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Harnessing the pain of grief

29th August 2023

Dr. Claire Handby FCIOB MAPM tells us how, by harnessing the pain of losing her younger sister Rachel to Hib meningitis, she carved out a life of joy and empowerment inspired by her

Harnessing the pain of grief, losing a sister to Hib meningitis
Harnessing the pain of grief, losing a sister to Hib meningitis Rachel

"The picture above was taken as she started school in September 1991. I remember she was so excited to start big school and loved singing the James song ‘Sit Down.’

“Unfortunately, only a couple of weeks later, we lost Rachel to Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib). Rach, as we called her, was four years old and I was fifteen. Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) is a bacterium that can cause deadly infections and it primarily affects young children.

“It spreads through respiratory droplets carried in the air and can lead to various illnesses, including meningitis, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Hib infections were a significant health concern in the 80s and 90s.


“Hib is especially risky in children under five years old. Rapid medical attention is crucial if Hib infection is suspected, as it can progress fast. Rach only had a temperature on the Friday evening and by Saturday she was on life support, which was turned off on the Monday. It was a tragic, traumatic, and life-defining moment for myself and my family.

“It soothes me to think that Rach was hopefully one of the last children to die from this illness in the UK, perhaps globally. The medical world has made amazing progress with developing vaccines to protect against Hib. The Hib vaccine is now a standard childhood immunisation in many countries. It has been highly effective in reducing the incidence of Hib-related diseases and the associated complications.

“Thanks to widespread vaccination efforts, Hib infections have dramatically decreased, making it a preventable and manageable public health concern rather than a fatal one.

“It is still hard to look at photos of Rach without welling up, three decades on. It is difficult because an inner voice constantly wonders about the memories we have missed out on creating together. But these thoughts are quickly followed with reflecting on everything I’ve achieved, all the changes I’ve embraced, and the leaps of faith I’ve made. I feel as though Rach instilled a passion in me to win at life.  

Dream big 

“The lessons I’ve learnt since losing Rachel have taught me to never take life for granted, to hope and dream big, and make the most of every moment. Live each day as if it is your last, alongside making plans for a long and bright future.

“I have recently made a big life decision to take a ‘breather’ from work, to find a new adventure. I look back and reflect on a 25-year nonstop, high-performance working life and I am grateful for the 10 years I was in the construction industry followed by 15 years in Executive Management Consulting. However, I will be honest, it has been relentless.

“I have worked so hard and the things I turn my hand to have paid off. On a family level, I have gotten married and become a mum to three beautiful children, with a lovely fur baby thrown into the mix too.


“The DNA of Rachel’s legacy runs through me, every day and forever. When times are tough, the glorious memories of her (including listening to the radio in the hospital ward and ironically it playing ‘Always look on the bright side of life’) spur me on.

“What I have been through has made me strong and relentless. Even in the toughest of times I tell myself that nothing will ever be as tough as losing Rach at such a tender age and dealing with the trauma and devastation of life after her death.

“In the good times, when life’s great, I thank Rach for making me savour the happy moments deeply, as I have seen how life can spin on a penny.

“Looking back at all my life’s opportunities I clearly see what brings me joy. I like exercising at the gym to keep my mental health and endorphins flowing, walking my dog, being with my husband, children, and wider family, and I love doing purpose-driven and impactful work.

Harnessing the pain of grief, losing a sister to Hib meningitis


“I continue to use the pain of grief to stare difficulties straight in the face. For example, a few years back, after receiving some unfair feedback at work, I paused and wondered what was going on for the person delivering the feedback, instead of taking it personally. I reflected on my journey to that point and used the power of my loss of Rachel to rise above the negativity and move on.

“This attitude is so empowering for me. I have learned it’s ok to move on from bad situations, as life is just too short to put up with things when you don’t have to. If you can see an alternative, or a more positive route, take a leap of faith - this is what Rachel has taught me.

“I enjoy autobiographies of people I admire, and it is profound that many people who have suffered grief go on to achieve amazing things. The power which can be harnessed for positive change through the pain of grief is incredible.

Strive for joy

“The little moments when Rachel pops into my mind still surprise me - like finding out I had achieved my dream job on her birthday or making the decision to try for a baby knowing life is too short. Rach continues to walk with me, at my side, to help me shape my life. Her presence keeps me strong, and I see ways to strive for joy.

“My dad gave me an excellent piece of advice after we lost Rach. He said, “When you lose someone, the loss can either crush you or define you so make sure you use her memory to define you.’   

“I pass this advice on to anyone who is grieving the loss of a loved one - use your grief journey to help define your life moments, it is why I will continue to share Rachel’s story, so she can lift you, like she does me daily, and will do for the rest of my life.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this piece, please give our free nurse-led Helpline number a call on 0808 80 10 388.