I was walking my friend’s dog when I spoke to my sister, Janice, on my mobile. She told me that Stuart had ‘collapsed and is no longer with us’ suddenly dead at the age of 38. The words didn’t sink in. I returned to my friend’s house, shouted ‘my brother’s died’, and bizarrely, carried on with the dog walk. Half an hour later I came back and sat by the window where I stayed for two days, periodically ringing my parents and sister for updates on what had happened.
Returning from the pub that evening – where I sat drinking, in tears, trying to obliterate the news from my brain – I was so annoyed I could no longer ring Stuart that I threw my phone so far it broke.
Two days later I drove through icy weather to Stuart’s little house in Fareham where the family was gathered. Probably the saddest moment of my life was when Mum took down the little Christmas tree he had bought 10 days earlier, around which were his presents.
Stuart had collapsed whilst running for a taxi and the first police car – assuming he was drunk – told his friends to get him out of the road, and drove off. A second police car called an ambulance and started CPR, continued by the paramedics before taking him to hospital. Instead of my parents meeting Stuart in Portsmouth later that day, they had a knock on the door from two police officers to inform them that he had died.
With no explanation for his sudden death, I found the CRY website and was shocked there were so many families with similar stories. Like Stuart, these people were usually the life and soul of the party, very fit, and the last people you would expect to suddenly collapse and die. It seemed Stuart had probably died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS).
Even though we were still awaiting the pathology results we were allowed to hold the funeral. I spent most days before this sitting in my friend’s IKEA chair. Unwashed, barely eating, my friend kept me going by insisting I walked her dog twice daily. I had last spoken to my younger brother on Christmas Day 2009 to tell him she had crashed her car. Although his ambition was to become a mountain guide, Stuart was a mechanic so I always involved him in car-related incidents, whether he wanted to be or not. A month earlier I’d been out clubbing with him in Fareham. Now, a photo of his smiling face was shining out from the Order of Service. It was a dream-like experience.
I persuaded myself it was all a big mistake – until the silver hearse arrived with his coffin.
The service was packed and I think Stuart would’ve liked the smattering of garage works’ vans in the crematorium car park and the many funny comments written in tribute to him on Facebook, which I read out. The wake was held in his local which was filled to bursting with shocked relatives and friends.
Stuart had died from a rare condition called Cardiac Sarcoidosis which is treatable and occurs most often in the lungs or lymph nodes. It is rarely fatal except when it affects the heart causing arrhythmia and sudden death. I felt nervous when I learnt that the coroner had decided to hold an Inquest to give the pathologist an opportunity to explain his diagnosis to the family. The pathologist was the only witness and explained that Stuart’s heart had become enlarged with the granulomas which were a sign of Sarcoidosis.
The Fareham journalist who attended wanted a story about Stuart and I told him about the Snowdon Memorial Walk a few weeks previously when Janice, myself, 29 of his friends, and two dogs hiked up Snowdon for the anniversary of his 39th birthday. At the top we ate the cake, drank Guinness and scattered his ashes. Stuart used to finish work on a Friday and drive with friends to Snowdonia, pitching the tent in the dark and then head to the pub for last orders. They would climb all weekend before returning late Sunday night. It felt appropriate for Stuart to be part of Snowdonia.
We always got on as brothers, but didn’t see much of each other until he moved to Fareham, a year before he died. Both newly single, the weekends spent together were memorable ones. The blistering hot summer day we visited the Submarine Museum in Gosport, and the Historic Naval Dockyard and Gunwharf Quays. Another, at the West Dean Chilli Festival near Chichester where he joked around, trying on sombreros. The last time the whole family was together was in Portsmouth for Dad’s 70th and we took the ferry back to Gosport. I can’t go back down there now without breaking down in tears.
I particularly remember our last weekend in Fareham, in December 2009. We went out for a slap-up meal, on to a pub, ending up in Fareham’s ‘trendiest’ nightclub. The next morning we walked into town through thick frost and went Christmas shopping. Stuart bought that mini Christmas tree in Wilkinsons. I could never have imagined I would not see him again.
After he died there was a flurry of sympathy cards, the funeral, the wake, the Snowdon Memorial Walk, the Inquest and a memorial tree, planted in Fareham in 2010. Janice ran the London Marathon, something Stuart had always wanted to do. She raised a lot of money for CRY and I, with much less exertion, went on the CRY London Bridges Walk. Alongside all these attempts to come to terms with what has happened, to remember the positive, there is for me the almost unbearable pain of his absence.
Stuart was the kindest brother and friend that I could have wished for. Always smiling, he was generous with the time he gave to others and is greatly missed by his family and many friends.
His death has brought the family closer and we keep in touch more carefully with uncles, aunts and cousins too. I’m not sure how the other family members cope with their loss. Janice and my parents try to remember the funny, positive character that Stuart was. Most friends have been very supportive, not fully comprehending what it feels like to lose someone so close. This is why I found the CRY Sibling Support Day so helpful – finally meeting a group of people who really understood. But this is not a club I would want anyone to have to join.
As for the wider world, a few weeks off work and then one is supposed to get on with life again. In our busy, increasingly secular, consumer-orientated lives there seems no clear way to deal with death and its aftermath. No established patterns for bereavement and grief, particularly when the person is young and death is sudden.
Nothing prepared me for this. I’m still grappling with it and don’t have any easy answers for anyone else. It is going to be painful.
It is a brutal fact that one day my brother was about an hour’s drive away, down the M3, ever receptive to a pint and a chat.
And then, the next day, he was suddenly gone.