Marking National Day of Reflection: Emma’s reflections

March 2023

Today, 23 March, has become known as the National Day of Reflection. Set up by the charity Marie Curie, it takes place on the anniversary of the day that then Prime Minister Boris Johnson placed the UK under lockdown restrictions.

He began his speech by saying, “The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades – and this country is not alone.” He ended his speech by saying, “We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together. And therefore, I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.” Fairly hard-hitting stuff, I think you’d agree. 

Emma and family

I also think it’s very easy for so many of us to look back on this time now and think about how alien, and at times, ridiculous it felt. Only being allowed out once a day. Not being allowed to mix with people. Supermarkets running out of toilet rolls, antibacterial wipes, hand gel. Schools being closed. Shops being closed. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was like something out of a movie. But as I and so many thousands of others were very quickly learning, or about to learn, this wasn’t something just happening on the news. it was affecting real people and it was very definitely not just hype. This was an awful, awful situation across the entire world. 

I’ve purposefully chosen this picture to accompany my blog. It was taken on a walk just a few hours before that announcement. My immediate family of three. You’d never know to look at this picture that my husband actually had Covid-19. He’d come down with a temperature the day before but, other than that, there was nothing wrong with him. He didn’t have the cough that everyone was talking about; he felt absolutely fine other than the temperature. We joked it would be typical for him to come down with flu in the middle of a pandemic. We didn’t see another soul on that walk, but I suspect that, if we had, they’d never have realised that they were witnessing us taking what was to be our last family selfie. 

Final family selfie

Because Charlie didn’t stay feeling absolutely fine. Over the course of the week, he deteriorated. We spoke to 111 twice. On both occasions, we were told that, because he didn’t have a cough and wasn’t so breathless that he couldn’t get out of bed, he just needed to ride it out, take Paracetamol and drink plenty of fluids. OK, we could do this, we could ride this out. He was still able to get out of bed and do some normal things. Heck, he was even standing in our bathroom shaving. 

That shaving was at 9:30pm on 29 March. At 3:30am on 30 March, I was dialling 999 for an ambulance. That’s how rapidly he deteriorated. Six hours. At 4:30am on 30 March, he walked down the stairs with three paramedics to the waiting ambulance. And we never physically saw him again. 6:30am on 30 March I learnt he was in ITU sedated and ventilated. What followed was three weeks of waiting. Of hope. Of despair. Of kindness. Of love. Of surrealness. Of shock. Of numbness. And then just before 5pm on 19 April 2020, my 45-year-old husband died of Covid-19. Our 10-year-old daughter would be growing up without a father. And I, at the age of 39, was a widow. 

A widow at 39. I’m now nearly 42 and have been a widow for almost three years. I was only married for 14 years. To call myself a widow felt, and still feels utterly ludicrous. I’m not a stereotype. I don’t wear black. I don’t wear a hat with a veil to hide my face. I don’t hide away from the world in mourning. And I haven’t. Other than at his funeral, and the odd occasion I choose to wear black, you will seldom see me in it. Because while I am, and always will be a widow, I am also so much more than that. 

Much more than a widow

Nearly three years on, it’s a bit easier to say that and acknowledge it. For such a long time, it was all consuming. As people celebrated lockdowns lifting and life returning to normal, all I wanted to do was scream “but my husband is dead, there isn’t any normal anymore, don’t you get it?” I had to adjust to being an adult without him for the first time (we’d been together since my 18th birthday party). I’d known him since I was 15 years old. 24 years he’d been in my life and just like that, he was gone. Forever. No chance of him ever coming back. Not only did I have to adjust to being an adult without him, but I also had to learn how to be a solo parent, how to deal with grief, how to parent a child who was grieving, how to navigate working and how to look after a dog. (Spoiler alert, I became a lockdown cliché when I bought a puppy in December 2020. Without question one of the best things to come out of that year.)

I’ve had to learn when it’s OK to talk about what happened to us and when it’s not. I’ve had to learn that, while I’ve been living this, when I do talk about it and people hear our story for the first time, it can make then very emotional. I’ve had to learn how to deal with my fear of judgement from others. What will people think of me as I no longer wear my wedding and engagement rings? What will people think if I change my Facebook profile pic to one not with him in? What will people think if I spend money? What will people think if I go out and smile or laugh? What will people think if I ever fall in love again? Second spoiler alert. It really, really, really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. This should be a mantra and advice that is given to any young widow at the start of this “journey” (inverted commas and italics because I hate a cliché really), but absolutely nobody else is living this. Only you. How you choose to survive and get through this is down to you and you alone. There is no right and wrong. There is simply survival and we all have to do whatever we can do to get through this in a way that works for us as individuals. 

“My heart continually breaks for families like mine”

One of the main challenges that still exists today for people like me and those who lost loved ones because of Covid-19 is what feels like the inability to escape from it. The almost constant reference to it for what felt like forever. There have been repeated lockdowns, restrictions, testing, new variants, news stories, inquiries and it feels never ending. Just this month we’ve seen more leaked WhatsApp messages from government officials. This is so, so difficult to navigate. My heart continually breaks for all those families like mine, who because of the pandemic, have had their lives turned upside down. For many reasons. Please spend a moment today thinking of them and reflecting on just what the last three years have been like for the millions of people affected. And while I try not to get angry at news stories; I find it takes too much energy; I am bitterly disappointed by them. 

Equally the memes that have started to appear this year are tough. Making light of what we were living through three years ago. Yes, it does seem alien now but still. When you see these memes, the trending hashtags, the news stories and hearing people still talking about it, it makes it so incredibly hard to escape from. It’s one of the reasons I’m so incredibly glad for the WAY from Covid* subgroup, because it gives us the opportunity to share our experiences, the isolation we went through, the complicated grief that we all feel, the challenges with returning to “normal” (whatever that is), the frustrations and also, the incredibly dark humour we all seem to have developed! Third spoiler alert, a number of young widows develop this, fairly sure it’s because it’s one of the best coping mechanisms going! 

“Covid-19 irrevocably changed my life. I am and will always be someone who was widowed young. But it won’t define me. It won’t break me.”

Finding ways to cope

Because that’s it isn’t it? We all look for the best ways to cope. The best way to survive and get through. As I reflect on being widowed for nearly three years, I can definitely say that. As much as it might seem impossible in the early days, we can, and we will cope. No, it’s not pretty. It’s not easy. It’s an horrific life to navigate. It’s not a choice any of us would have made. But in our own way, we do it. I still have moments of utter despair. I still have grief attacks when the sobs are uncontrollable, and the pain is just too intense. They’re less frequent now, but I suspect they will always be a part of my life. Yet. I can honestly answer “I’m ok” when people ask me how I am. I can honestly say that I’ve begun living again and not just simply surviving. I can honestly say that I’ve had some amazing experiences I’d have never thought possible. I can honestly say how fortunate I feel when I see the smile reaching my eyes again. I can honestly say how proud I am of myself for finding ways to survive this madness.

Covid-19 irrevocably changed my life. I am and will always be someone who was widowed young. But it won’t define me. It won’t break me. My late husband would never have allowed that. He’d have been quite cross with me if I’d let it. Of that, I’m sure. 

* Available to current WAY Widowed and Young members only. 

Emma has also shared her story with Metro to mark National Day of Reflection. Read her story here...