When Alison Nightingale became depressed, she didn’t realise it was because she hadn’t processed the grief of losing several members of her family more than a decade earlier. Here she shares how support from St Elizabeth Hospice in Ipswich helped her accept their deaths and move on with her life.
When I was 25 years old I was travelling through Australia when I received a call telling me that my mum had been diagnosed with cancer. She had spinal cancer but had also been diagnosed with primary breast cancer. My parents called to say that I needed to make a decision about whether I was going home or not, as they were going to find out how serious the cancer was in the coming days.
I booked my flight home at the weekend, arriving on Monday. By Wednesday I was at Ipswich Hospital, where we were told how serious my mum’s condition was. She quickly deteriorated, and the team at St Elizabeth Hospice stepped in to care for mum at home.
Having that lifeline at home was comforting. The team made the situation bearable and we were able to have the whole family around her before she died.
Becoming a carer
However because her health deteriorated so quickly, I didn’t have time to process any of it. I went straight into practical mode, with grandparents to look after and the funeral to plan. My mum had been the sticky tape for the entire family and now I had to take on that role.
About 12 years went by, and in 2018 my great aunt died. She was like another grandparent to me and towards the end of her life I had cared for her before she went into a home. In the same year, I also cared for my grandmother who died at the age of 99.
Once my grandmother past away, I felt some freedom at not having to look after anyone anymore. But then everything I had been suppressing for years hit me. One day my friend Hanna asked me if I was ok and I just said ‘I’ve got nothing in me’.
The sadness of grief
I had lost my spark and all I could feel was sadness. I had been sociable and now I didn’t want to go out or even exercise. I found it difficult to function and everything seemed worthless. I held onto the fact that I was mother to twins so I could get up in the morning. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know what.
Hanna listened and asked about my mum and her hospice care. She then recognised I needed help with bereavement. She referred me to the hospice’s emotional wellbeing team and things started to change.
I had an initial phone call with Katherine from the team, and following a holiday to New Zealand with my family, I started having 1-to-1 counselling sessions.
I was so scared to open up, but when I met Katherine I had a space to say anything. Even though it happened 13 years ago, I had never taken the time to understand my grief and look after myself properly. I had to grow up overnight and take on new responsibilities when my mum died. I never realised how much that affected me. Particularly when I became a mum myself, I felt a huge loss not having my own mother to guide me.
Expressing difficult emotions
There were weeks when I had no idea what I was going to talk about or how much I was going to cry, but it became a safe space to express my feelings and pain. We could laugh and remember my mum properly, or talk through my anger at her death.
Now I know how to live with my grief, and I’ve learnt how to be present in the moment, appreciating life and looking forward to the future with my own family.
For anyone considering using bereavement services, it does take some inner strength and you have to be committed for it to work, but don’t be scared because therapy does work. It’s all about what you put into it.
There is no judgement or stigma, and time is not a factor – you can do it when you are ready. If grief is treated it will heal, but untouched it can do real damage and you can never move on. That was the turning point for me.