By Claire Carmalt
People often say they can’t imagine losing their child. Nothing in life prepares you for such a loss, it’s shattering and changes your life as you knew it. Something that I found out when my daughter Tory died suddenly in October 2022 at aged 20. I never imagined that anything like this would happen to us.
Right from when she was little, Tory was the most bubbly, enthusiastic and smiley person, with a caring nature. In the yearbook at age 11, Tory wrote that she wanted to be a doctor, a singer, or do drama! As she got older, she decided medicine was the choice for her and she worked so hard to achieve this, getting a place at the University of Plymouth. She loved being by the sea and was really living her dream. She gave everything to her family and friends, always checking up on them to see if they were okay. She had a unique ability to include everyone and a contagious smile and laugh that brightened any room.
Tory was in her third year, enjoying her clinical placements when she died. She would call so excited about what she was experiencing and wanted to be a hospital doctor. In October last year, she started feeling a little unwell. She thought she was stressed over waiting for her exam results. A few days later, she was at her student home when she suddenly collapsed. Devastatingly, she could not be revived despite a great effort from her housemates (who are medical students), paramedics and the Devon air ambulance.
Her boyfriend called me to tell me what was happening. It was so unbelievable that it was impossible to get my head around. I spoke briefly to a paramedic who said she was very sick and would phone me when they had more news. I sat shaking and holding my younger daughter and husband close, not knowing quite what to do. I learned that she had died when the local police turned up at our home a while later. Being so far away (over 200 miles) and dying at home meant there was no support, no medical professionals to talk to. So I was grateful to the Devon Air ambulance when they got in touch shortly afterwards and explained what had happened.
The first few days and weeks after her death were terrible. I was numb, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. How could someone so vibrant, so full of life, not be here anymore? Surely this is a nightmare, and I will wake up soon? I put all my energy into planning her funeral, going through all the heartbreaking decisions and making videos for the funeral and the gathering afterwards. Writing and reading out a tribute at Tory’s funeral was incredibly tough. Death really does rob us of the future we imagined, I thought I would be helping plan her wedding, not her funeral.
Some days I would put my AirPods in and go for long walks in the woods. I would be sobbing the whole way around and wondering if I could ever face life again. I took two months off work and felt like I was in a daze the whole time. Family and friends were super supportive, taking me for walks, coffee or just sitting with me. But some days I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I tried reading some books on grief, but couldn’t focus long enough so I ended up on Twitter to see if there were shorter bits about grief that would help. I decided to tell Tory’s story on the platform and have now connected with many bereaved parents, online and in person. Linking with other bereaved parents has helped hugely; you feel connected, and safe and there is an unbreakable bond. We help one another through tough days and we understand that we aren’t healed after six months and so continue to support each other.
I went back to work in January as being at home crying all day was not good for my younger daughter, myself or my husband. I’ve always loved my job so I hoped that it might provide a distraction. I’ve worked at the same place for over 25 years and I was hugely touched by all the support. Returning to work was incredibly hard and I was worried that I would burst into tears at any time. It was helped hugely by my assistant emailing colleagues and explaining that I will feel worse if everyone ignores me if they don’t feel comfortable talking about Tory to just say “hi, it’s good to see you back,” if they were comfortable then to be led by me. I’m sure some people do feel uncomfortable, but I will never stop talking about Tory. I think we all need to get better at talking about death, as grief affects you not only mentally, but physically as well. I really understand what heartache means and feels like now.
The coroner’s process takes a long time and I felt in limbo not knowing why a healthy 20-year-old died suddenly. Recently, the coroner confirmed a natural cause of death due to a blood coagulation disorder causing a pulmonary embolism. Tory was out shopping for something to wear for Halloween a few hours before she died. I spoke to her the day before and she was so happy as she had passed her exam. The feelings of disbelief and it is incomprehensible that she is no longer here are something that I am still struggling to deal with.
Even eight months later it still doesn’t feel real. As a Mum, you always try to fix things for your children, but there isn’t anything I can do to fix this for Tory. I wish her sister didn’t have to cope with this, it’s awful to think of her going through life without her sister by her side. But I am there for her and although it is so tough, I try and ensure there is still joy in our lives. I continue to tweet and tell Tory’s story and memories on Twitter and the lovely supportive community has helped so much. I have had many people contact me to say how much my words are helping them through their grief or to just appreciate life more, which I think would make Tory a little bit proud of me.
The hardest part is people thinking I should be healing by now. I don’t think you heal from child loss; you just learn a new way of life and grab hold of any little bits of joy that you can. I really believe Tory had the ability and compassion to make a fantastic doctor and, in her memory, we have raised almost £12,000 for the Peninsula Medical Foundation. She had a great love of nature, flowers and sunsets. So, I get outside as much as possible to feel close to her and remind myself of how happy and loved she was in her short life. I really miss Tory so much, but I will always be grateful for the beautiful close relationship we had and for the joy she brought to our lives. Tory really did fill our lives with love, kindness, happiness and lots of colour.
For more information about Claire, you can check out her website.
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