Grieving Belfast family launch Northern Ireland Hospice appeal
Belfast mum Karen Sims died in September after a brief battle with cancer. In a heartrending interview, her widower Andy explains why he and daughters Ava and Amelia are launching the annual Northern Ireland Hospice appeal
It's only a few short weeks since Andy Sims lost his best friend, wife and the mother of his two girls Amelia (4) and Ava (7), and yet in the midst of the family's unfathomable grief they are preparing to give something back to society.
Karen (40) lived less than four months after an out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis in May, passing away in the Northern Ireland Hospice on September 2.
As Andy and their two young daughters attempt to come to terms with life without her they are also preparing to remember Karen by bravely stepping forward to help the Northern Ireland Hospice launch its annual Lights to Remember appeal.
The appeal invites people to sponsor a light on the Hospice Christmas tree, in memory of a loved one. Andy and the girls have agreed to switch on the tree lights in memory of Karen and in recognition of the care and support given to her by the charity in her final weeks.
The special ceremony will be held on December 18 at Somerton Road, where the new adult hospice is being built.
A huge light went out in the Belfast family's life when Karen was so cruelly taken from them. A vibrant, successful career woman, Andy says she admirably juggled her job as head of the province's biggest teaching union, the NASUWT, with being a hands-on mum to her two girls.
Karen was the first woman to be taken on as an apprentice electrician by Northern Ireland Electricity when she was just 16 - a unique achievement which saw her feature in her local paper.
She had a passion for people which led her to switch careers to the trade union movement and she joined the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU, later part of Amicus and then Unite) through which she met Andy, who is originally from Derby.
Andy (51), who now works as Support Service Manager with the charity Aware Defeat Depression, says: "When I met Karen 16 years ago in London she was everything I had been looking for.
"She was an amazing woman. From the first moment I sat down and talked to her we discovered we had similar beliefs and similar things which we cared about and wanted to do.
"She has been my friend, my companion, my partner - all these things which sound so cliched - she was all of them. She was the best friend I ever had."
While one cannot begin to fathom Andy's loss, it's his girls he is focusing on and who are helping him get through these tough days.
Both he and Karen hid nothing from their daughters, who were aware immediately after their mum's shock diagnosis that she was going to die.
Along with Andy, Karen spent her last couple of months preparing them, but the girls are still very much in the early stages of getting used to the harsh reality that their mummy will never be there for them again.
Karen had been suffering pains in her stomach going back to September 2013 and was being treated for irritable bowel syndrome.
She was attending an NASUWT conference in Birmingham at Easter when she began to feel very unwell.
"The girls and I had gone to the conference with her so that we could go to Derby and visit my parents," says Andy.
"When we came back to Birmingham on the Sunday, Karen was really not well and struggling.
"When we got home she made an appointment for the doctor who she saw on May 6 and that day she rang me to say they wanted her to go to the Mater Hospital in Belfast for x-rays as the doctor wasn't happy.
"I met her at the Mater and when the results of her x-ray came through the radiologist said he wasn't sure about them and wanted to do more tests.
"He said Karen could go home or stay overnight and the tests would be done the next morning."
Initially it was thought Karen had a liver infection and further scans and tests were carried out. Nothing had prepared the couple for the news they were given on May 12.
Grade 4 untreatable tumours were found in Karen's liver and colon, which was the primary cancer. It was so far advanced that there was nothing the doctors could do.
At best, with chemotherapy, she was told she could live up to two years but most likely had just months. Karen didn't even get four months, losing her battle on September 2.
"It takes a while to take it in and it's not easy, but Karen and I both decided to tackle it head-on," says Andy.
"Her main concern was the girls and preparing them for it. From day one we decided to be honest with them and talk to them, but it wasn't easy.
"When someone tells you that you are going to die you have to come to terms with it yourself; it took a few days but Karen dealt with it remarkably well.
"She had tremendous strength, dignity and pride. She tried to be herself as much as she could.
"She has a half-sister in America and she wanted to go there on holiday to see her for the last time and to build some lasting memories for the girls.
"She left in June but, sadly, the happy holiday she hoped for never happened as she took very ill in the States."
Karen was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital on her return in July and then transferred to the hospice where she spent the rest of her weeks.
Her loss has left a huge void in the life of Andy, their girls and her entire family circle.
Support from the girls' school, Glengormley Integrated Primary, as well as family, friends, staff at the hospice and Andy's workplace have all been crucial in helping get them through the first heartbreaking weeks without Karen.
"It is not easy for the girls," says Andy. "They have their good days and bad days. We've had fantastic support, though. The children have been very good.
"We are taking it one day at a time. They both know that mummy is not coming back and that she is an angel now and a star who is keeping an eye on them.
"No one wants to lose their mummy, no matter what age, and to lose her at their young age is tremendously difficult.
"There are some things I can't do. Ava misses her mummy's cuddles. She says daddy's cuddles are great but mummy's cuddles were different. They have dealt with it remarkably well and the staff at the Hospice said they are very grounded children.
"We have our ups and downs. For me I've just got to look at my oldest daughter - I see Karen in Ava, as she has her eyes. Everyday there are always reminders of her."
Andy describes Karen as a devoted mum who, despite her busy career, always found time to do special things with her daughters.
"Karen was a very caring and a very dynamic mum," he says. "She was juggling her career, which involved lots of travel, with being a mum. She was very passionate about her job but equally very passionate about the children.
"She would take on these ridiculous tasks she really didn't have time for, like baking cakes for the Christmas fair and biscuits for the teachers' Christmas presents. She always wanted to do as much as she could for the girls and her family.
"She was very bubbly and a very brave person who had a wonderfully wicked laugh. She enjoyed life and was a human dynamo.
"She worked hard to get where she was in her career and it's very cruel what happened and that it happened so quickly."
Christmas without Karen there to share in the festive rituals will be especially tough for Andy and his girls. Her 41st birthday would have been on December 13, a date which Andy is understandably not looking forward to.
But as young children, his girls are naturally excited about Santa coming and Andy hopes that with the help of his close family and Karen's, he can make Christmas as special as he can for them.
"We know it's going to be happening," he says. "We have to get over Karen's birthday first. We are always in the middle of Christmas preparations on her birthday, putting the decorations up and wrapping presents. It's going to be difficult.
"The girls want Christmas like any child of their age would. I would usually put the Christmas tree up and then the girls and Karen would decorate it.
"We will just have to try as much as we can to do things as normal, even though obviously it will be without Karen being there."
The hospice now has a special place in Andy's heart after the amazing care given to Karen during her final weeks. He says that hospice staff helped make that time as bearable as possible, not just for Karen but all of her family.
Karen and Andy and the girls shared afternoon tea from the Merchant Hotel in her hospice room, which was organised by the hospice staff, and spent the night on a sleepover with Karen.
As a couple, Karen and Andy discussed their gratitude and agreed that if there was anything the family could do to support the charity they would do it.
When asked to switch on the hospice lights and help launch one of their biggest annual appeals, Andy made sure he talked to the girls first. They didn't hesitate to say yes, though, and he is glad to have the chance to do something to say thank you to the charity and help raise its profile.
"As soon as Karen went into the hospice, straightaway she looked more relaxed and happier," he says. "The support and care we received as a family was remarkable.
"That job in palliative care is wonderful and yet it must be difficult for the staff too as they really do get to know the patients.
"They are marvellous people and Karen and I said throughout that if there was anything we could do to help them rebuild Somerton House or help them in any way, going forward, we would.
"The girls are happy to switch on the lights as they understand what the hospice did for their mummy.
"For me, I am happy to try and give something back and keep people aware of what a fantastic organisation it is. Most people would say that they always knew the hospice is there but unless you have been through it you don't realise what it is really like, and that is very true."
He adds: "Working for a charity I would be aware that it is hugely expensive to keep it running and if I can help keep it out there, and help raise funds, then I am happy to do that."
How you can support the hospice
• The annual Lights to Remember appeal focuses on a special Christmas tree at the hospice, which is lit by thousands of lights, all individually sponsored
• Each light is special because it shines in memory of a loved one, a beloved child, mother, husband, relative or close friend
• Last year over 5,000 families and individuals sponsored a light on the tree in memory of a loved one
• This year, NI Hospice is aiming to raise £200,000 through the campaign. This money will help the charity to provide much-needed care for patients over the Christmas period, both in the hospice and in the home, right across Northern Ireland
• Funds raised will also contribute towards the building of the new adult hospice at Somerton Road in north Belfast, creating a legacy of hospice care for the future
• It is hoped the new state-of-the-art hospice will open late next year. To date £10.9m has been secured through public donations, government grants and charitable trusts, but the hospice still needs to raise a final £2.1m to complete the build
• Once completed, the new hospice will provide 18 modern single en-suite rooms, a physiotherapy and occupational therapy facility, a day hospice, an outpatient clinic and an education and research centre which will support the advancement of hospice care in Northern Ireland
• The plans will also incorporate gardens, a children and relatives area, a sanctuary and a chaplain's room where patients and families can relax together
• Everyone is welcome to join the hospice for the Lights to Remember ceremony on Thursday, December 18. The evening will start with refreshments at 6.30pm followed by a ceremony at Dominican College in Fortwilliam Park, then a torchlight procession to the hospice, where the Christmas tree lights will be switched on at 8.15pm
• You can also donate to the appeal by visiting www.nihospice.org, tel: 028 9077 7123 (between 9am & 5pm Mon-Fri), or send a cheque, and a note to let NI Hospice know who the light is in memory of, to: Lights Appeal, Northern Ireland Hospice Head Office, 18 O'Neill Road, Newtownabbey, BT36 6WB