By Sarah Penny with Dawn Robinson-Walsh:
Meet Sarah Penny. Here, we look at the work, both occupational and voluntary, of Sarah, who was suggested by Sheridon Rosser of Atlantic Rest. Sarah is Mum to Tegan and Talan. As most local people know, Talan sadly passed away in May, 2017, from rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS), a type of soft tissue sarcoma that grows in active muscles of the body. He was just 19.
Sarah is also making waves with her beautiful eco-friendly floral tributes. Here, she tells us about her work, her son, and the work of the charity she set up, Talan’s Trust.
I posed some questions, which Sarah kindly answered.
Let’s start with floristry – what got you into it?
As a child, I always loved flowers; I grew up in the countryside and spent a lot of time out in the fields, picking flowers and watching how things grew. We were from an era where we were turfed out in the morning and came home for our tea when hungry. We would pick plums or cooking apples from the orchards surrounding our home if we were hungry ( when aren’t children hungry?)
One lasting memory is on Mothering Sunday, filling a basket with snowdrops for my Mum; there were many wildflowers back then.
When I came to Bude after my summer job finished, I wrote to both florists there at the time and one of them, Christine’s, took me on. I spent two years there doing day-release to Plymouth to take my floristry exams.
You now specialise in eco-friendly floristry, and especially funeral flowers – how did both of those come about?
During my years as a florist, using plastic and floral foam never sat easy with me, but I suppose I lacked the confidence at the time to change things. Being a single mum focuses you on paying the bills and back then it was a bit of an unknown.
Now I have options to be more true to myself.
When I went back to college a few years ago, I met a great florist called Fiona Perry. We stayed in touch over the next few years and during that time she went foam and plastic free. When Fiona asked me to freelance three years ago, I jumped at the chance. I learned so much that weekend and came back with a moss ‘brick’ for a funeral I had that week – and the rest is history.
Funeral work fills me with joy. I have so much empathy for the bereaved and want to do my absolute best for each person, but what drives me is the ideal of not leaving anything behind on the grave after. Everything I make can be composted and will not harm the environment in any way.
You used to have a shop, but now operate from home, presumably – has that worked well for you?
Yes extremely well. I missed my customers for a long time, but the pressure is off now and there is little stock to worry about as I buy for what I do and not to sell in the shop, meaning there is hardly any waste.
Onto Talan. Obviously, his illness and ensuing passing in 2017 was extremely sad. No one who isn’t you can imagine what you went through. Can you, please, tell us a little about your son and his illness? What made Talan so wonderfully special, given so many people regularly engage in fundraising activities for the charity 4 years on?
Gosh, I could write a book about my son, and the greatest gift people can give me is to ask about him!
When he was born ( I’ve never openly said this to more than my closest friends), I had an awful premonition that he would die. His was a traumatic birth in that I was rushed into theatre as soon as he was born, so I was very woolly when we came home; he was a tiny baby – 4lbs 12oz – and so I was very protective of him.
That feeling over the years niggled at me on occasion and I remember the day he was 18 (Nov 21st) thinking the premonition was nothing more than the trauma of birth, but he was not feeling well on his birthday and was very subdued.
Over the next few weeks he got worse and on the 28th Dec, 2016, was admitted to hospital and had 2 litres of fluid drained from his bladder. He was discharged two days later with a follow up appointment in a month. I argued about this but Talan wanted to be home and the doctor insisted it would sort itself out.
The following month, without going into detail, was pretty awful and culminated in an MRI scan at the end of January. We were called back the next day and by then both Talan and I knew he had cancer, so it wasn’t a shock to be told this, although I was extremely angry with the consultant – not that he would have known it.
Tal was a joker, a great friend, always looking out for the underdog; I asked him once who his best friend was and his answer was “all of them”.
He was the peacemaker in our family and I never realised that until he’d gone. It’s very easy, I know, to make someone who dies into a saint, especially when they are young; Tal was no saint but he was the very heart of our family, who kept us all together and soothed troubled waters without knowing he did it.
It’s been a very difficult 4 years for everyone I think. I know his friends have struggled to make sense of it all and for his sister and I, it’s been a difficult time.
Since Talan’s passing at only 19, despite the sadness and the hurt, you have set up a very successful charity to raise awareness of childhood cancers. Can you tell us how you decided to start the charity, and how it has developed? For example, some of the great things the fundraising has helped to achieve?
To make sense of it all, fundraising is something many mothers in this world I now inhabit do; we need to throw our grief into something tangible to stop it from consuming us. It would not take much.
So Talan’s Trust was formed and we help to support a full time researcher into rhabdomyosarcoma at The I.C.R. The Royal Marsden. A highlight this year was to be named in a publication supporting an important trial on relapsed rhabdomyosarcoma. You can read this on our website or on our Facebook page. Part of what we do is to highlight the symptoms of childhood cancer and raise awareness of what is the biggest killer of children both here in the UK and the USA.
Has creating the charity helped you emotionally?
I’m not sure I’d still be here without it. Without sounding too dramatic, losing a child is beyond comprehension and it’s never ending. When a loved one dies, a mother or father perhaps, of course it’s sad and can change your life but losing a child is losing your future and you are reminded daily in a thousand ways they are no longer here.
Talan’s biggest worry was being forgotten and it was my promise to him I would never ever let that happen.
I’m sure you’ve had a huge amount of help from family and Talan’s friends, as he was a much-loved local lad – can you tell us how that has helped you?
Again without the wider community, where would I be? His friends particularly have been, in their own quiet way, amazing and I still get the odd text saying they love me (this may be alcohol-induced, but ill take it!). They turn up to all our charity dos and hug me tight, knowing how much it means. The only time I struggle is when I see them all at the beach in the summer, laughing and joking, knowing he should be there. I’m glad to be away in the summer; it hurts too much.
Can you explain why the eco-friendly, no foam, etc., approach, is so important to you now?
I’ve always been aware of the environment and as I said previously I’m a country girl, always driving everyone mad about being more eco-conscious; throwing things away is just not a thing in my world!
I think with floristry, it genuinely hurts me that when the flowers die, there is an environmental impact with the plastic and floral foam left, especially when there is no need.
How can it be right to receive this beautiful bouquet of flowers and straight away take off the wrappings and put in the bin to sit in the dump for 150 years? Single use plastic at its worst, and when I see similar in a churchyard I want to weep.
So learning how to do without has been a no brainer and I absolutely love it with a passion. Our world is a mess and we have to be more accountable in everything we do. Florists need to educate their customers and the customers need to understand more through this education.
Greenwashing is rife in floristry as in many other things, and the word bio-degradable is bandied around far too often.
Sheridon mentioned that you are working together on something called ‘Foam Free Future’. Can you tell us more? I do remember the old flower oases which used to disintegrate nastily …
There is a huge push In the floristry world to be floral foam free and the membership is growing; there are some big names that have thrown their weight behind it.
Oasis is a generic name for a product known as floral foam, a bit like hoover for a vacuum. Foam has been around for 70 years and there is no doubt it transformed floristry; however, what is still not well known is it contains micro-plastics, so not only does it not break down but sits in landfill for time immemorial. It also leaks micro-plastics into our water courses. Formaldehyde is one of the chemicals used in its production to give you an idea of what we are working with!
Sheridon and I actually met through a bereavement group for Cornwall we were both part of, and then she invited me up to her natural burial ground.
Although Sheridon does not allow floral foam or plastics, she was not aware of the impact it has on the environment. So when we started discussing it she was pretty horrified.
We came up with a plan to educate both florists, but also funeral directors and crematoriums and churches.
I must say so far we have had very promising feedback from local crematoriums. And I’m looking forward to the autumn and our work to continue.
Are there trends in flowers? How do you see the floral future?
Very much so. Floristry has changed so much and for the better, I think. Bude is slowly moving with the times and it’s great to see more people asking for foam and plastic free bouquets and funeral work for sure.
I hope we will see a bigger swing towards more natural design and more locally and UK grown flowers; to be honest, if the world carries on how it is, ultimately it will be our only option. But there are more British growers than ever this year, many taking the plunge during lockdown and there is far more choice now. I know which I’d prefer!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I would like to say thank you actually to the wider Bude people, for continuing to support Talan’s Trust. I know we are a small if growing community, and compared to many charities have a much smaller purse to draw from! However, what I would say is if you do nothing else, please share our posts. I was a normal mum too, once, and childhood cancer came knocking. If id known the symptoms, just maybe the outcome would have been a little different.
Meningitis is well known and thanks to a massive advertising campaign everyone knows what to look for. Childhood cancer is the biggest killer and everyone should know what to look for. It may just save your child’s life.
Many thanks indeed to Sarah for sharing her thoughts and feelings with us. It cannot have been easy.
People, you know what to do now: support Talan’s Trust if you can and if not, share the info put out on social media to help raise awareness.