Widowed and young — Supporting each other to find hope

Facilitator at Widowed and Young support day, standing with building blocks to represent a wall of life (words like 'Christmas', 'children' and 'pets' are written on the blocks)

Six minute read

Danielle Patton’s husband was killed in a road accident after they had been married for just eight years. Overnight, she became a single parent of three children under ten. Since then, she’s used her experience to become, first, a volunteer and then the coordinator for Care for the Family’s Widowed Young Support programme.

Why do you think specialist support can help people who are widowed young?

Many widows are a bit older — their children have grown up and they have grandchildren. It’s different when you’re young and have small children. I went to a local group and I was at least 30 years younger than everyone else. They were very kind, but I felt out of place.

I needed to talk to people in the same season of life, who were also single parents, to ask questions and to find out how to navigate this situation I was suddenly in.

At Care for the Family, we offer a befriending service, with trained befrienders all of whom have been widowed young themselves.

It’s someone who has been through what you have, but is further down the road. They can tell you that what you are feeling is normal. They can say, this is what worked for me, but something different may work for you. They can encourage you to grieve in your own way, not how other people expect you to.

What challenges did you face as a parent in helping your children to grieve?

When my husband died, my children were two, four and six years old. There were four of us, grieving very differently, at different stages of life.

The youngest one didn’t understand what had happened at all. We had to have the same conversation over and over again. She knew that her daddy usually came from work while I was making dinner, so every day at this time, she would go and sit on the steps to wait for him. This went on for weeks. It was awful, but I needed to allow them to express their own grief.

You have to care for yourself as well, especially if you have children. As parents we might think it’s all about the kids, but to be able to look after them, you’ve got to look after yourself.

Read more about how to talk about death with young children

How can I best support a friend or someone I know who has been widowed young?

It’s okay not to have the words. Just sit with them, listen, take a walk with them. Give the person an opportunity to talk, without acting shocked or uncomfortable in response to anything they say.

Above all, be intentional and follow through. Make specific suggestions: ‘how about I take the kids on Saturday so that you can have some time to yourself?’ or ‘shall I come round this Thursday and take your ironing pile?’ And make good — don’t just say you’ll do something, actually follow through.

Also, don’t stop including someone after their partner dies. Some invites just stop. I remember there was a baby shower that I wasn’t invited to, although I was asked to make a cake for it. It was all couples, people who had worked with my husband — I definitely would have been invited if he’d still been alive.

How can funeral directors help in a situation where someone is widowed young?

Don’t rush people, give them space to make decisions about things that they’ve never thought of before.

It also helps when funeral directors make sure that the person who has been widowed is heard. For example, I know a woman whose husband’s family took over. She felt that she couldn’t contribute to the funeral in any way. She already felt out of control and this made it worse.

You can see tension between widows and the parents of the person who has died, especially if the relationship has already been difficult. You have all lost the same person, but the relationship and ways of grieving are very different. You are so overwhelmed at that time, it’s hard to fight your corner. So, make sure people’s wishes are heard.

Two months before he was killed in a road accident, my husband and I were driving along, and were delayed behind a funeral procession — this is quite common where we lived in Ireland. He said, promise me, if I go before you, no one’s going to do this for me. And when he died, I honoured that, even if some other people were appalled, because those were his wishes.

What happens at a Care for the Family support day?

I’ve seen the support days from both sides, as a participant and a leader. I was really nervous when I first went to one, but I’m so glad I went. Some good friendships come out of the days, where people really support each other.

But I won’t lie, it is intense.

We explore the different emotions that we are experiencing, including anger, shock, depression and yearning. We do lots of self care.

We break into smaller groups of about five people. We usually put people together with others in similar situations, whether they have lost someone due to a sudden death or long illness or suicide, for example. Each group is led by someone who has had that specific experience themselves.

Everyone has an opportunity, if they want, to share their story. It’s empowering to say, this happened to me, and to talk about it with people who actually get it.

More about the Widowed Young support days

Who are the Care for the Family support days for?

We welcome everyone absolutely everyone, whether you have faith or no faith. How your person died or how recently you’ve lost your person doesn’t matter.

There’s always more women than men, but we do get our fair share of men. Since Covid-19, I’ve noticed more men coming along.

We’ve all experienced loss here. We can rip off the labels and just be ourselves.

The support days also include a closing session on hope. Why is this important?

In this session, we look at things like keeping a success list — not of big things, but small achievements to celebrate. If you’ve never changed a fuse before, but you look it up on YouTube and learn how, that goes on the list, or, for me, it was changing my internet supplier for the first time.

It’s also about finding gratitude — writing down three things that were good about the day before going to bed. Even if it’s simply ‘I survived’.

We did a recent day where most people had been bereaved within the last six months. They weren’t ready yet to talk about hope, but they have the skills and tools from the day to use later.

There are so many secondary losses — like interaction with friends, income, holidays — every aspect of your life is affected when your partner dies. When you are ready, and at your own pace, you have to rebuild. It will be different, but it can still be good.

Discover our full list of grief and bereavement support resources or read more interviews with interesting people, such as Carla on her experience of opening up about miscarriage.

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