In the midst of indescribable pain and grief, Linda Aitchison and her twin daughters Emily and Melissa have been each other’s rocks.
Their whole world fell apart when they lost their beloved husband and father Neil to cancer six weeks after his 44th birthday in May 2012.
As they struggled to adapt to family life without him, Linda, Emily and Melissa developed a special bond as they supported and comforted each other through their heartbreak.
They are now sharing their experiences to help raise awareness as part of Cancer Research UK’s Stand Up To Cancer fundraising campaign.
“It takes a long, long time to come to terms with what happened in your family when things are so desperately painful and sad. Some days it still feels like it was only yesterday,” explains features and PR agency director Linda.
“Anything we can do by speaking out to help the better. As a family, and because of my profession, I find it easier to talk than other people and I see it does help people,” she adds.
Linda and Neil had first met while working as journalists in 1996 when they were both 28.
“When we met I was his boss. I was working as a news editor and he rang up about a reporter’s job.
“He had an absolutely gorgeous voice and when I saw him for the first time it was love at first sight,” explains Linda, who lives in Cheslyn Hay.
“He was a very intelligent man, more academically clever than me and I used to love that about him,” she adds.
Romance soon blossomed for the couple and within two years they were surprised and delighted to discover Linda was expecting twins.
“Neil was a wonderful dad and a wonderful partner. The absolute light of his life were Melissa and Emily. We always said our daughters weren’t planned but absolutely loved. It was a shock when I found out I was expecting twins but he absolutely took to it like a duck to water,” says Linda.
In 2002, Neil had a melanoma removed from his back. Yearly check-ups followed for five years before he was given the all-clear.
Sadly, in 2011, he found a lump under his arm and doctors confirmed that it was widespread, with multiple deposits of melanoma in his spine, lungs, ribs and liver.
They then delivered the devastating news that his cancer was incurable and he had three months at best.
Linda and Neil, who had never married, decided it was now time and were able to tie the knot in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, in January 2012.
Despite having lost the ability to walk, with the help of physiotherapists, Neil managed to walk down the aisle and enjoy their first dance to their favourite song Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately.
“He absolutely loved our wedding. He said it was the happiest day of his life,” says Linda.
It’s also a joyful memory for Emily and Melissa, who were only 13 at the time.
“I remember it fondly, it was so happy, there were so many amazing things that happened, little memories, that I will always remember, and just smile and think that was just amazing. I remember thinking I want my mum to have the best day of her life as well,” says Melissa.
Over the next four months, Neil’s disease spread to his brain, and he passed away.
The weeks, months and years that followed were incredibly hard for Linda and her girls. Although they now have what she says is a tight-knit bond, she says it hasn’t been all plain-sailing.
“We’ve had our moments and it’s not been easy. After we lost Neil we had bereavement counselling and we heard the counsellor say home is a place of safety, let anger out at home. Anger is a part of grief as much as sadness. Rightly or wrongly we interpreted that as we could take it out on each other and it got really bad. We got through it and we fought together to be positive and that’s made us really close,” explains Linda, 52.
Emily and Melissa, now 21, also believe their shared loss helped to bring them all closer.
“I think as a family anyway we’re really open with each other but losing my dad was another reason to be so open with each other, we were never going to hide our feelings in any way. I’ve actually never met another family who share as much as we share with each other and I think it is because we lost my dad. That the height that you could open up to each other so anything else is less than that so you just share it,” says Melissa.
Linda has no doubts that Neil would be very proud of his daughters who recently graduated from university.
“The biggest goal for us is to be happy. I’ve never put any pressure on them to be academic. I want them to find what bring them joy in their life, I couldn’t care less about how much they are earning.
“I want them to be happy, fulfilled and to not feel the pain of the past few years. There was their dad in 2012. Five years later they lost their grandad when they were studying for their A-levels and then we lost my best friend and business partner Carol who had been my absolute rock. What it must have been like for them, I can only imagine. A child’s first experience of bereavement shouldn’t be losing their dad.
“I’m fiercely protective of them and fiercely proud of them and I just want them to be happy,” she tells weekend.
Together they have been honouring Neil’s memory and love of travelling by enjoying new places, people and experiences.
“When we go we think of him, raise a glass and think about how much he would have loved it,” says Linda.
Another shared passion is wanting to make a difference by sharing their story and helping others through their own grief.
That’s why they have got involved with Stand Up To Cancer, a joint fundraising campaign from Cancer Research UK and Channel 4 which aims to get new cancer tests and treatments to people who need them the most.
“I think it’s really important to support Stand Up To Cancer this year because everyone has had a hard year with corona and some of the focus has gone off cancer. But people are still battling it, people are still struggling. We need to fight cancer and we need to support families who are dealing with it every year,” says Emily.