National Grief Awareness Week: Sharing our Stories

December 2020

WAY Widowed and Young was pleased to support the second annual National Grief Awareness Week 2020 (NGAW), which ran from 2-8 December 2020.

Throughout the week, WAY shared our members' stories to help break down the taboos around grief and bereavement during this particularly poignant year.

On Monday, 7 December, we held a WAY Open Evening from 6-7pm for people who would like to find out more about WAY. The event was a chance to hear from some of our members, volunteers and staff, who explained more about our charity and how it works.

Meet WAY's Ambassadors as they mark #NGAW2020

Finding a WAY forward

WAY Ambassador Karen James shares her story to mark National Grief Awareness Week and explains how the charity WAY Widowed and Young has helped her find a new way forward after she was widowed at the age of 36…

"In March 2018, I was living my life just like anyone else. I was loving my life with my amazing husband Paul James. We were just about to go away on holiday to Venice when Paul started experiencing headaches. We had been unsuccessful in having children so had decided we needed a holiday and to talk about our future plans. We were about to buy a motorbike and go travelling to see the world together. I felt so happy and privileged to be with a strong, intelligent, attractive man – a man who loved me unconditionally and who would do anything for me. We had been together nearly 19 years and I loved him more every day. He was my soulmate.  

Although Paul was still feeling unwell with headaches, we went to Venice. This was the last holiday we would have together. The next couple of months would be the start of a nightmare that I’m still living with today.

In April 2018, Paul was diagnosed with a butterfly Glioblastoma (brain tumour) and our world changed immediately. It was a 6cm tumour and palliative care was the only option. Paul tackled his illness with the utmost strength and battled every day with one of the worst conditions you can deal with. We still managed to laugh in the saddest of situations. This made me love him even more (if that was even possible). Sadly, Paul passed away on the 20 November 2018.

It felt like a bulldozer had ripped through my life

My world fell a part – it felt like a bulldozer had ripped through my life. I had no idea how I was going to survive without Paul by my side. It’s hard to describe the gut-wrenching sadness that I woke up with every morning and still do two years on.  I had no idea how I was going to rebuild my life…

Then I came across WAY Widowed and Young – a charity for people who’ve been widowed before the age of 51. It’s a peer support network that’s run by a network of volunteers who’ve also been widowed at a young age. WAY got me through my first year and still does today.

All of a sudden, I wasn’t alone any more. I had more than 3,500 other members of WAY who understood how I was feeling. I was no longer on my own. Since then, there has always been someone I can chat to who understands how I’m feeling.

WAY has a members only website and closed Facebook groups where other members can post 24-hours a day. And, during non-Covid times, volunteers organise meet ups up and down the country, and even trips abroad.

I took chances I would never had done before when I found WAY, because the worst had already happened. I plucked up the courage to travel to Ibiza with 30 fellow members of WAY who I had never met and had the BEST time! I belly-laughed, cried and made friendships that will last a lifetime.

WAY has also been a lifeline during lockdown too. Although it’s harder to meet up in person, there are plenty of virtual events, quizzes, bingo, podcast clubs, film nights and mini meetups to get involved with. Volunteers have organised postcards and Christmas card swaps, Secret Santa and random acts of kindness, meaning that there is always something for everyone to engage in, which makes you feel less alone. It’s also provided me with support when dealing with difficult life tasks that all of a sudden you have to do on your own.

A lifeline for anyone who’s lost their life partner

I was recently appointed as an Ambassador for WAY and I want to shout from the rooftops about this charity and raise awareness of how it can help anyone in the UK who has lost their life partner before their 51st birthday, whether male or female, married or not, or in a same-sex partnership.

WAY’s peer support is a lifeline for so many people in my situation. Thanks for reading this far. Please share my story this National Grief Awareness Week. It may help someone who has suddenly found themselves in this horrendous situation and give them a chink of light and a way forward.

Life will never be the same, but I’m learning to live with it and hopefully will make Paul proud."

#NationalGriefAWareness Week #ShareYourStory

Meet all our WAY Ambassadors here...

Navigating life after loss during the pandemic

WAY member Stephen, 34, was widowed in April when his wife Ruth died after contracting Covid. On the second day of National Grief Awareness Week, which focuses on those bereaved during the pandemic, he shares his journey over the last six months and talks about the group he set up to support other WAY members who've been widowed during the pandemic...

My fantastic, beautiful wife Ruth died in the early hours of Saturday, 11 April – a victim of the deadly pandemic Covid-19 that we are all facing at the moment.

Covid is a very debilitating illness. It all happened so quickly. One moment Ruth was healthy, then she was sleeping for 20 hours a day. It looked like she was getting better but she got much worse so I was left with no option but to take her to hospital.
I got her into a wheelchair and kissed her goodbye before the doctor wheeled her away. I didn't realise it would be our last kiss. The next time I saw her was when she was on the ventilator and her body was cold. I held her hand and talked to her in her last two hours alive in this world. The doctor let me play a tune, so I played the song she walked down the aisle to at our wedding.

Ruth was receiving Peritoneal dialysis treatment for kidney failure. She was keen to get a kidney transplant and following doctors' advice, went into hospital in late March for a minor operation to install a line in her neck, which required her to be an inpatient for several days. Unbeknown to us, Covid had already reached the ward, and although she tested negative before being discharged, she later developed symptoms.

We were forced into the new Covid world. Everything became a reminder – I quickly understood I couldn't avoid people talking about Covid. Weirdly it became like people talk about the weather. At the same time as I was driven by my grief to develop an obsession of searching for questions about my grief, I was also searching everything and anything about Covid. I was angry with the government and still am to some extent. Angry that they had taken too long to start the lockdown, angry that Ruth's shielding letter was sent out three days after she died and the food parcel arrived on the day of the funeral – and angry that the minor op my wife had went ahead where she ultimately got Covid in the hospital.

Another injustice was that those bereaved in lockdown could only have 10 people present. I couldn't hug my Mum and Dad at the funeral. We weren't allowed limos to give Ruth the grand funeral she deserved. There was no wake and there was no chapel of rest at the funeral directors

I found WAY on the night Ruth died and I joined a little while later. Having been a WAY member for six months, I think you get talking to other members and gravitate towards people who have gone through a similar journey so you can relate to trauma and grief that they might experience.

I decided to set up a separate group for WAY members who had been bereaved during the pandemic because I felt that everyone who had been bereaved through Covid was going and is still going through a very traumatic process.

It's difficult to say what I'd have done with the peer support – WAY has been incredibly good to me. This group has provided an outlet for those and sadly there will be more young widows from Covid to talk about this horrific virus.

Hear Stephen being interviewed on our Talk aWAY with Kate Instagram series here...

"It's more than just a support group, it's a community"

On the third day of National Grief Awareness Week, WAY member Stacey, 34, explains how the WAY has helped her get through the last two years since her partner was killed in a road accident.

"If I am honest, I never thought I would ever be sitting here writing something like this. I thought that these things were for everyone else, not for me. I was far too complacent and never thought this would be a place I would find myself in, but here I am. So, let me introduce myself.

My name's Stacey and I am 34 and I have two children. Our lives changed forever on 1 October 2018. A day that started off like any other day. I was taking the children to school and my partner had some errands to do before going to work. We met up at 9.30am for a chat before he headed off to come home to get ready for work. He never made it home. I found out later he had passed away after I tried to ring him as there had been an accident. The police had answered his phone. He had been killed in a single vehicle RTC on our road.

That day will always be etched in my memory and although it is now easier to live with, I know it's not going to be one that goes away. Suddenly, at 32 years old, I was now a single parent with a 2 and 4-year-old and I didn't know how life would ever be the same again or how I could get through this.
The same week he died I found WAY. I had never heard of them before, but they were recommended to me by strangers. I had a million emotions going around my head and I didn't know what was meant to be normal. I didn't know how to feel. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was surrounded by people but felt no one understood. There was so many people around at first, yet I had never felt so alone.

Me and Matt were not married, and I felt shut off from everything. That's where WAY came in. I didn't know what to expect when I first joined, I felt numb and didn't feel like it was somewhere I belonged. I was scared, nervous and worried that because I wasn't married, should I even be there? Was I a widow, and could I dare use that term to describe myself?

After navigating the website, I quickly found out that WAY had Facebook groups which slowly became a real lifeline for me. I started off by introducing myself on the main group and found everyone was so friendly and welcoming. For the first time since Matt's accident, I felt I found somewhere I belonged.

It was described as the group no one wanted to be in, but they were glad they had found it. Very accurately described – I was glad to be here even though I didn't want to be. But suddenly I wasn't on my own. I was surrounded by people of all walks of life, living in different places, different professions, some married, some not, but all with one thing in common – we were young and had suffered with the loss of our partners.

It was during the introductions I found out there was other groups on Facebook connected to WAY that you could join depending on different scenarios. Widowed with children, widowed without children, different areas so you could connect with people from your area going through the same thing to name a few and I was also told about WAVY, for the widowed and very young – those under the age of 35 when widowed.

I joined WAVY, and just like the main group I found myself with others of a similar age who had been through what I had and being able to talk to others in our situation of a similar age helped the most. There are so many emotions we go through as a widowed person the support really was invaluable. I realised I wasn't stupid or weird after all but what I was feeling was completely normal and the emotions I felt were very similar to what everyone else was going through. Grief is so much more than what you read on Google searches - it can be complex, and of course everyone's journey is different.

The best thing about WAVY was everyone was at different stages of grief, talking to others in the same situation but further along gave you a glimmer of hope for the future. They were also of the same age as myself, and understood the difficulties that brought.

Even though it was impossible to believe things could feel better, it was nice to know it all got easier over time. Sharing stories, discussing how we feel, and sharing what we have been through with people who "get it" really does help and almost feels therapeutic. As time went on it was nice to see the more light-hearted times too.

WAVY is a group that's not just to discuss the sad and heart-breaking times of life but the uplifting funny points too. Between us we discuss a range of things, from children to pets, from the perils of DIY to amusing experiences whilst shopping. If anyone has a problem, we solve it together; when people are sad, we lift them up; when troubled, we listen and give advice; during happy times or funny times, we champion and laugh with each other. That's what WAVY is about.

It's rare to see an argument in the group and its one of the most supportive groups for people going through what we have been through. During lockdown, when times were toughest, there were various ways to support each other through these challenging times. We had Zoom calls to uplift each other and we had WhatsApp groups you could join so people were available whenever you needed someone to just be there.

Without the support from people who understood I personally am not sure how I would have coped during the early days of losing Matt. Over two years down the line, it's more noticeable now than ever that it's more than just a support group – it's a community."

Scottish WAY member Simon lost his wife Gail just ten weeks ago after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He explains how joining WAY has helped him realise he's not alone in his grief...

We were due to go to Spain at the beginning of July but for obvious reasons, with the pandemic, we didn't go and so enjoyed our couple of weeks of annual leave going out and about to places such as Bamburgh, Kielder as well as other local places close to our home in the Scottish Borders. Life was good.

We returned to work during the week of 20th July and, later that week, Gail complained of a migraine. I said in passing that it might just be worth touching base with the GP as she had mentioned headaches on and off for a couple of weeks. The GP prescribed Gail some medication but this made her confused and so, after contacting the GP again, they told her to stop taking it and, as a precaution, they wanted to take some bloods. On that morning I could see Gail was having another migraine so i called the GP and asked if she could be seen by a doctor when she came in.

She was examined and the next day she received a call asking if she could go to the hospital and take an overnight bag just in case. That afternoon (Thursday, 30th July) Gail had a CT Scan, which revealed a brain tumour 5cm in size. Further tests revealed there were no more tumours and so we thought, with virtually no signs or symptoms, that when we saw the neurologists that we would be told that the cancer had been caught early, the tumour could be removed or treated. So on the 19th August we travelled up to Edinburgh with hope.

However, the news we received was devastating. We were informed that, left untreated, they estimated that Gail may only have around 3 months left to live. With treatment, she would potentially live for 9 to 12 months. I don't think anything could have prepared us for such news. Gail wanted the treatment so that she could maximise the amount of time she could have with her boys. After having a biopsy we saw the oncologists on the 9th September and a couple of days later Gail was fitted for her faceshield and given her 6 week radiotheraphy schedule to start on 28th September.

We were busy planning the next couple of weekends before her treatment started and thinking of what things we could do post treatment. Gail was also busy putting a bucket list of things together, which included swimming with dolphins, a hot air balloon ride and lunch with her favourite Burnley football player.

However, that weekend Gail suddenly deteriorated and was rushed to hospital. I was informed the swelling around the tumour had become too great and had nowhere else to expand and she had fallen unconscious. She wasn't expected to survive the night.

However, she did survive and, later on during the week, she woke and we had about five golden days where she was awake laughing and joking. It was great that family, friends and myself and the boys were able to see her and speak to her and enjoy some time with her in much better surroundings on the pallative care unit. Sadly, however Gail, passed away on the 24th September - four days before her treatment would have started.

It was just eight weeks from diagnosis to her passing away.

I'm 10 weeks into my journey. I'm completely devastated by the loss of my wife, my best friend and soulmate and I am struggling to comprehend how a fit and healthy 46 woman can be taken in such a cruel way in such a quick time. My emotions are all over the place and so, at the present time, I'm just trying to live day by day to keep the house ticking over and support my 2 sons, who are 17 and 15, just trying to give them some normality

I worry about my sons and how they must be feeling having lost their Mum. I keep on asking them how they are and they say they are OK. Occasionally they'll say that they are missing Mum but they spend most of their time in their bedrooms on Xboxs or phones and you do actually wonder whether they are truly OK and also what support is available to them if they don't want to open up to me as their dad.

I had absolutely no idea of what support was out there. Macmillan at the hospital were good in providing some information and I think it was through that that I read about the charity WAY Widowed and Young.

Joining WAY has been the best thing I have done. It has made me realise that I am not alone in my feelings of grief. You can express your feelings openly and there will always be a comment in return from someone who is feeling or has felt exactly the same and understands. I'm still new so I've not met any other members or attended any events as yet due to the pandemic.

I don't live near friends or family so that has been incredibly difficult, but having phone calls/video calls with friends from all over the country has been so helpful. Knowing that people care and are checking in on you, supporting you through such a difficult time and that you can contact them to offload is also helpful. It's so good to have a network of support.

I've also called the Cruse helpline when i felt so low one night that I just needed to talk to someone, but felt like I didn't want to burden friends.

Maria was widowed six years ago and has been an active member of WAY ever since, acting as an Area Contact for the West Midlands for most of that time. Recently she also was appointed as an Ambassador for WAY.

Maria has also been very open with sharing her transition from Daren to Maria over the past few years. She has also been a supportive member of a new LGBTQ+ WAY sub-group. 

She shares her story for National Grief Awareness Week….

“My wife Mandy died of ovarian cancer six years ago. We had been together for 30 years.

I cross dressed for 30 years but I didn’t come out until two or three years ago. My wife was afraid of what people would say. In the two years before she died, my wife came out with me as Maria maybe five times in two years. All the time we had our hearts in our mouths, waiting for someone to say something. I understand why my wife was concerned.

It wasn’t until I met my new partner, also called Mandy, and told her from day one who I was, that this became more and more me until I said look, ‘I’m happier as Maria’. It took my new Mandy about 18 months before she realised it wasn’t just a phase or a midlife crisis. This was integral to being me.

When I came out three years ago, about ten people knew. I came out in a widowed group – and suddenly 400 people knew. I got so much encouragement – I was blown away with it. Since then I’ve only had one negative comment. It’s been liberating for all different kind of reasons.

I’m really positive about myself and about how people have been towards me. I’ve not had a bad feeling. I’ve had such a good, positive outing. I look at myself and I love the person that’s there.

If someone wants to call me Daren, I’m OK with it, but I try to point people towards Maria. I’ve been Maria 24/7 for the past 12 months. I’ve never felt better about myself and it’s been one of those things, along with losing Mandy, that I have really struggled with over the years.

If anything, one of the things about becoming a widow, losing Mandy, is that I can get through anything. Losing her was everything and I still got through it. What I’m doing now is small potatoes compared to that.

How has WAY helped on your journey?

WAY has been a godsend. I got told about WAY by one of my wife’s friends about six months after she died. I went off and looked into it. I spoke to a local volunteer, went on Facebook and started talking to people. I immediately realised that I was with people that just got where I was. And then, as the acting Area Contact said she hadn’t got the time to organise anything, I decided to hold a coffee meeting and realised this is something that needed doing. Within a month of joining I was volunteering to support other members.

It’s been a struggle combining everything – I have had lots of challenges with my children’s schooling. Before it was a tag team with me and my wife but when it was just me, it was touch and go sometimes. But keeping up the contact and messages with fellow WAY members has been really good. It’s such a good support network for all sorts of reasons.

It is so helpful to have people around you saying ‘we know this is difficult but we’re here for you’. To be able to say that and mean it. It is a difficult journey we’re all on and the fact that we have this group of people whose journeys are all different is a great source of comfort. 

Tell us about the subgroup for LGBTQ+ members

Having the other subgroups within WAY has been excellent too. Having the other avenues for people to meet each other and talk to each other has been really helpful.

The regional groups are useful for having a local focus when there are events then there are special interests like the LGBTQ+ group, which hopefully will be useful for this community.

The group was set up earlier this year and we’ve got 50 people at the moment. For me it’s been really helpful to hear insights from others in the LGBTQ+ community. I’m new to this game. Being anything other than a white male is new to me. I was the epitome of privilege and to open up and say who I am and what I want to be has made me quite aware of my vulnerability, which I’ve never had to be before.

I’m 50 and the only thing I’ve been vulnerable about is that I haven’t had much hair! Going down this road of transitioning to Maria has been quite an experience. I’m still struggling to accept that I’m there. But I’ve never been happier.”