Nothing is more difficult than when a parent loses a child before their time. For Dean and Caroline Orchard, nothing was more unbearable than when their 13-year-old daughter, Athena, tragically passed away. For weeks, the Orchards grieved the loss of Athena, unable to get used to the idea of a life without her. But when they finally summoned the courage to pack up her things, her father discovered an amazing message she had left behind...
Just before Christmas, when Athena was 12, the family received a shock when she collapsed in their kitchen. After being rushed to hospital in Leicester, UK, the Orchards were given some terrible news: Athena had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
The day wasn't over with the devastating cancer diagnosis. Athena was then rushed into a mammoth seven-and-a-half-hour emergency surgery, in order to have a tumor removed from her upper spine. She would soon have a tough battle ahead of her.
After the emergency surgery, Athena went through months of grueling chemotherapy, which was targeting the cancer in her spine, shoulders, and head. As she became weak and her hair fell out, Athena remained courageous in the face of her illness.
Athena and her family never lost hope. She continued to bravely fight the cancer until the very end, even when she could barely get out of bed. Unfortunately, her condition deteriorated fast and she died at home surrounded by her family at age 13.
Even though all of her hair fell out and some days left her too unwell to walk, Athena's positive and calm attitude never left her. More evidence of this was discovered shortly after her death when her parents were moving some of her things.
While moving a mirror that had been leaning up against Athena's bedroom wall, her dad discovered that she had left the family a message. Mr. Orchard, who gave up his job to care for Athena, felt like she was comforting them from beyond the grave.
Athena's message, which included life advice and positive sentiments, truly shocked the family. "I couldn't believe it, I saw all this writing, it must have been about 3,000 words. It's so touching. When I first saw it, it just blew me away," said Mr. Orchard.
As the first person to discover the message, her father began reading immediately, but he soon had to stop when he was overcome by emotion. "I started reading it but before long I had to stop because it was too much. It was heartbreaking," he explained.
It's clear Athena's illness made her realize how precious life truly is. Her message included wisdom beyond her years, such as, "Every day is special, so make the most of it. You could get a life-ending illness tomorrow so make the most of every day."
It was Athena's intention to surprise her family with the mirror. "She never mentioned it, but it's the kind of thing she'd do. She was a very spiritual person, she'd go on about stuff that I could never understand - she was so clever," her father said.
Mrs. Orchard, a full-time mother to Athena and her nine siblings, described her daughter as beautiful, athletic, and "the bravest person I know." She also spoke about Athena's intense love for writing and how happy it used to make her.
When it came to how special Athena was, her mother couldn't emphasize it enough: "She was an incredible girl, so bright and so strong, she continually amazed me." She always had a positive attitude, even in the very worst moments of her life.
"She was always positive, even when she was in hospital she would be looking after me, making sure I ate and telling me not to cry. We knew the cancer was very aggressive?...?she fought it as long as she could but eventually she became too weak to get out of bed," her mother said.
Needless to say, the Orchard family will be holding on to Athena's mirror for the rest of their lives. "We're keeping the mirror forever. Just reading her words felt like she was still here with us. She had such an incredible spirit," Mrs. Orchard said.
Athena wrote: "Happiness depends upon ourselves. Maybe it's not about the happy ending, maybe it's about the story." It is messages like these that have kept her family strong in times when it seems like they'll never recover from their terrible loss.