IT’S normal for people to experience death at least once in their lifetime – but Elizabeth Coffey refers to herself as “a cursed freak of a Grim Reaper”.
The 58-year-old author has lost five siblings and was just 23 when her brother John killed himself at the age of 39 in 1986.
Once she'd finally got over the heartache of losing him, 22 years later, Liz’s sister Di ended up in a coma after a horrific car crash – which eventually claimed her life.
She then lost another three siblings in the seven years that followed, through NHS medicine mismanagement, alcoholism and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a common lung condition.
Now, Liz, whose new memoir, And The Little One Said, is out now, has opened up about her traumatic experiences, and the overwhelming grief that came with it, in an exclusive interview with The Sun.
“They were my everything,” Liz tells us. “Every single one of them brought something different to me and taught me something different, but they all shared the same thing and they all loved and protected me in their own ways.
“I was very much spoiled with love, with all these siblings looking out for me. It was quite amazing.”
While it's easy to think one would be absolutely broken by so much trauma, Liz – who grew up in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, and now lives in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire – believes she’s a better person for having come out the other side.
Liz’s first experience with death was in 1986, when her brother John was found in an abandoned car, having killed himself aged 39.
Liz was just 23 at the time and pregnant with her second child, Teri, now 34, so was already in an "emotional condition” and "went into a state of shock".
But Liz soon realised her brother had tried to tell her he was going to take his own life.
She recalls: “The day before he died, he said to me, ‘I'm going to go to Alpha Centauri’, so I said, ‘Where's that?' and he pointed up at the sky and I laughed.
“I then gave him a lift back to my house and he came in for a cup of tea and was hanging around. I did wonder why, as he was normally so busy.
“But that day he planted a tree in my back garden with my son Dean, who was three years old at the time, and I didn't think anything of it.
“He patted me on the head, and said, ‘I love you, kiddo.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I love you too.’ And he went out the door.
“And then the very next day, I realised, ‘Ah, that's what he meant when he said he was going to Alpha Centauri.’”
Liz often drives to her old estate in Borehamwood to peer over a fence at Steve’s “massive, ginormous, abnormal-looking tree” that’s still growing in a stranger's back garden.
Despite losing her brother at a young age, nothing could’ve prepared her for what was to happen over 20 years later, when "it all just went bang, bang, bang".
Horror car crash
In 2008, on the way back from her brother David’s wedding (the only sibling of hers still alive), their sister Diane – whom they’d affectionately nicknamed Princess Di – had a car accident, having suffered a stroke while driving.
She was left in a coma with severe brain damage.
“She officially died four times on the way to hospital,” Liz recalls. “The neuro doctor told us, ‘It’s very unlikely she’ll survive, and if she does, she’ll be a vegetable.’
“It was like she’d died but she hadn't, so you live your life waiting, looking at the clock, waiting for her to die, because that’s what we’d been told would eventually happen.”
Six months later “a miracle happened" and Diane opened an eye. She continued to defy the odds, opening both eyes before moving her fingers and eventually speaking in broken sentences.
She actually outlived three of her other siblings.
Sister started drinking bleach
While Di was being moved around care homes, one of Liz’s other sisters, Sally, was really struggling.
She stopped visiting Di, wasn’t sleeping at night and would disappear for hours on end.
“Doctors kept blaming her medication and chopping and changing it, but if anything, it made the situation worse,” says Liz.
On more than one occasion Sally would try to harm herself, including by drinking bleach.
She was eventually admitted to a psychiatric ward and seemed to be improving, but in October 2009, she was found dead on the stairs in her house.
Liz explains how she and her siblings couldn’t understand how it had happened, as Sally – whom they'd nicknamed Sally Sunshine – was always the most positive person in their family.
Yet another family loss
One month after Sally died, in November 2009, Liz’s mum passed away from a brain tumour.
By February 2010, Di’s kids were discussing taking her to Switzerland to end her life with Dignitas because she hated her care home and, according to Liz, was being mistreated.
Things were finally starting to look up for Liz and her family by October 2010, as Di was moved to a better residence with 24-hour care.
And in February 2011, a judge ruled Sally's death was down to medicine mismanagement by the hospital.
“I was angry and really frustrated,” says Liz. “But moreover I was relieved, because the way she died didn’t make sense.”
A month later, just when Liz was “starting to feel like a normal person” again, her brother Steve – who’d had a drinking problem for years – collapsed and died from a fatal embolism aged 59.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening,” she says. “First Di, then Sally, then Mum, now this? I felt insane.”
As she tried to come to terms with her grief, Liz admitted it had a devastating impact on her relationship with husband Olly, 48 – whom she'd met five years before Di's accident.
"I felt like my innards had been blasted out and I was walking around with a big hole through my stomach," she recalls.
“I wasn't very nice, I wasn't very giving. And I think we finally collapsed. And he just walked out after a stupid row.”
The couple sought counselling, and after a few months they reunited.
Liz realised how much strength Olly gave her throughout her darkest times.
“He really was like my ally through all of it,” she says. “He was my rock. He was the thing that kept me sane. In fact, he was there for all of my family.”
Di eventually died in February 2014, aged 59, and her twin Leslie died three years later, after living with COPD for years.
I felt like my innards had been blasted out and I was walking around with a big hole through my stomach
Out of seven siblings, only Liz and her brother David are still here.
And it was Olly who comforted Liz with a sentiment she ends her book with: “We’re all on the same bus and we’re all going to the same party. It’s just that some of us get on the bus before others.
“Don’t we owe it to those we have loved and lost to try and enjoy our time on the bus instead of feeling sad?”
Despite all her heartbreak, Liz feels like she’s “come out a better version” of herself now.
“When I look back it's quite fascinating, because I really feel like Di's accident set us all up to deal with all the things that followed one by one,” she says.
“She outlived them all and showed me that there is more to life and death than we know.
“I notice things like how blue the sky is and how amazing trees are and how powerful they are.
“Suddenly, when everything's gone, you have to appreciate every single thing that you have and the little things to me have become really big things.”
Elizabeth Coffey's book And the Little One Said is out now (paperback £12.99, ebook £3.75, Mereo Book).
Contact the Samaritans
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They are available for free at anytime.
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