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Gifted Northern Ireland artist Rebekah died at 30 - now her amazing work is going on show

When Lisburn woman Joanne Smit’s daughter, talented artist Rebekah Steele, died aged just 30 from ovarian cancer, she was plunged into indescribable heartbreak. Now, as she launches an exhibition of Rebekah’s paintings in her memory, Joanne tells Karen Ireland about her best friend and light of her life

Wonderful daughter: Rebekah Steele
Wonderful daughter: Rebekah Steele

Joanne Smit (51), an advice worker from Lisburn, was left heartbroken and devastated when her beautiful daughter, Rebekah Steele, passed away last year aged just 30.

She admits trying to come to terms with the loss of her best friend has made the past year very difficult.

But now the mum-of-two, who also has a son, Aaron (30), believes she is helping Rebekah's legacy live on through the art work she left behind and through raising awareness of the silent killer which took her precious daughter far too soon.

"Rebekah was just 29 when she took ill," explains Joanne. "She got very tired and weak and went to the GP."

Several weeks of tests and hospital visits passed before the family got the news that no parent ever wants to hear.

"Rebekah was diagnosed with ovarian cancer," recalls Joanne. "We were all in shock, especially when the consultant told us how rare and aggressive it was.

"The consultant we saw in the City Hospital told me he had only ever seen it three times before it was so rare, and we were basically told there was nothing that could be done because it was so advanced. We were all shocked and devastated.

Rebekah Steele who passed away last year
Rebekah Steele who passed away last year

"Rebekah had her own views on care and treatment, which were private to her and which we respected, but she fought the illness with bravery and dignity.

"She remained positive and hopeful, which was the type of person she was."

Early last year, Joanne knew her daughter was dying, so she took two months off work to be with her and to care for her.

Special exhibition: two pieces by Rebekah that will be on show at the Arcadia Gallery in Portrush during July
Special exhibition: two pieces by Rebekah that will be on show at the Arcadia Gallery in Portrush during July

"We all knew what was happening and Rebekah was getting weaker," she explains.

"I just wanted to be with her as much as possible and spend time with her.

"The last six months of her life were very difficult. She lived with me and with her father's family in Bushmills, and we took care of her.

Special exhibition: two pieces by Rebekah that will be on show at the Arcadia Gallery in Portrush during July
Special exhibition: two pieces by Rebekah that will be on show at the Arcadia Gallery in Portrush during July

"Saying goodbye was one of the most difficult things I have ever experienced.

"Watching her slip away over those few months was heartbreaking. No parent should have to go through that."

In the end, Rebekah passed away peacefully in Coleraine's Causeway Hospital on February 6 last year with her family by her side.

"We got to be with her and to say goodbye, but nothing can prepare you for the pain which comes," says Joanne.

"This past year-and-a-half has been horrendous - I miss her so much.

"She was my best friend and the light of our family. It is so difficult being without her.

"I miss her being around to cook me amazing healthy meals and to go camping to festivals.

"We did everything together. Rebekah was the leader of the pack. If anything was happening, she organised everyone to attend.

"She was always in the middle of everything and organising people to go to events.

"She was so adventurous and courageous. At just 18, she left Bushmills, where she grew up, and moved to London to go to Kingston University.

"She was always so good at art, so we assumed she'd study art at college, but she wanted to do media, drama and cultural studies."

Rebekah went on to perform in plays in London and continued her love of painting and being creative.

She previewed her art at an exclusive event in the Anthologist Bar in the financial district of London.

"A couple of her paintings were bought and now hang in the Canary Wharf area," explains Joanne.

"She stayed in London for 10 years and worked as a carer to Boris Johnston's planning lawyer, Lucy Patterson, who had muscular dystrophy.

"She was very caring and committed to her job. When she wasn't working she was painting and showing her art at exhibitions and shows.

"She loved life and was happiest when she was being creative. She was so talented."

When she moved home, Rebekah showed her art in the Titanic Centre as part of International Women's Day in 2015 and 2016.

She also had the amazing distinction of having work exhibited at the Louvre in Paris.

"I don't think she actually knew how good she was," says her mum.

"She was full of fun and was a real free spirit. She loved to travel and had a real gift with people. She had a great love for India and its people.

"She was beautiful inside and out, but as her illness took over, she was able to paint less and less, unfortunately."

One of the main things Joanne has left of Rebekah is her art, and she wants to share it with others. Together with her cousin, Alex Dewart, an artist from Marlow in England, she has been working on an exhibition of Rebekah's paintings.

"Her art is very special," says Joanne. "She had a real talent and we want to remember her and share this through the exhibition.

"It will take place in the Arcadia Gallery in Portrush from July 1 to 29. All the art will be available to buy in print format.

"Rebekah left over 50 paintings to her father and me. The originals will be kept and put into a trust fund for her brother, Aaron, and passed through the family in future years.

All monies raised from the sale of the prints will go towards the Christian Fellowship Church in Strandtown, Belfast, which Rebekah regularly attended with her mother.

"The outpouring from the communities of Bushmills and from the people of the Christian Fellowship Church was amazing," says Joanne.

"People travelled from all over to pay their respects to Rebekah. That was the type of person she was and the impact she had and left behind.

"She was so highly thought of. We were blessed to have a tremendous amount of support for the family when she passed away. It meant so much to us."

As part of Rebekah's legacy, Joanne also wants to reach out to other young women and raise awareness of ovarian cancer, the silent killer which robbed her of her daughter.

"The symptoms can be difficult to detect," she says. "In Rebekah's case, by the time she went for help, it was too late. But that was no one's fault.

"The GP and the staff at Coleraine's Causeway Hospital were amazing, and I would like to thank them all from the bottom of my heart for the way they looked after Rebekah.

"I would encourage all young women to take care of their physical and mental health.

"If they notice any changes such as extreme tiredness or fatigue, bloating or pain, they should see a GP. They need to talk about their wellbeing.

"I know this is something Rebekah would feel very strongly about. Young women need to pay attention and listen to their bodies."

Symptoms of ovarian cancer may include

● Abdominal bloating, fullness, pressure

● Pelvic pain or discomfort

● Increased frequency of urination

● Loss of appetite or feeling full quickly after eating

● Persistent gas or indigestion

● Constipation

● Low back pain

● Increase in the size of  your abdomen, clothes feeling tighter around your hips and waist

● Fatigue

● Pain with sexual activity

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