Family stories

Fiona’s story

Fiona, a midwife, spent her life looking after people and welcoming babies into the world. When she was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma – a rare cancer that starts in the lining of the bile duct – we were there to give her the loving hospice care she needed. Her daughter, Lanna, shares their story.

“Mum was like a best friend”

Mum and I were extremely close. I was an only child and she’d had many miscarriages before I arrived. So, after all that loss, I was very special. We lived in a wee village in Scotland. Mum loved being surrounded by nature and would teach me about the wildflowers and the birds that visited our garden. I could talk to her about anything.

In her mid-thirties and a single parent, Mum boldly decided to study nursing and then midwifery. With her calming nature, she was exactly the sort of person you would want with you whilst giving birth. And after she graduated, she got a job at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath.

Image of Fiona and daughter (left) and Fiona (right)

“She was never afraid to try new things”

We loved our new life in West Sussex. It was always my house that friends would want to stay at because Mum was so caring and fun to be around. As teenagers we’d come in at 2am – giggling and up to mischief. She’d calmly tell us to get to bed, and there would always be tea and toast in the morning. When I finished college and went travelling, Mum fancied a new adventure too and applied for a midwifery job in Melbourne where I was living with my boyfriend. I left Australia when my relationship ended, but Mum stayed there for another seven years!

“We were on opposite sides of the world when she got her diagnosis”

We’d video call every day, but I still missed Mum so much. When she said she had a sore shoulder, I thought nothing of it. She often had injuries from years of bending over and lifting women in labour. So, when a doctor called and told me she had stage four cancer in her bile ducts and might only have eight months to live, I put down the phone and screamed. It was one of those moments where your life changes forever.

Mum flew home and moved in with my family. I was pregnant with my second child, and she was in her element looking after me and baking with my two-year-old. A lovely nurse from St Barnabas would visit and make sure she was comfortable and had the right medication, but mostly Mum wanted to manage her illness herself.

Image of Fiona, her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild (left) and Fiona, daughter and grandchild on a walk (right)

“St Barnabas helped get her pain under control”

She hid it well, but it got to the point where Mum’s pain became too difficult to manage at home. She was admitted to St Barnabas for a couple of days, but her symptoms were complex and she needed to stay longer. Despite all this, Mum’s happiness and humour was quickly picked up on by the nurses and it was beautiful to see the connection they had with her. I’d visit every day and always take the kids. The nurses would bring them cake from the kitchen, and Mum and I would chat and laugh while my boys played. When we realised that Mum might not be around to see them christened, the Chaplain held a blessing at the hospice. She was a very spiritual person, so family moments like that were incredibly special.

“The gardens were an important space for us all”

As a nature-lover, being able to spend hours in the hospice gardens was a huge thing for Mum. The colourful plants, butterflies and water fountains created such a peaceful environment. Sometimes we’d hold hands in this beautiful setting, and just cry together. And for Mum the gardens became a place where she could sit and entertain her many visitors. She was only 62 and the last thing she wanted was to greet her friends from her bed in a nightie.

The gardens became a refuge for me too. When Mum was receiving personal care, or if it all just felt too much, my husband and I would walk around the grounds. We’d read the names on the sunflower markers that were on display, sit by the pond, and I’d have a good old cry away from Mum if I needed to. I felt lucky to have the space to do that.

Image of Fiona in the hospice (left) and Fiona with the chaplain (right)

“The experience of Mum dying was as happy as I could have wished for”

Mum was in the hospice for three weeks and it wasn’t until the last week that she started to lose her lucidity. I continued to talk to her, play music and give her massages. I’m not overly religious myself but I asked the Chaplain to say some prayers as I knew that would mean so much to Mum.

Every now and then she’d wake up and say, “hello my darling” – her kindness shining through right until the end. When she died on 12 August 2021, I was with her and so was her closest­­ friend from Scotland. As far as deaths go, it was a happy death.

“Life can feel a bit empty without her”

It’s definitely very different now. I find small things catch me out, like arriving on holiday and turning on my phone to find no message from Mum asking if I’ve landed safely. Because, no matter how old you are, it’s nice to have a parent checking to see if you’re ok.

At home, we still talk about Mum all the time and keep memories of her alive. And whilst it’s hard without my mum, it would have been so much harder had St Barnabas not been there to support us all on this journey.

Could you help people like Lanna?

We offer lots of bereavement support for family members, like Lanna. But we couldn't do it without you. A donation of just £26 would cover the cost of an hour’s counselling for someone struggling after the death of a loved one.

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