(Intro by Vicky Anning – Elke Thompson is a WAY member who has experienced more than her fair share of life-changing events over the last 11 years. She was due to speak at this year’s AGM about the lessons she’s learned along the way. But due to the Coronavirus, that will now have to wait until next year’s AGM. In the meantime, she shares her story here and some useful tips that might help WAY members cope with the current crisis.)
I’ve been trying to write this article for some time now, but in the face of the current global COVID-19 crisis, my story seems somewhat insignificant.
However, as I sit here, going from “We can do this!”, and feeling quite calm and optimistic one second, to holding my head in my hands and sobbing quietly the next, I realise that some of the lessons I have learnt over the last eventful eleven years might just be helpful.
For those of you who don’t know me: I was widowed in April 2009, when my husband Martin had a sudden, unexpected heart attack whilst away with our three-year-old son Alex for some father/son bonding time. Alex somehow managed to get an ambulance there, but Martin died at the scene. I never got to say goodbye. We were both 34, and had been together for nearly 13 years. Our daughter Olivia’s first birthday was only four days away…
Suddenly a young widow and a single mum to two grieving children under four, I eventually wrote, and initially self-published, two children’s books, explaining (sudden) death and what happens after death in words very young children can understand: “Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?” and “What Happened to Daddy’s Body?”. They have since been taken on by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Thirteen months after Martin’s death, I found my Chapter Two in John, who was separated from his wife, and came with five daughters. He was 40, I was 35. We fell head over heels in love. I struggled between happiness and guilt; butterflies and tears. We made it through, and are now happily married. But was a bumpy road. In February 2012, only four months after moving in together – and thereby losing my pension and my widowed parent allowance – I found a lump in my left breast, and was quickly diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. We had to explain to our seven children aged three to 15 at the time, that I would need chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and hormone treatment, and yes, I might die, but that the doctors had told me that the treatment would work. It was one of the scariest things I have ever been through. The uncertainty. The not knowing. The fear. The fatigue. The side effects of chemo. The side effects of the medication to treat the side effects of chemo… During my 4 ½ months of chemotherapy, I was so ill that John decided to quit his job to look after me and the kids, after taking all of his holidays and unpaid leave. Luckily we got through it, the treatment did work, and I have been all clear for eight years now; fingers crossed. I am so, so grateful every single day, and take nothing for granted. John changed his job, and is now a self-employed tree surgeon, and I have just written two more children’s books, this time explaining cancer, cancer treatment and living with – and dying from – incurable cancer. I am currently in the process of having them illustrated, so they are not out yet, but watch this space.
But 2012 didn’t just bring cancer into our home. It was also the year Alex was finally diagnosed with the complex, rare and incurable autoimmune disorder narcolepsy/cataplexy, and Lauren, one of John’s oldest daughters, with the all-consuming (pardon the pun) eating disorder anorexia nervosa, combined with self-harming and suicide attempts. We all, as a family, went through hell and back several times, and in amongst it all John and I got married in July 2014. It was a great and happy day. At the time we feared Lauren might not even live to see our wedding, and over the years we nearly lost her more than once. But I am very happy to say she is now finally in recovery and is doing really well. And while Alex continues to fight tiredness, nightmares and people’s preconceptions on a daily basis, we are busy trying to find solutions where others see only problems. Try to see the funny side. His cataplexy means that, every time he laughs or even thinks of something funny, all of his muscles stop working, and he collapses to the ground. We have decided he should be a fall down comedian, because he would clearly be hopeless at stand up…
So what lessons have I learnt over these last eventful eleven years that might be helpful?
I have learnt that some things are so big that there will be forever a ‘before’ and ‘after’, and that ‘back to normal’ is not always possible.
I have learnt that things will always change, whether you want them to or not, so hang in there. Sometimes that’s all you can do. “Be like seaweed” someone said to me once during chemo, and then went on to explain that while seaweed looked so weak and feeble, it survived the most powerful storms by simply going with the waves… I really like that visual image. I find calm and strength in it.
I have learnt that when things are out of my control, the only power I have is in how I react to them. How I think about them. Find the positive. There is always a bright side.
They say “Look for the helpers!”, and they are right. There are always helpers. Focus on them. Be one of them. Be one of the people who make it better for someone else. Like you wonderful lot did for me back in the day. There was the crowdfunding for the book, and there was also this amazing bunch of young widows and widowers, who kept sending me parcels after every single tough round of chemo. At first it was headscarves, then big earrings, then necklaces, socks, and finally – bizarrely! – underpants and chocolate medals. You carried me, and I will never ever forget your overwhelming human kindness.
In this difficult time of great uncertainty, remember we are all in this together. Be kind. To yourself, and to each other.
If you’d like to find out more about WAY Widowed & Young, the only national charity in the UK for people aged 50 or under when their partner died, visit their website www.widowedandyoung.org.uk