kids

Natasha's husband Derek died at just 35. This is what she wants to change about his last days.

In the 2015 film Miss You Already, terminally ill Milly spends her dying days in a peaceful countryside mansion, with lovely big glass doors that open out onto lush green gardens.

The room is homely, lived-in and inviting. It's a home away from home, and when Milly draws her final breath she does so in a place that is beautiful. 

Natasha Welsh, 39, remembers watching the Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette film not long before her husband Derek got sick with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that took his life in 2019 when he was just 35.

But when they were told they were coming to the end-of-life stage just 23 months into their cancer journey, the options for the young family were limited.

"You either die at home, or you move to a palliative facility," Natasha told Mamamia. "We don’t have anything like that [film] here at all. And I didn’t think I could live in the house where he died. I didn’t think it was for me."

In a palliative care facility, the couple's young son Cristian, who was four at the time, wasn't allowed to stay the night by his father's bedside like Natasha was. They looked at all the options, including renting another apartment to use solely for Derek's final days.

"But we realised it would be difficult to rent a place and not be open about the fact we were taking someone there to die. In the end, we realised we just had to pick a facility. There was one at Concord Hospital in Sydney that was newer and had these bifold doors that allowed the patient to be rolled outside for fresh air. It just made that little point of difference," said Natasha.

ADVERTISEMENT

While Natasha was offered things like massages and music therapy as she slept by her husband's bedside for his last 11 days, there was nothing on offer for their son. 

"There were a lot of old people [in there], and that was always the issue. When Cristian came, I found myself just going 'shhhh, quiet'. It was really hard. There are no activities for the kids to play and be loud, and I was coordinating my parents to come and go with him, which was all fine and well, but when you want to hug your child because you’re about to lose your husband and their father... it just seemed incomplete because our son wasn’t there with us," Natasha told Mamamia.

As Natasha acknowledges, the reason no one has thought to create a space for terminally-ill adults with young children is because "adults with young children shouldn't be dying". 

It was the last thing Derek and Natasha were worrying about, after all. They were excited about the prospect of trying for another baby and growing their family when they were delivered the traumatic news. 

Natasha had arrived home from a work trip in Japan on Derek's 34th birthday, and a day later they had the family over to celebrate.

"We had left the house in the morning because he was so unwell with a headache and vomiting and couldn’t open his eyes, as people were arriving at our house for a party. We were giving them updates saying things like, ‘just start without us, we'll be home soon.' But when we found out he had lesions in his brain, people started leaving. Time just stood still. It unravelled from there."

ADVERTISEMENT

As the family lived from "MRI to MRI" Natasha tried to make sure they squeezed in as many memories and holidays and joy as possible, and encouraged her husband to write cards for their son for the birthdays he'd miss. They knew from the start that there was no cure for Derek's cancer, and the doctors never gave them false hope. 

"My life goal became about creating memories and living life to the fullest even though that was so painful at times. Every time I imagined Derek not being there for future moments tore me to bits."

But that goal became so much harder in the days when the family needed the most support.

When they knew that tomorrow would very likely be Derek's last day, they snuck Cristian in overnight to the palliative care facility so he could spend as much time as possible with his Dad before he passed on. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Even before Derek died, Natasha and his sister Rachel had decided they'd dedicate his legacy to making this process easier for the families that would follow them. 

They're currently raising awareness and funds for 'Derek's Place', a facility to keep families together at the end of a terminally ill parent's life. A place not unlike Bear Cottage or Ronald McDonald house, that creates a kid-friendly environment for families going through the worst days and weeks of their lives.

While battling grief, a pandemic and losing her job in 2020, Natasha has been working hard on making Derek's Place a reality. 

The charity's aim is to fundraise $10 million, and Natasha dreams of having a residential home that allows people to receive the same services they would if they were in a hospital. 

"But they’re dying in a beautiful place where their kids can also stay and they’re well catered for," she told Mamamia. 

Losing Derek is still raw. Cristian, now six, still sometimes asks "When's Daddy coming home?" and on the days she's really struggling, Natasha reaches for videos and photos of happy family memories for comfort. It makes her feel close to him. And Derek's Place will make her feel like she's made a difference in his name.

"It makes me incredibly proud. It’s nice to give back and make a difference for people going through what we went through. No one should have to lose their parent or be left behind to raise kids by themselves when you thought you had the rest of your lives together. What you want is a home away from home - a place where you can feel like you've stepped into your own." 

You can find out more about Derek's Place on Facebook and Instagram, and donate here.

Feature image: Natasha Welsh.