Published in Guardian Family (cover story)
Amy Tyreman should have been getting married this summer. Everything was planned. She had chosen her wedding dress, the venue was booked and the invitations printed. Her fiance, Danny, with whom she had been for seven years, proposed last year on her birthday while on a camping trip in the Lake District. They were both 28.
But in January, Amy and Danny’s world crumbled. One Saturday night, Danny fell down the stairs of their Rochdale home. She found him in the morning. The paramedics pronounced him dead. Danny had fractured his skull and had a severe bleed in the brain, which killed him instantly.
Sudden death is always a shock. But for Amy, losing the man she believed was her life partner so young compounds her grief. “I feel we’ve been cheated of our lives as a couple, that everything’s been taken away. I feel that Danny has been robbed of his life,” says Amy. “I have been angry and devastated. I still am. But mostly, more than anything, I just feel sadness. I’m on my own now,” she says.
“Some of my mum’s friends have lost their husbands. But they are all so much older, in their 50s and 60s, and I can’t talk to them about what I’m going through. I’m not suggesting their grief is any less than mine. It’s just not quite the same.”
According to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, there are around 36,500 widowed men and women under the age of 40 – considered young widows – in Britain, while figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 11,100 young men and women between the ages of 20 and 35 were widowed in 2010.
In the aftermath of Danny’s death, Amy used to stay up, scouring the web to find someone in her age group who had been through a similar experience, who had lost their partner in extreme, tragic circumstances and could understand what she was going through. Despite having friends and family around, she felt alone and desperately felt a need to connect with someone who had also lost their partner young, to make some sense of her situation.
“My family and friends have been incredible, but as great as they have all been, they don’t necessarily understand the loss that I’m living with. I don’t think they get that, when they’re not here, there are times I sit alone and cry,” she says. “It sounds morbid, but I didn’t necessarily want to speak to someone who’d lost a partner through illness – I wanted to find someone who had been thrown into this like me.”
It was on one of those sleepless nights that she happened to visit a Facebook group page for the Way Foundation, a support group for young men and women who have lost a partner. There she found two people whom she now describes as her close friends and “lifeline” – Graham Openshaw, 32, and Kerry Bamford, 25.
Both Graham and Kerry understand what it is like to lose a partner. Graham’s fiancee, Deborah, was killed in a road accident last year while they were on holiday in Italy. Kerry’s fiance, Luke, killed himself seven months ago. Between these three, an unlikely yet unusually strong friendship has formed out of what is a terrible coincidence – that each of them has lost their partner far sooner than they could ever have imagined.
“To make friends through a support group for the widowed, is, well, strange,” says Graham. “We would never have met had we not gone through what we have. When I first met Kerry and Amy, it was as if I was talking to myself. We don’t pretend to know what each other is going through. And we don’t say the things that other people, say, such as ‘You’ll find someone else.’
“But we understand the impact this horrible thing has had on each other’s lives, and that makes it easy to open up to each other.”
The Way Foundation was set up in 1997 as a network for young widows and widowers (under the age of 51) and now has more than 1,500 members across the country. Regional groups organise meets and what Amy calls “safe” social activities such as picnics, bowling and cinema trips. Its aim is to offer support by putting in touch people who have lost their long-term partners at a young age. Members are as young as 19. “Peer support can be just what you need when you find that friends are finding it hard to understand what you’re going through,” reads its membership leaflet. “We talk, we listen, we understand – we’ve all been there too.”
I’m meeting Kerry, Graham and Amy at Amy’s house – it happens to be the day before the first anniversary of Deborah’s death. The mood is fragile and sombre, weighted with grief.
Photographs of Amy with Danny cover the walls. Both Kerry and Amy are aware of the significance the following day bears for Graham, even though they have not yet reached that milestone themselves. As he talks, they sit quietly by him, reaching out in silent, understanding reassurance that speaks louder than words.
Deborah, 31, was a clinical psychologist: beautiful, clever and successful. She was run over by a motorcyclist in Rome as she crossed the road; Graham behind her. She died instantly.
“Deborah was everything I’d ever wanted, everything that anyone could ever want,” says Graham. “We’d been together for 12 years and got engaged very young, before going to university. The day she died, we talked about how it was time to finally start planning our wedding. I wish so much that I could have just married her. I’d have married her again and again, and again.”
Not having had the chance to get married is a massive source of pain for each of them. For Amy, every day is a difficult reminder that she will never have the married life with Danny they had planned. “I just want to get this year over,” she says. “There are too many dates in the diary to get past – his stag-do, my hen-do, his birthday, our wedding day, our honeymoon, the day he proposed. If I can just get through this year, then that’s a start.”
Amy and Danny were to collect their wedding rings on the morning of his death. “It feels so cruel, like it was dangling there in front of us, the perfect day and then someone thought, ‘No, not for you.’ It feels so unfair.”
Kerry nods, eyes welling with tears. Her wedding dress is stored at her mother’s house, where she has been living since Luke’s death. She changed her surname to Luke’s after he died, in an act of symbolic union for the marriage they never had.
Kerry met Luke when she was 19 and he was 20; he killed himself, aged 26, at the end of last year. The couple were about to move out of their rented home and buy their first place. She says Luke was stressed from work (he held two jobs, working in a bookmaker and as a gardener) and depressed in the three weeks before he killed himself – he had stopped sleeping and eating. Luke sent Kerry a text message on the morning of his death, telling her he would always love her. Although he had not been diagnosed, Kerry believes he was manic depressive. “I was so, so worried, but at the same time – and I know it sounds silly – but I thought maybe he just needed to sleep. Maybe he would be OK. I just needed to get him to rest and eat. But I couldn’t,” she says.
“How do I feel? Numb. Angry. I was angry towards everybody at first. Angry at Luke for leaving me. Angry towards myself for not being able to stop him. I still feel like that.”
Kerry hasn’t heard from some close friends since Luke’s funeral seven months ago and although she can depend on her mother and stepfather, it has been hard for her to move back in with them. “It’s great support but it’s not the same as living with Luke.”
“My mum says some of my friends probably feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, but I don’t think that’s good enough,” she says. “Right now, it’s about how I feel – not about how they feel. So because of that, meeting Amy and Graham and everyone through Way has been a massive support. They just understand. Plus, I find it easier to talk about Luke with people who don’t know him.”
Kerry and Amy exchanged emails on Facebook before meeting. They now get together and talk regularly. “I couldn’t read about what had happened to Amy and not let her know that I knew how it felt. I told her it happened to me recently and that I was here if she needed me. If I could at least help someone else with what they were going through, that would, in turn, help me.”
Although Graham and Amy had a strong support network of friends, they agree that even the most well-meaning and loving friends and family can’t comprehend what it is to live day to day with the grief they carry. That’s the strength of the Way Foundation – and particularly its Facebook page, which lets members chat privately.
“My friends have been outstanding. But it is different talking to someone who has been through loss as young as we have,” says Graham.
Amy agrees: “I didn’t believe that there was anyone else in the world who could feel the way I did.” Kerry says it also helps to talk to people further along in the grieving process: “I need to know that what I am feeling is normal.”
Kerry, Graham and Amy have fought hard to carry on with their daily lives. Kerry and Amy had their first night out since Luke and Danny’s deaths, a few weeks ago – and all three are on standby for texts, calls and shoulders to lean on when any of the others need to talk. Amy, a primary school teacher, is back at work. Kerry returned to her job as a receptionist two months after Luke died. Graham, a project manager, is going on holiday to Japan this year – somewhere Deborah had always wanted to visit.
“You have to carry on. There’s nothing else you can do. What we are going through is horrific, but it’s nothing compared with what our partners went through,” he says.
“I don’t know if there will be a point at which I will become OK. The best I can hope for is that I might have two loves of my life, but I don’t know if that’s achievable. But the reality is that in any couple one half is going to die. Sooner or later, everyone will go through this. It’s just that for me and Kerry and Amy, it’s just happened far too soon. And that changes your whole perception of life.”
For more information, visit wayfoundation.org.uk