On the 22nd December 2017 I pulled my younger brother through the halls of North Staffordshire hospital whilst holding my breath. A doctor had asked me to take him out and gave me the look that everybody dreads, one that you can’t explain until you actually fall victim to it. Without words I already knew, but my brother didn’t, so I found myself rushing toward the exit whilst a nurse desperately tried to grab me. We sat on the benches outside him and I, him swinging his legs back and forth, too small to touch the ground.  I calmed him, told him that everything was going to be fine, that Nanna Neeni would be okay and even if she was ill he shouldn’t worry as she was in the best place to be treated and made better. I wanted to believe my own words as they tumbled out of my mouth, but without the gift of child-like innocence they felt empty, bereft of meaning. I don’t know how long we sat there, holding hands like quiet sentinels preparing for the midst of battle. I do remember that after a while he grew hungry so I bought him a Smartie cookie from the Subway in the hospital; I didn’t know what else to do.

On that day my Nanna, Jean Lowndes, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. It had been missed by health professionals and her symptoms dismissed by her GP.  By the time it had been found it was too late and she was given four months to live. She died on 7th April 2018.

My Nanna was my other half, she looked after me when I had nothing and no one. She adored Elvis Presley and would dance around her kitchen to The Jailhouse Rock. She found comfort in the sun, we would often find her at the back of the garden in a chair, head tilted toward the rays. She was intelligent, had earned an O-level qualification in Chemistry, and had had aspirations to go to university in her youth. She was so funny, often coming up with razor sharp quips that would leave you reeling with laughter. She was my protector, my best friend, my comfort and often my moral guide. I wish I could write that the pain of losing her has subsided with time, but that would not be the truth.

On the day of her diagnosis I felt as though a knot was tied in the centre of my chest. Driving back home from the hospital I felt it tighten and thought that I would vomit. The houses jeered at me with their jovial Christmas lights and the sound of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ over the car radio made my ears burn. I was angry. Christmas in our culture dictates that it is a time to come together with loved ones and celebrate being with family; but I was going to lose the heart of mine instead. I wanted to run around, rip down the Christmas lights, scream until the sound of Christmas songs dissipated. It is a horrible dichotomy, having your senses flooded with superfluous displays of joy whilst you are experiencing intense sorrow. Grief makes you desperately wish for the world to stop and take notice of your loss, but at Christmas you are made painfully aware that it isn’t possible.

After 24 hours I realised that I couldn’t turn inward. This would be my last Christmas with my Nanna and therefore I needed to make it as special for her as possible. My mum hadn’t decorated the Christmas tree yet as I had been at university up until the week prior, so I threw on MTV’s rundown of Christmas classics whilst my brother and Nanna messed around with baubles and glittery lights. As a family we played games, ate mince pies, drank mulled wine and took a plethora of photos that I still treasure to this day. Without speaking my family had collectively decided that we would not address the cancer until afterward, each of us understanding the precariousness of time. It was odd looking back, trying to turn the worst holiday of our lives into something positive, but I do think that in some ways we did manage to succeed.

The knot still sits in my chest four years later. I have learnt to exist with it there and have even grown around it. On certain days I feel it tighten again, sparking that familiar wave of nausea and despair. I often find myself thinking about all the things that she has and will continue to miss; big life events like my 21st Birthday and my graduation. I also kept my queerness hidden from her, not because I feared that she would not accept me but because I was 19 and still unsure of who I was. I didn’t want to tell her something in the limited time that we had that ultimately I may come to regret. Now at 23 I wish I had - I wish that she had been here to help me on my journey of discovering my queer identity, and furthermore I know that she would have been privotal in teaching me to accept and find joy in being queer myself. Her neighbour was a lesbian and I remember her turning to me in her car and saying that she could understand why women preferred to solely love other women, it is a memory I hold dear because it encapsulates her spirit perfectly. More importantly I wish that she was here to meet Sarena, my partner of two years. I often imagine the two of them nattering about art and poetry together and think about how easily they would have gotten along. It hurts that two of the most important people in my life will never get to meet.

Christmas continues to be a hard day. Every year I go with my mum and we lay flowers on my Nanna’s resting place and wish her a Merry Christmas. There is an emptiness that still lingers around the day, but I think by acknowledging the fact that a persons’ energy cannot simply disappear has helped me in managing the hurt. I carry her with me and in doing so she continues to exist in our world, experiencing life in tune with myself. I realise that this may seem ridiculous to some, but what I have learnt is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve; you do what you need to do in order to survive, to find comfort or solace from a pain that unfortunately has no cure. That is why I won't offer advice as I feel that to do so would be disingenuous, rather I want to let you know that all you need is to trust in yourself and to take care of yourself the same way in which you would a loved one.