How becoming a young carer changed my life forever

by Stephen Smith, aged 23

I have found there are three key stages of bereavement: before, during and after, and for everyone each of these stages is different.

Ten years ago, my life looked very different. I’m 23 now so of course, at 13, my life was different. But looking back now, becoming a young carer changed my life forever.

13 Years Old

I was just a regular school kid, living at home with two working class parents, worrying only about school work and a social life. So when one day you come home and get told to sit in the living room to talk, you know something serious is going on.

On the anniversary of 9/11, that day of all days, just a few words changed my life. The doctor was talking but I heard nothing. My world came to a sudden halt yet nothing had changed, except for one thing: my dad had cancer.

At 13, I barely knew what cancer was, never mind the implications it would have on life going forward. My days went from mindless wandering to constant worrying, not knowing what was going on or what was going to happen. This is when becoming a young carer unknowingly kicked in and I had to provide emotional and physical support to both Mum and Dad.

During this time, I was in denial. I told no one about it and didn’t seek any help; I hated the word ‘carer’, it made me feel singled out. I didn't tell my peer group either as I thought no one would understand.

Over the next few months, through both chemotherapy and a seven-hour operation, my Dad was in remission and life felt somewhat normal, for a while at least…

15 Years Old

Two weeks before Christmas my Dad was re-diagnosed - this time it was lung, liver and stomach cancer. While all this was going on something else was happening.

One week before Christmas, following multiple check ups after complaining about a sore head, my Mum’s scan results were back. We were told she had a brain tumour.

16 Years Old

This whirlwind of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and high-level operations went on for a year until both Mum and Dad were seemingly in remission. Things were finally becoming ‘normal’, whatever that is.

A year after being diagnosed, Mum’s tumour had returned and a second operation was needed to remove it again. This time things weren’t as simple.

During the operation my Mum suffered a stroke. At this point, your mind completely goes into panic mode saying, ‘What does this mean?;

Eventually we found out the extent of the damage. My mum was completely paralysed down the left side of her body, unable to have any feeling or movement in her arm, legs, side or face - she couldn't even sit up straight. Wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life, our world was flipped upside down.

It goes from your parents caring for you, to you caring for them but in such a heartbreaking situation.

For the next 15 months, caring was my number one priority. I switched to going part-time at school, taking classes when I could, to fit around the physical and emotional support my Mum needed. It’s a horrible thing, seeing the person you love most in the world in an unforeseen and previously unimaginable position.

17 Years Old

2 April 2017, we got a call at 5.30am. Immediately I knew. 21 days before her 56th birthday, my Mum and my best friend in the world had taken her last breath. Finally, at peace and not in pain, her struggle was over.

I don't think there's a way I can get across just how surreal that feeling is. Never being able to see or talk to that person again. It still catches me out now, almost six years on.

I made it through the other side of this journey because of the group Fife Young Carers, in particular the one-to-one support I received during my whole time as a young carer.

23 Years Old

Today, I attend a monthly meet up with ‘Let’s Talk about Loss’; it’s a chat over coffee about life - as much or as little as you want to share. Its self-directed support that provides a meaningful opportunity to share with people who've had similar experiences.

From losing one parent through bereavement, and the other from a breakdown of the relationship, there have been many ups and downs.

I feel the experiences that have come with being a young carer made me grow up a lot quicker than most, and have made me the person I am today, along with the lessons and attitude towards life that my Mum shared with me. I had the greatest Mum in the world for 17 years, some people don't get that opportunity, and for that, I feel truly blessed.

In real terms, I have found there are three key stages of bereavement: before, during and after, and for everyone each of these stages is different. Grief isn't a standalone, defined period of time, it's a journey, one that never quite ends. It slowly becomes less painful as you stop hurting, and start remembering all the good times you shared. Those memories are to be treasured; mark them, keep them, remember them.

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