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Coping with loss: Widowed at 41 with 12 children

Orlagh Walker was 28 weeks pregnant when her husband Fergus Green collapsed at work

Orlagh Walker was 28 weeks pregnant with her 12th child when her husband, Fergus Green, rushed out of their south Dublin home at 8.30am on March 25th, 2011, to his management job at Dell in Loughlinstown.

At 8.45am, she got a call from the office to say he had collapsed. “He had just walked in the door and dropped.” Within minutes she was at Loughlinstown hospital, right beside Dell, but “he had gone”. A massive heart attack, at age 48.

“That was the beginning of a complete transformation for our family,” says Orlagh, who is now 51. But that simple sentence hardly does justice to the scale of what lay ahead for a wife and 12 children in coming to terms with life without a much-loved husband and “super dad”. She was 41 at the time, and the children ranged in age “like steps of stairs”, from the unborn baby to the eldest, who was 19.

In the initial hours of “terrible shock”, friends arrived and said they would collect the children from their schools. They brought them to her at the hospital, because she wanted to be the one to break the news before word got out.

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“It was the most horrific moment of my life, standing on the grass outside that casualty unit, telling them.”

I think what I am really proud of is that we have all managed to love each other through our own griefs

Ten years on, Orlagh Walker is talking on a bench on Dún Laoghaire pier, where she used to come every night to run to the lighthouse and back. “That was my way of releasing a lot of the pain.”

But today she’s sitting serenely in the sunshine, recounting her extraordinary journey from the depths of grief to a return to college, setting up a support group for other widowed people and, two years ago, marrying a former US marine who was also widowed in tragic circumstances. She deflects any suggestion that she must be proud of her achievements by talking about how her children have come through it.

“I think what I am really proud of is that we have all managed to love each other through our own griefs. I had hard times and they had to cope with that; they had hard times and I had to cope with that. They are all doing so well now – it’s such a beautiful thing to see. It’s taken 10 years to get here, and they’re all happy.”

The five minutes it takes to jot down the family roll-call is one small reminder of the parenting job writ large that Orlagh has been doing on her own.

The eldest is Joshua, who is 29, and father of her first grandchild, who is seven, and he lives in Dublin. Maria, who is 28, lives in Goa, India, and is expecting her first baby in August. Grace, who is 26, lives in Dublin. Benjamin, who is 24, got married at the beginning of May and lives in Belfast. Abigail, who is 23, is in Dublin. Jacob, who is 22, is a psychology student; he is the eldest of the seven still living at home in Wyattville, Killiney, along with 19-year-old Caleb; 17-year-old Lydia; Shira, who is 15; Amelia, who is 14; 12-year-old Sofia-Kate; and 10-year-old Isaac.

It must seem like a lifetime away from the months after Fergus’s death when she wondered how on earth she was going to deal with the “emotional chaos” all around her. She recalls sitting in bed, breastfeeding newborn Isaac and listening to her two-year-old daughter Sofia-Kate, whom Fergus used to sing to sleep, continually crying out at night “Daddy, Daddy...”

“It was very difficult for the first few years. When the baby was born, it was a joy and a bit of a distraction. Then I did up the house a bit, and that was a bit of a distraction.”

For the first anniversary of Fergus’s death, she decided to take them all to Florida for a holiday, as she didn’t want to be in Ireland. “I don’t know what I was doing, seriously. I brought the 12 of them, including the baby and one of their boyfriends, so I had 13 of them.” Her only explanation for what might seem like a flight of madness is that “the way I cope is to do”.

In my head, a widowed person was an old woman in a black dress, knitting in a rocking chair. I couldn't even identify with the word

At the time Orlagh was looking for some kind of peer support from people who might understand what she was going through, but she couldn’t find it. “I didn’t know any other widowed people. In my head, a widowed person was an old woman in a black dress, knitting in a rocking chair. I couldn’t even identify with the word.”

When you lose a spouse, you tend to lose most of your couple friends, she says. “People are not quite sure how to handle widowed people. You don’t really know where you fit, and you have to completely reinvent yourself.”

She recalls the first St Valentine’s Day after Fergus died. They used to celebrate it with some other couples, but on this occasion her friends suggested that she wouldn’t really want to be there for such a “lovey-dovey” evening.

“I said, ‘Actually, I do want to go.’ I went, and then I felt like an absolute alien.” After a while she thanked them for letting her come but explained she just had to go. She needed to feel that for herself, however.

Orlagh was 20 and a trainee nurse at Temple Street children’s hospital when she met Fergus at a New Year’s Eve party in a friend’s house. He was deejaying, and at “one minute to midnight he jumped over the table and asked me for the first dance. I went home that night and said to my mother, ‘I have met the man I am going to marry.’”

They were engaged two months later and married in May of the following year. Why, if she doesn’t mind the question, did they go on to have such a large family? “I don’t really have an answer for that,” she replies. But it was a love of children that had led her into paediatric nursing, and she had always dreamed of having a big family.

Growing up in Shankill, in south Co Dublin, she recalls a family with seven children that lived across the road. The mother was a great baker and used to call in her brood for bedtime and freshly baked buns. “There were kids running in and out of that house all the time, and they were always happy. It was an inspiration.” Now she has become that mother, and then some, if not that baker, she says laughing. “I love my big family. I know grief can split families, but for us it brought us very, very close.”

She regards Fergus’s death as a reminder of the importance of work-life balance and self-care. As marketing manager for the European branch of Dell, he had a well-paid but demanding job. Working for a US corporation and managing a team working in India, “he was always battling time zones”. But, in his spare time, he loved to throw himself into life with the children and was a coach at St Joseph’s football club in Sallynoggin.

“He always seemed quite tired and stressed,” however, particularly in the fortnight before he died. Orlagh put it down to burning candles at both ends, never suspecting that he had hyperlipidaemia, with an autopsy revealing a 90 per cent blockage in both main coronary arteries.

Two weeks after he died, Dell invited her over and asked if she would like to see where he sat. “His fleece was still on the back of the chair. They asked would I like to take the fleece. And they said the reason they wanted me to be there that day was because there was somebody taking over his position tomorrow.”

At that moment, what went through her head was how Fergus used to say, “If I die, nobody could do my job.” “And I thought, Really?” Nobody is indispensable.

“Self-care is so important. You have to value your own life and your own health. I would do a lot of that with my kids, and myself. Get your exercise, eat well; if you’re feeling tired, go and rest. You need to see your friends; get out and do things for yourself. If you don’t look after yourself, everybody else suffers.”

I felt like I wasn't alone for the first time; there were other young widows, some a lot younger than me. I found my tribe

In January 2013, nearly two years after Fergus’s death, when Orlagh was struggling, a friend, Dara Totterdell, came around and said she and her husband, Eddie, were going to move into the house for a week to look after the family and they wanted her to take a week’s holiday.

"I thought, Where the hell does a widow go on a holiday? I didn't really want to sit on the beach on my own somewhere; I thought that would be disastrous. I went online and put in 'widow holidays' to see what Google would throw out. "The first thing that came up was Camp Widow in the States." It was a weekend event run by Soaring Spirits International, founded by two women who had both been widowed in their 30s.

Adventurous by nature, Orlagh signed up for the three-day conference in Myrtle Beach, in South Carolina, and stayed on for a few days afterwards to complete the holiday. “I can honestly say it changed my trajectory completely. I felt like I wasn’t alone for the first time; there were other young widows, some a lot younger than me. I found my tribe. I remember making these deep connections with other widowed people, who just understood.”

Orlagh was to attend several other Camp Widow events over subsequent years; she also decided to go back to college and train as a counsellor. She had always been interested in listening to people. “One of the things Fergus always used to say to me is, ‘One day you will be a doctor of the heart.’”

She started with a diploma at Zest Life college in Dundrum and then moved on to graduate in 2017 with an honours degree in counselling and psychotherapy from IICP, in Tallaght.

During that time, a widower named Gary Walker, from Colorado, contacted Orlagh out of the blue because he was planning a trip to Ireland and a mutual acquaintance in Soaring Sprits suggested she might be able to advise him. He wanted to revisit places he and his wife, Lisa, had been during a holiday in Ireland for their 25th wedding anniversary.

Gary had retired from the US marines in 2011, having bought a ranch where he and Lisa could start their next phase of life. For their 31st wedding anniversary, in 2013, he suggested a horse-riding trip to celebrate. She said no at first but later agreed. During that trip, her horse bolted.

“She lost her balance, came off and hit her head off a rock and died in his arms,” says Orlagh. “Because they were in the mountains, they couldn’t get phone coverage to get the helicopter there quick enough.” Gary was assured later that even if the helicopter had got to them within half an hour, she still would have died.

But the trauma for Gary of being alone and helpless with his dying wife was huge, says Orlagh, who is so glad Fergus didn’t have his heart attack before he left the house, because “the children would be left with that scene in their head”.

I think anybody who gets the chance to marry a widowed person is really blessed

Gary and Orlagh started to build a friendship through his queries about Ireland. “Then he came over to visit me, and I went over to visit him, and it just kind of developed from that.”

He moved to Ireland in February 2019 and they married in May of that year, with a medieval-themed wedding at Barberstown Castle, in Co Kildare, where Gary rode in on a white horse. Before leaving the US, he had sold his ranch and beloved horses, but he did bring two little dogs with him. “I’m not a dog person, but I tolerate the dogs,” says Orlagh; it could be considered one small test of her love.

“I think anybody who gets the chance to marry a widowed person is really blessed,” she says. “They have a better appreciation of the fragility of life and an understanding of how love endures.”

Rather than talking of “moving on”, as if they are leaving the deceased person behind, they like to speak of “moving forward”, which is bringing that loved one with you in a different way. She and Gary have photos up of him with Lisa and her with Fergus. “When either of us have an anniversary or it’s Fergus’s birthday or Lisa’s birthday, we always buy the other person flowers and light a candle and put their photo on the table. And everybody honours and respects that day.”

They both understand that “love remains forever, but it doesn’t mean you can’t love another person”.

Orlagh and Gary now jointly run an Irish support group for widowed people, as part of Soaring Spirits International (which can be contacted through hopemattersc@gmail.com). When they set it up, not long before Covid-19 hit, the emphasis was on face-to-face meet-ups.

In what could be considered a silver lining of the pandemic, people living outside Dublin, indeed as far away as London and Germany, have been able to join online sessions. There is a core group of about 12 who “are really tight”, she says, and who “offer amazing hope to each other”. They all say it’s a lifeline to find other people who normalise what you’re going through.

“The journey of grief is like a tangled ball of emotions. You might be fine one day, ready to change the world, and the next day you may not be able to get out of bed.”

For Orlagh and Gary’s household, the first lockdown turned out to be “one of the best family times ever”, she says. They had 16 people living in what was built as a four-bedroom house; she and Fergus converted the attic to a fifth, and after his death she had three more bedrooms added. In addition to themselves and 11 of her offspring, they had Joshua’s partner, their daughter and also a boyfriend of one of the others.

“We were so blessed with the weather, and it ended up being one big party, because Gary is a fabulous cook and he loves to barbecue. I think it was very bonding for us.”

But when it came to the second lockdown, last winter, “we were like, okay, we’re done now, we’re over this,” she says, smiling.

Two years ago, Orlagh started a master's degree in loss and grief, run at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, in association with the Irish Hospice Foundation. For her thesis she produced an Irish version of the information and support pack that Soaring Spirits gives to the newly widowed, after interviewing members of the Irish group about what would have helped them.

Through the last lockdown Orlagh was getting up at 4am to work before the rest of the house erupted by 8am and homeschooling was about to begin. She had resolved to hand in her thesis on May 11th last, as that was the 30th anniversary of her marriage to Fergus. It was a way of honouring the continuing bond with the man who had seen her ability to be “a doctor of the heart”.

Orlagh collected the thesis from the printer's that morning and delivered it to the RCSI, on St Stephen's Green, just five minutes' walk from the Westbury Hotel, where she and Fergus had spent their wedding night.

“I bought myself a coffee on Grafton Street and I sat on the steps of the Westbury, drank my coffee and thought I’m just really happy that I’ve been able to do that today. It was a real piece of closure for me.”