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“The hospice wrapped their arms around us”

Wendy Buckingham spoke at our Tree of Light service about the care her husband, Ken, received from our hospice. We wanted to share her moving story with you.

“I remember it well. It was the 26th February, a Friday, when Ken brought me a cup of tea in bed and told me he was going to go to the hospital after work. He hadn’t been feeling well so I’d been asking him to see a doctor as I’d been worrying about him. When I told him to miss work to go to hospital, his response was ‘I can’t not go to work!’ That’s the sort of man he was.

At the hospital Ken was admitted with suspected pneumonia. When he wasn’t getting better he was sent for another scan. That’s when the doctors found he had cancer of the liver. On the 1st March, they discovered his cancer had spread – to his pancreas, bowel and lungs. The doctors gave him six months at first, but that was then reduced to three months.

We were sent home and I fell into a world I knew nothing about. A few days later, on a Tuesday, Ken became scared and confused and asked me to take him back to the hospital. By that Saturday I was told he had 48 hours to live and I should start making preparations.

Naomi, a consultant at the hospital, suggested we should go to St Catherine’s Hospice. We’d never heard of it. I knew nothing about hospices and thought they represented death and sadness. I was really scared about coming into the unknown.

Ken felt the same. Initially he refused to go to St Catherine’s as he was too ‘scared’ but when I told him I thought it would be the best thing for him, and for our three girls, Sophie, Hannah and Charlotte, he said he’d come. Ken was an amazing dad and he would do anything for our daughters. He was very hands on and we used to fight over who would do their evening bath times and bedtime reading! Coming home and spending quality time with his girls was always the favourite part of his day.

Knowing he was going to have to leave them was heartbreaking for Ken and he couldn’t bring himself to think or talk about it so we never really spoke about his approaching death. He didn’t want to die and he had a real strength of will; shown when he lived on for 10 days after being given 48 hours.

It was a hard time for our girls too. They were terrified of visiting St Catherine’s but when we arrived, the welcome was amazing. As soon as we walked up to the welcome desk the receptionist said “We’ve been waiting for you! Your dad’s all settled in and fine.” It was Easter Thursday and she gave the girls an Easter Egg too. While I went straight to see Ken, the receptionist showed our girls around.

Within hours, there was a feeling of safety for us all. A doctor came to see me, which meant I didn’t have to go searching for answers, and the hospice’s family playroom was given over to our girls (with full use of the wi-fi!).

St Catherine’s allowed us to go back to being a family again. For the first time in weeks I felt comfortable going home with the girls and leaving Ken as I knew he’d be well looked after. Up until then, we’d been separated as I’d been spending all my time in hospital while the girls were looked after by a family friend. It was so hard being away from them. I was their Mum and wanted to comfort them but I couldn’t leave my husband either.

I’d agreed with St Catherine’s nurses that when the time came they would let me know and if there was a time I shouldn’t leave that they’d tell me. It was Easter Sunday evening when we were getting ready to go that they gently told me I should stay. I called Ken’s family and no matter what time of night they arrived, everyone was welcomed with a cup of tea and given a chance to say a proper goodbye.

After Ken died, nurses helped me tell the girls and they were so respectful of our feelings. They reassured the girls that their Dad would be looked after. Right down to dressing him in the Star Wars T-shirt they’d picked out for him!

For me, our daughter Hannah sums it up when she says she visualises arms whenever she thinks about St Catherine’s. She told me; ‘The hospice held us; they wrapped their arms around us and made us feel safe. They were there to walk alongside us and catch us whenever we needed support. They were a shoulder to lean on.’

Immediately after Ken died I couldn’t remember anything. I lived off post-it notes and even simple things weren’t possible. I’m normally very organised so it was completely unlike me. I remember thinking I was a rubbish parent and that I couldn’t parent alone without Ken. It was during the first Tree of Light service I attended that I got talking to another lady as I hung a star on the tree. She told me she’d coped in exactly the same way! And it was so comforting to know that.

I also had counselling soon after Ken’s death. I was sceptical about whether it would help me but it was amazing to talk out my thoughts and feelings. Although I was always very honest with the girls I was feeling so angry and that was something I didn’t feel I could tell them. How could I explain that I was angry with their Dad for leaving me on my own? My counsellor explained it was fine to feel like that. Hearing that was a lifeline because I’d been feeling so guilty for being angry with Ken.

Every day after school, we visited Ken in the funeral home and together with the girls’ I planned his funeral. When I asked them ‘How do you want to remember Daddy?’ they said with an ice cream van so that’s exactly what we did! Ken loved his 99s with two flakes and his funeral was an upbeat celebration. The girls chose his favourite music and Hannah wrote and read a poem for him. They wanted to remember him as the quirky, nutty, smiley man he was. Although it might sound odd Ken’s funeral was one of the best days. It was important to us that his funeral represented him and it did. It was an honour, as his wife, to do that last thing for him.

Persuading Ken to come to St Catherine’s was the best thing I ever did. It was right for Ken and it was right for us. Our girls say there are never enough thank you’s for what the hospice has done for us. They say even a million isn’t enough. Because the hospice has helped us get our lives back on track.

There are plenty of times when you’ll think that things will never get better but two and a half years on from Ken’s death; we’re living a pretty regular life. The girls still feel as connected to him as they did when he was alive and he’s still a massive part of our lives. We talk about him everyday and he remains the centre of our world. He’s always with us at the heart of our family but now, our lives carry on and grow around him. I tell the girls that a dreadful, sad thing has happened to us but we still need to lead happy lives. We owe that to Ken.

We have different ways of remembering him too. Hannah writes stories and reads them to her Dad at night, each of the girls has a salt jar to visually remember him by and a special toy that only they and Ken have touched. We also take our favourite photo of him with us to different places. When we recently moved Charlotte into her university accommodation we propped Ken’s picture up in the room with us. I know he’d be bursting with pride at her achievements and the achievements of our other daughters too.

As a family, we fundraise for the hospice in Ken’s memory too. It’s important to us to give back to other people going through the journey we went through and we find it a huge honour to help. Supporting the hospice helps us continue our bond with Ken and remain part of the St Catherine’s community, with people who understand and continue to show us support.

I still feel a connection to Ken at the hospice so I’ll often pop into the coffee shop and I love going into the Quiet Room to write him a message, or to look at his Memory Leaf hanging on the tree. Although the hospice was the last place he was alive, if you’re going to die, St Catherine’s is a nice place to do it. They gave him the best death I could have asked for him.

For the last two years, the girls and I have attended the Tree of Light. It’s a lovely way for us to think and reflect at a special time of year. The girls love doing stars in memory of their Dad and it gives us chance to share our grief, because grief is lonely. You can be surrounded by people but it can still feel lonely. Coming to events like this are comforting because you know that you’re not alone.

I lost my husband and I miss him. I’d hoped that I would spend the rest of my life with Ken, but I remind myself how lucky I am that he chose to spend the whole of his life with me.”

Please help us be there to support more people like Wendy in the future. With your help, we can make sure sure nobody in your community faces death and loss alone –   donate today.

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