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

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

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health / Bereavement - Nora-Ide McAuliffe

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.”

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 ,abe­reave­ment 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.

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. Emo­tion­al­ly­charged events, fam­ily hol­i­days or mile­stones such as exam re­sults, back-toschool 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”.

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.

“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.”

Clock­wise from top: John and An­gela Mur­ray; Joann and David Cur­ran; Karen and Dar­ren Cooney; and Peter and Co­lette Byrne

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