Widowed: ‘It does get better, you do wake up without a heavy heart’

For newly widowed people coping with shock and heartbreak, an online forum provides understanding, support and encouragement

The Curran family, two weeks before Joann died. Photograph: David Curran

The Curran family, two weeks before Joann died. Photograph: David Curran

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After her husband of 26 years died, Angela Murray found it incredibly difficult to cope. “The feelings were so intense and so hard to cope with, I thought I was going crazy,” she says. “I was going from panic attack to panic attack – it was just really awful.”

Though surrounded by supportive friends and family, the 56-year-old tended to protect them from how she was really feeling. “If somebody hasn’t been through it, then they think they know, but they don’t, and you’re afraid to say to them just how how bad it is.”

Angela and John Murray on their wedding day.
Angela and John Murray on their wedding day.

Murray’s husband died aged 55 from head injuries sustained in a fall. Shortly after the funeral, the mother-of-two spend time online trying to find something to help her cope. She came across widow.ie, a bereavement support website for people who have lost a spouse or partner. She says she “devoured it”, reading through the posts from people of all ages and backgrounds from around the country and found it gave her “some glimmer of hope”.

“For people who were further along to be able to say to me ‘you will survive’, that was an incredible help.”

Murray remembers feeling “very conspicuous” after John’s death in 2014. “It sounds paranoid but I felt people were taking note of how I was – was I a complete basket case? Was I coping? You didn’t want to be seen looking too cheerful or laughing, you’d be afraid people would find it inappropriate, but I didn’t have any of that on widow.ie.”

Being able to turn to the website, particularly in the middle of the night when no one else was around, was of great comfort to her. “There is usually somebody online and even if there isn’t you can still say how you are feeling and people will come back to you very quickly. It’s hard to measure how much of a help that is.”

New reality

The website has proved a godsend for many of its 2,100-plus members. Since it was established in 2009, it has helped people through the darkest time of their lives and has provided an answer to one of the most commonly asked questions on the site: “Does it get better?”.

The website’s founder, Colette Byrne, found herself asking that exact question in 2008 when her husband Peter died suddenly aged 32. She was trying to find a way for her and her then three-year-old daughter to cope with their new reality.

Peter and Colette Byrne in 2004.
Peter and Colette Byrne in 2004.

While Byrne found some comfort through an online American support forum, she wanted to talk with Irish people specifically, particularly about upcoming events such as Peter’s month’s mind Mass and his road traffic accident inquest, but she couldn’t find anything online.

Then a colleague suggested she take matters into her own hands. “I remember thinking, ‘are you mad? I can barely hold a sentence together at this stage’, but that planted the seed.”

The office worker from Co Laois whose “most advanced computer skill was putting a winkey, smiley face on an email”, began learning about domain names, hosting and coding. Joining is free, everything posted on the forum can only be seen by members and none of it is searchable by Google or other search engines. Members post at all hours of the day, with evening time – after people have put their children to bed – being one of the busiest. Emotionally- charged events, family holidays or milestones such as exam results, back-to- school time in September or the run-up to Christmas spark extra traffic on the site.

According to the latest CSO figures, there are 196,227 widowed people in Ireland. David Curran (52), a moderator on the site who lost his wife Joann suddenly to a brain aneurysm in 2015, sees people join widow.ie “on a ridiculously regular basis”.

David and Joann Curran.
David and Joann Curran.

Curran also notices that people tend to make use of the site for a certain amount of time, before they no longer need it in the same way. “I’ve a feeling that is in part due to how difficult it is to read the new stories of people coming on,” the father-of-three says. “It brings it all back up, the pain, the confusion, the anxiety, the hurt and the fear. But I also like to think that hopefully they’re not hurting as much and so don’t need the site. So it’s done its job in many ways.”

Providing support

While getting support and advice from others is what draws many to the website, providing support in return can also help people cope with the trauma. This is true for Darren Cooney (36) who walked into his bedroom in May of this year to find his 31-year-old wife Karen dead on the floor, a few months after being treated for a pericardial effusion. Karen and Darren had been a couple for 15 years and have two children. Five months after her death, he finds himself providing support to others, even while he’s finding his way through his own “nightmare”.

“Each week is different as you go on, so people might be two or three or four weeks in. I know how I felt then and I’m able to give them advice. I would say take it minute by minute, never think of the future. If you’re able to think further than a minute, then just think to an hour ahead. Eventually, try to get to a day ahead, then a week if you are able to. But never think far ahead, that is what I was doing and it just made things worse.

Darren and Karen Cooney.
Darren and Karen Cooney.

“And I’d always tell them it’s your new normal, there’s no going back to your old life, that is gone. It might take a year or two years or three years but it will happen eventually and happiness will come again. I haven’t experienced happiness yet but I’ve read books and heard stories, that’s what I pass on. But I do feel bits of myself coming back.”

In answer to the site’s most commonly asked question, does it get better, Byrne, who earlier this year won a People of the Year Award for establishing the site, is proof it does. “I’m fine now. That doesn’t mean I miss Peter any less, that once every so often you have a little moment, but that’s natural, you wouldn’t be human otherwise.

“There was a time where I felt the good was gone out of life, I’d be dreading the weekend or a sunny day. . . but it does get better, you do wake up without a heavy heart.”

SOME OF THE (EDITED) POSTS ON WIDOW.IE

“Today is a bad day for me. I have the grandkids twice a week while mammy and daddy work, but I keep breaking down and have to try and hide it from them. They don’t want to see their nanny crying. My four-year-old keeps giving me hugs and tell me Grandad is up in the sky and asks if I miss him. I say yes and she tells me I have his photos near me and that Grandad still loves me from up there.

* * * *

“I’m in my own world every day, can’t seem to plan anything or put my mind on anything for too long. It’s my husband’s birthday tomorrow and I just want the day over with. I will go to his grave as I’ve bought two lovely roses to sow, one yellow and one red which he loved, and I know I will be in tears most of the day .”

* * * *

“We have to get out of the house and have some sort of a life. The problem here is I don’t know any other widows around my age they are all in their late 70s or 80s and I don’t seem to fit in with couples, even family at times. I could never go into a pub on my own, that leaves bingo night. I tried that one night but nearly fell asleep. So we will keep trying to find a new life.”

* * * *

“I had heard the phrase, ‘I’m spent’, but until that time after the shock, adrenaline of the hospital, finding yourself standing in an undertaker’s office, then picking out a grave, the numbness of the funeral and the surge of people around afterwards and then . . . exhaustion that I had never ever experienced before or since. A lot of us here describe the initial few months . . . quite a few months as living through a fog where we exist . . . just exist. I found sleep difficult. I still do and I couldn’t motivate myself to eat. I cried a million tears. I know crying is good and especially allowing the children to see that it was okay to cry, but I didn’t know there were that many tears.”

* * * *

“I am in the process of trying to choose a headstone. I have not been able to deal with this yet . . . Perhaps it is denial on my part. I don’t know. I drove by a cemetery the other day and saw a headstone in a fleeting glance. The last name on it was the same as ours and I felt as if I had been slapped. There is no escape from painful reminders. Five months has passed and it is time, but I want to crumble and sob. I do not want to go purchase this – it feels as if it is the final thing I can do for my husband . . . then I can do no more . . . it is done . . . can I bear it. I have picked out a stone with two hearts since he left on Valentine’s Day and he is the love of my life. But to decide what I want on it. Can I bear to see his name there. How do you put a lifetime of feelings on a headstone?”

* * * *

“Hey, how are things? I miss you, but you know that, I have said it every day since. It’s been a while since we spoke face to face and I miss that. In the evenings you always told me about your day, miss that too. Do you hear our daughter and me when she says her prayers at night? Hope you do. She asks about you every day. She blows you kisses and me too, have you caught any? Do you look out Heaven’s window and see us? Don’t forget to tell God what I said, in case you’ve forgotten (which I doubt). Tell him that I’m not impressed. Okay, so he’s the good guy but its just not right that you’re there and all of us are here. Tell God that he could have waited for another 50 years and at least given our little girl more time with her Daddy.”

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