Ten years on from her tragic death, sister Lauren is determined to keep Gemma’s memory alive

Gemma Thirlwall had so much to celebrate that fateful Saturday night.

Thursday, 28th March 2019, 1:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 3rd April 2019, 5:58 pm
Lauren and Heather get ready for their run, in memory of Gemma
Lauren and Heather get ready for their run, in memory of Gemma

She had just turned 26 the day before, and had celebrated her engagement to partner Drew Brookes the weekend before, with a family party at The Queens in Rawmarsh.

There was no way to know that fateful November evening, as Gemma laughed and danced with her friends, that the night would end in tragedy.

After leaving the club, Gemma sat down on the wall of the former railway bridge that spanned Main Street to wait for a taxi. In an instant, she fell backwards and suffered catastrophic head injuries.

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Lauren and Heather hope to raise plenty of funds for Bluebell Wood hospice, on the 10th anniversary of Gemma's death

Her death shocked the town and left Gemma’s family devastated. Her only sister, Lauren, was just 18 and away at university in Warwick when she got the call telling her the terrible news.

“Losing Gemma was so hard,” recalls Lauren, now aged 28.

“She had so much to live for and was really happy. She had always wanted to get married and have children. There was a wedding to plan, and her whole life was ahead of her.”

An inquest gave a verdict of accidental death, though Gemma’s family felt the low, unfenced wall on Main Street was a clear danger spot. Now it is no more - the bridge was levelled to create a forecourt for Rotherham’s new council building, though the area does bear a plaque in memory of the young woman who lost her life there.

Lauren pictured with her sister Gemma, before Gemma's death in 2009

It is just one of the things her family achieved to keep her memory alive. Led by Lauren, her father, John, and her beloved nan, Kath, her friends and family threw themselves into fundraising. They chose to support Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice, because Gemma had loved children, and raised an incredible £40,000.

Now on the tenth anniversary of Gemma’s death, Lauren is just as determined that her big sister’s life will not be forgotten. Once again, she is raising money for Bluebell Wood - and she’s chosen a tough way of doing it. 10ForGem sees her running ten half-marathons within a year in Gemma’s memory.

“Ten years was always going to be a difficult milestone, and nothing will ever fill the void left by Gemma’s sudden loss, but I’m determined to keep her smile shining through.

“Gem was truly one of a kind and brought warmth and laughter to every room she entered. She was absolutely the best chapter of my life, the caring big sister I looked up to. Her memory is worth every mile of pain I’m about to endure on her behalf.”

By Lauren’s side at every race is her best friend, Heather Grayson.

It was Heather who drove through the night ten years ago to bring Lauren back to her sister’s hospital bedside.

“Heather has always been there for me,” says Lauren.

“I couldn’t ask for a better running partner, and I also have a fantastic support network.

“10forGem ties in with Bluebell’s #GetActive campaign. Each race we run will celebrate a year that Gemma should have been with us. Having only ran one half marathon together, this is a massive challenge. But when I’m struggling at the ten-mile mark I remember why I’m doing it and feel spurred on to keep going.”

Lauren and Heather have already tackled five races together, and are now gearing up for their sixth - the Sheffield Half Marathon this month. They will finally be able to hang up their running shoes when they cross the finishing line in Fleetwood in August.

“August seems a long way off but we will get there thanks to the overwhelming support we are getting,” Lauren says

“People are racing with us, signing up to sponsor us and spreading the word of what we’re doing. We can’t thank them enough and would love to raise £5,000 for the children’s hospice. Gemma would be really touched by everyone’s kindness.”

Helen Mower, head of fundraising at Bluebell Wood said: “Lauren and Heather are doing something amazing in Gemma’s memory. The funds they raise for our hospice will go to help families going through the most difficult things life can throw at them and we are so very grateful.”