‘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…

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Editor’s Letter -

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.

SHAT­TER­ING DIS­COV­ERY

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

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