After losing my daughter, I walked 6,000 miles for charity

I’m aiming to raise £1m for the team that took care of Elizabeth – and have helped comfort others along the way

In 2017, I completed a 6,000-mile journey around the British coastline. It took me almost a year. It should have been a moment of amazing celebration – I had raised more than £115,000, and my supporters applauded me as I arrived at Durdle Door beach in Dorset. But instead of feelings of jubilation, I was distraught. I sobbed my heart out thinking about my five-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who had played on that beach 18 months earlier.

We had been living in Cheltenham at the time. I was a single mum, juggling my job, bills and Elizabeth’s ballet classes. She was a healthy, outgoing and happy child who loved learning, animals and performing on the stage. She had such a promising future. One morning she got terribly ill. By the evening the doctors told me the prognosis wasn’t good.

It was incomprehensible news. Elizabeth made it to the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) of Bristol children’s hospital, where she was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH). Her immune system had aggressively attacked itself sending her into severe septic shock. Despite the medics’ efforts, she passed away 18 days later on 10 December 2015.

The pain and devastation of losing a child is difficult to describe. Grief comes in different shapes, and in rolling stages. It seems impossible to imagine but you can survive it. Even if life itself becomes a daily challenge. A month after she died, I created Elizabeth’s Footprint. I wanted to channel my unconditional love for my daughter into helping others. That type of love, I reasoned, exists for giving. I resolved to raise money for the PICU at Bristol children’s hospital, where about 800 children are treated every year.

I gave up on my rented apartment, left my PA job and set off for the 6,000-mile charity walk. I had unstoppable determination but no experience in long-distance walking. It was extremely challenging, overwhelming and sometimes dangerous. On my second day, walking on the Isle of Skye, I was following a clearly mapped route that would take me through dense forest and bogland. I expected the terrain to be challenging but nothing prepared me for the six hours with no solid ground underfoot. I clambered and stumbled over fallen trees, crossed rapids that were waist deep and scaled a cliff using heather as my only support. My thoughts were racing as tears flooded down my face. I felt completely helpless and alone. It was the only time I cried because of the difficulty of my walk and not for my daughter. I later found out the route hadn’t been used for 14 years.

It was due to the amazing kindness of friends and strangers that I was enriched by the experience. I always had a hot evening meal, and never once had to sleep in a field. That sense of community gave me great comfort.

People joined me along the way. Many were also struggling with bereavement. Grief is a lonely journey, but being able to discuss it openly with someone who understands provides some semblance of peace. I was honoured to be told on a daily basis that Elizabeth’s Footprint, and the acts of kindness it inspired, had helped restore people’s faith in humanity. We are all uplifted when we hear of the essential goodness of people.

After that first challenge, I’ve continued to walk. On the second anniversary of losing Elizabeth, I walked 80 miles in 24 hours, crossing the entire Isle of Lewis and Harris. I started my third walk of love on Mother’s Day (11 March). It’s a 1,000-mile walk around south-west England and south Wales linking 23 hospitals that refer critically ill children to the PICU at Bristol children’s hospital. After that, I will continue walking for as long as it takes to reach my goal – to raise £1m for the PICU.

It’s extremely difficult to see your child’s body attached to machinery, but that is often their only hope of survival. I couldn’t bring my daughter home, but I hope my efforts will mean other families will be able to. Walking and fundraising now absorbs all of my time, co-existing alongside the constant heartache I feel for my beautiful daughter. Although my existence is now unconventional, it is my new normal. My journey continues because grief does not have a finishing line.

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