Reflecting on Remembrance Day: Matthew’s story
WAY member Matthew, who’s a serving Navy officer and member of the WAY military subgroup, reflects on how he has navigated many difficult firsts since his wife and stepdaughter died – and how he’s planning to mark Remembrance Day as a widower…
Matthew had never heard of WAY Widowed and Young’s peer support network until late last year. It was a charity he stumbled upon after his wife Charlotte died in October 2023 from secondary breast cancer, leaving him to navigate a world he had never imagined he would find himself in.
“I’d never heard of WAY and Googled it and learned a bit more about it and decided to join,” said Matthew, who serves as a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. The initial shock and grief kept him from actively engaging with WAY’s peer support for the first few months. In a heartbreaking twist, his 11-year-old stepdaughter Elizabeth also died of cancer in March, six months after her mum’s death. Matthew was busy supporting his stepson Michael, 10, and five-year-old son Jack through their grief – as well as dealing with the inevitable upheaval in all of their lives.
It wasn’t until recently that Matthew decided to get more involved with WAY, recognising the importance of peer-to-peer support to help him navigate his own grief.
“I’ve always thought peer-to-peer support is pretty much one of the best supports you can get, after clinical support,” shared Matthew, 40, who is a point of contact for welfare concerns for naval colleagues in his role as a training leader for future generation of naval officers.
Over the months since Charlotte died at the age of just 38, fellow WAY members have provided him with invaluable support, especially when dealing with some of the specific challenges of widowed parenthood.
“You’re talking to people the same as you – as a wider group, you’re all widowed far too young,” he explained.
“There is no manual, no handbook, no set way."
"When you’re unsure, you have this support network to turn to. You can reach out to people and gather feedback on how others have dealt with similar situations.”
The first time Matthew actively engaged with WAY’s peer support was just after he joined WAY last year. He had a dilemma about how to handle Christmas. “There were always five stockings over the fireplace,” he explained. “I put a question out to the group: ‘Do I do five? Do I do four? What do I do with the fifth?” The responses and suggestions from fellow WAY members helped him navigate the difficult decision. In the end, he decided to keep the fifth stocking for the children to fill with letters and mementos – a way to remember their mother.
Creating a new normal
The Navy and several military charities have provided a really strong and compassionate support network for Matthew, allowing him to ease back into work at his own pace. However, he admitted that being a widowed father has not been without its challenges.
“In our family, my wife and I had a traditional setup where I was working and my wage was enough to afford my wife to not work, if she chose to, which she did in the early years with the children,” he said. “She could give up her job and concentrate on raising the kids and that’s what she enjoyed doing – and she was really good at it.”
“But now, I have to be that person and it’s difficult then to know if you try and echo what other people did or do you just try and do it your own way,” he added. “You’re always questioning your abilities. You’ve got to accept that it’s not the same any more. It is a new normal and you’ve got to create your new normal.”
The family’s ‘new normal’ has presented Matthew with practical challenges too as he’s returned to his full-time job. Although the Navy has been incredibly supportive of his circumstances – offering him a three-year draft that doesn’t involve being away at sea for long periods, as he used to be, so that he can be there for the boys, it’s not always easy to juggle.
“I haven’t got someone at home now that can give a little bit with the kids if I have to go away,” he said. “Being in the military is a vocation. Sometimes your family has to make way for you to be deployed and sometimes you have to be able to concentrate on your family. Often the two don’t mutually work together but at the moment I’ve got a draft and childcare that work.”
Reaching out for support
Matthew has recently joined his first in-person WAY meet up in the Hampshire area and has found it helpful being able to share his feelings more openly with other men and women who have walked a similar journey to him.
“Males aren’t really great at sharing our difficulties,” he admitted. “We aren’t as good about opening up to friends and colleagues and family members as perhaps we should be. A lot of people ask me how I am doing. I always answer ‘I’m OK’, and then some people do the head tilt and ask, ‘Are you really OK’. It’s relative, isn’t it?"
"It’s not the same OK as when my wife was alive but this is my OK at the moment."
"Other people might open up a little more at that point and go ‘well, this is hard’. I can only talk from my point of view. For me, saying ‘I’m OK’ generally closes the question off.”
Matthew is hoping to attend some more WAY meet ups in future to continue some of the conversations he’s opened up with fellow members – and he’s also an active member of the WAY subgroup for members in the military community. He’s found that his experience giving welfare advice to colleagues in the Navy has meant he’s been able to signpost and support WAY members within the military community, for example, by providing information about military pensions and other practical advice.
Remembering those we’ve lost
After a year of difficult firsts, Matthew admits that facing Remembrance Day without Charlotte and Elizabeth by his side is particularly poignant.
“It’s a difficult one because Remembrance Day makes you remember those you’ve lost,” he said.
“It’s a very significant day for everyone in the military but for me this year it has an added tinge of sadness.”
In previous years, Matthew would put on his uniform and attend a local Remembrance Day service with Charlotte and the children, but he’s not sure this year what he and the boys will feel like doing.
“Be it either a birthday or Christmas, you suddenly realise on that day who is not there,” he said. “So our Remembrance Day is another one of those difficult dates. I’m hoping we can do the same as we’ve always done and go to a service but I’m going to see how I am. Maybe I’ll choose to mark it just with the kids at home this year.”
As told to WAY’s Communications Manager Vicky Anning.
Matthew has recently taken part in a Channel 4 film for Stand Up to Cancer, which shared his stepdaughter Elizabeth’s incredibly moving story. You can watch the video here. - Please note that some readers may find contents of the video distressing.
For more information about WAY’s military subgroup, please email us at email@example.com