The biggest decision in Laura Pearson's life was made on impulse. Although it would have repercussions for her, her partner, and her son for the rest of their lives, it was a spontaneous reaction rather than a carefully weighted evaluation. Reeling from the news that her sister Kerry had suddenly died from a hay fever-induced asthma attack, Laura felt an overriding instinct to protect her three-year-old nephew Ryan, and vowed on the night her sister passed away to raise him as her own. "You don't consider the implications when you are faced with situation like that," explains Laura, 28. "Ryan's mum was dead, his father left before he was born and he was alone. It would not have mattered if I did have time to sit down and weigh up consequences. It was obvious that Ryan needed to come home with me and live with my family and I would not have let him go anywhere else."
The phone call that changed Laura's life came late on a sticky June night in 2005. Initially the message was innocuous. "Your sister has had an asthma attack." Kerry, who was 23 when she died, had suffered mild asthma for years. In the days leading up to her death she had been complaining of shortness of breath, sparked in the hot weather by the hay fever she suffered from. On the night of her death she was at home with a friend and Ryan. The attack was quick and devastating. Kerry's chest became increasingly tight, and as she walked to the bathroom for a glass of water she collapsed. Paramedics worked for 45 minutes to try and save her but she died on the floor, with her three-year-old son in the next room.
Each year, around 1,200 of the nation's 5.4 million asthma sufferers die from the condition, often without having had serious attacks before. Up until the night she died, Kerry – who had suffered asthma since the age of six – had been fit and healthy. Laura recalled: "We got a call from Kerry's friend who told us she was having an attack and an ambulance was on its way. My partner Kevin went to check on her because she lived nearby and called me later to say she'd gone. I didn't understand at first and thought she'd been taken to hospital. When he told me she was dead the phone slipped from my hand. It didn't feel real. It still doesn't some days."
After the coroner had taken away her sister's body, Laura took Ryan to her house and held him as he fell asleep. She says: "I was dazed, we all were. I woke the next morning thinking it had been a horrible dream but Ryan was on the bed with me, an orphan, and everything came flooding back. I vowed then that he would never leave us."
Laura, from Coldwaltham in West Sussex, had always protected her little sister when they were girls. The close bond continued into adulthood and they were best friends, supporting each other through the trials and tribulations of life. When Laura gave birth to her son Nathan, now 10, Kerry was a regular baby-sitter, and, when Nathan's father left, leaving Laura a lone parent, Kerry repaid the support she had been given as a child by helping her sister. Four years later, when Kerry fell unexpectedly pregnant after a brief relationship, Laura, who was by now with her future husband Kevin, coached her younger sibling through pregnancy and birth. She says: "I was always very protective of Kerry, and when she fell pregnant I told her I would be there for her no matter what decision she made. I held her hand through labour and was privileged to be there when Ryan was born. It strengthened the bond we already had."
In the days after Kerry's death, Laura worried that her nephew could be taken into care and went to court to make sure she was granted a residential order. She explained: "It was obvious that the best place for him was with us but there is no guarantee in a situation like that and I could not have seen him taken into care. It was a formality in the end but a huge weight off our minds when the order was granted. We are still in the process of formal adoption proceedings and that should be finalised in the near future."
Laura, a dispensary assistant, and Kevin, 39, a materials manager for an engineering company, then began the difficult process of re-forming their family around Ryan. Laura also began making arrangements for her sister's funeral. "Our family structure had changed overnight; there was no gradual period of acclimatisation and no one sits down and gives you a guide that tells you how to restructure your relationships. One night there was me, Kevin and our son; the next we had a new three-year-old. Nathan went from only child to having a little brother within the space of day. He had to share his bedroom, his toys and his parents. It was a huge upheaval for him and he did struggle for a time. It was a lot to ask of him. He was extremely close to Kerry, so he also had his grief to cope with. He would throw temper tantrums and shout, but we worked through it as a family.
"I was on autopilot for the first few months. I arranged the funeral. Kerry was always desperate to be my bridesmaid. We'd talk about weddings when we were young, and, after I met Kevin, she knew we would get married, and I told her that when we got round to it she would be my maid of honour. She never got the chance, so I requested that she be buried in a bridesmaid's dress."
Laura pushed her grief aside and instead threw herself into herself supporting Ryan, Nathan and her own parents. Six months after Kerry's death, the grief grew too big to contain. She explains: "I hadn't really allowed myself to grieve and was feeling increasingly emotional. I needed someone from outside the family whom I could talk to without having to support. I saw a counsellor for a while, which helped immensely."
Three years after Kerry died, Laura and Kevin married. Nathan and Ryan were ushers. The bittersweet ceremony was conducted in the church where Kerry was buried. Laura says: "I had a bouquet made for her; she was buried in a lilac bridesmaid's dress and that was the colour theme for our wedding. We took the bouquet to her grave after we got married and I laid the flowers on it and said a few words. I could feel her there. It was a very moving day. I know she would have loved it and would have been so proud of her little boy."
Laura's maternal instincts towards Ryan are juxtaposed with pangs of guilt that she is taking her sister's place. She has always tried to keep her sister's memory alive for Ryan. She explains: "Even though he was young and doesn't remember what happened with clarity, I always speak about Kerry, and Ryan has a memory box with photos of his mum and mementos in it that he often looks at. It's important that he knows what happened and who she was."
Since Kerry's death, the Pearson's family life has been marked by the same milestones all families face: funerals, weddings, the children's first days at school. But one milestone that they passed two years after Kerry's death was testament more than any other to how they have coped with the seismic shift they have had to adjust to – the day when Ryan finally called Laura "Mum". Laura remembers: "I didn't encourage him and I never spoke to him about it. The first time he called me 'Mummy' was totally unexpected, but I just acted normally as I didn't want him to feel uncomfortable. It was his decision; we never pushed him. For me personally there is a mix of emotions whenever he calls me 'Mum'. I worry that I am taking that role away from my sister, but when he looks through the photographs he calls Kerry 'Mum number one' and me 'Mum number two'. He has worked that system out and he is comfortable with that. It is how he understand things. I hope Kerry would be proud and pleased to hear him say that; I'm sure she is."
For information and advice on asthma log on to asthma.org.uk or call 0800 121 6244
If the worst happens: Who'll raise your child?
* If you have a will, you should write it (or rewrite it) to include your wishes as to who should care for your children if both parents were to die or be otherwise unable to care for them. Both parents should make wills.
* The appointed guardian should be someone who has agreed to care for your chidren and understands what is involved.
* Parental responsibility is passed on to the child's guardian if both parent die.
* If you do not have a will, you can still appoint a guardian by writing a letter, signed by you and the guardian, agreeing that they will take over care if anything should happen to you. This should be placed with a solicitor or another person who can produce it should it be needed.
* In England and Wales, a father does not automatically have parental responsibility if he was not married to the child's mother at the time of the birth.
* Anyone can apply to the court to have themselves appointed as guardian for the child after a death of the parents. The court will take all circumstances into account and then decide which is best for the child, financially and emotionally.
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