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“I didn’t expect my friends to start dying in their 30s”

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Three years after the death of her best friend Sarah Bennett, Claire Clarke, 29, reveals what it’s like to lose the person you’ve always relied on

There’s a gap in my life where my best friend used to be. Her absence feels awkward – a joke no-one else gets; a silence no-one else can fill. She’s a number on my phone that I can’t call, and eight years of text messages that I can’t delete. She’s a song by Swedish House Mafia (Don’t You Worry Child), a brightly coloured cocktail and an old festival wristband. It’s been three years since she died aged 32, but she’s still everywhere I look. She’ll never go away.

I always thought grief was for grandparents and great aunts; your friends are supposed to be forever. They’re the people you ‘choose for yourselves’ – the ones who squeeze your hand and stand by your side. Death isn’t supposed to interrupt friendships. That’s not the deal. But Sarah was taken away anyway. Three years ago, I stood in church and watched her coffin raised to a tributary round of applause. It felt like the air was being squeezed out of my lungs.

Sarah was five years older, four inches shorter, and invariably braver than me. We’d met through friends at a music festival when I was 18, her sister Annie was in my year at school in Crewe where we all lived. Sarah had clutched my arm and led me through the crowds – approaching strangers like old friends, trading wide smiles for plastic cups of beer. From then on we were best friends. I thought she was fearless – and she was. I felt panicked if I had to spend a weekend without company, but once she spent a week holidaying alone driving from Crewe to Alnwick in Northumberland and staying in a caravan in the shadows of the castle there. “It’s like Hogwarts,” she texted me. “I want to stay here forever.” I wished I could be more like her. I still do.

We had time to prepare for her death from triple negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease that doesn’t respond to some types of treatment, but at the end I still wasn’t ready.

Claire (right) with Sarah before her breast cancer diagnosis

Claire (right) with Sarah before her breast cancer diagnosis

When she was 28 and I was 23, we fell out after an argument. At the same time, she found a small hard pea-like lump in the centre of her armpit, but didn’t call me. Soon afterwards a doctor told her she was very, very sick, but she didn’t text. She was too stubborn and strong to ask for support. It didn’t cross my mind that anything serious could be going on. It’s too easy to take your friends for granted and assume they’ll always be there. It was her sister who called to tell me about her cancer diagnosis. I collapsed in my bedroom on the other side of town. I called Sarah, and we cried down the phone together.

Those were the first of many tears over the next three years. I watched Sarah endure chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hair loss and synthetic wigs, I leant on her for strength and hope just as much as she leant on me. One day she’d rant and cry at me; the next day it would be my turn. We’d never hidden our feelings from each other in the past, and I didn’t know how to start now. Driving together to her medical appointments in Manchester, 40 minutes away, neither of us knew what was happening, we just knew that we hated it, and that it wasn’t fair. She was scared but always made light of it. I was there for her, but she was there for me, too. The last time I saw her walk in public was in May at my wedding, as my maid of honour. By the beginning of August she was thin and in a wheelchair, but she still managed to come out for my birthday. I didn’t realise it then but it would be the last time I saw her.

Only two weeks later Sarah was admitted to hospital. She texted me from her bed, scared but she made light of it, still joking that the nurse was late to bring her pain medication. Her health quickly got worse so she brought forward her wedding and married her fiancé Josh in the hospital. The next day, I got the call to say that Sarah had passed away. It suddenly occurred to me that we’d just kept chatting and texting, never actually saying goodbye. Maybe we didn’t need to.

For a long time after Sarah’s death, I couldn’t stop thinking about our past; reliving the moments when she was really happy and trying to come to terms with what had happened. But I’ve learned to look forward as well as back. Sarah’s family have launched a charity, the Shine Bright Foundation in her honour to raise funds for research into triple negative breast cancer, and I’m supporting them in every way I can. Every year on Sarah’s birthday, I go out and order extravagant cocktails in memory of her. Sarah was strong and never afraid to go it alone. Now it’s my turn to follow her lead.


shine-bright-foundation.org.uk

As told to: Corinne Redfern
Photography: Liz Gregg

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