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This time of year is tough on those who have lost loved ones. The Telford family from Downpatrick, tell Marie Foy how Cancer Focus NI has been helping them.

Downpatrick dad David Telford and daughters, Emma (18) and Evie (12), sadly lost beloved mum Lorna (49) to cancer in September this year. David and Lorna had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in July.

And as they spend their first Christmas and face into the prospect of a New Year without her, the Telfords share the story of how Cancer Focus Northern Ireland's family support service helped them through their traumatic journey. They'd urge anyone facing a similar situation to call on the charity for support.

The dad's story: 'Our world imploded, we were all just totally devastated'

I'll never forget the balmy summer day in early June 2010 when my wife Lorna sat our daughters Emma and Evie down, lovingly put her arms around them and broke the devastating news that she had cancer," writes her husband David (51). 

"Having been wrongly diagnosed for five months and then not told everything about the terrifying spread of the disease throughout her body, Lorna displayed such bravery and composure when she told the children she had cancer. We were eventually to learn that she had lung cancer and that it had spread.

"Our world imploded. Cancer had arrived in our lives and we were devastated. Lorna explained to Emma and Evie, who were 14 and eight respectively at the time, that she had 'bad cells' in her body.

"'Mum,' said Emma. 'You mean you have cancer, bad cells means cancer doesn't it?'

"Lorna, who was an assistant director with the South Eastern Trust, looked at me and nodded at the girls, explaining she had to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

"Evie was oblivious to the fact her mum would not survive and while her innocence at the time and sense of humour was a blessing for the family, she realised in the final few months of her mum's life that Christmas would not be the same this year. She was right. Lorna passed away at the Marie Curie Hospice on September 19. Her brave, long battle had come to an end, peaceful though it was in her final few days.

"Following her diagnosis, Lorna courageously battled for more than four more years and came across Rachel Smith, family service co-ordinator with Cancer Focus NI, by the cruellest twist of fate.

"The husband of Lorna's best friend, the late Neil McCance, had been diagnosed with cancer and, along with his wife Tanya, the couple were acutely aware of every emotion we were experiencing. Our two families who shared so much, laughed and cried together were now in the same boat. The cancer monster had invaded both families' lives.

"Tanya suggested to Lorna that Rachel should not only work with her but Emma and Evie as well - she was already working with Neil and Tanya's children, Mark and Melissa. Neil was also keen that Emma, who regarded him as an uncle, would spend time with Rachel.

"As a teenager living with a mother who had cancer, Emma was not the most open, nor did she ever entertain the thought of speaking about how she felt. To her, not talking about it made everything 'ok'. Thankfully she was to change her mind."

Emma's story: 'I'm glad I got the chance to say everything that I wanted to say'

As long as I didn't have to talk about cancer, it wasn't real and everything would be fine. As a result of my unwillingness to talk about my feelings, I'd often have brief moments of utter despair," Emma admits.

"All of a sudden there would be an explosion and I was no longer in control of my emotions. I'm someone who wants to be in control all the time so the concept of feeling sad or crying was not only alien, but felt like it wasn't allowed.

"My mother always drilled it into me that you should never lie down under cancer and that as awful as it is, and however unfair you may believe it to be, you must fight and remain positive, despite your emotions.

"You never give up because at the end of the day 'Why shouldn't cancer come to me?'.

"I struggled with questions over the years and to this day have a multitude of unanswered ones which, if I'm honest, scares me. I may never truly get the answers I am looking for."

Emma admits she was completely against talking to anyone until Neil told her she was a 'super girl' but he worried about how she'd cope when her mother died.

Emma said the man she regarded as an uncle left one wish for her - to talk to Rachel about how she felt.

"I was reluctant, but the push came from my mum and Neil and Tanya to speak with Rachel, and I was glad that I did. The decision to talk to Rachel was the best decision I've ever made.

"It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I had to talk about death because it was in my face and there was no escape.

"Over the course of almost a year I've come full circle, I've embraced crying and have learned that it's ok to not be yourself or to have a bad day," the teenager continues. "When mum was in the Hospice it was the most challenging seven weeks of my life and when it became evidently clear she was dying, her wish was for me to be with her, something I never thought I could do.

"I always panicked at the thought of living without mum, being alone and not being able to say goodbye.

"What Rachel taught me is that you can talk and it does truly helps."

Emma says the fact she had the ability to face her mum's approaching death was down to Rachel - she could talk to Rachel about death, cope with it and, to a certain degree, accept it.

Now 18, the final year A-level student said Rachel helped prepare a plan of how to cope with her mum's death.

"Talking to Rachel really helped and I know that my mum is no longer in the truly horrendous pain she suffered throughout her illness and particularly during those final few weeks in the hospice.

"I'm glad I was able to say goodbye and tell her everything I wanted to say. While she was unconscious, I believe she heard every word.

"My mother's hearing always was impeccable and she never let anything get past her. To have the opportunity to say goodbye was so special."

Emma adds: "Every day is difficult and I miss mum terribly, but the work of Cancer Focus NI and the family support service is fantastic.

"The organisation works with families to keep the memory of those who have died alive through arts, drama or talking.

"The service is amazing and can help so many young children to understand what is happening when a loved one dies, but in a way that is sensitive and easily understood.

"It's amazing to know that when you feel your tomorrows are running out there are people there for you to listen and support and walk with you every step of the way."

Evie's story: 'We miss her so much, but Rachel helps us to cope with the pain'

Evie met Rachel at Neil's funeral last January and was formally introduced to the Cancer Focus NI family service co-ordinator by her mum.

Lorna told Evie: "Rachel is going to be working with us over the next few months and will be calling at the house for a chat."

Recalling that day, Evie is glad she met Rachel and worked with her over the following months and in the days before her mum's brave fight came to an end.

"Rachel helped me understand mum's situation," said Evie, now a Year 8 student at Down High School.

"She talked things through with me and helped me realise mum was very ill and would die.

"I was shocked to hear that, even though I always knew this was a possibility as mum was in a lot of pain over many years, which was very hard to watch. Rachel was an important link for our family during her illness and I'm glad I was able to work with her.

"It was good having someone like Rachel to talk to. She understood how I felt," she says.

"Indeed, she knew how we were all feeling, even mum, and I know how hard it must have been for her.

"Mum knew she was going to die and the hard thing for her was leaving us."

Evie adds: "Rachel spent lots of time with mum, helping her with many things, including her eulogy.

"This must have been so hard to do, but Rachel was there to help mum say goodbye in words to those she loved the most.

"We miss mum so much but Rachel, who understands our pain, is helping us cope."

What the family support service offers

Finding out an adult they love has cancer can be distressing, isolating and frightening for children and young people. It may also impact upon their school life and relationships.

Cancer Focus NI's Family Support Service helps families cope with the disruption to family life and minimises the long term impact on children's emotional well-being. The Family Support Worker will discuss individual needs and arrange whatever support is best for a family.

The service offers:

  • One to one support in the home or at Cancer Focus NI's Service Centre in Belfast
  • Phone support when you need advice or someone to talk to
  • CLIMB groups (Children's Lives Include Moments of Bravery) are a six week programme for primary school aged children to help them understand cancer through the use of art, craft and play. It helps them talk about their fears and meet other children in the same situation. It also gives parents and carers time-out to meet
  • Family Bereavement Groups support the whole family after the loss of a loved one. This includes evenings for the whole family, family days out and children-only groups
  • If you would like to find out more about the Cancer Focus NI family support service please call the charity, tel: 028 9066 3281, email care@cancerfocusni.org or visit www.cancerfocusni.org

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