Widowed, young, but not alone

by
02 November 2006

When Caroline Sarll’s pregnant sister was widowed at the age of 35, there was no support group that could help her. For Rachel Green it’s been a different story, Rachel Harden discovered

RACHEL GREEN recalls the morning her husband Ian collapsed and died as he got up for work. "Our first baby was due in ten weeks. He got up, sat on the side of the bed and said he felt unwell. He then collapsed on me, literally on the baby, and that was it. I called the paramedics, but it was too late — they couldn’t find a pulse. We later discovered Ian had a heart condition."

On that day, in 2001, Rachel became one of the nearly 40,000 men and women in Britain widowed under the age of 40. She is now part of a campaign by the charity WAY — Widowed and Young — to make its existence more widely known, particularly among churches and other organisations that have direct contact with the bereaved.

"It is the only charity that exists for people widowed in circumstances like mine; it is a real life-saver. But more people need to know of its existence," she said.

Rachel now sits on the national committee of WAY and is keen to see all clergy, often one of the first contacts in a bereavement, carry WAY cards. "It is not the answer for everyone, but it is something to hold on to when others have stopped noticing," she says.

Durham diocese has already taken up the call, and promoted WAY in the most recent diocesan newspaper and in the Ad Clerum monthly mailing, thanks to the efforts of the Revd Mel Gray, a retired priest and Rachel’s father, who considers the charity an invaluable resource.

"I have given out a number of cards about WAY when doing funerals," said Mr Gray. "So often, clergy are there at the beginning, but can be at a loss when it comes to referring people on to the right organisations. I would love to see the information taken up by every diocese, with social-responsibility officers linking up with WAY in their area."

WAY seeks to support those widowed under the age of 50. It was established in 1997 by Caroline Sarll after her sister was widowed, while pregnant, in 1994. The experience of being widowed with young children was something her mother had been through, too. Neither received any proper support.

"I was spurred on by anger to start with: anger that there was nothing there for my sister, and, 25 years earlier, there had been nothing for my mother. One charity sent round a 75-year-old woman to talk with my sister; they were hardly in comparable situations."

Caroline put together an outline for the charity, which she originally saw working as a self-help support network, and won a national newspaper bursary to help start the charity.

Soon the WAY post-office box was flooded with letters, and a national database linking people with local contacts was established. As numbers grew — WAY currently has 1200 members with many more having previously used its services — it became a registered charity, with a website and helpline.

The charity is run entirely by volunteers, and a vast number of its members are parents with young children. The charity works by putting people in touch with those in a similar situation nearby. Some enjoy group meetings; others just want one-to-one contact.

Rachel recalls her first meeting: "We sat around like an Alcoholics Anonymous group, with everyone wanting to know my story. But what came out of it was a small group of friends. I was put in touch with a lady who had been widowed while pregnant, and she made me feel so normal. I was keeping a diary about how long I’d been married, compared to how long I’d been widowed, and she’d done just the same."

The charity also offers practical advice through the website, something Rachel wishes she had known about when Ian died. "After the funeral I went with a friend to collect Ian’s ashes. They were just produced from a cupboard, in what looked like a big sweet jar. We actually laughed, but I didn’t know what to do with them, and would have welcomed some advice. Practical details, and how to sort them out, are very important when you are on your own."

Dating is one of the issues everyone comes up against, she says. According to Rachel, even at her husband’s funeral people were saying: "Oh, you’ll find someone else."

ALEXANDRA is now in her first term at school, a difficult milestone. "People say how sad that Ian died before knowing her, and that he will miss out on things like her wedding or graduation. I just think how sad it is that she can’t even draw him at school or be photographed with him. It is the little things that have upset me."

Ultimately, she hopes WAY will eventually become a support to Alexandra, too. "I want her to be able to meet children in the same situation and talk about it. She has some funny ideas, and asks if daddy died because I squashed him, or was it because of fast food?"

Rachel did try counselling, but believes she has received more help and support from other WAY members. "You never get over it, but you move on. It is less raw and painful now, but there are still bad days. Many of us have admitted we feel guilty for getting angry with our children, and then, of course, there is the danger of overcompensation."

She believes she has turned a corner, but others are not so lucky. Through WAY she has come across numerous harrowing cases, including a widow from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, and people whose partners have committed suicide. "I hope they will eventually come to the stage I am at now."

WAY can be joined at any stage after a bereavement; contact details are passed in confidence to a regional co-ordinator. For more information, see www.wayfoundation.org.uk or phone 0870 011 3450.

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Unexpected: Ian Green (above)  had an undiagnosed heart condition. When he died, his wife Rachel was left to bring up their daughter Alexandra (below) alone

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Paul Wright’s wife Juliet died, aged 35, of a pregnancy-related disease, six days after giving birth to twins in July 2001. Paul (below) was left to look after the babies and their two-year-old son, and to deal with regular visits by his two children from a former marriage

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"DEALING with my own grief was put on hold, because of the sheer practical weight of tasks I had to do, and because my wife’s death sparked a national medical inquiry. I was told this happens whenever there is a maternal death.

"Our regional pathologist said that in the four counties he covers, they expect to have only one maternal death a year — and that was my wife. Apparently, the condition she had was so rare that I had ten times more chance of winning the lottery.

"I’m a naturally ‘get-on-with-it’ sort of person, life just took over, but at some point I started to wonder what was out there for me. Ringing the WAY helpline was the best thing I could have done. Despite giving me great support, family and friends did not have a clue.

"When we mixed, it was like having a unique bond. No one was wary about saying the wrong thing or making flippant comments. And for my own children, the local support network has meant outings, social events, and a whole new network of friends. It would be easy for them to feel there is no one else like them, but WAY shows them that there is and that they will survive."

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