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Audrey and Phil fell in love as teenagers. Married for over 50 years, they shared a passion for travel and were looking forward to a holiday in Malta when Audrey was suddenly diagnosed with aggressive type three breast cancer. Audrey passed away at St Barnabas House just two months later and Phil’s world crumbled. Here, he talks openly about Audrey’s care and the bereavement support which helped him to see that his life without Audrey was worth living.
We met by chance at a church youth club in Brighton. Audrey was 16 and still in sixth form and I was a year older, working as an apprentice electrician. Before we met, I had no intention of marrying or having children because my parents had a turbulent marriage which resulted in their separation when my siblings and I were quite young. However, it only took a few dates with Audrey for me to realise that I couldn’t be without her. Falling in love was something I’d never experienced or expected; she changed my whole outlook on life.
Audrey was 20 and I was 21 when we were married and we went on to have three wonderful children together: Steven, Dawn and Barry. Over the years, Audrey and I got to know each other so well that we could read each other like a book.
It was in May last year that Audrey started getting some pain when she lifted her arm.
To begin with, she put it down to her bra being too tight, but then I noticed a lump at the bottom of her breast. I immediately phoned to make an appointment with a doctor to have some tests and they told us a week later that she had rapidly progressing terminal breast cancer, which had already spread to her lungs and liver.
I couldn’t believe it. We were always going on day trips and we were looking forward to our holiday in Malta. She had seemed so well!
The hardest thing was how quickly it all progressed. Initially, I looked after Audrey at home with the help of district nurses and St Barnabas nurses who used to come in every other day. Audrey was a proud lady and was always out of bed and dressed in the mornings, however by the evening she was struggling to breathe due to cancer progressing in her lungs. I would prop her up and stay awake all night watching her. I hadn’t slept properly for weeks. One of the St Barnabas nurses noticed I was looking exhausted and, worried for my health, she suggested it might be best for both of us if Audrey were admitted into the hospice where she could get round the clock care.
When Audrey arrived at the hospice, she said to me, “it’s a lovely room, but I would rather come home with you”. I left her that evening feeling lonely, upset and guilty because I wanted to look after her at home. However, I did have a good night’s sleep and when I arrived the next morning Audrey was showered and sitting in a chair joking with the cleaner. I couldn’t believe it! Furthermore, Audrey saw how much better I was looking for having some sleep, and I think that helped to calm her.
Audrey was at the hospice for 34 days and I visited her every day. We had the opportunity to be a husband and wife again, rather than a carer and patient. The amazing team took care of all her needs and adjusted the medication so she was comfortable. This enabled us to have the time to reminisce about all our travelling and good times together. All her stress was gone, and she was so relaxed. We even joked that it was like staying in a 5-star hotel. Audrey made friends with all the staff and they extended the same care, understanding and compassion they gave Audrey, to me.
I admired Audrey so much, her ability to keep her strength and dignity throughout her illness was an inspiration. The staff made sure Audrey was showered and her hair looked nice. They changed her nightie regularly and put fresh bedding on each day. She particularly liked the lilac bed cover. These things were important to my Audrey.
It surprised me how calm and positive she was. As always, Audrey’s only concern was for her family and especially me being alone. She said to me, “Phil, I fell madly in love with you after our first couple of dates and you were a good husband to me. Please look after yourself and enjoy life”.
The morning she passed away, my youngest son Barry, daughter Dawn and her husband were with us and the last thing Audrey said to me was, “I’m very tired now, I want to go to sleep”. I held her in my arms and then she closed her eyes. It was then she slipped away, so peacefully on 4 August 2020.
It was when the family went home after the funeral that it hit me. Audrey was gone and I was totally alone: such an empty feeling. I wasn’t eating, didn’t pay my bills, nothing mattered to me – it was a terrible time! It’s hard to say this, but it got to the point where I didn’t want to be alive anymore.
I can honestly say the Family Services team saved my life. My generation doesn’t like to ask for help, but the hospice reached out to me and with their encouragement, I started counselling. They made it easy for me to open up to them and they made me realise that the feelings I was having were very normal. I had sessions every week until Christmas and slowly found that light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
It’s been difficult grieving during a pandemic with such isolation, but the hospice, my family, friends and neighbours have looked after me so well. I have evolved from the man who felt so vulnerable and lonely with nothing to live for, to a man that realises I have family and friends that want to see me enjoy life again. I have painted the house in all the lovely pastel colours Audrey picked out before she died and I’m gradually getting out more. The evenings are still difficult without Audrey and I miss her every day, but I know she would be happy to see me living again.