Life after Katie Scarbrough

In a heartbreaking and searingly honest interview the widower of ice skater Katie Scarbrough tells Maureen Coleman how he and their two children are coming to terms with losing her

The family before Katie's illness
The last picture of Katie Scarbrough on the beach at Weston Super Mare with her husband Stuart
Katie's final days at home

Every day, after work, Stuart Scarbrough made a point of telephoning or texting his young wife Katie to let her know he was on his way home. It was something he gave little thought to – just a reassuring nod to domesticity and family life.

Since Katie's tragic death on May 2 this year, it's been a habit he has struggled to break. It's the little trivialities of day-to-day living that reinforce her absence, he says. The inability to check in with her or to turn to her for support when he's disciplining their children, Sam (8) and Sophie (4), are painful reminders of his heart-breaking loss.

For the last 12 months of her life, 32-year-old Belfast-born Katie, a former ice skating champion, put up the bravest of fights against cancer. Her illness meant constant hospital stays. Stuart became accustomed to spending time at the hospital by his wife's side. When she lost her battle against bowel cancer, he admits he felt cut adrift.

"At first, it was strange," he explains. "After Katie died, everything was s o busy, sorting out the funeral. It happened quite quickly, within eight days. But then that week after the funeral, it just felt weird being in the house. I kept feeling that I had a hospital to go to. It wasn't necessarily strange her not being in the house, because obviously, over the last 12 months, especially more recently, she had spent a lot of time in hospital. So it wasn't unusual not having her around, but it did feel weird not having a hospital to go to.

"And it was weird going back to work. Normally I would leave and pick up the phone or text Katie to say I was on my way home. That's when you feel it probably the most. I just keep myself busy, to be honest. It helps to have distractions. The more time you spend within these four walls the more you dwell on things.

"I had been doing a lot of stuff on my own anyway for the past 12 months, like looking after the kids because she wasn't capable of doing stuff like that, so that's not really a big deal. But it's when the kids are playing up and normally you'd have the back-up of your partner to step in and help you out, that's when you realise how difficult it is to be a single parent."

Katie's inspirational story of refusing to give up without a fight touched thousands of people around the world. Following her diagnosis last year, after taking ill on a family holiday, the Gilnahirk woman began a blog from her home in Fradley, Staffordshire, where she had settled with her Scottish-born husband and two children. The blog was written to chart her journey for Sam and Sophie, to raise awareness of bowel cancer and to encourage positivity among other cancer sufferers and their families.

A national champion ice skater in her teens, Katie's emotional blog documented her battle, from the first few days of chemotherapy to the agonising moment she had to break the news to the children that the treatment was no longer working.

From early on, Katie and Stuart had told the children that mummy was unwell. But after doctors told Katie at the end of April that there was nothing more they could do for her, the couple sat down with Sam and Sophie to explain what was going to happen.

While four-year-old Sophie was too young to grasp the gravity of the situation, Sam asked his mum outright if she was going to die.

"We were brutally honest with him and said yes," recalls Stuart. "Sam, me and Katie all got upset. We were crying. Sam tried to explain to Sophie that mummy's Calpol wasn't working anymore. But she just didn't get it at all.

"With hindsight, we did the right thing, being so honest with them right up until the very last minute because there was no shock factor for them. They were with us on the journey. And they've been fine, they have hardly been upset at all, to be honest.

"Even on the day I came home and told them she had died, they both cried for a bit and then were like 'Right, let's get ready for school'. That's how kids deal with things. They've just carried on as normal."

Stuart is keen to keep Katie's memory alive, by bringing her name up in conversation with the children. Following her death, all three went for bereavement counselling. But after only a few sessions, they stopped going.

"For Sam and Sophie, it was just about making toys," he says. "They're just not at that point where they need that kind of help."

In his rational mind, Stuart knows that it's the innocence of children that has seemingly helped them bounce back so quickly. But in his darker moments, he admits to feeling quite alone in his sorrow.

"I have tried to probe them," he says. "They come out with random things every now and then and say stuff about Katie but I find I have to probe them to get anything out of them. They don't seem to talk about her.

"I think if I took their Xbox away from them, they'd be more upset than the fact that they've lost their mum because their priorities are all different at that age. Katie made them a video each and I had to make them sit down and watch them. They didn't want to watch the videos and I felt I was pushing them to get a reaction out of them. But they didn't seem that bothered, to be honest. It's how they deal with it and I feel left on my own, that I'm grieving alone and that they're just carrying on.

"They're not sharing their grief and I'm left to pick up the pieces on my own and deal with everything, which I've pretty much done. They're just not on the same wavelength."

The local community has rallied around, offering to help out and both his own family and Katie's have been a great support too. Having his parents live nearby has been a blessing, he says. His mum takes care of Sam and Sophie after school until Stuart is able to pick them up on the way home from his job as a passenger services duty manager at Birmingham Airport.

"I've been inundated with offers of help but I don't use a lot of it," he says. "I've always been the type of person to do things by myself. But a few of the local mums have been great. I've had more than enough support."

Katie's cancer journey took a devastating turn in the last week of April after doctors told her the chemotherapy was no longer working. She had her last treatment on Wednesday, April 24. Stuart knew she was dying at that stage because her eyes had turned yellow. A Glaswegian girl Katie had befriended and written about on her blog had suffered the same fate right before her death and Stuart was all too aware what the sign meant.

"I didn't tell her because I didn't want to freak her out," he says. "But then the kids came up to see her in hospital and Sam asked 'Mummy, why are your eyes yellow?' She wanted to know why I hadn't told her but I said I was trying not to scare her. She panicked then, so we spoke to the nurse and she arranged for Katie to go into the hospice the following Tuesday."

Before she was transferred to the hospice, Katie fulfilled one final wish – to spend the day at the seaside, feeling the sun on her face. The family packed up for the day and headed to Weston-super-Mare, where the young mum relaxed on a sun lounger, watching the children play.

Her trip to the beach was part of a 'bucket list' she'd conjured up. Among the other things she wished for before she passed away was to appear on ITV show This Morning, to find out the sex of her sister-in-law's baby (little Jake was born just a few weeks ago) and to see Stuart's brother Scott married to his partner Andrew.

"Everyone had been inundating This Morning to get her on and they rang on the Friday to see if she'd come down for the show," Stuart explains. "But by that stage, she had no energy to do it.

"Katie suggested I go instead, but it was always her in the limelight. I didn't want to, I preferred just to be hidden behind the scenes, looking after the day-to-day running of the house. It was Katie's blog."

He laughs as he recalls: "She became something of a social networking freak, maximising the potential of Facebook and Twitter to get the message out there."

Following a lovely but poignant day on the beach, Katie went into hospital the following week to have her stomach drained one last time. Stuart's family had travelled down from Scotland to say their goodbyes and he had prepared himself for the worst. Katie was moved to the hospice on Tuesday. The following night, she lost her fight. It was all very quick in the end.

"We knew she was entering her last week or two weeks," Stuart says, "but I'd no idea how rapid it would be.

"The end came just like that. Boom. I had nearly gone home too that night. I'm so glad I didn't. There was no time to get any family there. We're talking minutes. It just happened so quickly. You know it's going to happen, but it just came and went. Even the nurses at the hospice were shocked."

Stuart's voice has been cracked with emotion throughout the interview, but at this point, he breaks down as he recalls those last precious moments with Katie.

"We just said goodnight to each other and that we loved each other and I gave her a kiss," he says through his tears. "It was so rapid. Then she was gone."

After the funeral, Stuart took the children on holidays. When he returned, he kept himself busy with fundraising fun days and selling the house. The family is planning to move to a detached property now, but still within the village. And Stuart agreed to appear on This Morning, along with Bowel Cancer UK chief executive Deborah Alsina, to talk about Katie's drive to raise awareness of cancer in young people and her Team Katie fundraising account, which has so far tipped the £16,000 mark.

"My motivation has been that she would want me to carry on. She'd want me to do that," he says. "I firmly believe that. To begin with, I didn't want to do This Morning. I was very nervous and was worried that it would not make good television and that I wouldn't have enough to say.

"The whole situation was mad, but Philip and Holly were amazing. They were so nice with me and I had an extra five minutes to talk to them before the interview because the news was on, which helped settle me down. Afterwards then, we had a high- five moment and I felt chuffed that we'd done it.

"The only thing that I forget to mention was the sex of the baby on the bucket list. I forgot to discuss that. But I was glad I did the show. She'd be proud of me for doing it."

Katie's brother Chris and partner Debbie became proud parents to baby Jake a few weeks ago.

Although Katie never found out the baby's sex before she passed away, Stuart says she always had a feeling it would be a boy.

In a moving gesture, a scan of the baby was placed into Katie's coffin.

The midwife wrote the gender on the back of the scan, so Chris and Debbie wouldn't know if they were having a boy or a girl.

In the interview with Philip and Holly, Stuart paid tribute to his beautiful wife, describing her as a "loving person who had time for everybody".

"Yeah, that's how she was," he says. "That's what everybody said about her. A friend of mine married a girl from Singapore. When he brought her back, some of our friends didn't take to her. Katie was the first person to welcome her. That's how she was."

Stuart and Katie were both training to be holiday reps with First Choice when they met. The pair were sent to Menorca to work, where they got together after a "drunken kiss in a nightclub".

But the Katie from back then was a very different girl to the Katie of late.

"It's weird," Stuart muses. "I didn't know Katie before her ice skating days and when we first met, she was trying to get away from the whole ice skating thing. The Katie I knew always needed to be encouraged to do stuff, like passing her driving test when she first moved over here.

"She always wanted to be an ice skating coach but she wouldn't do anything about it. Every time we went ice skating, I was pushing her to go and speak to people and stuff.

"She was always kind of homesick. We looked at moving back to Belfast because she wanted to be near her family. I did contact my company at Belfast International Airport and Belfast City Airport to see whether I could get a job there. She'd been here about 10 years and wanted to go back.

"But she was definitely the kind of person who needed a nudge to do things. Then, when she was diagnosed with cancer, it was almost as if the person who'd been the ice skating champion – who trained six days a week, was committed, who when she fell on her backside, would get right back up again – it was almost as if she came back.

"She'd be getting chemo and she'd have the lap-top out, saying 'Right, what can I do next? I know, I'll make more wristbands. We've already sold 900, but we need to make 200 more'. Those wristbands alone raised around £1,500."

The blog began life as distraction for Katie, but then it snowballed, with more than 76,000 hits. Katie found herself counselling other cancer sufferers and family members. "That was her all over," says Stuart. "It was her personality to help others, but it also took away from what she was going through."

Katie's blog, along with the constant fundraising and Stuart's appearance on This Morning, have helped boost the profile of Bowel Cancer UK and the money raised is being evenly split between it and Cancer Research UK.

Next Tuesday, Stuart will travel to Belfast with the children, to stay for 10 days with Katie's parents. It was an annual holiday for the family and a tradition he is keen to maintain. While here, he jokes that he intends to call a board meeting of Team Katie, to discuss future plans. It is likely a charity trust will be set up in his wife's name and that Katie's Ice Gala, first held at Dundonald Ice Bowl in March, will become a yearly event.

"Katie's legacy will definitely live on," he says. "There are enough people out there who want to continue to do stuff in her name. What she has done is help raise awareness of bowel cancer and put Bowel Cancer UK on the map. That awareness can't be underestimated."

At a recent charity luncheon in London, Stuart was approached by people who'd met Katie via Twitter.

"They were telling me how brave and strong I was," he says quietly. "But if you want to see the bravest, strongest people in the world, go and talk to a cancer patient. You can't tell them that, though, they don't see it like that themselves. They think the carers or partners are brave."

Stuart adds: "But what we go through can never compare to what the patient goes through. They are the brave ones, not us."

Katie's blog

July 8, 2012, Katie's first ever blog post

So, I am 3 days away from starting chemotherapy and still it doesn't feel real, or like it is happening to me. I am writing this and it's almost like I'm writing about another person.

January 9, 2013

I can only say I feel numb at the minute. I do know that when cancer gets in the bones, that really isn't a good sign and it's hard to get back from there.

March 13, 2013

It's better to die fighting on an operating table rather than just waiting for the cancer to take hold even more than it already has. Cancer has taken everything away from me and I hate it!! I hate that it's making me bitter and emotional, I hate that it's given me no hope, I hate that it's made me weak and dependent on people and, most of all, I hate that it's going to take me away from my kids and family!!!

April 24, 2013

I think at this point I am in denial about what is going to happen. I really don't know how to die, does anybody? Stuart and I are numb, devastated and trying to keep things normal for the kids. But this is very far from a 'normal' situation.

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