Sarah Phillips was 16 when her mother, Debbie, died after four years with cervical cancer.
At the funeral, Sarah played a recording she had made of the song Autumn by Paolo Nutini. Little did she know that her cover version would become a YouTube hit. Sarah talks about her loss and how putting her energy into fundraising has helped her cope with the death of her mother.
Comfort from music
“In the two weeks before my mum's death, I listened to Autumn all the time. I don't know why but I found it really comforting.
“Paolo's album, These Streets, was one of my favourite albums around the time my mum was diagnosed with cancer, when I was 13, and Autumn always resonated with me.
“'You still live on in my father's eyes' is the line that comes to mind when I think about my mum because of the idea that her memory is carried on through my dad.
“I was thinking of singing it at the funeral but I knew singing it live wouldn't be easy, so I recorded it on my phone in my bedroom on the evening of the 10th of February. My mum died about four hours later, in the early hours of the 11th.
“The recording was just meant to be a demo to show my dad. He was organising the funeral and I'd been debating whether I should mention the song or not. In the end I knew I would regret it if I didn't.
“When I played it to him, he thought it sounded too slow but suggested that Charlie, a family friend who's a composer, might be able to help us make another recording.
“We spoke to Charlie and he asked me to send him my version so he could find an arrangement and then organise a recording session with me.
“The next day, he sent me what is now the song. We listened to the music and it was so beautiful. Charlie's a really talented violinist and he added strings in key parts. But he said he didn't want to change it or record it again because the phone version had so much emotion which he wouldn't be able to recreate in a studio.
“At the funeral, we played the song with a tribute video we had made for my mum. Lots of people said it was amazing and they wanted to hear it again, so five days later we put the track with clips from the video on YouTube.
“Then it all escalated pretty quickly. The video was viewed 400 times on the first day and, nine months later, had been viewed over 435,000 times. Two days after the video came out I had my first media interview.
Raising money for cancer research
“Everyone was worried that I was going to have a delayed reaction to my mum's death because I was so busy in the weeks after the funeral.
“But we'd known for such a long time that my mum was going to die. I'd done a lot of my grieving already.
“The most difficult thing in the run-up to my mum's death was thinking about everything she was going to miss. Weddings and children … I'd give her a hug and wonder how many more of these I had left.
“Obviously, I was still very upset when she died. But I also had a strong feeling that as one door closed, another would open.
“About a week after the funeral, everyone in the family had a meeting with the Cancer Institute at University College London to discuss setting up a fund to raise money for research into treatment for cervical cancer. It was something my mum and dad had talked about at length. When she died, it became obvious we had to do something.
“It was just going to be a small fund at first but because of the success of Autumn and the publicity that followed, we raised £100,000 for the Debbie Fund in the first month after we set it up. Debbie Fund raised £1 million in its first two years. Because we’ve been raising money for the charity, we've been really driven.
“The huge response to the video has also been a great comfort. So many people have posted messages on YouTube, including some that are heartbreaking. The fact that people have felt compelled to respond with such personal stories has been amazing. It makes you realise you're not alone.
Grieving for my mum
“Since my mum died, I've been surprised at how stable I've been emotionally, though there have been times when I've reacted more intensely than I would normally. For example, a few weeks after she died, I had to hand in some coursework at school and I rushed it because there was so much going on. When I got it back with a poor mark, I was so upset I got up and walked out of the classroom and, halfway down the corridor, I burst into tears.
“When someone's ill and you're living through it, it becomes a part of everyday life and you get used to it. But when you come out of it at the other end, it's very easy to feel guilty about what you may not have done right or things you said that weren't as kind as they could have been. In the end, though, I think you have to forgive yourself.
“Mostly, I think my mum's illness has changed me in a positive way. I've gained a different perspective on life. It helps me enjoy everything more because I'm enjoying it for her as well.”
- Listen to Sarah Phillips' cover of Autumn and read the feedback the song has received on YouTube.
- Sarah's new single, Say It's Possible, is out on the Strikeback label. All proceeds from sales of the single, which is available from Amazon, will go to the Debbie Fund.