On Monday September 14th 2009, the last thing I reminded Zoe to do was to text me when she had dropped the dog off at the groomers. Later, my wife Julie’s colleague phoned telling me to go home as Zoe’s sister Meghan had called saying she couldn’t wake Zoe up.
The journey seemed to take forever. People seemed to be driving so slowly. Traffic lights seemed all on red. Queues seemed relentless. I kept thinking different things: was Zoe playing a trick on Meghan? Was she in a coma? What had caused her to go into a coma? Had she passed out? Had she gone into a deep sleep?
Arriving at my estate fear hit me. Julie’s car was parked well away from our house. Two police cars were outside, telling me something was dreadfully wrong. A policewoman inside explained Meghan had found Zoe dead in bed. Julie and Meghan were in pieces. I went numb, and can only remember saying “Why? What’s happened? She’s young and healthy”. I wanted to see her as I didn’t believe it. I wanted to be comforting Julie. I wanted to be next door where the neighbours were with Meghan.
The undertaker arrived, politely asking if he could go to her room. We asked if we could see her. Those stairs seemed endless. My heart pounded and I held Julie’s hand as we entered. I had never seen anyone dead before so didn’t know what to expect. So shocked I couldn’t speak. Julie was sobbing. After a few minutes the undertaker asked us to leave. I will never forget how cold she was when I kissed her forehead. When they said they were taking Zoe to the mortuary I remember asking them to “please look after her” which they assured me they would. That afternoon is a blur. The police left; Meghan returned. 23 years of caring and loving Zoe had gone in an instant. I still didn’t believe she had died. Julie and I walked the dog speaking little but receiving phone calls and messages of support.
After a long night when no-one slept came the first morning, when it hit me. I couldn’t sit anymore so put some washing on the line and picked up a piece of Zoe’s clothing. She must have washed it on Monday and the tears started flowing. I felt I had to quickly wipe them away as I needed to be strong for Julie and Meghan, my motto until the funeral. One of our hardest discussions was what we wanted for Zoe’s funeral, and whether to bury or cremate her. Not a discussion we had ever had. Choosing her coffin was heartbreaking. I felt I should be arranging my 23 year old daughter’s wedding not her funeral.
The next day the Coroner’s Officer explained they needed to conduct more tests and that it was probably a condition called SADS when sometimes the cause of death was never found. I couldn’t believe this. No one dies without a reason. Julie found CRY and I spoke to Alison who was fantastic and talked me through what to do and expect.
Returning to work helped. My colleagues were great listeners and I could talk about Zoe without everyone being in tears. They were my rock and I will always be in their debt.
The vicar visited us to sort funeral arrangements and we got everything in place, but needed a cause of death before we would let Zoe be buried. Alison suggested writing to the Coroner requesting Zoe’s heart be sent to Dr Mary Sheppard at the CRY Centre for Cardiac Pathology. A week later we wrote again. The Coroner’s Officer said the cause of death was cardiomyopathy and Zoe was being taken to the undertaker. I said I wanted a second opinion and contacted Mary Sheppard’s office where a lovely lady explained they
would need Zoe’s histology slides. The Coroner’s Officer told us the person who had them was away and suggested burying Zoe without her heart, with a separate ceremony later. I protested that Zoe was all heart, and her heart was going to be buried with her. I phoned daily and they did not arrive. Eventually they sent slides of someone with liver sclerosis. So Mary contacted the Coroner, Zoe’s heart came, and was repatriated within the week. Mary found the cause of death wasn’t cardiomyopathy but an abnormal arrhythmia.
The funeral home were wonderful, allowing us to see Zoe during this time. The final Friday she looked very peaceful, quite different from the day she died. Her hair combed and eyes shut with a bit of make up on. I couldn’t feel or say anything. I kept staring at her hoping she would open her eyes and give me that beautiful smile she had. I kissed her forehead, but she was just so cold and I was so helpless.
Her funeral was on November 11th, nearly 2 months after she had died. Because of the long delay I was in denial, believing she hadn’t died at all. I was unable to be in the house alone and on evenings when Julie and Meghan were on a late shift I would stand on the doorstep praying they would hurry. A weird feeling.
Meghan and Zoe’s friends spent the night before the funeral with us. There was silence at our house except for the sound of sniffling and blowing noses. Meghan coped quite well but later it caused flashbacks, anxiety and real down days. I took a deep breath and held Julie and Meghan’s hands as the hearse arrived and we walked with an undertaker to the car. When Zoe was pulled out of the hearse, and her friends carried her in on their shoulders, my emotions hit me like a lead weight. I finally cried and didn’t want to hide my tears from anyone. I felt I had been so strong for my family, but this was my time and place to let it all out.
The church was packed solid when Zoe was carried in to “Ave Maria”, a song she loved. The service was beautiful, the vicar so nice and tributes were made by friends and her Nan. She was carried out to Michael Jackson’s “Gone Too Soon” and El Divo’s “Amazing Grace”. Friends and family placed roses on her coffin, whilst white doves were released, capping a fitting send-off for a special person who was so highly thought of.
Christmas, Birthdays, Mothering Sunday and Father’s Day have never been, and will never ever be, the same. Time has not made it better or easier. I try and remember our good times and smile at the laughs and practical jokes we played. I am happy Zoe went on some lovely holidays, had most things she wanted, and had an adoring Mom, Dad and Sister.
We all grieve in our own way but are there for each other. Meghan takes a day at a time, as we do. For Julie, the breaking of the mother/daughter bond has been devastating. I can talk about the day she died but Julie cannot. She still thinks she will wake tomorrow and find the bad dream over. She hides her pain but at times it really still shows.
Zoe was kind, generous, “lived her life to the max”, loved her family, dog, friends, holidays and working hard. Her laugh was so infectious, some evenings she would have a DVD playing and the roar of her laugh had me laughing even if I was not watching it! She lived for Christmas, her favourite time of the year, planning presents well before the clocks went back.
I have not just lost a daughter; I have also lost my soul mate.
Zoe’s story was written by Peter for the CRY Father’s Grief Booklet