"The care St Helena gave to my wife was second to none"
Russell Shearman has achieved more than 700 skydives, inspired by the memory of his wife Alison who died 14 years ago. Alison had been diagnosed with a brain tumour when her daughters Chloe and Jodie were very young and it was important for her and Russ to be truthful with them about what was to come from the very start. The family spent a lot of time making memories together at the Hospice and Day Therapies centre as her illness progressed during the five years after her diagnosis. Russ shares their story and why the experience motivates him to jump…
At the beginning I was very apprehensive about going to the day centre. My wife used to go while I was at work. When my daughters when with her they would do a lot of arts and crafts with their mum and got to spend more quality time together.
Alison would say ‘why don’t you come and have a look’, and I’d say I don’t really want to. And then once I did, I didn’t look back. If this helps somebody to dispel those fears and go and get help, then fantastic. I had counselling there and they took the kids out with other kids to do activities.
We have a painting on the wall at home that she did there. She used to have her haircut there sometimes; when it was falling out she didn’t want to go to the hairdressers so to have somebody there to do that was great.
We had asked the question of how long she had left and nobody had ever lived for more than five years with it, so we had a time scale then of how long we had, and it was about four years and nine months that she lasted. She had four operations in that time, four respite in the Hospice and then at the end we were there at the Hospice for 14 weeks.
Tell them the truth
We were there every day, sometimes all day, and some nights and well. I couldn’t ask for any more than the service St Helena provided, especially for the girls. It was like a second home to them. They’d be running around and I’d say ‘shh, there are people here not very well’ but the nurses would encourage them because there were people in the Hospice that just liked to hear the kids running around. It was absolutely fantastic. They were seven and nine by that time and when she was diagnosed they were a lot younger. They’d sort of grown up with it really. St Helena always said to us to tell them the truth because if you don’t, when it does happen and you’ve been lying to them, they’d say you lied to us, you didn’t tell us this was going to happen. So we were just truthful right from the very start. They’ve dealt with it very well.
The staff were there for the children. Sometimes they’d take them off for a little chat to explain what was going on. Just them being able to get there, go and see their mum in the room, then run around outside or inside down to the playroom. They’d have the whole lot out, fancy dress walking up and down, playing hide and seek with the nurses. I remember my youngest daughter said to the nurse ‘shh’ and pointed to the curtains where her shoes were poking out from behind the curtains, so the nurse had gone over and… [grabbing noise] and she wasn’t there! She’d taken her shoes off and put them under the curtain to make like she was there. That made everyone laugh. You did feel a bit guilty for having so much fun and a laugh. In no way, shape or form is it a dark, dingy place. It’s a fun place, obviously we were going through some dark times but St Helena helped us through it without a doubt. I’m glad they were there for us; I couldn’t have done it on my own.
The girls used to do some painting and activities. We used to sit around the pond if the weather was nice chatting and talking to other people who were going through the same sort of thing; that was just a massive help as well.
I was going to rely on my mum
I put on weight I ate so much food where they kept feeding me up! Me and the kids ate two meals a day plus pudding. The food was fantastic, all homemade. The kids liked the food as well; it was better than what I cooked! The sad thing is my mum died - had a massive heart attack, nobody was expecting it - about a month before my wife. I was going to rely on my mum, I was going to rely on her for cooking; she only lived up the road. I was up the Hospice and my brothers all said they were going round mum’s to sort out all her bits and pieces. I walked in later and went straight to the kitchen, got the cook book and said ‘I’ve got what I need’. I’ve used that cook book, it’s an old Reader’s Digest one with all her handwritten recipes in there. That was a shock, my mum. We knew my wife was going to go but just to come home one day from the Hospice and hear ‘mum’s dead’. What? No way! I was shocked. She was my rock. I’d go round there after the Hospice to pick the girls up where she’d got them from school.
I used the Bereavement Support service after Alison died. I had two lots of counselling and I went back a couple of years later. The chaplain came around and saw me at home for a couple of months after. The sadness continues even now to this day. I think of my wife every single day. My youngest was 21 recently, so it’s things like that. At birthdays and Christmas, I think we should be celebrating this together. That’s hard.
As soon as the door opens and I lean out of the plane, everything goes and I don’t think about anything else other than what’s happening at that precise moment.
It’s what keeps you alive
My first one was a charity jump when I was 21 but that was just 3,000 feet and as you left the plane it pulled the parachute for you, but I’d always wanted to do a free fall. So when all this happened I thought what can I do for the Hospice to raise some money? I thought I fancy doing a skydive so I booked it up and raised some money and went and did it. I’ve still got the video and I watch it every now and then and you can see I’m chewing my face because I was so nervous! I landed and thought that was the best thing I’ve ever done so I booked up a course and I haven’t looked back since.
I felt good for St Helena, I felt a sense of achievement, a sense of relief because I’d actually got my feet back on the floor! I’ve even got a wing suit now that I fly about; I’ve only done eight jumps with that thing, it is a bit frightening. The fastest I’ve been is 214 mile an hour, that was just straight down. Somebody has broken my rib in free fall, that hurt, other than that I’ve been lucky. I think everybody should have to do one. I’ve done over 700 jumps.
But it still does scare me every time I do it but I think that’s what keeps you alive, having those sorts of experiences. I get scared every time I do it. Complacency kills, so if you are scared, it’s keeping you alive. And it’s keeping me alive by doing it. One of the biggest reasons for me doing it is that as soon as the door opens and I lean out of the plane, everything goes, everything I’m thinking about like cooking or shopping or paint this or picking up the kids, everything’s gone and I don’t think about anything else other than what’s happening at that precise moment. And that’s why I love it.
When people found out Alison had died they would cross the street to avoid talking to me because they didn’t know what to say. Don’t cross the road, at least say hello! But now people don’t talk about her, which upsets me because I still want to talk about her.
But when I went to the skydiving centre people didn’t know what had happened, they just knew me so I was treated for me again. None of this [whispers] there’s that bloke, his wife died.
We sent her off over the beach
We used to take the kids to Kessingland in Suffolk in a caravan even when my wife was ill. We had her ashes put into fireworks and sent her off over the beach up there. So we don’t have to go to grave, we can just walk along the beach, any beach. We had to get the police, the coast guard and the council’s permission. I set it all up on the beach, 50 people all along the seawall, they shut the beach off, it was brilliant. They went up 1,000 feet with a 500 foot burst. There were 16 of them and the last four burst out in the shape of a heart. Unbelievable.
Now when we take off to do the skydiving, I fly over the beach. Every time we take off I think of Alison. I’ve got a photo [published above] of the plane, me in freefall, and the beach all in a line – three things I love; the plane, me freefalling and Alison on the beach. She’s looking after me every time I jump.
The care St Helena gave to my wife was second to none. For me, the kids and Alison. I was very macho, ‘I don’t need any help…’ but I did. If me telling this helps one person go and get help from the Hospice then I’ve done a good job. Go and get help. Nobody judges you no matter what you say, what you do, how you’re feeling. It’s made me a better person, it’s made me more empathetic.
We made friends there that we are still in touch with now. It may sound strange to say but it was a fun time to be at the Hospice.
Even all this time on, it’s still fresh in my memory how much I was helped by St Helena. You don’t move on, you just learn to live with it. I do think the girls do miss out; it’s their mum, it’s their best friend.
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