Losing a partner when you’ve still got a lot of life in front of you leaves you grieving for the future as well as the past. Sarah Punchard, 49, lost her husband suddenly this year. This is where she’s at.
Life is an absolute bastard sometimes. Just when Sarah Punchard and her husband Chris felt like they were coming out of a truly rotten couple of years, Chris died suddenly, leaving Sarah reeling from the shock of living without her best friend of 23 years beside her, while having to dismantle the future they had planned together.
As well as the support she received from family and friends, Sarah found an invaluable resource in Widowed and Young (WAY), a national charity for men and women who were under 50 when their partner died. She wanted to tell us her story in the hope that others who find themselves in her situation will know there’s help to be had.
I can’t remember where, but I will have read about WAY somewhere – long before I was a widow. It must have been in the back of my mind, and it came to me when I needed to talk to people like me.
There are so many things that you have to do when someone dies and that keeps you busy. But when all of that is out of the way, it is just so helpful to have a group of people who are in the same boat as you.
It was such a shock when Chris died; just when we thought things were getting better. I was just so utterly shocked to lose my husband.
It had been a really grim couple of years. He had been looking after his dad, who was suffering from vascular dementia. That was a very difficult time for everyone. When Chris’ dad died in January 2015, we both missed him hugely, but other than that, it should have been the start of things getting better. But they got worse and worse.
Shortly afterwards, Chris, who was nearly 16 years older than me, started having trouble with his eyesight. By the end of the year he was blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. They never really got to the bottom of what had caused the nerve damage to his eyes.
In January 2016 Chris was treated by the National Neurological Hospital (NNH) in London. They used huge doses of steroids to stabilise and improve his sight, but by spring, it was getting worse again, and the medication was causing side-effects like sleeplessness.
Shortly after Easter, Chris entered a psychotic depression and spent another six weeks in the NNH where he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. He was treated with antidepressants and antipsychotics, and the steroids were substituted for another drug, as in rare cases they can cause psychosis, and that had to be ruled out.
I went to see him in the hospital every day and as the drugs started working, we were able to have more normal conversations. It was very difficult, because all I could be was sympathetic. There was nothing I could do to make it better. Neither of us had any previous relationship baggage, and we had decided not to have children. So there was just the two of us.
He was incredibly brave. His psychosis was such that he was convinced his phone and computer and internet were being monitored. He was having true paranoid delusions. He thought people were watching him. Even when he came home in May, he did still believe that on one level, but he had recovered enough to know that it probably wasn’t the case. He wasn’t quite back to normal, but we were trying to settle back into some kind of normal life.
Things were difficult of course, but there was no suggestion that anything was terminal. Then exactly two weeks after his discharge, Chris died shortly after we went to bed, of heart failure.
He died at midnight on Thursday. I got up the next morning and the thing I wanted to do was get rid of everything in the house. I got rid of all the food in the kitchen, I got rid of all his clothes. I got rid of all the bedroom furniture and bought new, flat-pack stuff which kept me occupied during the evenings.
“The phrase that people in WAY use is that ‘we just get it’. You don’t have to explain why you’re crying. Or why you’re angry, or frustrated.”
I don’t think it’s something anyone can prepare you for. I think I was simply in shock for quite a while and may still be. Your brain can’t process what has happened, because it’s just too awful.
Sleeping was very difficult, unless I was completely physically exhausted. For weeks afterwards, I could only ever get four hours a night.
I don’t think I’ve actually processed Chris’ death yet. Him having a breakdown was so hard to deal with. But until I’ve processed it, it’s very hard to think about the future.
My subconscious seems to be coping by pretending Chris didn’t exist. I have to make myself think about him and what I have lost because I can’t get on with my life until I’ve dealt with that.
My future is going to be very, very different to what I expected it to be.
Chris had taken early retirement. He was 64 when he died. We had decided that we would sell our flat and move to Devon where my parents live. That’s not going to happen now. I’m not ready to retire by myself. If I haven’t got someone to look after and to do things with, I don’t want to retire yet. But do I want to stay where I am?
Although I’m functioning, I know my brain doesn’t work the same way it did before. I can’t watch the television. I can’t sit still for that long. I’m not able to follow some trains of thought through. I get so far and then I give up.
I know a lot of people who lose their partners struggle to get back to work, but I’ve found it good to get out of the house and back to my job as an office manager. I’m very fortunate. I have a very supportive network of family and friends who have been amazing looking after me.
Mandy, my college best friend who I met Chris through, very much understands grief and how complicated things might be in my head at the moment. My sister has been wonderful and my mum too. Just having someone to talk absolute bollocks to is so valuable to me.
I have finally been able to get back to knitting. I do yoga a couple of times and week and go running. I go to the cinema on my own which I don’t mind. It’s good to get out of the house. I don’t sit and brood. It’s not that I mind thinking about things, but I think it would be very easy to find yourself in a downward spiral and I want to avoid that.
When it comes to WAY, I can’t put into words the importance and helpfulness of being able to talk to a group of people who understand. For some people, it’s the only resource for support they have. WAY could be absolutely vital to someone who was feeling isolated.
“I don’t think it’s something anyone can prepare you for. I think I was simply in shock for quite a while and may still be.”
WAY has people from all different backgrounds and walks of life, because of course anyone can become a widow. The phrase that people in WAY use is that ‘we just get it’. You don’t have to explain why you’re crying. Or why you’re angry, or frustrated.
The main website has message boards and chat rooms, but there are also Facebook groups and these are where I’ve found most support. Particularly the WAYers Without Children sub group.
The FB group is a place to rant, whether it’s about a well-meaning relative who said something which unintentionally floored you, or a colleague who compared your loss to their divorce…
We try very hard to meet up with each other as well as talk online. I think that’s important. We organise things to do together like walks and trips away.
I have turned out to be more resilient than I would ever have expected and am coping adequately in my new life without my husband/best friend. I still have happiness in my life, even though the joy has gone out of it, and I try to maintain my sense of humour.
My 50th birthday is next year and it’s going to be without my husband, so I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. But it just so happens that someone from WAY has organised a trip to Copenhagen on the weekend of my birthday, so that’s where I’ll be; with people who will understand why I seem happy and sad at the same time.
Twenty or so of us will have a drink and a cry – knowing everyone in the group knows where we’re coming from.
The charity provides peer-to-peer support to young widowed men and women – married or not, with or without children, whatever their sexual orientation – as they adjust to life after the death of their partner.
WAY has a secure members’-only website that offers a safe place for members to meet and chat online 24 hours a day, and members also have access to a 24-hour telephone helpline that offers free counselling and advice. For more information, visit www.widowedandyoung.org.uk