In announcing the death of his 25-year-old daughter last April, Leon Betts made a commitment. A commitment that he and his wife, Tamra, would continue what their Emma had started. More awareness, more funds to further research into the disease that had claimed her life – Melanoma.
“Maybe too late for Emma, but there are a lot of people that Emma still wants to save,” he shared via Facebook. “This is her legacy and we will honour it.”
It was a legacy Emma Betts forged in less than three years. One that lies in the community created via her popular blog Dear Melanoma, in the more than $100,000 she raised for melanoma research, in the sun-safety message she spread through her story, in the Love, Emma care packages she created for families dealing with difficult life events.
In the ten months since her death, Emma’s parents continue to dedicate themselves to that legacy. It gives them purpose, Tamra told Mamamia, a positive way of dealing with their immense loss.
“Of course, the grieving does get mixed up in the goodness that we’re trying to achieve. But I kind of feel like it’s something that, not that we owe Emma, but just that she did such wonderful work that we want to continue,” the 55-year-old said, tearfully.
“We don’t people to forget what she did.”
That’s unlikely. Emma’s thoughts – the sad, the scared, the uplifting – live on through her blog, and more than 26,000 people follow Leon’s updates via the Facebook page.
The Dear Melanoma tribe is stronger, more loyal than ever.
“While we knew Dear Melanoma was successful and had a lot of followers, it wasn’t until Emma passed away that we started receiving messages about the impact she’d made on people’s lives. Messages from people that were grieving too, but had never met her,” Tamra said. “It made me incredibly proud. For her to be able to turn such a terrible diagnosis into something positive – that was incredible.
“It’s another reason for us to keep going.”
Despite the support - from family, friends and these beautiful strangers - Emma's death, at first, proved crippling for Tamra.
“I was expecting too much of myself in moving through the grieving process. I think when Emma was here she was so stoic and gave us so much strength, and then when she was no longer here I just fell to pieces. It was just all too much.”
The emotional became physical in July last year, when Tamra started to feel her body “going downhill.” There were viruses, shingles, then in October a heart attack.
"Even when it happened it didn't even cross my mind that what was actually going on. I just had this massive pain [in my chest], but it wasn't until the ambos got here and said, 'We need to treat you as a heart attack', that I realised,” she said. "It's been a big wakeup call to me, really. I realised I needed to reevaluate a few things."
A cardiac rehabilitation program gave her a new perspective on diet, exercise and stress, and doctors are now confident that “scary” 4am episode will be her last.
Now fully recovered, Tamra is channelling her energy and, yes, her grief, into continuing Emma’s work. Last month, her focus was on Melanoma March - a series of walks and events held in cities around Australia in aid of the Melanoma Institute Australia. Plus there’s Love Emma packages to supply, and corporate and charity events at which they promote Emma's cause.
“I don't do any of the [public] speaking. Leon does all that. I don't think I will ever be able to do it - it's hard enough sitting there listening to him tell Emma's story. But I figure that by involving myself with the Melanoma March, Through the Looking Glass [a cocktail fundraiser started by Emma] and Love Emma, that hopefully we're going to achieve something,” Tamra said. “Eventually it would be lovely to have a cure.
“You know, I've got two other daughters, I've got grandchildren, and I just hope that Melanoma will never affect them.”
This April brings the first anniversary of Emma’s death. When Tamra looks back on that year, she wonders how she got through it. But still, she knows there’s only one way to get through the next, and the next.
“You've got to get up everyday and you've got to keep going, you've got to keep moving forward. Emma wanted us to, so that shows our respect for her," she said.
"We are just so incredibly proud of what she had become, how she had coped with everything. Never once did she ever say 'Why me?' Those were just the cards she was dealt so they were the ones she had to play."
LISTEN: Just weeks before she passed, Emma Betts spoke to Mia Freedman about coming to terms with death: