Losing a loved one is difficult at any age, but for young widows and widowers, the challenges are unique. We meet the people who are helping each other smile again
When Andrew Ware’s wife Jane died suddenly, it took months for his brain to “calm down”. For nearly a year after her death, simple tasks like shopping and cooking for their two children required a gargantuan effort. Remembering things was difficult, and planning felt nearly impossible.
Four years on, things could not be more different: the 46-year-old music teacher has completed a 1,000-mile bike ride from Cornwall to Scotland, staying with other young widows and widowers along the way.
Ware’s sponsored cycle raised money for Widowed and Young (WAY), a network of 2,800 people who have all lost a partner before the age of 51. Ware has been part of the peer-to-peer support group for three years and used its Facebook page and forum to find other members to stay with as he travelled. It took months to feel ready to speak to strangers about the loss of his wife, says Ware, but when he did, he found the support of people who had “been there too” invaluable.
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As well as managing an active online community, WAY organises holidays and meet-ups. For Ware, a network of new friends helped him deal with the sudden emptiness of his free time. “My wife and I were really close: we hardly ever did things separately. Now, it’s almost like I’ve spread the life we had together as a married couple around lots of different friends and acquaintances.”
WAY chair Georgia Elms joined the organisation more than a decade ago, after her husband, Jon, died of meningitis. Losing a spouse young is particularly tough, she believes, because it is often unexpected and there is so much ahead to navigate alone.
“Everyone’s widowed journey is different,” she says, “but people who are widowed young often have a lot of similar experiences.”
For instance, 75 per cent of WAY members have children, and many struggle with abruptly becoming both single parent and sole breadwinner. “With WAY, you know that if you put a post on the forum or the Facebook page, somebody, somewhere, will have been in a similar situation and be able to help,” says Elms.
Jessica Haslem lost her husband, Jason, in August 2014, while she was pregnant with their third child. Jason’s death was very sudden. “For the first couple of months, I had no idea if the way I was dealing with it was normal, or what to expect,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody else, apart from people who were 20, 30 years older than me, who had lost a partner.”
Haslem says she felt able to discuss things with WAY members that she considered too morbid to mention to her friends. In the Facebook group, she was able to check that what she was experiencing was ‘normal’.
I didn’t know anybody else, apart from people who were 20, 30 years older than me, who had lost a partner
In the past decade, WAY has gone from having 600 members to 2,800, but Elms would like it to continue to expand. Attracting funding can prove difficult, she says, because widowhood is very rarely on somebody’s radar until it happens to them. “We do struggle,” she says, “as we’re not a sexy charity for people to give money to: we’re a group of old widows. Well – young widows!” Preconceived notions exist of widowerhood and widowhood too. “A lot of people think we’ve all had our mortgage paid off and we’re living the life of Riley, but that is not the case.”
In fact, Elms has spent a lot of time in recent months campaigning against cuts to bereavement benefits for widows. Under the old system, widows and widowers with children were entitled to an allowance of up to £5,852 a year for up to 20 years. In April 2017, this was capped at just 18 months, meaning some families will lose as much as £80,000. The decision, Elms and her colleagues say, will force many bereaved parents to work more and spend less time with their grieving children. WAY members have 24-hour access to a helpline offering financial advice – in addition to legal advice and counselling – to members who are struggling with money. But much of the support on offer is less easy to quantify.
“The most important thing WAY has given me is friendship,” Haslem says. “The feeling of isolation was the hardest part. Knowing that you’re not on your own is the best thing.”
Images: Gary Marson