Bangor woman Danielle Glass shares story of her lifeline after death of sister from cancer aged 37
Bangor woman Danielle Glass tells Stephanie Bell how a lifeline from the Cancer Fund for Children and steadfast support from her family are helping them through their heartbreak
A Co Down woman whose sister died of cancer aged just 37 leaving five children behind has shared the inspirational story of how her family pulled together during the darkest of days.
Danielle Glass (34), a single mum-of-two from Bangor, found herself faced with having to decide the future of her nephews and nieces during one of the most heartbreaking times of her life.
Her elder sister, Julie Lowry, survived just four months after a shock bowel cancer diagnosis in 2018, leaving her children - Chloe (21), Dionne (15), James (13), Rio (12) and Codie (9) - devastated.
Danielle, who lived across the road from Julie and shared a special bond with her, felt completely overwhelmed as she organised her sister's funeral while trying to comfort her distraught children and make plans for their futures.
As she talks now about how she and her family coped, she pays a heartfelt tribute to the Belfast-based Cancer Fund for Children whose support since Julie's death has proved invaluable to helping the children come to terms with the sudden loss of their devoted mum.
"After Julie died there was no help any more and no one even offered us counselling," says Danielle.
"I was left wondering how I would get the children through this grief.
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"No one really knew what to do and then one of the Cancer Fund for Children's support workers, Regina, got in touch and she was really easy to talk to.
"She spent a lot of time with the children, allowed them to spend time together and have fun and be themselves - and express their grief through arts and crafts in such a way that they didn't even know they were doing it.
"What made it special was that when they are with the charity it isn't all about cancer. The children felt they'd lost their identity and suddenly they were the kids whose mummy had died of cancer.
"I am so grateful for the charity's support."
Danielle (34), who works as a retail assistant alongside Julie's eldest daughter Chloe in Argento jewellers in Bloomfield Shopping Centre, Bangor, is also a single mum of two girls, Aaliyah (9) and Ameerah (12).
She grew up the middle daughter of three girls and remained close to both of her sisters, Julie and Cathy (37), who all lived near each other.
Danielle says Julie became a mum quite young and was on hand to guide her through the challenging early days of motherhood when her own two children came along.
"Julie was always my big sister and she had her kids first and she taught me how to be a mum," she says.
"When I had my first child, Julie was there for me.
"She lived across the street and I was scared to bath the baby at first and Julie came over and showed me how to do it and how to feed her.
"We were always close but we became even closer then and we helped each other with childcare and she was always on hand for me if I needed her.
"The three of us - Julie, Cathy and I - would often sit around Julie's kitchen table chatting and as sisters we did bicker and fight, but we always stuck up for each other.
"Cathy and I always knew she had our backs."
It was on Christmas Day in 2018 when Julie, who'd been attending the doctor with symptoms which were diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, felt so ill that her family insisted she should go to A&E.
On Boxing Day she went to the Ulster Hospital where she was admitted for tests and that day was told she had secondary cancer tumours in her abdomen.
It was a few weeks before further tests confirmed the primary cancer was in her bowel and, devastatingly, was stage four and terminal.
Julie was given six months to live but passed away on April 18, 2018.
For her loved ones it was a surreal start to the toughest year any of them had ever faced as they struggled to process the news and prepare themselves and Julie's children for her loss.
"They did suggest chemotherapy to extend her life but it made her so ill they wouldn't carry on with it," Danielle says.
"She went downhill very fast and was violently sick and in so much pain.
"She spent most of her last weeks in hospital and I looked after her kids and brought them to see her every day.
"She passed away at 1.20am in the hospital and it was so quick we didn't get to be with her.
"She was so worried about the children and what would happen to them and she really wanted them to stay with family.
"She was very brave. She knew what was going to happen and she accepted it for what it was. My dad is a Christian and a couple of days before she died he visited Julie and she got saved.
"We tried to spend as much time as we could in the hospital - and we also tried, as gently as possible, to prepare the children for what was going to happen.
"The children saw her a week before she died to say their goodbyes. She looked so ill at the end I wanted them to remember her as their mummy, not as being unconscious or unable to talk."
For Danielle, the grief at losing her sister and best friend has been immeasurable but her focus initially had to be on taking care of Julie's distressed children.
"I struggled after her diagnosis and started to take panic attacks and anxiety, and had to take some time off work," she recalls.
"I had really good friends and family who helped me through that. I knew I had to be strong and when it came to arranging the funeral it was all very robotic, just going from one stage to the next, doing what had to be done."
The children were a priority and it was without hesitation that they kept Julie's final wish to ensure all five remained close together in their own family.
Danielle opened her heart and home to the youngest two children, Rio and Codie, who both have special educational needs and attend Longstone School in Dundonald.
Julie's two eldest children, Chloe (21) and Dionne (15), went to live with their great grandmother, while James (13) is living with a cousin.
All five kids regularly get together in Danielle's house as they all live close to each other.
Danielle and her family have done everything they can to support the children but says the impact of the Cancer Fund for Children's Young Shoulders Programme, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, proved invaluable in the months after Julie's death.
A conversation when she was visiting Julie in hospital introduced Danielle to Cancer Fund for Children support specialist, Regina Seenan, who immediately got in touch to support Danielle and the children and reassured them that their Young Shoulders Programme would offer them the help and support they needed on their difficult journey.
The Cancer Fund for Children has been awarded over £1m of funding from The National Lottery Community Fund since 1996 and - thanks to a recent grant - Regina, one of four cancer support specialists, can provide individual and group support to young people struggling with their parent's cancer diagnosis as part of the Young Shoulders Programme.
As Regina explains, the service can be an important intervention at a devastating time in children's lives.
"No similar programme to Young Shoulders exists in Northern Ireland that offers children support in their own home and short breaks to young people at what can be a very distressing, isolating and confusing time," she says.
"It can be extremely difficult for them to cope with the changes in their family and this can have a huge impact on their development, their relationships and their school life, so we are here to help them with all of this."
For Danielle the service was nothing short of a lifeline.
"The whole experience after my sister died was a steep learning curve," she says.
"There are few resources to help bereaved families of single parents. But the Cancer Fund for Children became our lifeline, our support and, just like she promised, Regina and the charity's team stepped in to help us with the emotional load we were carrying.
"They organised a break for us all to spend time together as a family at Daisy Lodge, which is their purpose-built therapeutic centre in Newcastle, Co Down. There are really no words to describe Daisy Lodge, it's just amazing.
"It was a little bit of heaven amongst the hell we were going through. The kids then went to Narnia, the charity's amazing log cabin. They absolutely loved it. They took part in therapeutic art activities which let them express their feelings without necessarily having to talk about them.
"They got things out that they maybe didn't even realise they were feeling or were remembering. Different wee things about their mum. They came back and they had made me a family tree picture, with different things that represented each of them."
Now, some 20 months after Julie's death, Danielle and the children are rebuilding their lives.
The Cancer Fund for Children continues to provide Danielle's family with emotional support when they need it as well as therapeutic short breaks at Daisy Lodge for up to two years, helping them move through the grieving process and adjust to life without Julie.
"The kids are so resilient, they're better than us at times," adds Danielle. "I had to explain to them that mummy had gone to heaven and was no longer in pain. There were tears and screaming but they have got on with things.
"I have encouraged them not to hide their feelings. I told them it was OK to feel sad or angry and it was also OK to feel happy and not feel guilty about it as their mum would have wanted them to be happy.
"They each have their sad days and we talk about Julie and we make her part of every occasion - birthdays, Christmas, her anniversary - by getting the kids to let off balloons. I am really proud of them how they have coped.
"But we're a close family who all live near each other so the support is there. I have great friends too who are always there for me. I couldn't do this without them or the Cancer Fund for Children."
For more information on the Cancer Fund for Children, visit https://cancerfundforchildren.com