Real Lives: ‘My best friend’s death changed me and put trivial things in perspective’

When you’re young, how do you cope with the death of a best friend? A new campaign aims to help these ‘forgotten mourners’. Here two women share their stories

Victoria Roberts with fundraising Daisy Bear. Her best friend Emma died at the age of 14
Victoria Roberts with fundraising Daisy Bear. Her best friend Emma died at the age of 14

The death of a young person is devastating by its very nature and is often sudden and unexpected. In the aftermath, support is understandably focused on parents and siblings. But a new charity campaign is aiming to highlight the effect of the death on their friends – the forgotten mourners, whose grief can be just as painful and intense.

‘The impact on friends’ lives is huge, yet they can sometimes be sidelined,’ says Alison Cox MBE, an experienced counsellor and founder of the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY).

‘We expect young people’s first experience of death to be of someone older – perhaps a grandparent – so it’s deeply shocking for them to lose a contemporary; someone they’ve been shoulder to shoulder with since childhood.

 The impact on friends’ lives is huge, yet they can be sidelined

‘If you’re still at school, you’ve often spent more time with that person than with your family. This comes up often on our advice lines. Friendships can be so intense, the bereaved one has to reconstruct their identity without their friend. They think about them every day, carry them with them everywhere they go. They have to adjust to life without the shared future they imagined.’

Tomorrow, CRY will launch a new campaign #CRY4Friends highlighting the grief felt by young people on the death of a friend. The charity hopes that this new initiative will encourage them to share their memories and talk openly.

Friends’ coping systems are often different from the bereaved family’s. ‘Friends want to talk about their grief and be together in their friendship groups,’ says Alison, whereas parents and siblings often find it difficult to talk, and are more cautious about sharing their feelings. ‘Friends come together in an incredibly cohesive way to protect and support each other,’ she explains. ‘I’m always struck by how articulate they can be about their loss. They keep that person alive by talking about them, sharing photos and memories on social media as well as in real life, so they find out new things about their missing friend – “I didn’t know they’d been there or done that.”’

In cases of suicide (which is the leading cause of death in people under 35), there are additional layers of distress to deal with. When a young person loses a friend in this way, the grieving process can be more complex.

‘If someone has been struggling with thoughts of suicide, the likelihood is that they will have spoken about it to their peers,’ says Kelly Thorpe, manager of Papyrus HopeLineUK, at the young suicide charity Papyrus. ‘As a result the emotions that survivors are sometimes left with can be quite intense. They can feel shame and guilt that is unfounded but completely understandable. “Could I have done something about it? Could I have prevented it? Did I do the right thing in telling or not telling somebody else about the person’s suicidal thoughts? Why didn’t I pick up on what they were hinting at in their social media post?”’

Emma Welch, 14, died in 2015 following complications during surgery to correct a scoliosis (curvature) of her spine. Her best friend Victoria Roberts was at the same school, near Bath. 

Victoria with best friend Emma Welch who died at the age of 14
Victoria with best friend Emma Welch who died at the age of 14

Emma and I were best friends. We first met when we started secondary school and it was pretty much instant – we spent the whole time laughing. We went to each other’s houses after school, had sleepovers, went to the park, shopping – all the normal things. She was very bubbly, happy and funny. We were part of a bigger group, but the two of us were very tight.

When she died it was devastating. I was on the way to school on the bus, and Mum texted me to go to reception once I got there. She had jumped in the car to come and tell me before I got to my classroom. I didn’t believe her. It was something that just shouldn’t have happened.

I felt numb to begin with. It still doesn’t feel real. Everyone acts differently around you. Initially, people kept asking me if I was OK, and that made me cry a lot. People didn’t talk about Emma and if they mentioned her name they would look at me and stop in case they upset me.

To begin with it was hard to concentrate, especially at school, as we used to spend so much time together. The teachers said, ‘You can have as much time off as you want,’ but I just wanted to go to my lessons. I felt like, ‘This has happened and there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s no point crying about it; Emma wouldn’t have wanted me to.’

When Emma died it was devastating. It shouldn’t have happened

If you don’t talk about it, it’s worse. Being around people and sharing memories with our friends helps. We laugh about things like the time she fell in a recycling box at school. When Emma went in for her operation I made her a book to cheer her up while she was in hospital – funny pictures, photos of the two of us with sugary faces after we had tried to eat doughnuts without licking our lips! Now I look at it to remember her and the good times. I still have all the silly videos we used to record on the laptop.

Emma was such a lovely, motivated person. She raised more than £13,000 for Brain Tumour Research after her church minister, a father with young children, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. And just a few days before she died she made an attempt to set a record for the number of teddy bears on a mountaintop. She climbed Mount Snowdon with a team of volunteers carrying 135 bears in rucksacks – including her fundraising mascot Daisy Bear (Emma’s middle name was Daisy) who even has her own Facebook page, which helps friends keep up to date with fundraising events in Emma’s memory. I’m trying to carry on her fundraising work as I feel that makes her life count – and makes me feel as though I am keeping her memory alive.

I’ve arranged a lot of things in Emma’s memory at school. For the first anniversary of her death, I organised a crocheted daisies Guinness World Record attempt. People around the world sent in crocheted daisies with lovely messages. We had more than 31,000 displayed at The Forum in Bath, with Emma’s name written in daisies in the middle.

Our friends have stayed in touch with Emma’s parents. Tony, Emma’s dad, has been on fundraising walks and her mum Lesley and my mum crochet together, making blankets, hats and cushion covers – normally involving a daisy or two – to sell for charity.

Milestones we expected to share are tough. For our school prom in June we decorated the railings with daisies and we took pink balloons that spelt out her name. It was a strange day as Emma and I always used to talk about what we would do at our prom.

Remembering those conversations made me smile, but inside my heart was breaking that my best friend was not by my side on our special day. There was a lot of cheering and clapping as we released the balloons and they floated away. Tears were shed and there were lots of hugs. I would like to think that Emma was watching and that I did her proud.

Being only 14, our favourite conversation topic was boys. We talked about getting married and having children who would grow up to be friends just like us. I am not sure what Emma would be doing today but I know we would be laughing through whatever life threw at us.

Her death has changed my outlook. I realise you only have one life so do things that make you happy. I don’t worry about things as much as I used to before she died. It puts the trivial things into perspective.

braintumourresearch.org 

Jessica Spokes, 29, from West London, works in PR. Her best friend Jemima Wilson collapsed and died during an exercise class in July 2016, aged 28. The cause of death was found to be Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS).

Jessica with best friend Jemima (left)
Jessica with best friend Jemima (left)

Jemima and I met on day one of university at Durham. Straight away we got on really well. We were part of an amazing group of friends who have all stayed a huge part of each other’s lives since we left. After university Jemima and I lived together in London for three years.

When I moved to Sydney to work for a couple of years she came to see me and whenever I came home we’d spend a lot of time together. Then she got a six-month brand-design placement in Singapore – a really exciting opportunity. She flew there on the day I was returning from Sydney.

Jemima was at a gym in Singapore when she collapsed and died from an undiagnosed heart condition. The hospital called me because I was one of the last people she’d messaged, and I then had to call her parents to tell them the news.

It was only when I began to hear myself telling other people that it began to sink in. It seemed inconceivable that someone so full of life could be gone. I remember calling Mum and saying, ‘I don’t feel anything. I need to cry but I can’t,’ and then realising that I was sobbing down the phone. I felt – and still do – that something horribly unfair had happened.

Jessica today. She feels her friend Jemima's loss all the time
Jessica today. She feels her friend Jemima’s loss all the time

 Jemima has left a huge void – there’s simply no one like her. I know my loss wouldn’t be felt in the same way. It’s very hard to describe her unique spirit. She was so much fun but never attention-seeking. We all have so many anecdotes of her ‘Jemimaisms’ – whether it’s her bizarre dinosaur impression or all the times you’d find her coordinating some sort of game or exercise session.

She set up a ‘plank time’ diary note at her last job, for everybody to get together in a meeting room and practise the ‘plank’ exercise every day. That room has now been named after her. She had so much energy. She was the first person you’d want to sit next to or be on a team with.

I feel Jemima’s loss all the time. I know nothing’s going to be the same as before, or as good. I always wanted to be around her. I felt so proud that she was my friend – she fitted seamlessly into any group and everyone loved her within an instant. A lot of our friends are getting married now and celebrating 30th birthdays, and every happy occasion is that bit less happy than it would be if she were there. At a joint 30th given by two friends, they did speeches about each other and I burst into tears as I knew that’s what Jemima and I would have done for each other.

I felt – still do – that something horribly unfair had happened

I’d always been really close to her family. Big groups of us would go and stay with them and her parents would be round the table drinking wine with us until 3am. When I saw them at the memorial they held at their house, Penny, Jemima’s mum, came running over and hugged me.

She told me, ‘The only thing that’s going to make this bearable is if you and all Jemima’s friends stay in our lives.’ Jemima is buried near the family home and if I’m visiting her grave I will often go and visit them. It’s tough to see people you care about in so much pain but being in their house and sitting around the table again and seeing the pictures of Jemima everywhere makes me feel closer to her.

Spending time with our group was weird at first. I was selfish with my grief – I only wanted to be with people who felt it at the same level as me. For six months after Jemima died I had no empathy for anyone else. I couldn’t take on anything beyond my own grief. I’d flip between feeling so much pain and willing it to pass, and feeling nothing and wanting to feel something. I had incredibly vivid dreams, visions of being with Jemima that felt so real.

Everyone told me the first year is the hardest part and that’s been true to some extent. I’ve seen all the Facebook and Timehop memories once and hopefully next time they will make me smile instead of cry. To mark Jemima’s birthday her friends booked a private room in a restaurant and played some of her favourite games. When we’re together we try to celebrate her life. It’s a cliché but we know she wouldn’t want us all in tears.

What helps me cope changes day by day. Sometimes when people asked how I was doing I’d say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it today.’ Other times I’d talk for three hours. Our group of friends all try to be there for each other, but if I’m having a down day I’ll call my family because I don’t want to bring my friends down if they’re having a good day.

I used to be hyper-emotional about relationships or work, but all of us now find ourselves thinking, in all kinds of scenarios, ‘What would Jemima do?’ That means don’t let life get you down, say how you feel, live life without inhibitions. At the beginning of the year I realised that there were a number of things making me unhappy, and I thought to myself, Jemima wouldn’t sit through this. So I made some important changes to my life and I am much happier as a result.

 WHY IT’S GOOD TO TALK

1 ‘Young people have to deal with the loss of the milestones they expected to go through together,’ says Kelly Thorpe of Papyrus, the national charity for the prevention of young suicide. ‘They will have had a picture in their head of their friendship circle in years to come, and it’s now been stolen from them.’ They can feel isolated, confused and angry, and need adult support and security.

2 Young people who have been bereaved by suicide are themselves more vulnerable to experiencing thoughts of taking their own lives. Their emotions may be so intense that they think of suicide as the only way to escape them. ‘Our helpline advisers will help them to unpick the way they feel and let them know their emotions are OK,’ says Kelly.

3 Parents and professionals need to offer the young person a safe space where they can talk through their emotions so they become less painful. Never dismiss their emotions, but let them know they are not dealing with their grief alone. Say things like, ‘How can you and work together to help you through this?’

4 ‘Bereaved friends have to give themselves permission to enjoy life again,’ says Alison Cox of CRY. ‘Getting to the stage where you can laugh and reminisce is important.’ Social media groups can create a support structure. There is great reassurance in being part of the wider world.

5 ‘The sooner you can talk about your feelings, the sooner you’re able to articulate the depth of your feeling,’ says Alison. ‘Sometimes people never get to that stage and close down. Start talking to your friends. Accept that you’ll never be quite the same and that some people won’t be able to cope with the new you. Some friends will desert you; others will respect your bravery and courage.’

Visit cry4friends.org.uk to download a copy of A Friend’s Grief Following a Young Sudden Cardiac Death. To request a free copy of the booklet or for more information about CRY’s Bereavement Support Programme, call 01737 363222 or email cry@c-r-y.org.uk. For practical help and support call Papyrus HopeLineUK on 0800 068 4141, text 07786 209697 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org

By Eve Mcgowen