‘I AM STRONG AND CAPABLE OF MAKING A DIFFERENCE’
Anne Yendell tells how pushing herself to the limit with new challenges has helped her cope with the numbing loss of her son – and find joyful moments in life once more…
How Anne Yendell is coping with the loss of her son
One of my favourite memories of my son, Olly, is of us standing side by side, looking out across the Grand Canyon together. He loved America so his older sister Alice and I arranged a surprise trip to Las Vegas for his 21st birthday. He was over the moon when he opened his birthday card and found out what we had been plotting, and we spent a brilliant week together having fun as a family. One hot day, we hired a convertible and drove to the Grand Canyon. We looked out at the breathtaking view and hugged – he was always so great with hugs. That’s how I try to remember my son – on our last holiday together – whenever the memory of losing him threatens to engulf me.
In March 2016, when he was just 22, my hilarious, fun-loving Olly died unexpectedly. On Mother’s Day, the two of us went out for brunch. We had a lovely time, despite him complaining of having a cold. Four days later I had to travel away for work, while he stayed at our home in Southsea, Hampshire. He had been going to work as usual, but was still feeling unwell.
I texted him on the way home to see how he was feeling – he told me his shoulder was hurting and he was going to sleep. When I got back, I found him unconscious in bed. I will never be able to wipe that image from my mind. I called an ambulance and Olly was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead less than an hour later. I was absolutely distraught. It felt like one minute he was there and the next minute he was gone. It was only later we discovered that he had died of Swine Flu – we still have no idea how he caught it.
The shock of his death threw me into a tunnel of grief. We were unusually close; I had been divorced for many years and my ex-husband had remarried, so it was just the three of us – Alice, Olly and me. We did a lot together, and when Alice went to university and started living in London, three became two. We spent so much time together and there was an easy intimacy between us.
Alice and I compared him to Prince Harry because of his bright red hair and likeable charm. He was tall, strapping and athletic, and he’d spent the previous three summers lifeguarding for Camp America, near New York, where he had rescued a drowning boy from a lake. He volunteered for the Southsea Voluntary Lifeguards and he was working in a Michael Kors store, but his dream was to become a fireman. He was caring, considerate and wanted to make a difference in the world. We found out after he died that he had been offered an interview to join the fire service. I’ll never know what he would have become.
In the weeks after his death, the grief was all-consuming but I tried not to lean too heavily on my family and friends. Alice wanted to look after me, but I am her mum and she’d lost her little brother, so I tried my hardest to protect her. On her 26th birthday, we got tattoos of Olly’s name on our wrists. As the months passed, I realised I needed to
Olly’s can-do attitude inspired me
I want to make him as proud as he made me
[continued from previous page] find a way to rebuild my life – I had to find a purpose to get me through.
I’ve always been a keen runner – I would run along the beach, crisp air in my face, pounding the sand beneath my feet. Olly would sometimes run with me, and we talked about completing a marathon together one day. After his death, running became a way to cope with my grief and loneliness. I could be alone without hiding at home. As I ran, I’d think, how can I get through this? What can I do next? It was on one of these runs that I decided to walk along the Camino – the 150-mile path from Porto to Santiago – on my own. It was incredibly cathartic, and a huge achievement, spurring me on to new challenges.
When I returned, I entered the New York Marathon. It was being held on 5 November, the day after what would have been Olly's 23rd birthday. He loved New York – his summers spent there filled him with so much joy. And it was watching the tragedy of 9/11 unfold on the news as a child that made him want to join the fire service. I always believed he would end up living there, so it seemed the perfect way to honour and remember my son.
I wanted my challenge to help others, too. I work for a charity called Canine Partners, which pairs specially trained dogs with disabled people. I decided to raise £20,000 to train a dog who would be called Olly as a way of keeping my son’s memory alive. Training and fundraising for the marathon gave me focus when I needed it most and I’ve raised £12,000 so far. There were times when I felt like giving up, where I thought, ‘What’s the point in doing all this?’ But Olly had such a can-do attitude – he would always push himself to do something, and that inspired me.
During the marathon, I was much slower than I hoped I’d be, but that didn’t matter because as I ran through Central Park – the last leg – I had an overwhelming feeling that Olly was there with me and that he was proud of me. Crossing that finishing line was one of my biggest achievements. Alice, her close friend Kate and my brother Peter had also travelled to New York to cheer me on, and we spent the time there talking about Olly and celebrating his life. For the first time since his death, I felt truly joyful.
I knew that the first anniversary of Olly’s death would be tough if I spent it at home, so along with two friends I decided to climb Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. The walking conditions were awful – snow and wind attacked us from all sides – but I could imagine Olly saying, ‘Get a move on, Mum’ and I made it to the top. I was hugely emotional looking out at the clouds below. Olly had been gone for a year. He was never coming back, and I decided there had to be something good to come out of this, something that would help other people.
As the second anniversary of Olly’s death approached, I travelled to Uganda with the Katosi Women Development Trust, which helps some of the country’s poorest women and their children find a way to support themselves. I spent five weeks there, working with the women and seeing how they live. I was struck by how dire their conditions are, yet they have so much joy to share. There, I started writing a blog, What To Tell
Olly, as a way for me to feel close to him, to voice all the amazing things I was doing.
When I was working with Katosi, I felt that I could be the person that deep down I am, rather than be overwhelmed by the veil of sadness that surrounds me. I’ve now become a trustee, involved with developing its future strategy.
THE GOOD I CAN DO
The experience of being there changed me – I crumbled at first when Olly died, but I’ve now realised that I’m strong and able, and, slowly, I’m putting myself back together. I know I can’t bring Olly back, but I’m capable of making a difference. It helps me to keep going and I think he would be proud of me.
Now, I’m feeling positive about the future. I’ve sold my house because it reminds me too much of Olly’s death. I’m renovating a little bungalow and plan to take an interior design course as a hobby. I feel inspired to try new things: I’m only 56 – I’m not giving up on life yet.
Alice married her long-term boyfriend Matt last year, and I’m thrilled that she has someone to support her. They live in London but she visits me whenever she can and we speak all the time.
Every day, though, I think of Olly. Seeing his best friend Kieran is hard, reminding me of all the things he’ll never experience. A career, marriage – who knows where his path would’ve taken him. I think of him all the time – there are reminders everywhere.
But I know that he’ll be with me wherever I go, whether I’m crossing a finish line, on a mountain’s peak, in an African village or just in my own living room. I want to honour his life by treasuring my own. ◆ Anne is still raising money for Olly the dog. See her fundraising page on justgiving.com/fundraising/anne-yendell3
The three of us: Anne, Olly and Alice on holiday
Anne running the New York Marathon
Anne at Finistère, France – the end of a long solo walk that also took in Portugal
Olly’s legacy is to spur on his mother and sister Alice to make the world a better place
Anne with Olly, the dog she’s raising £20,000 for