As Pauline Mills kissed her son Daniel goodnight and told him she loved him there was nothing to prepare her for the horror of discovering the next morning that her first born child had died in his sleep.
It was New Year’s Day and Pauline had gone into 21-year-old Daniel’s room at their Bangor home to waken him because he had insisted on cooking dinner for the family that day as he said his mum always burnt the steaks.
The shock of finding her son had passed away in the few short hours since they had said goodnight and wished each other a Happy New Year has still not sunk in for Pauline.
A very close and loving family, the terrible loss of their “gentle giant” has left all of them — dad Frank (51), a retired businessman and two younger brothers Jamie (15) and Keith (14) — completely lost.
Recently it was confirmed that Daniel had died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome — a silent killer similar to cot death in infancy.
Sads — also called sudden arrythmic death syndrome — is linked to anomalies in electrical workings of the heart.
The rare heart condition is an umbrella term for around a dozen conditions that kills 800 people under 35 a year in the UK.
As Daniel had been a fit and healthy young man, the cause of death has made it even harder for his family to accept that he has been taken from them. And as they struggle to make sense of their loss, they have found strength from launching a new charity in Daniel’s memory to raise awareness of Sads.
The Danny Mills Foundation was the idea of a group of the popular young man’s friends who Pauline paid special tribute to for helping get the family through the nightmare of the last few weeks. The foundation aims to also raise funds to buy monitoring equipment and lobby government to make heart screening standard for every young person in Northern Ireland.
The family has found great comfort in the charity which Pauline believes is a fitting legacy to her son and says if it helps prevent even one death through screening then it will have been worthwhile.
“I had never heard of Sads and it’s like most things, you don’t take notice until it comes knocking at your door,” she says.
“The hardest part is that there are no signs.
“It’s like he died for absolutely no reason which makes it extremely hard to bear.
“You get them past a certain age and you think they are healthy and you might worry about them being out at a party but you don’t go to bed thinking my son could die in his sleep.
“It makes it even more heartbreaking and if we can get screening for every young person then we might be able to prevent it happening to someone else.”
Pauline says she has been given the strength to cope because of the unbelievable support from her son’s best friends — 10 boys and a girl.
Within hours of Danny’s death the young people rallied round the family and have remained a constant presence, launching the charity in his memory and provide practical and emotional support to his devastated parents and brothers.
Pauline has been deeply moved by just how much these young people care because of the obvious love they had for her son.
She says: “From the moment they heard of Danny’s death his friends have not left us. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Young people today are all tarred with the same brush and these young lads are a credit to their generation.
“In the days after Danny died we were devastated, like zombies really, and these young people took over.
“They organised everything for us — the flowers for the funeral, the catering, everything. They even took our Christmas decorations down and put them away.
“They are still here, still at our sides, and I don’t think we would have got through so far without them.
“I can see a bit of Daniel in every single one of them which is such a comfort and they are telling us things about Daniel that we didn’t know.
“They have helped us so much. I don’t think we could have functioned without them. It was their idea to set up the charity in Daniel’s memory to raise awareness of Sads and they have put their heart and souls into it and it has given us a focus and really helped us to cope.”
The young people meet twice a week in Pauline and Frank’s house to discuss ways to fundraise. They organised A Night at the Races in March and are now busy planning a have a Gala Ball for September.
Pauline explains: “We discuss everything as a family, the lads are like my kids, I’ve known most of them since they were 13 or 14 years old
“I don’t know the exact figure, but I think we have raised £5,000 so far which we hope to use to buy equipment to monitor young people.
“All of Danny’s friends would be there in a heartbeat — not just for Danny — but for anyone who needed help. They are wonderful and I think it says a lot for Daniel that they thought so much of him.
“Looking down I know he would be so proud of what they are doing and he would love seeing his friends for who they truly are — real people who care.”
Daniel was a huge presence in the lives of all who knew him. A very fit young man who worked out in the gym every week, last year he sat up his own plumbing and heating company.
As well as being hard working, his mum said he enjoyed every second of his life and was a role model to his two younger brothers who idolised him.
Pauline said that Keith and Jamie lost not just a brother, but a friend, a play partner and mentor.
“Daniel was always there for them, no matter what it was and he always tried to steer them the right way,” she says. “Both boys would ask his advice on everything.
“He was anti-drugs and would have warned the boys about the dangers of taking drugs.
“And he loved to wrestle with them in our living room — we used to say he was the biggest child we had. He was such a big friendly giant, a big loveable bear.”
Daniel had planned to bring in the New Year with his friends but at the last minute changed his mind and decided instead to say in with his family.
Not one of them could have guessed as they watched TV, wished each other all the best for 2013 and talked into the early hours of the next morning, that it would be the last night they would ever spend with him.
Pauline says that while she has never been a religious person, she believes now that Danny’s decision to change his plans at the last minute was God’s way of giving the family a chance to say goodbye.
“It was Danny’s choice not to go out,” she says. “Everyone calls our family the Waltons because we kiss each other every night and tell each other how much we love each other. That’s just the way it has been every night since the boys were born. That night was no different and I kissed Danny and told him I loved him and that I would see him in the morning.
“We didn’t go to bed until around 3am and I went into Danny’s room after 9am because he had asked me to waken him to prepare dinner.
“We were having steak and he always said I burnt them. Besides, he enjoyed cooking them — he cooked a lot for the family and it had become a tradition that he did New Year’s Day dinner.”
Recalling the dreadful sight that met her on New Year’s Day, she says: “When I went in I noticed his lips were very blue and when I said his name he didn’t respond. I called Frank and he knew straight away that he had gone.
“Frank rang an ambulance and I tried to resuscitate Danny until the paramedics arrived. The boys were screaming and shouting to him to please breathe.
“He had passed away some time in the night. He just closed his wee eyes and went to sleep and didn’t wake up again.”
Life without Danny is a daily torment for Pauline and her husband and two younger boys.
She describes it as an ache, an emptiness, which will never be filled.
Knowing he will never again walk through the front door torments her. And of course there are the everyday things that have now become a source of daily grief — not seeing his clothes in the wash basket or ironing a shirt for him is agony to his heartbroken mum.
Pauline says: “I’ve been lucky as a full-time mum to have been able to spend every second with my three boys and I know some parents don’t get that chance.
“And now there is just this terrible emptiness.”
Evidently still trying to come to terms with her loss, Pauline admits there have been times when she has set a plate for Danny at the dinner table, before remembering he will not pull up a chair and eat with his family ever again.
She adds: “There is a silence in the house that wasn’t here before. It’s not the same silence there would have been when Daniel was out but a different kind of silence, a dead silence. Even when we are together and talking, it is there.
“The emptiness is horrendous. I think we are living in hell and there couldn’t be a worse feeling. It’s like our hearts have been ripped out.”
His death can help save lives of others
Chris Armstrong has known Danny since he was 12 years old. The boys grew up together and now aged 23, Chris is currently in his second year of a PhD in cancer research. He explains why he and Danny’s other friends wanted to set up the Foundation in his memory
Danny was one of those people who was friends with everyone, but at the same time kept his close friends very close to him.
“He really was one of a kind and had a great ability to bring different groups of friends together — so much so that I used to refer to him as everyone’s best friend.
“The news of his death on New Year’s Day was too much to take in and many of us refused to believe it.
“It is something that many of us still haven't accepted but as in life, his death has brought all of Danny's friends closer together. His popularity was made even more evident when over 700 people turned up to his funeral.
“After Danny's passing, all of his close friends wanted to help the family as much as possible and decided we would try and pay for as much of the funeral as possible.
“During that first week, people around Bangor started to hear what we were trying to do and wanted to help out. Within seven days we had received over £1,000 — usually from people walking up to us in the street and handing over money to help.
“We quickly realised that we needed to make it easier for anyone who wanted to donate and this led to the creation of www.dannymillsfoundation.|com — and by the end of the week donations reached over £3,500.
“This is when we told Frank and Pauline that we wanted them to have the money to help with any financial difficulties that may result from the passing of a loved one.
“They were incredibly grateful, but asked if it would be possible to use the money to create a charity in memory of Danny.
“We were happy to help and the Danny Mills Heart Foundation was set up to raise awareness of sudden adult death syndrome (Sads) and provide equipment to local hospitals and sports clubs which may aid in the prevention or diagnosis of previously unknown heart conditions.
“The public response towards the foundation has been better than any of us could ever have imagined.
“We now have more than 1,500 followers on our facebook page (www.facebook.com/dannymillsheartfoundation) and donations have well exceeded £6,000.
“Our first big event was on the 16th March at the Marine Court Hotel in Bangor and we managed to sell out the venue with nearly 300 tickets sold within a week.
“Danny's brother Jamie also raised over £1,000 with a sponsored haircut — something Danny used to pester him about continuously.
“We have also had huge demand for the wristbands, hoodies and T-shirts which display the logo of the foundation and now have all three available for purchase.
“Looking into the future we have a lot of events to look forward to. We are having a gala ball in the Stormont Hotel on the 28th September — tickets will be released shortly for £40 each — and again we anticipate huge demand.
“Several schools, including Danny's old school Bangor Academy, have also contacted us with plans for fundraisers. We have also been overwhelmed with the amount of people who have contacted us wanting to raise money via sponsored skydives, abseils and marathon runs.
“And we were also delighted to be approached by a local gym — Feel Good Fitness NI — who have been great in helping us arrange a number of events.
“On a personal level, we also have an added incentive to make this foundation successful.
“We don't want Danny's death to be in vain and if we can save even one life then that can be his legacy — that he died to save the lives of others.”