now, I’m so glad they exist because not only do they remind me of the good times, they’re also great for our little girl to see not just now, but perhaps most importantly as she grows up and tries to form an accurate image of her mummy that I don’t think she can fully achieve through just being told about her.

Videos are perhaps that bit more poignant because I can hear Nicola’s voice and her laugh and see her beaming personality shining through. For a few seconds, if I shut my eyes, I can almost imagine she’s in the room with me which can be a combination of a comfort and then a heartbreaker when the video stops and I’m brought back to the reality that she’s gone and that I can’t enjoy those moments with her again. Without fail that’s bringing the tears on at the moment but I hope it’ll improve.

When it comes to the grieving process as a whole, I’ve tried not to be too quick to go down the ‘woe is me’ and ‘it’s so unfair’ line because the fact remains that this is life, these things (and worse) happen to an awful lot of people and, above all, because I have SO much to be thankful for from the times I had with Nicola.

Yes, the fact I’ve been denied more great times with her hurts, a lot, but as I said in the eulogy I delivered at her funeral, the fabulous memories we created will go a little way to easing the pain of her not being alongside me as we grow old.

Having said all of that, there is an inevitability that one does sit and feel extremely hard done by because that’s a natural human instinct. We’re good people, with great families and friends and a beautiful young daughter, and yet life dealt us this horrid situation that we had virtually no control over and it’s ripped us apart in more ways than one, although I’m keen to emphasise that I mean that in a mental and emotional sense because it’s probably brought us all much closer together as individuals.

So, in the last couple of days I’ve perhaps gone down the ‘it’s not fair’ route a little more than usual because the memories generated from looking back at photos and videos have, in slightly simple terms, made me feel like a baby that has its favourite toy cruelly snatched away, and has probably generated a similar reaction!

Overall, the days seem to be passing by in a bit of a blur. I’ve started phasing back into work, but even though I work from home the whole process hasn’t been as ‘straightforward’ as I thought it might have been. I’m incredibly lucky to have a very supportive team around me, but motivation is difficult and I sometimes feel guilty that, just six weeks on, I’m sitting there doing something so ‘normal’ in the sense that it’s something I did routinely before Nicola died.

After all, how can anyone be expected to slip back into any kind of normality or routine so soon after the love of your life has passed away?

That’s a natural reaction, I think, and people have told me not to feel guilty about feeling guilty, but it’s prominent at the moment. It can’t be something I dwell on too much, and certainly can’t hold me back from at least trying to get back into what will be a very new sense of normality. The alternative is that the whole thing causes me to stagnate and Nicola would be the first in line to launch me if I let that happen, not least for Grace’s sake.

Speaking of Grace, she’s been so important to all of Nicola’s close family since Nicola died. Being the bright, intelligent and entertaining three-year-old that she is, she’s been a great distraction and lifts us all psychologically, the importance of which is easy to underestimate. Quite literally a ‘saving grace’, if you will.

My toughest times are when I’m at home on my own or when Grace is in bed, such is the positive distraction she proves to be when I’m in her company. I take her out for dinner, on excursions (we’ve been to the zoo today), to the shops – you name it, we tend to do it. That’s how I always want it to be, and whilst it will never be the same doing those things without Nicola, if I keep letting that factor be a barrier we’d end up doing nothing. Again, Nicola would not be happy!

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Grace chats to a giant tortoise on our day out to the zoo

To coin an oft-used cliché, ‘time is a healer’, and I know that things on all levels will get better. I’ll always love and miss Nicola terribly, that will never change, and I’ll always feel incredibly hard done by that she’s gone, but I owe it to myself, Grace, Nicola’s family and perhaps most importantly to Nicola herself to not let this whole situation consume me to the point where it’s any more detrimental to our lives than it naturally will be.

I’m always comforted by Nicola’s strong belief that she ‘won at life’, that she was happy with her lot and that despite the way and manner in which it’s all ended so prematurely, she’d live her whole life over and over again if she could. Whilst I’m fortunate enough to be able to feel the same way about my own life, and that’s despite the pain I’m now going through in this particular part of it, I’m now keen to make sure I can progress in a way that before too long, when I’m asked the question at the top of this post, I can forever say: “I’m really good, thank you.”

 

6) On to the job in hand

Having written five blogs pretty much setting the scene and banging on a lot about my lovely wife, it’s probably time to finally address the reason why I’m writing all this stuff in the first place.

At the age of 38, I’ve been tasked with bringing up my three-year-old daughter on my own. Well, I say ‘on my own’, I do have a great support network in place to help me, but you know what I mean.

The situation I’m faced with isn’t all that rare. Plenty of people are tasked with bringing up children alone due to marriage break-ups and such like, as well as those like myself who have been widowed.

Nevertheless, statistically there aren’t many widowed guys in their 30s put in this situation and although I’m aware of one or two through the various support groups I’ve encountered so far, it seems even more rare that those affected have children as young as Grace.

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My little girl

As I’ve said before, the fact Nicola was terminally ill for nearly a year meant we knew this situation was coming at some point, so we were able to plan various aspects of it and she was in a position to discuss certain things with me in advance.

But on the whole, her belief was that while she was obviously devastated that she wasn’t going to be able to see the little girl she doted on grow up, she had every faith I’d do a grand job.

No pressure, then

I did my best while Nicola was alive to prove to her that I’d be just fine. From the day Grace was born I was a very hands-on dad so I’ve always taken on plenty of responsibility, particularly as I had to while Nicola was ill anyway, but clearly this was going to be a very different kind of scenario.

I’d therefore get frustrated sometimes when I didn’t handle something all that well or wasn’t able to do a fundamental parental job sufficiently, fearing that Nicola would somehow lose confidence in me moving forward. Realistically, I had no real need to feel that way, but it’s just how things were in my mind.

Grace and I are incredibly close. She’s always been a ‘Daddy’s girl’ and whilst she was of course equally as close to her mum, the fact that since Nicola died Grace has seamlessly adapted to it being just ‘me and her’ has helped a great deal.

I’ll talk about how Grace has coped with losing Nicola in a separate blog, but for now I’ll just say that initially, she’s handled it better than I thought she might.

That in turn has helped me and others who have been so saddened by what’s happened. Grace has been a constant therapy due to her happy and fun-loving nature and without her I’m nigh on certain we’d all be in a very different place psychologically to where we find ourselves now.

We’ve always had to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible for Grace. She’d got very used to her mum being ill as she was just 11-months-old when Nicola was first diagnosed, but thanks to the support I’ve had we’ve managed to minimise disruption to her overall development.

That was of paramount importance too when Nicola died. Within a couple of weeks, Grace started nursery and preparing for that proved a welcome distraction from everything else going on. We’d had to essentially quarantine Grace from hugely social situations like playgroups and so on due to the risk of infection; she always picked up colds etc but passing those on to Nicola could cause lots of problems and on one occasion did so. Thankfully Nicola emerged, just, to fight on.

So, I wasn’t sure how she’d get on at nursery but, thankfully, she loves it and has already wowed her teacher with how bright she is. I know I’m biased, but for a child who has just turned three she’s very clever and I think her supervisors were quite taken aback on her first day when, for example, she was the only one who could spell her name, write it down and pick it out on a list of others!

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Grace and I after one of her (thankfully rare) 5am excursions into my bed a couple of months ago.

The fact that’s the case is also a big help. Developmentally, the sort of situation Grace has found herself in from a very young age could have had a negative effect, but Nicola – who taught four and five-year-old children for a living – was always keen to ensure she was learning at every opportunity so thankfully it’s been quite a seamless transition into the school environment.

I can also hold quite advanced conversations with Grace too which has helped when it’s come to explaining just what’s happened to her mum. Again, I’ll go over all of that in a separate blog, but the fact she can converse like she can and already ask quite pertinent questions means that the daunting job of trying to help her understand has been made just a little easier.

So all of those factors have been a big help. Don’t get me wrong, at three-years-old there remains an awful lot Grace won’t understand, nor should she be expected to, and we’re having to approach some aspects accordingly, but I’m of the opinion that she’s actually a good age to be experiencing this because she’s old enough to have some memories of Nicola and understand the basics, yet perhaps not old enough to be too adversely affected by what’s happened. Time will tell, I guess.

Far from being daunted by the journey ahead, I’m actually relishing it. I’ll do as much as I can with Grace on a daddy-daughter level and generate as many great experiences as I can for her throughout her childhood. It will be hard work, there’s no question about that, but proper parenting is hard work for anyone no matter what the circumstances so I just need to make things work for us.

I’m utterly devastated that Nicola isn’t on this journey with me, but I owe it to her to ensure that Grace will flourish.

 

5) Dealing with the aftermath

The last blog talked about the funeral but this one kind of prequels that a bit because I’ll talk about how things felt immediately after Nicola died and in the run-up to her final farewell.

I promise I’ll get round to the whole ‘widowed daddy’ thing eventually like I’ve said I will…

Nicola passed away late on a Thursday evening and even though I didn’t sleep particularly well that night, despite being utterly drained from the previous few days, I knew I’d have to be pretty on the ball in the immediate aftermath.

For a start, I needed to make a lot of phone calls to inform various people, then there was the not insignificant challenge of how to tell Grace.

The phone calls came and went before I spoke to Grace, mainly because she woke up in a bit of a strop and wanted to be downstairs with my mum rather than talking to me! Suffice to say I let her cheer up for a couple of hours before broaching the subject.

Future blogs will go fully into how I’ve talked to Grace about all this and how she’s taken it, but initially it was just a case of being as honest as I could be with her and giving her the basic details. She listened, saw I was upset, cuddled me lots and even gave me one of her dolls’ dresses to help wipe away the tears, which as you can imagine broke my heart into even more pieces.

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Grace was immediately a great support to me from the second I first told her about her mum passing away.

Those initial jobs done, the rest of the day actually felt quite surreal – in fact it has done ever since. For two years, I’d had the shackles of Nicola’s illness both in a mental and physical sense at the forefront of my life, yet suddenly I was faced with the fact that no matter how much I was always happy to, there was nothing I could do anymore to help her and that she didn’t need me to be fetching her medication every hour or so, and also that I wasn’t worried sick about how her illness would eventually take her away.

I’d hesitate to use the word ‘relief’, but there was certainly a sense of there being a degree of release from the very difficult bubble we’d all been in while she was ill, as well as a lot of comfort that the end came with her in no pain and with her immediate family sat with her.

It’s easy to be selfish and wish that she’d been around for a lot longer, but I had to remember that in Nicola’s case that would also have equated to a lot more suffering and although that was something she herself admitted she’d have been prepared to endure in order to witness things like Grace starting nursery or another Christmas as a family, the reality was that the nature of her illness meant it was causing more and more irreparable damage not just to Nicola but to all of us the longer it went on.

As anyone who’s lost a family member knows, there’s a lot of formalities that need to be carried out, sometimes quite quickly, and over the following week or two I spent an awful lot of time on the phone and online sorting various affairs out. That didn’t bother me because it kept me busy, and whilst I had many moments of grief and mourning as you’d expect, I was determined not to let that consume me to the point where I just ended up being a gibbering wreck the whole time, especially with Grace around.

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This is (possibly) me dealing with all the paperwork following Nicola’s death. 

Having family and friends around me was crucial as they gave me a psychological lift, but I also needed time alone to grieve rather than bottling it all up; I’m not keen on being overly-emotional in front of people if I can help it so preferred to do that alone.

One of the hardest parts of the first few days was the process of going through Nicola’s belongings. Our bedroom, for starters, contained lots of her clothes and personal effects but I felt like I needed to begin the sifting fairly quickly because every time I woke up in the morning I was looking right at her things and it was having a very saddening effect.

It’s been one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had to do. Clothes, for example, are just pieces of fabric, but they were pieces of fabric that Nicola chose and wore so well and many dresses and tops were synonymous with her given she wore some more than others. Those were the hardest to work out what to do with.

It simply didn’t feel right having to discard even the simplest things. A lot has been kept, such as things that are still of use to us and things that hold good memories, but there are some things that if kept would just sit ‘collecting dust’ and that didn’t hold enough sentimental value to keep. That said, it’s still hard to just toss them away – after all, they’re Nicola’s things and it’s hard to accept she can no longer use them.

The thing that’s stood out most over the five weeks it’s now been since Nicola died is simply the huge chasm she’s left behind. Such was her personality, vivacity, humour and charm, someone I spent so much of the last 11 years with suddenly not being there is almost impossible to get my head around.

I keep wanting to ask her things, check things with her, or simply hold her tight and reassure her, but I can’t do that anymore and it doesn’t feel right. A huge part of me is missing that will never be replaced.

That kind of reality is harder to take on some days than others, but nothing can change it and it’s a case of constantly trying to make the best out of it. One thing about knowing Nicola so well is that I could pretty accurately predict what she would have said or advised in certain situations (not that she’d admit it…) so she’s actually been helping me make a few decisions even though she’s no longer here.

That might refer to when I bought some clothes for Grace last week or a bigger decision such as something money-related – in no way do I yet feel that I’m making certain choices alone. Thankfully, Nicola was usually right about stuff, so it’s probably best that I bear her supposed thoughts in mind for a while yet!

The issues I’ve covered here are really just the tip of the iceberg. Overall, the last five weeks have been a massive roller coaster of emotion on so many levels. We knew Nicola was going to die from her illness, but nothing could have prepared any of us for the true sense of loss we’d feel simply due to not being able to see her, talk to her, laugh with her or hug her.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take for that to ease enough for it not to feel like my heart’s being ripped out, and I know it’s all part of the natural grieving process, but whilst it’s true that Nicola herself would be sitting here now telling me to get my backside in gear and start getting on with my life, I can’t help but feel it’s going to take a while.

4) Saying goodbye

I wasn’t going to do a blog on Nicola’s funeral – the plan was to finally start banging on about life as a widowed daddy – but given the day had a pretty profound effect on so many people I figured I’d talk about it.

Funerals are strange. They’re a necessary evil, something you pretty much have to be dragged kicking and screaming to yet also the last chance to fully pay your final respects to the one you’ve lost.

We were keen to make Nicola’s send-off as happy and as colourful as possible. It’s not easy, given the devastation that everyone still feels having lost her, but her very nature was a bright, bubbly and colourful person and she’d requested her funeral reflect that where possible.

 

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The order of service front cover from Nicola’s funeral

To that end, we encouraged people to wear bright coloured clothing and whilst the service itself was tough going, even with a few quips thrown into the tribute I delivered, there were plenty of laughs and stories told at the ‘after party’ and later in the evening.

One of the ‘advantages’, if you can call it that, of Nicola knowing she’d be having a funeral in the near future was that she was able to plan much of it. As well as the bright coloured clothing request, she dictated where it would be held, what music would be played and which poem would be chosen to be read in church, which was ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, delivered superbly by her sister.

The venue was an important one. Despite not being particularly religious people, we chose the church we did because not only had we married there eight years previously, but it was also where Nicola’s parents had married, where she’d been christened and where her maternal grandparents are buried – as she now is too.

It was the scene of our happiest ever day together, so the contrast of it then being the saddest ever day for many of us was stark, yet somehow comforting too.

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The rural church where we married, where Nicola’s funeral was held and where she is now buried.

The hours leading up to the service were difficult. I was dreading having to go for obvious reasons, and whilst being quite used to public speaking meant doing the eulogy itself wasn’t a concern to me, I wanted to make sure what I said was delivered well given Nicola’s entire family and group of friends would be present. Thankfully, I managed to keep my emotions largely in check and it went without a hitch. I was also pleased to be able to put smiles on tearful faces.

I hadn’t been to see Nicola since she’d died. She knew I wouldn’t, as it’s something I’d have found very hard to do. As explained in the last blog, I was there when she slipped away and for around half-an-hour afterwards, but didn’t want any subsequent memories to cloud the positive ones I had of her being alive and being herself, rather than just a relative shell in front of me.

Her mum and her sister had both visited her, which I was pleased about, but on a personal level I’d have found it too difficult for numerous reasons including those mentioned.

Therefore, seeing the hearse arrive at her parents’ house was hard. Her coffin was flanked by floral arrangements spelling out ‘Nicola’ and ‘Mummy’, which in itself was hard to see, but I was also closer to her in a physical sense than I’d been at any point in the three weeks since she died and it automatically made me feel a combination of comfort and sadness.

It’s surreal knowing that the person you love so much is just lying in a box in front of you and there’s no way you can communicate with them, yet I was also happy that she was there, safe, and we could accompany her on her final journey.

The church was barely a two-minute drive from the house so the journey didn’t drag on. Following Nicola into church was difficult, although my main concern was for her parents who were understandably upset too. Seeing a selection of photos I’d put together flashing up on a projector screen just before we walked in added a sense of surrealness to it all as well.

The service itself was, as anyone who has been through one knows, sad and poignant, but as mentioned already, my eulogy was designed to raise a smile or two with stories about Nicola and thankfully that’s what happened.

The burial took place straight afterwards. That was arguably the hardest part for me. Everyone gathered at the graveside and seeing Nicola lowered into the ground was emotional, as were the formalities of throwing soil and even a rose onto her coffin. But those things also helped with the closure element too.

As everyone dispersed, I made a point of returning to the graveside alone for 30 seconds or so. It was my last chance to be alone with Nicola before I could no longer ‘see her’ – albeit she was in a coffin – and I said a few words to her before walking away, knowing there was nothing more I could say or do.

I’ll return there on many occasions, of course, and I already talk to Nicola all the time let alone at her graveside, but I’m glad I had that final moment with her at that particular time.

The ‘talking to’ subject is a strange one. On one hand, you know that at a time like I’ve just mentioned, you’re merely talking to a person’s shell, and in this case located in another shell in terms of the coffin. Their spirit has gone and you know that the body in that form can’t hear you.

On the other hand, it feels like a natural thing to do. I find myself talking to Nicola at home quite a bit, not in a conversational sense where I’m sat frustrated that she’s ignoring me (not for the first time in our marriage…) but merely just telling her stuff and how I feel.

I don’t know what happens after death, we have no proof either way whether it’s just nothingness or whether there is some way that one can ‘look down’ and see and hear what’s happening. I admit to finding the latter scenario hard to logically believe to be the case, but I guess it only matters what people find comfort in and if Nicola is ‘up there’ listening to me and able to watch us then all well and good. If she’s not, so be it.

Explaining things to Grace has also involved the kinds of what one might call spiritual ideology related to Nicola that will help her understand a little more what’s happened, but that’s for another blog.

Anyway, the rest of the day of the funeral saw us gather for the ‘after party’ and I recall seeing very few tears there, just smiles, which is how Nicola would have wanted it. Later on, we all returned back to our various bases and glasses were raised and more laughs had as we recalled the lady we’d lost.

The funeral created a large degree of closure for me. Whilst I’ll constantly miss Nicola and never forget her, getting that day out of the way was the trigger for me to start phasing back into doing some work and Nicola herself would be the first to be kicking me up the backside now and telling me to get on with life.

Four days on, that’s proving hard at this stage but I know it’s early. I still have a few formalities to finalise and a few more of her things to go through which in itself is very difficult, but if I let things stagnate for too long it will make the recovery process even harder.

Grace started nursery last week, which will form part of the next blog, so that has helped a lot too.

Life without Nicola will never be the same, but however hard it might be, it has to go on.

 

 

3) Nicola’s cancer journey

I can remember quite vividly the point at which our lives turned upside down.

I’d just been out to Zambia in Africa to be best man at my lifelong friend’s wedding. I was away for a week and being 6,000 miles away from Nicola and Grace (who was 10-months-old) was very hard as it was the first time we’d been apart for more than a couple of days.

However, things at that point were great. Grace was thriving, my own job was going well and Nicola, who was heading towards the end of her maternity leave, had just been appointed in a permanent role at a nearby primary school.

As I sat on the long flights home, I couldn’t wait to get back to them and continue where we’d left off and genuinely felt thrilled with how life was going.

I’d been back home for just a few days when Nicola first mentioned she’d noticed a lump in her right breast. This wasn’t entirely unusual, as she’d had the occasional cysts in the past and whilst initially we were keen to put it down to being another, I did tell her that a trip to the doctors was probably a good idea. She was never one to go running to a doctor, but I told her that if she didn’t book an appointment I would!

We had a weekend away with my family in Essex, then when we got back Grace was a bit poorly so she ended up being taken to the doctors first.

Eventually, Nicola got an appointment and sure enough the GP wasn’t entirely happy and referred her to the breast unit at the hospital so Nicola could have a biopsy.

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Nicola and Grace just a couple of weeks before the first diagnosis in June 2015.

At this point we weren’t all that worried. A large majority of biopsies result in lumps being confirmed as benign and even while Nicola was having it all done I wasn’t concerned.

However, when she returned to the room I was in her face told a different story. The docs had said that her lump was ‘highly suspicious’, to the point where they felt nigh on certain that it was cancerous and that we were to return the following week to discuss a treatment plan. To say we were knocked for six would be an understatement.

The following days were horrendous, mostly because at this point we didn’t know just how bad things were, whether the cancer was prevalent anywhere else and just what the prognosis would be.

When we returned to meet with the surgeon, she confirmed it was cancer but that she felt it was treatable and that Nicola could be cured. Strangely, this actually ended up being a big relief. A plan was put in place to give Nicola several bouts of chemotherapy in order to try and shrink the lump to the point where the more drastic surgery options may not be necessary.

I won’t go too much into what followed in the next few months, but it was very tough for Nicola as the drugs she was given were very strong and at times left her in a lot of pain and very tired. Her young age meant the assault on the cancer was that bit more aggressive given she could theoretically cope better with the drugs.

Eventually, with all of her hair gone and her body hammered by treatment, it was decided that a mastectomy was the best way forward after all, including the removal of the lymph glands under one of her arms, and that was then followed by some radiotherapy over the course of two or three months.

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Nicola at one of her chemo sessions. This one was just six weeks before she died.

Finally, in May 2016, it was revealed that Nicola was finally ‘cancer free’. They could find no further trace of it and she was told to go on and live her life and enjoy herself. Clearly, we were overjoyed and enjoy ourselves we did, with trips away and a great summer had by all of us, including Nicola belatedly starting in the job that had been held for her at the nearby school.

We even bought a new house. It was a bit of a project, but it was one we’d get our teeth into straight away and having got the keys and done a bit of initial work, we moved in during October.

Nicola was loving life at her school and things were going well, but one day she complained that she was feeling quite breathless and the symptoms got worse quite quickly. We’d only been in the house for four days.

Another trip to the GP followed, and although he said it could be a chest infection, he also dangled the possibility that the cancer could have returned – to Nicola’s lungs this time in the form of a pleural effusion which is where fluid builds up in the lung’s lining, making it difficult for it to fully expand.

We always knew there was a high risk of the cancer returning one day, but for it to seemingly be happening just four months after Nicola had been declared cancer free was tough. Another hospital visit confirmed the worst, but with this being secondary breast cancer, it wasn’t just any old diagnosis.

This time Nicola couldn’t be cured. The treatment they put in place was merely to try and contain things and improve symptoms, with the hope that the cancer wouldn’t spread anywhere else too soon.

It was tough to handle. Going through it all once was bad enough, but to be told this was now a terminal illness clearly affected us all. We tried to keep optimistic as the treatment had positive effects initially, but Nicola was not only having to cope with the physical battering but also mentally, not knowing how long she’d survive and how much she’d see of Grace growing up.

Again, in an attempt to summarise given the horrendous months that followed, things were very hit and miss and it was then revealed in February that the cancer had spread to her liver. That left Nicola very weak much of the time, needing a wheelchair whenever we went out and requiring a garage conversion to give her a downstairs bedroom at home given it was hard for her to use the stairs.

There were times when she amazed us. A birthday party we threw for her in April saw her energised and loving every minute of having loads of people around – she even managed a boogie on the dancefloor!

She was then adamant we throw Grace a memorable third birthday party in July which we did, with a house and garden full of people and even professional performers hired to sing and dance as the characters from Frozen – with Nicola again joining in with the dancing at one point!

But just three weeks later things took a final and dramatic turn. I was awoken in the middle of the night by Nicola shouting for me and when I walked into her room her eyes were wide open but she couldn’t see. Unsurprisingly she was panicking but as I attempted to calm her down she suddenly went into a considerable seizure.

It was terrifying to watch, mostly because I knew neither what was happening nor why. Grace was asleep upstairs and at one point I had a 999 call on one phone and my mother-in-law on another trying to get Nicola’s dad over to watch our daughter – who ended up sleeping through the entire drama.

Nicola gradually came round as the ambulance crew arrived about 20 minutes later, although it took a while for her to come out of her confused state.

Once at hospital, a CT scan confirmed that the cancer had spread to her brain. Another seizure followed later that morning but with the doctors talking me through it, this one wasn’t quite so scary even though they’re never pleasant to watch. No long-term damage was being done, not to the brain anyway.

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Nicola and Grace just days before Nicola went back into hospital for the last time.

However, Nicola was now in a lot of trouble and over the coming days she would get weaker and weaker as the cancer in her liver (which had been initially due to get more chemo thrown at it the day after her seizures) started to take hold on her body and the issues in her brain started to leave her confused and tired.

The hardest bit for all of us was not just seeing her suffer (again) so much physically, but her well-renowned and much-loved personality and sparkle began to fade and were gone entirely in her final days.

Two days before she died, she was unable to even make her own way to the toilet anymore and at that point I saw, for the first time, her fight was gone.  It was heartbreaking, particularly watching her hug and kiss Grace for what I just knew would be the last time, although Nicola wasn’t particularly lucid at that point so it didn’t affect her in the same way – which was perhaps a good thing in some ways.

I’d spent ten hours a day, every day, in hospital with Nicola for a week-and-a-half, but it was the last one that will live with me forever.

Gradually her body was shutting down and in the final hours her various faculties went too. In some ways I’m glad she wasn’t fully aware of what was happening. She knew she was dying, but seemed to just let it happen. She knew there was nothing else that could help her and her body simply couldn’t fight anymore.

Late on a Thursday night, she passed away with her mum, dad, sister and I all around her. She knew we were there and managed to talk a little, slipping away in no pain at all and with us holding her hands. Even though we’d known for a while the moment was coming, nothing could have prepared us for it. I’m only glad she was pain free and that we were all there.

I couldn’t face staying in the room with her for too long. My mum was at home with Grace and I felt I needed to be with them. Having done everything I possibly could to help Nicola over the course of the previous two years and make her more comfortable, for the first time I suddenly realised that neither I or anyone else could do any more.

The next blog will focus on the immediate aftermath of what had happened and the very first steps on the journey that inspired this blog in the first place.