Today, if he was still with us, my brother would have turned 27. I can’t believe it’s been five years since he died. I thought I’d share the piece I wrote earlier in the year for CRY who were putting together a booklet for those who had lost a brother or sister. (Warning: a bit long and depressing!)
How old were you/where were you/what were you doing when you heard your brother had died
As I write this, it is five years ago to the week that we lost Gareth. He died in his sleep when he was 21. It’s difficult to think back and write about this time, as it all seems like such a horrible blur, and one that I’ve spent most of the last five years trying to put out of my mind.
I was 23 when Gareth died. Life was just starting out in a new direction for me. I had just moved into a new flat in Cardiff, and on the weekend that Gareth died my boyfriend Andy, who is now my husband, had moved down from Bolton to live with me. The day after, I was due to be starting a new job and was set to go down to London to start training. It was due to be a busy and exciting time.
It was a Sunday that Andy had moved down to Cardiff. To celebrate we had gone out to see some bands in town. It was a good night and I remember feeling that life was turning a new corner for me. And it was, just not in the way I was expecting.
I’d left my mobile at home, and when we got back to the flat after the gig there was a post-it note asking me to ring home. I knew this could only mean bad news, but I wasn’t prepared for what. When I rang home, my mum told me that Gareth had died and that they were coming to pick me up.
What was the impact on you of hearing this
I went into total shock. I remember pacing around the flat aimlessly , before trying to pack some clothes to take with me. I was so out of it I realised I’d packed an evening dress before realising what was going on. My parents, along with their best friends, came to pick me up and take me back to stay at my parents’ house. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so ended up spending the night reading some of my old university coursebooks in the hope they would lull me to sleep. I remember reading the whole of The Communist Manifesto, which is more than I’d ever managed during the whole of my politics degree. I felt numb, and not quite sure how I was supposed to acting or what I should be doing. Everything felt a bit surreal.
I had only seen Gareth a few days before. My mum and dad, Gareth and I had all gone out for food and looking back I’m so glad we had. Gareth had seemed fit and well so hearing about his death made no sense.
What was the impact on your parents when hearing this
The impact on my parents, and the rest of my family, was immeasurable. My mum has described being told that Gareth had died as ‘every parent’s worst nigthmare’.
Two policemen had come to the door on the Sunday evening to tell them that Gareth’s friends had found that he had died in his bed. He had gone to bed around 2.30am on the Saturday night and at 3.30pm on the Sunday, his friends looked into his room but thought that he was still asleep and as he had had a late night they decided to leave him alone. When they returned to the house two hours later they were surprised to find that he was still in bed. It was then they discovered that he had died. They called an ambulance and tried to revive him, but sadly there was nothing anyone could do. My parents had been allowed to see Gareth in the hospital mortuary, but hadn’t been allowed to touch him whilst the police continued their investigations.
I can’t imagine what that must have been like. The following days were just as painful. On the Monday morning we had to drive to visit both of my grandmothers so we could tell them in person. That was really difficult. They both seemed to see it as really unnatural that one of their grandchildren would die before them.
How did you feel in the lead up to his/ her funeral
The funeral was ten days later. Looking back, I don’t really remember much about the time leading up to the funeral. It was a surreal time where things started to sink in. There were a lot of practical things that needed doing but I really wasn’t sure what I could do to help. Until the post-mortem, a policeman had to stay stationed outside of Gareth’s room, and they had to take photos of all of his things and make sure they weren’t touched.
When we were able to go in and get his phone, I offered to ring some of his friends from university to tell them what had happened. They weren’t people I knew, and I hated having to deliver such bad news to them. However, at least it made me feel somewhat useful. I also rang a couple of places where Gareth had job interviews lined up. That was horrible as it made it sink in that Gareth’s plans had been cut short, and also because the people on the other end of the line weren’t sure how to react. I found that this was something that I would have to get used to.
I also had to sort things out with the job I had been due to start. They were really understanding and we decided to postpone my start date for a couple of weeks. This meant that there was a lot of time sitting around the house which I found difficult. I had never been so grateful for the coffee shop nearby. I spent a lot of time there just to get out of the house.
How did you feel during the funeral
The main way I was involved in preparing for the funeral was helping to pick the music together with Gareth’s friends. This was really emotional, and I was really sad to find that we shared more music taste than I had known.
The funeral all seems a bit of a blur now. One thing I do remember is being on our way to the funeral in the car and passing my old headteacher rushing towards the church. It meant so much that he had taken the time to attend, even though it had been years since both Gareth and I had left school. A number of our old teachers attended, and I was really touched. In fact, I was touched that every person at the church was there, and the church really was packed. It was a really emotional service, and everyone that spoke did so really movingly.
We spent the evening in the pub with Gareth’s friends which was nice, but I remember thinking that it was such a shame that this terrible thing had to happen in order to get everyone together.
How did you feel after the funeral
After the funeral, things felt a bit empty. At least with the funeral on the horizon there was something to focus on. However, after the funeral, life had to start getting back to normal again, but it was a ‘new normal’. I started my new job and worked on making our new flat into a home. I’ve never been as fit as I was in those few months after the funeral as I found the gym to be a good escape (although I’m sorry to say this didn’t last very long!).
As a family, we also had to start the process of being tested for heart conditions, as Gareth had seemed perfectly fit and healthy. This was strange process to go through as we all obviously didn’t want to find that any of us had heart conditions, but at the same time we did want to find something, so that we had answers about what had happened to Gareth. Quite soon after Gareth had died, I underwent a number of tests, including an ECG, an echocardiogram and provocation tests. It was found that I did have some signs of Long QT syndrome, although I have never had any symptoms, and was prescribed beta-blockers as a precaution.
This was something else I would have to get used to. I was struggling to adjust to things, and found myself drinking a lot more alcohol than I would have normally and getting really emotional and argumentative. I wrote in my journal at the time that I felt like I had constant PMT, and felt very irritable at everyone. I think Andy had to put up with a lot at this time. His support, along with the support of family and friends, helped me to get through this. One friend in particular helped by booking a three-week holiday to Australia with me later in the year, which helped a lot by giving me something to focus on and look forward to.
Were you involved in the Inquest
I attended the inquest, but like the funeral, it feels like a blur to me now. It’s the funny details that I remember. The Coroner’s Court felt like a concrete bunker and the carpet was like astroturf. The Coroner’s Officer had his hair in a quiff, and was wearing a large ‘Elvis’ belt and a cape. I think my mind has latched onto these details in order to blank out the statements that were read out. The statements taken from his friends were particularly difficult to listen to.
How did you feel after the Inquest
To me, the Inquest was just another horrible day to be got through. I just remember being glad that it was over, even if it didn’t really provide any answers that made sense of why Gareth was no longer with us.
What impact has your loss had on your life
The loss has had such a big impact on my life. It’s funny, as part of me feels that I should be putting more effort into seizing the day and living each day as my last, now that I know just how fragile life can be. However, sometimes just getting up in the morning and facing the day can sometimes feel like an effort. This contradiction has been something I’ve coming to terms with over the last few years.
One thing we have all done as a family is to try and turn our grief into something positive by supporting CRY. A few months after we lost Gareth, we signed up to do the CRY Bridges Walk which was held the week after what would have been Gareth’s 22nd birthday. It was really nice to all get together and do something positive like that, and we’ve also taken part in and helped out at subsequent walks.
In September 2009, I was given the chance to take part in the One and Other ‘Fourth Plinth’ project in Trafalgar Square. This meant that I had an hour to do anything I wanted on the empty plinth. I chose to use my time to raise awareness of sudden cardiac death and CRY’s Test My Hearth screening campaign. I held up a sign saying “12 fit and healthy young people die every week of undiagnosed cardiac conditions. My 21 year old brother was one of them”. It was a very surreal experience being up there for all the world to see, but I hoped it would make at least some passers-by stop and think, and I had lots of support from other CRY supporters which was lovely.
I also took the chance while I was up on the plinth to propose to Andy. We were married four months later! As I said earlier, I had found it sad that something tragic needed to happen to bring family and friends together, so I was really keen to bring everyone together for a happier occasion. Although of course it was really sad that Gareth couldn’t be there, and I really missed him on the day.
One of the things that I’ve found most helpful over the last couple of years is training to become a bereavement supporter for CRY. It was really good to be able to get together with others who have gone through similar experiences and being given the chance to talk things over. I really hope I can turn my experiences into something positive, and be there for others. I really believe that talking can help us to deal with things, and I wish I had taken up the chance to speak to a counsellor a few years ago.
What impact has your loss had on your other relationships i.e. friends/ extended family
The loss has had a big impact on my relationships. As I said earlier, Andy had to put up with a lot when I was struggling to deal with things, but he has been my rock and I am so glad that he has been there for me throughout all of this.
It was more difficult with friends. Some friends, mostly those who had known Gareth and I since school, were brilliant and I really appreciate their support. Others weren’t quite sure how to react, and drifted away. I remember someone who I’d not seen for a while asking me how I was on Facebook. I told them exactly how I was feeling, and I don’t think they knew how to deal with that and I never heard from them again. I’ve since learnt how to mask my feelings a bit better.
At 21, it feels like Gareth was just starting out in life and it still makes no sense that he’s not with us any more. He was a really sweet guy with a wicked sense of humour. We had our arguments growing up, but we were getting to know each other better as we both got older, and I’m so sad that this was cut short. I will always miss him.