Megan: “I had to relearn who I was, not just the girl whose dad had died”

When Hayward's Heath firefighter Mark Butler passed away in May, he left behind him a legacy that will never be forgotten in Sussex. His daughter, Megan, shares how the Charity helped her process her grief in the months that followed, and why she'll always see West Sussex Fire and Rescue as her extended family.

When Megan Butler visited Marine Court a few years ago for help with persistent back pain from her role as a beauty therapist, she messaged her parents to joke it was like being surrounded by 20 versions of her firefighter dad, Mark. So when she returned to the centre for psychological support after he passed away earlier this year, she found she took comfort from this familiarity.

Just before Christmas 2016, Mark Butler was told he was ill, but that it was nothing serious to worry about. But the Hayward’s Heath firefighter’s health took a turn for the worse over Christmas, and in January 2017, he was told he had Leukaemia.

“They signed him off work and started him on the highest dosage of chemotherapy,” says Megan, who turns 24 this December. “He knocked it out of the park, and turned out to only need one lot to keep the cancer away. They said it was a miracle, that no one had ever such a positive response. In September 2017 he had a bone marrow transplant, and by January 2018, everything was going well and he was told he was in remission.”

But something still wasn’t right. Mark continued to lose weight and kept getting chest infections. So he returned to his doctor last December, a few days after his 55th birthday, and was given the news that not only did he have terminal cancer, but that he had a few months to live.

“It was devastating, but my dad was determined to make it to my brother’s 21st birthday in April,” says Megan. “That was his top priority. He couldn’t walk or come out of the hospital, but he made it. On 30th April, he was awarded the West Sussex Lifetime Achievement Award, which the Dept Chief came to his hospital bed to present him to at 5.15pm. Then in the early hours of 1st May he passed away.”

Having spent over 37 years with West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, the impact Mark made on his friends and colleagues is vast. This was evident at his funeral procession, where hundreds of people lined the streets and followed the aerial platform ladder bearing his coffin.

“We did the cortege through the town, with my brother leading them,” says Megan. “We got round the corner, and the high street was lined with 150 firefighters, with thousands of people watching. It was absolutely silent, you would never know there were so many people. Then there were about 400 people at the funeral itself. It just shows how much my dad was a man of heart, and how much he means to them all. He’d been there for so long, most of the people at the station had been taught by him at some point in their careers, and some of them had even worked with my grandad, who was also a firefighter.”

For Megan, who has struggled with her own mental health for most of her life, the following months were difficult, and she could feel old behaviours start to rear their head: “I’d also had Leukaemia when I was three, and I lost two grandparents to cancer before my dad, so I’d been struggling with anxiety and depression for over ten years. I’d been getting flashbacks from my own treatment, and then seeing my dad go through a different form of the disease was very hard to watch. I was starting to see myself go back down towards the dark hole. I’m someone who holds it all in, but I was seeing the signs, and I knew I needed help.

“I’d been to Marine Court with my back, and I just knew I could trust and rely on them. So I reached out to the Charity again. I had to learn who I was again, not just the daughter of someone who had died from cancer.”

In September, Megan returned to our centre in Littlehampton to speak to counsellors about the feelings she was struggling with in all aspects of her life, not just her bereavement: “They really helped me with the acceptance stage of my grieving process, and opened my eyes to other areas of my life where I needed to make improvements. I’m a very critical person, I’m my own worst enemy, and I was in a situation at work that wasn’t helping my mental health, but they reminded me of who I am, and my own morals, and gave me the confidence I was lacking. I left Marine Court on Friday, and on the Saturday, I handed in my notice.”

Megan also met other fire personnel who knew her dad, and they talked fondly about their memories of working with him and the legacy he has left in Sussex.

Rather than bottle up her feelings, Megan found herself opening up.

“Before going there, I was in such a place of wanting to hide my feelings,” she says. “I’m a real daddy’s girl, and I was dreading the day that he would die. But being at Marine Court, it made me feel better. They don’t judge you, you can just let all your emotion out and say anything, how you want to be treated, and they let you to do it.”

For Megan, with a brother, mum, dad, grandad and great uncle all working or having worked in the fire and rescue service, her extended fire family is a large one. “The Haywards Heath crew will always be my family, there is no doubt about that. They’ve retired his peg and are unveiling a collage of photos in the station with a plaque to explain who he was to future crews. It’s so lovely, to know we’ve always got him there. He meant so much to them, and if we need them, they’re there. I just want to remind them we’re here for them too, because I know a lot of them are really struggling without having him to talk to.

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To show their solidarity during Mark’s treatment, the crew from Haywards Heath started Bald4Butler, all shaving their heads or waxing their legs to raise money for the family. But even then, Mark’s generosity shone through: “He was one of those people who never prioritised himself, and he said some of the money raised had to go The Fire Fighters Charity,” says Megan. “Even when he was in his hospital bed, he was logging into his emails and trying to help people all the time. He would go to any drill nights he could, despite being signed off. He would do anything for anyone, he was just that type of person.”

Wanting to do something else for the Charity in Mark’s memory, the crew arranged  a 7km pram push through the town centre and surrounding areas on Saturday 30 November, dressed as Elves on the Shelf on a shrunken fire engine.

Together, they have raised nearly £1,400 for The Fire Fighters Charity through bucket collection and sponsorship.

“I’m not sure what my dad would have made of this weekend, seeing us all dressed like elves in his name!” says Megan. “It’s just lovely to see how much my dad means to so many people, and that they’re still doing this for The Fire Fighters Charity in his honour. My dad will always be with me. He may not be physically around any more, but he’s in me and my family, and he’s in every single one of his firefighter family. And that’s the best thing really.”

If you’d like to donate to the crew’s fundraising, you can do so online via their JustGiving page.

And if you’re struggling to process grief or anything else that is affecting your wellbeing, let us help. Get in touch with us today by calling 0800 389 8820 or via our online enquiry form.

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