'NI Hospice made sure we'd one more precious Christmas all together'
Ahead of the launch of the NI Hospice’s annual Christmas appeal next week, Glengormley widow Sharon Mills, who lost her husband, Gary, to cancer, tells Stephanie Bell that backing the Shine a Light fundraiser is crucial to providing support to those who are terminally ill
As she contemplates her first Christmas without her best friend and husband, Gary, Sharon Mills has gained some comfort from placing a shining light in his memory on the Northern Ireland Hospice's Christmas tree.
This time last year, the Glengormley couple faced the worst time of their lives when they had to accept that time was running out for Gary after a long and brave battle with cancer.
A father-of-three and grandfather of six, Gary (56) was able to spend his last Christmas at home surrounded by his family thanks to the hospice before passing away peacefully on December 27.
Childminder Sharon (55), who has a 35-year-old daughter Danielle, says that they could never have coped if it hadn't been for the support of the hospice, which made Gary's last month's not only easier to bear, but also helped them to build some special memories.
Poignantly she reveals that her husband passed away on the 20th anniversary of their stillborn son's death, something she believes he did to spare the family more anguish.
Gary was a devoted family man and a very private person, but in the last months of his life through the hospice he made new friends, which his widow says made an enormous difference to him.
The support from the hospice made this very tough time easier on all the family. And for this reason, Sharon was happy to help launch the annual Shine A Light appeal this week, especially as this year it will be celebrated, for the first time, at the new hospice building where a new Christmas tree has been planted.
While Christmas is a very special time of the year for families, it can also be a very difficult period for those who have lost loved ones. The Shine a Light campaign recognises that loss can be felt more deeply as we approach the festive season, which is why each year the Northern Ireland Hospice Christmas tree shines brightly, full of lights each placed by a family in memory of a loved one or in support of families who are coming to terms with terminal illness at Christmas time.
This year's appeal aims to raise around £200,000 towards hospice care.
Sharon says she feels indebted to the hospice, which has continued to support her since she lost her husband.
Gary, who worked as a scientific officer, was first diagnosed with a malignant melanoma more than 16 years ago and was given the all-clear - only for it to come back in 2010 and spread to his lungs.
He received treatment for nearly six years but, by the start of 2015, his health had deteriorated significantly, and last year he underwent a number of operations to remove tumours in his arm.
Sharon recalls: "He really was the bravest man I've ever known. He came through so much and he never complained.
"No one - only Gary and I - knew exactly what he was going through because he didn't want to worry anyone.
"The last six years of his life was one long battle and he fought for us.
"We also packed in as much as we could, and I have lovely memories of us renewing our wedding vows in Las Vegas.
"It was something I always wanted to do and he surprised me with it about four years ago.
"He was so thoughtful, and even in the hospice I had to remind him sometimes that he was a patient and that he didn't work there because he was always taking people for walks and bringing them things they needed. He was a very caring, loving man."
When it became clear about this time last year that Gary's condition was terminal, his GP took the decision to refer him to hospice care.
Sharon says she was unaware of exactly what service the hospice provided, and she still can't believe how they helped make a difficult time so much easier to deal with for her and for all of her family.
The couple have three children - Mark (37) and Lynsey (33), who were Gary's step-children, and son Kyle (22). They also have six grandchildren.
Sharon will never forget the shock and distress of hearing that Gary needed hospice care.
"When he came home and told me the doctor said that he was being referred to the hospice, I was hysterical - I thought that was it," she says.
"I'd never had experience of the hospice before, and I thought that it was only somewhere you went to die.
"It seemed so unfair as Gary was still a young man, only 56 - we still had so much that we still wanted to do. Our hospice nurse, Leanne, came out to the house and she instantly put me at ease. She explained what lay ahead and how the hospice could help."
Gary stayed in the hospice a few times, both to get his pain under control and also to give his family some respite.
Sharon says that while he was a very private and reserved person, he got to know another patient, Gordon, who he became really close to.
"They were able to share what they were going through and it made such a difference to them both," she explains.
"I also made friends with Gordon's daughter, and we are still close today. Gary and Gordon also went to day hospice one day each week, and being able to talk to Gordon and the other patients made it so much easier for Gary to face what lay ahead.
"When he was in the hospice, we as a family were able to visit whenever we wanted.
"The door was always open and you knew you were welcome, and that made it so much easier for us.
"I would have visited in the afternoons and got into bed beside him and watched the 3pm movie with him - which is something you couldn't do in a hospital. Things like that made such a difference."
On December 23, Gary became very unwell and the family feared he would have to spend Christmas either in hospital or at the hospice.
Sharon reveals how 20 years ago they had been devastated to lose a son who was stillborn on December 27, and every year together they would celebrate the memory of their child by sharing a special meal out.
Gary held on throughout Christmas and passed away on his late son's anniversary, which Sharon believes he did to help make life easier for her and their children.
"That is the type of man he was," she says. "He was so selfless and a devoted family man. I knew he wouldn't die on Christmas Day because he knew we all loved Christmas and he wouldn't put the kids through that.
"The 27th was always a sad day for us.
"We always celebrated that little life we lost, and Gary knew that it would be easier if we had one anniversary at Christmas and not two.
"And I know that he held on because he wanted to die on the 27th. The hospice arranged for us to get a bed at home downstairs, so that he could be at home for Christmas.
"It meant we were all able to be around him. We took it in turns (to be with him) and he was never on his own.
"There is no good time to die, but Christmas makes it even harder, and in some ways it was made a wee bit easier for me knowing he was going to be with our son.
"On the day he died all of the kids had been in to see him and then it was just him and me. He turned and looked at me. One tear dropped across his cheek. He closed his eyes and passed away holding my hand.
"Together we had faced years of fear and anguish, and in the end his death was so peaceful and beautiful, so that makes it so much easier to bear.
"Thanks to the hospice, we got to have those precious moments at home, one last Christmas with all of us together."
Sharon is still being supported by the hospice's counselling service, which has helped her to cope in the past year as she comes to terms with life without Gary.
She is delighted to have an opportunity to give something back by supporting this year's Shine A Light appeal as she knows first-hand the difference the service can make at one of the toughest times in your life.
Sharon explains: "The hospice staff are angels on earth and that's every one of them, from the doctors to the cleaners. They all have time for you and talk to you and it's like a family.
"I'm sponsoring a light in Gary's memory, and I hope that many more people will join me by sponsoring a light in memory of their loved ones, so that many more families will be able to receive that special care when they need it most."
To sponsor a light in memory of your loved one, go to nihospice.org or call 028 9077 7123. The NI hospice will be holding a Lights to Remember ceremony on Tuesday, December 20, starting at Dominican College in Fortwilliam Park, followed by a torchlight procession to the hospice on the Somerton Road, where the Christmas tree lights will be switched on at 8.15pm