After losing my 45-year-old husband, I found my best friend at a widow support group

after losing my 45-year-old husband, i found my best friend at a widow support group

When Hugh was transferred to a hospice in March 2022, we knew the time was approaching to say goodbye (Picture: Rosie Freeland)

Back in February 2020, my husband Hugh returned home from a run limping.

‘It’s my hip, I think I’ve pulled a muscle,’ he explained.

Hugh, 45, had always been athletic and was head of sports at a local school.

We both assumed he’d been overdoing it with exercise – or running around after our two-year-old son Rory.

But just a week later, in May 2020, the pain in Hugh’s hip became so unbearable that I ended up driving him to A&E – thinking he’d be home that evening.

I was wrong – in reality, my life had changed. Forever.

Three weeks later, Hugh was still in hospital. It was awful not being able to visit due to Covid restrictions.

It turns out that he’d broken his left hip, but doctors couldn’t fathom why. Hugh had scans and eventually a tumour was found.

The tumour had weakened the bone, which had caused it to break.

Hugh explained over the phone that he needed a replacement – and doctors would then do a biopsy as a precaution, to check whether the tumour was benign. Still, they were confident Hugh didn’t have cancer.

I was slightly in denial. I was convinced Hugh was going to be OK.

Around the same time, I fell pregnant again. We were thrilled since we’d always wanted a sibling for Rory.

Only, our joy was shortlived as after Hugh’s surgery, the biopsy confirmed bad news.

Hugh was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

We were both devastated. It was so hard since I couldn’t see him at all while he was in hospital. Hugh faced extensive chemo and more surgery – yet we tried to stay positive.

Between treatments, Hugh worked hard at physio to strengthen his hip after his hip replacement – and we had hope. He was given the all clear.

But early last year, when our newborn son Rafferty was eight weeks old, Hugh was in agony again.

He had finished treatment by this point, so he had more tests. This time, doctors confirmed the cancer had come back in the bone around his hip replacement.

Thankfully, between bouts of chemo and surgery, he could come home.

We hoped that would be it. Only in February 2022, some routine tests revealed the cancer had now spread to his spine. There was nothing more they could do – it had progressed too much.

The bottom fell out of our world. When Hugh was transferred to a hospice in March 2022, we knew the time was approaching to say goodbye.

Rory had just turned five, while Rafferty was one.

Last April, Hugh passed away.

after losing my 45-year-old husband, i found my best friend at a widow support group

At a bereaved children support group I got chatting to one of the founders, Helen Rowell (Picture: Sam Gavins)

Heartbroken, I found myself navigating the terrifying and unfamiliar worlds of both widowhood and single motherhood.

Friends and family did their best to support me and the kids, and counseling helped – but I felt that no one truly understood.

It was so tough on the kids too. Rory missed his dad.

In November 2022 I took Rory and Rafferty to a local support group for bereaved children called Brightest Stars – I’d heard about it on a local Facebook page. There, I got chatting to one of the founders, Helen Rowell, 34.

She’d lost her husband Mike in a tragic skiing accident just a month after Hugh had died. Helen also had a young son, aged four.

Although we’d lost our spouses in different circumstances, our grief was raw and recent. We just clicked, and ended up swapping numbers.

From then on, we’d chat on the phone or leave long voicenotes for each other, talking about how we were feeling that day. Sometimes we’d cry, other times we’d be in stitches.

It was such a relief talking to someone else who understood how unpredictable grief could be.

I could share things with Helen that I couldn’t with my closest friends – because no matter how hard people try to understand, it’s almost impossible unless you’ve truly been there.

‘I bet lots of other widowed people feel just like us,’ I messaged Helen, one night. We both agreed we wanted to share our experiences in the hope they might help others feel less alone.

‘We should start a podcast about widowhood,’ Helen replied. At first, it was just an idea, but then we decided to go for it.

We’d never done anything like it before. Helen worked in Human Resources and I worked in Digital Marketing, so this was brand new to both of us.

But we did it. Although Helen lived in Farnborough and I lived in Winchester, we recorded it remotely at our kitchen tables.

In December 2022 we launched our first episode of The Widowhood Podcast on Instagram, where we shared our stories about losing our husbands and surviving our first Christmas without them. I found it so empowering to share my experiences so openly.

How do you deal with grief? Have your say in the comments belowComment Now

after losing my 45-year-old husband, i found my best friend at a widow support group

I found it so empowering to share my experiences so openly (Picture: Sam Gavins)

Over the next 10 episodes we talked about everything – from how exhausting we found grief, in that it impacts you physically as well as mentally, and how we struggled some days to get out of bed to how to cope when people say the wrong thing, like comparing losing a spouse to losing a pet.

We shared the lighter side, too – such as how we’ve both had to become experts in assembling flatpack furniture.

We also dealt with practical issues of bereavement, such as navigating endless paperwork, and coping when your family has to survive on a single salary. We even discussed how we’d feel about dating again. Sometimes, we’d invite therapists or experts along to give their advice, too.

It was so cathartic – we laughed, we cried.

But we weren’t sure if anyone would listen. So I was stunned when we started getting messages from listeners saying they’d had similar experiences. Many said they found our podcast more helpful than books they’d read on bereavement because we shared our real, everyday life of being widowed.

Within six weeks, we’d clocked up 15,000 listens from across the world. There’s still so much more to say and share, so season two is currently in the works.

Of course, it hasn’t been easy.

Some days, the last thing I felt like doing was recording – especially when the first anniversary of Hugh’s death approached earlier this year. But the benefits have outweighed the hard times.

Through the podcast and meeting Helen, I’ve come to appreciate that I can have a life and I will cope.

My new life might not be the life I’d imagined for myself and my boys, but it’s a life worth living. And our future is worth looking forward to.

I really want to help other people realise that, too.

As told to Bethan King

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