A mother has told how her brave son chose his own death – turning down treatment because he wanted to die at home surrounded by family.
Michael Craig, 25, died in February, just months after being diagnosed with a brain tumour and four years after his 26-year-old sister Nicola’s sudden death.
Michael, a University of Edinburgh graduate, was offered chemotherapy at City Hospital Belfast, but declined treatment.
His mother Joyce, 58, said she supported his decision, describing it as a “powerful moment”.
Mrs Craig explained: “He said, ‘Mum, this is going to take me. I can go down the hospital’s route and then die, or go the other route – where I know I’m going to die but it might not be so hard.
“I said whatever you want, I’m with you 100%. I will hold your hands throughout this journey until I can’t be with you any more.”
Mrs Craig researched alternative healthy treatments such as wheatgrass, which she started growing for Michael at home.
But sadly, he worsened and died in her arms in February.
But she didn’t regret him not having treatment, and said it was what he wanted. Now, speaking for the first time, she has told of her heartbreak.
“You don’t want to bury one child,” she said. “To bury two is unbearable. I screamed at the sky.
“I said, ‘God why are you doing this? You took Nicky. You’re not taking Michael too.”
Now the courageous mum, of Crawfordsburn, County Down, Northern Ireland, has fulfilled a promise she made to Michael on his death bed to return to Australia – a place he loved and nicknamed “Michael’s Island”.
He intended to celebrate his 25th birthday there, but was too ill so she marked his 26th there, letting off balloons. She said she vowed to go there on the day he died.
Mrs Craig, also mother to Christopher, 23, said: “We let off balloons on the beach to remember my beautiful son, and it was one of the most amazing and moving experiences of my life.
“I thought I might be stood on the beach alone, letting my little balloon fly skywards to Michael – little did I know who many lives he touched and how many people would be a part of this.”
She told how Michael had always been a hit with the ladies.
Born in Perth - the family returned to Northern Ireland when Michael was 13 – his female friends would teasingly call the 6ft 3in lad an “Australian Adonis”.
Michael graduated with an honours degree in physics from Edinburgh University in 2013. He planned to stay at home for a year to spend time with family before setting off for his beloved Australia, where he dreamed of settling.
Joyce Craig with Michael and Michael's uncle, Kenny in hospital on New Year's Eve
Divorcee Mrs Craig, 58, bought him a plane ticket to Australia for his graduation present.
She said: “My plan had been to go out there with Michael’s little brother Christopher for a month and help Michael settle. But he never made it.”
The nightmare began in August 2014, when Michael began complaining of headaches and feeling dizzy when he stood up.
He went to his local GP a couple of times - but his symptoms were not taken particularly seriously until he began vomiting.
“On Friday, August 8, 2014, I lay in bed listening to him vomit until I couldn’t bear it any longer. When I called the doctor he just said ‘Take him straight to hospital,’” recalled Mrs Craig.
Unable to accompany him herself - she couldn’t leave Christopher, who has cerebral palsy, home alone - Michael drove himself there.
He was home by 5.30am. They had done blood tests, he told her, but they wanted him back for a CT scan on the Monday morning.
“I thought, ‘Goodness they’re being so thorough, great’,” she said. “He drove himself up on Monday morning as well. I got a phone call at 10.30am from Michael. He said, ‘Mum don’t worry, but they want to keep me in for more tests’.
“I said he had to ask the nurse why. He said he didn’t know why, but said ‘I love you mum. I love Christopher, too. Finally, I got it out of him. He said, ‘Mum, I’m in ward 15, and I’ve got a brain tumour.”
Mrs Craig dropped the phone, and went into panic mode. Having finally organised Michael’s friend Catherine Boyd to stay with Christopher, she drove up to hospital and rushed into the side room where Michael was.
“Five minutes later, a doctor came in, and told us there was no good news here – he had a tumour in his brain which was inoperable and incurable. There was nothing they could do”, she said.
Mrs Craig could not believe her son’s calm reaction. He took her hand and said: “Mum, there’s nothing we can do. That’s what it is. It’s OK, mum.”
She left the hospital, telling Michael she was off to get a few things – she knew she was going to break down and didn’t want her brave son to see it. When she entered the car park, Mrs Craig fell apart.
“I lost it, I completely lost it,” she said. “I screamed at the sky, I actually screamed and said, ‘God, why are you doing this? You took Nicky, you’re not talking Michael. It was the most horrendous day of my life – but I decided I’d fight with all my heart.”
Scans and test results three days later revealed that Michael’s tumour was of a slow growing and non-aggressive – it was the best of a very bad scenario.
When the doctor asked him if he had any questions he said, ‘Yes – can I go to my best friend Catherine’s wedding tomorrow?
Doctors told him he wasn’t well enough, but the next day, he got dressed and went anyway.
“That was our Michael all over,” she recalled. “He didn’t want to spoil anyone’s day. And he looked stunning that day, as he went off in his suit, so handsome.
“He didn’t tell a soul the whole day. It was only when he was outside with his mates at about 1am that he told them. His close mate Scotty just looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, right mate.’
“He said, ‘No, Scotty, it’s no joke’. It was only when he started to cry that Scotty realised he wasn’t pulling his leg.
A week later, Michael had a biopsy, and his mother was shocked when he came back from surgery.
She said: “I stupidly thought they put a needle in his head and took out what they needed.
“When he came back, they’d shaved the side of his head and he’d been left with the most horrific three inch scar.”
“I still don’t know why that was necessary. I wish I’d lifted him up and said, that’s enough, let’s get out of here.”
Just over a week later, still waiting on the biopsy results “and holding onto hope”, Michael took a bad turn at home with headaches and vomiting, his heart rate plummeted to just 32bpm – a normal rate in adults is between 60 and 100 bpm - and he was rushed by ambulance to hospital.
The next morning, while Michael was still in hospital, a surgeon spoke to Mrs Craig about her son’s biopsy results – and it was much more serious than they had hoped.
“He told me that we were now looking at a very aggressive tumour that would need aggressive treatment,” she said. “This meant six weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy together, one month to let the brain calm down, then another six weeks.
“But he said the tumour would still grow back.”
Michael was admitted on 8 September 2014, and stayed until 18 September, two days after his birthday which he celebrated in hospital.
“As doctors discussed treatment he turned to his mother and said “Mum – I don’t want to rush this”.
She took him home and after much soul-searching, Michael decided he didn’t want to go through the gruelling treatment just yet.
“He wanted to spend a quiet Christmas with his family and start it in the New Year.
But before celebrating Christmas, he seemed to have made up his mind for good.
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On steroids and desperately bloated, Michael had a massive collapse on 12 November. It looked like he wouldn’t survive until Christmas – but he held on.
Mrs Craig said, “He made it to February, in the end. He went into a local Marie Curie hospice on November 17 for what we thought was a week, but he never came out. I never left his side in there.
“The last few months were hard. His speech started slowly to go, but when he was conscious he was always giving you the thumbs up, always smiling. But he did not suffer, he really didn’t. I think it’s because he refused treatment.
“He was just amazing. All he took was two to four Panadol a day, until he had a massive seizure on Friday 30 January, 2015, three days before he died.
“Sometimes his eyes would roll back, and his uncle Kenny would say, where do you go Michael, when do you do that? One day, he said, ‘I go to Michael’s Island’. So Kenny brought out his Ipad, brought up a map of the world, and he pointed to Australia.
“The day he left us, I told him how much we all loved him, and how I would meet him on ‘Michael’s Island on his 26th birthday.
“So that’s what brought me to Perth on his birthday. It was bittersweet, but it was beautiful. Michael was there too, I know he was.”
On the day balloons were launched not only in Australia, but by friends and family in Ireland, England and America – all of which were shared across Facebook.
At 6pm, Mrs Craig joined family and friends and let the first balloon go.
“As the sun set my balloon, with 'Happy Birthday Michael' on it floated up into the sky, followed by the others. I thought, ‘We did it, kid. We’re here. I love you, and I miss you so, so much’.
“My promise is fulfilled, but my heart aches. I am just so proud of Michael – he was my son, my best friend and my hero.”