Family stories

Sue’s story

Everyone’s experience of grief is unique and the type of support people need is as individual as they are. For Sue, the art room at St Barnabas House has become a place where she can begin to process her loss by creating artworks that honour the lives of her two sons.

“You never expect your children to die before you”

Something I dread is when people unknowingly say to me, “Have you got any children?” I do have two children, but sadly they aren’t here anymore.

I lost my eldest son, Paul, in 1996. He was only 24 when he crashed his car into a tree. We later found out that he had an underlying heart condition which could have killed him at any time and had caused the accident.

As a family, we were devastated. At 6ft 4, Paul was a gentle giant. He was sensitive and caring and always looked out for his football loving younger brother, Darran. They were very close, being as there were only two years between them. When Paul died, Darran lost his big brother and his best friend.

“As a family, we’ve experienced a lot of loss”

After Paul’s accident, Darran chose to stay living at home. He wasn’t a big talker and liked his independence, but I know he missed his brother a lot. We all did.

Sadly, the losses continued when in 2013 my brother died from mesothelioma – a type of lung cancer which he got from asbestos exposure. He was cared for by St Barnabas House, and that was my first experience of hospice care. It felt very different from a hospital, and I was struck by how cheerful and friendly everyone was. Not only did they care for my brother, but they looked after all the family and were there to support us after he died.

Sue and Stevan in the art room

“I was struggling to cope”

Then, in February 2022, Darran was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I just kept thinking, we’ve lost one child, please let us keep Darran. It wasn’t to be though. The tumour had wrapped itself around Darran’s portal vein which meant it couldn’t be removed. After a gruelling course of radiotherapy, we were told he had six months to live. Six days later, on 9 May 2022, he died very suddenly from sepsis. He was only 48, far too young to die.

I felt broken, lost, and in complete despair. It was if both my boys had been cheated out of life and I knew that the only way I could continue living without them is if I got some help.

Images below: Sue’s sons Paul (left) and Darran (right)
Image of Sue's sons Paul (left) and Darran (right)

“Visiting the art room has been a lifesaver”

I had tried counselling and some group sessions in the past, but they weren’t for me. I didn’t know what to say and I felt vulnerable. When I explained this to someone from the bereavement team at the hospice, they told me about the art room at St Barnabas and the support that’s available from Stevan, the artist-in-residence.

When I first arrived in the art room, I was really struggling. Stevan put me at ease straight away – he has this gentle way about him, and the art room is such a relaxing place. We talked about some ideas for projects I could work on that would honour my boys’ lives and my connection with them.

“For me, art is a way to communicate that doesn’t depend on talking”  

When I’m in the art room, the process of making something is a way of expressing myself that feels more comfortable to me than traditional counselling.

I hadn’t done much art since school, so having Stevan there to bounce ideas off and explore different techniques with has been wonderful. For my first project, I knew I wanted something that portrayed me holding the boys. We had an idea to create a bowl, with their photos in. Within a few weeks it had evolved into an egg-shaped sculpture – as a mother, the egg seemed fitting. Inside the egg, which is made from delicate papier-mâché, are photos of Paul and Darran, and a print of my hands holds them tightly.

Images of Sue's artworks

“I am building a collection of artworks”

The egg sculpture is displayed in my lounge, opposite my chair. Every day I look at it and it makes me feel close to my boys. I cherish it, along with photos and memories of them as they are the only things I’ve got.

Also in my lounge is a collection of angels. I’ve got 53 of them – china ones, crystal ones and others from around the world. And now, with Stevan’s help, I’ve just created another very special angel to add to the collection. It took months to make and like the egg, it’s also made from paper. In the angel’s hands, there are two golden robins: Paul and Darran. Because whenever I see a robin in the garden, it makes me think of them.

Images of Sue's artworks

“Without these art projects, I don’t know how I’d cope”

Someone I know once likened grief to a sharp stone in your heart. Gradually, over time, the sharp edges of the stone soften a bit. And for me that’s what it feels like. It’ll never leave my heart and I’ll never get over it, but I can try and learn to live with it.

Without these art projects, I don’t know how I’d cope. I look forward to visiting the hospice and I’m doing something that means such a lot to me. Rather than sitting at home and giving up, I now have a collection of beautiful artworks and the grief I felt on that first visit to the art room feels a little less raw.