“In every situation, choose kindness. My Mum was always about kindness, always about being kind in every way. I like to think that really shines out of me and my brother.”
In December 2015 Hannah lost her mum Jo to Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia.
It’s been a roller-coaster year for Hannah, with trips to Morocco, Canada, and Bali, a 52 mile trek across Iceland, a change of jobs, and the decision to leave the art gallery to pursue her dream of becoming a florist.
I cannot quite put into words the respect and admiration I have for Hannah.
Her strength, courage, and sheer determination to put one foot in front of the other – and see the positives in every situation – are remarkable to witness and no doubt traits she observed in her mother.
I see the way she treats others, how she discusses the world, society, politics, religion, feminism, and I just think….Jo Trott was one special woman.
She taught her daughter everything I wish to teach my own child, she taught her what really matters in life, and what it means to truly know yourself.
Hannah knows what she believes in; she knows what she does and doesn’t stand for and most importantly she knows who she is.
Hannah’s mother instilled one of the most important and beautiful lessons of all into both her children; the value of human kindness.
Tell me a bit about your Mum’s story and what happened before she passed away..
My Mum was sick on and off for maybe about ten years. She initially got ill with a mysterious illness, which started as a rash on her back and no one really knew what it was – they tested her and tested her. Then eventually a few years later – after a miss-diagnosis, she had chemo, she had loads of things – about five days before I turned eighteen, one day she just didn’t wake up and then, she was awake but she was obviously very very sick.
I think before this they had already diagnosed that she had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia which is a Cancer of the blood, it means that her bone marrow doesn’t produce fully formed white blood cells which fight off infections, so she caught basically every illness under the sun. When she didn’t wake up that day, she had meningococcal meningitis, which caused a stroke, and then another.
So for a long time she battled through that, relearning how to walk and talk, and battled the illnesses that came after that, she always seemed to have at least a cold. She still worked as a teacher, as she had for twenty seven years before that, teaching Biology at The Abbey School in Reading. She was in and out of hospital constantly. It could have been anything from a couple of days to months. And that forced her to take early retirement – she missed it every day that she didn’t work there. She loved Science but she was made to be a teacher and she loved being around that environment with the opportunity to teach kids every day.
A couple of years ago, she was struggling to keep any food in her body, which meant she grew terribly thin. She was rushed into the emergency room and I can’t remember exactly how she ended up in hospital but they basically found out that she had a blood clot near her intestines, which meant an emergency surgery resulting in 80% of her digestive system being removed. She had to have a stoma bag for the rest of her life, and this was all due to an infection that she’d happened to catch, and not related to her cancer in anyway – just bad luck.
She then developed a cough. This cough lasted for over a year and a half before she went into hospital with back ache and a lung infection and just never came home.
Even though she’d been ill for most of my life, it was very much still a shock when she died. She died on Christmas Eve 2015. It was very much out of the blue. A lot of people try to make it sound easier, saying “but she was ill for such a long time” but actually it came from nowhere – she only went in with a back infection, she wasn’t meant to die. As a family who’ve been in that hospital so many times before – you just assume they’ll come home, because they always have, they’ve always got over whatever they’ve had before. She had meningitis, she had two strokes within a week and still made it through, there was no reason to think she would go, away..
What has helped get you through the past 12 months?
My community. If I look back at that time I am just so thankful for the community of friends that my family have through Church, just generally we’ve always had quite a big family around us.
I think throughout the day she died, we maybe had around ten visitors who would just come, dropped everything on Christmas Eve to spend time with us. Everyone offered for us to go to theirs on Christmas Day. My friend Phili dropped round a lasagne, my Mum’s two best friends came over and were with us the whole day, they met us at the hospital when we said goodbye and stayed.
That community and that support… Even if my friends couldn’t make it, they pretty much all rang me or messaged me in some way to say that they were mourning with me, thinking of me, if there’s anything they could do, to let them know, and in the months after that I’ve never been so grateful for them and my boyfriend because they were the people that made me get up, they were the people that made me leave the house, they made me carry on. They were also the people that made me talk about it because as a person I’m quite outward looking so if I’m with a community of people, even though loads of stuff was happening with my Mum or whatever, I was never the person to be like let’s talk about my problem for a really long time.. I just wasn’t used to being sad, I wasn’t used to being like “I’m actually having the worst time ever” and that’s definitely something I’ve had to get used to, but my friends have encouraged me to be as honest and open as possible, helping myself and helping those around me to know how to talk to me.
I guess another thing has been my faith. Without that, I have absolutely no idea how I would have got through it. Because of my faith I have no doubt where she’s gone, I have no doubt that she’s happy and I’m so excited that I get to see her again and so – faith brings people hope – without that lifeline, without knowing where she’s gone and that I get to see her again, I just don’t know how I would have carried on.
What comes with faith a lot of the time is a deep, passionate and just general selfless love, through people who knew her, loved her, we all collectively believe that she’s gone somewhere where she’s not in pain anymore and she’s happy. – That we all get to see her, which is the only thing that I would have had to get through it and that’s amazing.
I guess the last thing is humour. I’m one of those people that has quite a dark sense of humour at times. A lot of people around me were like “you can’t joke about that” and I like to think I’m probably one of the most qualified people to.. I think it’s so important to not have taboo topics in general in society and this is just another one.. There’s obviously a line, you need to know the people around you really well to know when those jokes are appropriate or not. But by joking about it, I hoped it made people around me understand me, understand how open I was to them and how vulnerable I was willing to be.
Humour is definitely the thing that has made me realise that this – as tough as it is – this is another universal stage of life as much as puberty, and leaving school and all those other things that you make jokes about all the time – grief happens. It allows me to talk about it and to actualise it and the magnitude. I realise how manageable it is through laughing about it, that I can live through this and actually people can talk to me about it, without fear of awkwardness or saying the wrong thing. We should be able to talk about it and laugh about it just as much as we laugh about everything else because we all go through this
My Dad once joked that if they had loyalty cards for every ward in the Royal Berks Hospital my Mum would have probably got all of the stamps, apart from the ear ward…
So yeh, faith, humour and community; the three things that have definitely got me through this time more than anything else.
What is your proudest achievement from the past year?
One of the things I’m most proud of is trekking 52 miles across Iceland in two days for Tearfund. I signed up for it in October last year and when I signed up for it I thought that was a mistake, like you’ll never do that, you’ll never be able to do it, that’s ridiculous, why have you signed up for that..I think I initially signed up for it because it was an excuse to go to Iceland, but I ended up meeting some amazing people and it was a fantastic experience. It made me realise my capabilities and that I was much stronger than I ever thought I could be… It was just one of those scenarios where you just look at yourself and you’re like, I’m just really proud of myself, and I hadn’t felt like that for a long time.
How did you cope with the 52 miles?!
I trained for a really long time – around 10 months. Action Challenge, who coordinated the trek, organised lots of practice walks around places like the South Downs because they’re really hilly, but actually the environment in Iceland was very different to anything in England. It was a shock. There was snow, there was ice, there were completely vertical hills you were meant to walk up but you had to climb! It was ridiculous. But luckily the team were really good and, even though Iceland has 24 hours of daylight in July, we didn’t walk through the night.
Everyone there was there supporting each other, they were the driving force that kept me moving… the promise of Prosecco at the end also helped. Just knowing why I was doing it was the main drive and I was so very proud of myself.
What has changed in the past year?
Being the only woman in my household is very strange, alien and I don’t think people realise just how hard that is at times. It can be incredibly lonely – grief in general is incredibly lonely because no one else can really understand exactly where you are or where you’re coming from because it’s so individual.
My friend Grace put something on Facebook the other day which I think is a really good way of describing the loss: “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love, it’s all the love you want to give but cannot, all of the unspent love gathers in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
It’s like that famous line “You don’t really realise what you have until it’s gone” and just knowing that I won’t be able to have that relationship with another woman again is really tough. Having to face that every day when I get up is really hard especially in a home where she filled every corner of it.
I guess another thing that changes is how I treat life in terms of trying to be really present with where I am. I mean if this last year has shown me anything, it’s that I have no idea what I am doing most of the time, or where I’m going or what’s around the corner. I’ve changed careers twice this year, and I’d have never have said that before. If you’d have asked me a year ago what the next year holds, I wouldn’t have told you half the things I’ve done. I didn’t think I’d go travelling to Bali by myself, or trek across Iceland, or drop everything to be a florist.
It’s just realising that some of the stuff society classes as the most important things, the things that make you ‘successful’ as a person, are not actually what make you successful in life. And realising I’m much stronger, but also much weaker, than I ever thought I could be. It comes in equal measures, and in waves of feeling strong and then feeling weak and then feeling strong. But knowing that you can face it all knowing who you are, you can get through every single one of those waves in a way that makes it a bit easier to cope with the next one.
What have you learnt about the people around you?
It’s been a bit of a weird one really. Of course I am incredibly grateful for my community and the people that have helped me through stuff. However, it’s also made me realise that no matter how well you think people know you, and can understand you, there will always be things that another person can’t necessarily connect with especially when it comes to something as individual as grief.
I was saying something to someone a few months after Mum died, I was saying how there’s a really weird expectation of grieving, it’s almost two fold in the way people think. Some people look at you trying to gauge where you are. Some people will say “You should move on, you should carry on, that will help you..” and then other people are like “You’re moving on too quickly..”. It’s this constant battle. Of course there is no ABC linear pattern in terms of grieving but it’s really interesting to have people make assumptions about you based on something that is so individual and so un-understandable.
I’ve had a few people that have been there with me every time that life has become too much and very overwhelming and they’ve been the most wonderful people. I’ve also had people who’ve done the opposite. It’s definitely made us all learn a whole new phase of being gracious and being loving.
What do you miss the most?
I was thinking about this this morning, I thought you might ask me this. It’s beautiful to be able to think of her, because I don’t think I get to talk about her enough. Obviously it’s very upsetting still and a lot of people are too scared to ask that question, which is sad, because I want to talk about her all the time.
For the last few years a lot of the time she was at home because she couldn’t go anywhere and I generally just miss her presence there physically. Just little moments. I’d come home, I’d had a bad day, I’d go on my laptop and start working at something I didn’t get finished and she would just come over, tell me that I was doing the best I could and how that was just all she ever wanted for me. There is nothing like when your Mum kisses you on the forehead or little things like that, the little rush of love that you get is really hard not to have anymore. Just generally, I can’t go to her for advice, and a lot of the things that have happened this year, all I wanted was my Mum. A lot of the things I miss are just generally the feminine qualities about her that I can’t get from anyone else and the way that she knew me so intimately. There are so many other women in my life who are amazing and almost like mothers but it’ll never be the same.
I miss her random facts that she would say all the time and the stories she would tell over and over again. I miss her laugh and…I miss her baking and I miss the special relationship she had with my brother. I miss how she would sew everything. I just miss a lot of stuff. I miss how she would get me to help her mark papers for The Abbey School.
My brother reminded me – I had a moment when I was away and I felt like life was getting too much – I was having some really dark thoughts about living and whether I wanted to anymore, then I found out I didn’t get a job I really wanted and I remember talking to my brother. I was just telling him how I didn’t think I could cope with life anymore and how all I wanted was Mum to be there and he was like “Mum would have told you that she’s proud of you, because you did your best and that’s all she ever wanted from you”. – And he’s so right, and I wish she was here so bad for that kind of thing.
How do you talk to her? How do you find ways of feeling like you’re in her presence?
I’m not quite at that stage yet. I often sit in her cupboard, her wardrobe in my house and I just try to spend time around her things. At the moment I’m more about asking God, who I know is with her, wherever they are, and hoping they reply together. It’s more like a knowing, knowing her so well. It’s almost like when you’re in a room with someone else and you’re not necessarily looking at them but you just know that they’re there. It’s just having that feeling, that special awareness almost of their being, which is weird.
Yesterday we went to where we might scatter her ashes, we were walking around and I did get this feeling that she would like it. I think that comes from just knowing someone, you just know that they would like it; you know that’s what they’d want.
We also went to her school’s speech day the other day. We’d done a lot of fundraising after she died without necessarily having an aim for it. We wanted to do something to remember her but we didn’t have any idea what that was going to be, so us, and her school, collaborated and decided to create a new prize for a student who surpasses herself in Science in my Mum’s name.
I remember walking in to the prize-giving and I could just feel she was there , she was there for over 27 years and it was obviously her home – she was so proud to work there and she did so happily for so long.
You just know that she’s there, I don’t necessarily see her or hear from her, I just know.
They gave her prize to a girl called Molly who was fantastic; I got to talk to her afterwards, she was amazing and just knowing that Mum would be so proud to be a part of that school’s history, a place that she loved.
I haven’t really got to the point where I talk to her, maybe I do, but knowing that I know what her answer would be anyway.
Where do you go to feel like you’re around her?
We went to Canada as a family this year which is somewhere that she loved. I found that holiday both beautiful and painful in equal measures because I missed her so much. I missed her in every moment because I knew that she would love to be there. There was definitely one evening in particular, when I was standing outside on the balcony and looking up – the sky was really clear that night – it was one of those moments where it was just like I know you’re here, I just know it and it was really beautiful and painful in equal measures.
Canada was one of her favourite places, her school, Saville Gardens, my house is full of her; every corner of that house is full of her. I can see her a lot in her friends as well. Seeing her friends is lovely, but also tough, because she was a reflection of all of them and now they’re a reflection of her in parts.
What is something that she taught you, that you want to pass on to your children?
In every situation, choose kindness. My Mum was always about kindness, always about being kind in every way. I like to think that really shines out of me and my brother. Also, trying your best is all you can do and you should be proud of yourself. I think she would be so proud of us.
“What comes with faith a lot of the time is a deep, passionate and just general selfless love, through people who knew her, loved her, we all collectively believe that she’s gone somewhere where she’s not in pain anymore and she’s happy. – That we all get to see her, which is the only thing that I would have had to get through it and that’s amazing.”