Out of grief came friendship

25 Oct 2017

Earlier this year, Pippa and Barbara, whose husbands were both cared for at our Thorpe Hall Hospice, were sadly widowed within a month of one other. Here, they talk about how Sue Ryder's family support team brought them together.

Another restless evening... then an email arrives. Barbara McNaught knows instinctively who it is: Pippa Boyd.

Pippa and Barbara, both in their 60s, were widowed within a month of one other in spring this year in very similar circumstances. Pippa’s husband Richard and Barbara’s husband Ian, known as Mac, had both battled bowel cancer.

They were operated on by the same surgeon, spent time in the same hospital wards and were cared for in their final days at Sue Ryder Thorpe Hall Hospice. But they never met.

"Grief is with you every day"

"Anyone who loses their life partner experiences myriad emotions following the death," reflects Barbara, "and nothing prepares you for the devastation it brings – even if it’s expected.

"There was a relief that Mac’s suffering was over, but tremendous guilt that I felt that way," she continues. "I felt beaten up daily by these feelings. I loved him so very much and felt my life was painful and pointless. Even getting out of bed in the morning was exhausting."

Pippa understood those feelings.

"The hospice made such an awful time in our lives a little easier during my Richard’s final days," she says. "Everything was ready for Richard to return home to die, but he had too many complications and it wasn’t to be. It was so upsetting, yet the hospice and the staff that cared for Richard helped ease our disappointment and they will always have a place in my heart.

"Grief is with you every day," Pippa explains. "In a bad moment, I wrap my arms around myself wherever I may be and imagine I am holding Richard. And I talk to him, sometimes forgetting where I am so people probably think I'm bonkers."

Bereavement support group: comfort vs failure

Both ladies received a call from Thorpe Hall Hospice’s family support team six weeks after their husbands' deaths. Barbara found this comforting.

"I found it felt good to tell someone how I was really feeling," she recalls. "I was in tears on the telephone and realised I had nothing to lose when they suggested I go the bereavement support group."

The thought of attending a support group, however, made Pippa feel like a "failure" – she was determined to work through the "horror" of losing her husband with the support of her family and friends.

“My family and I nursed my mum through cancer and my dad through an NHS error," she says. "They were both young. I never went for support back then even though I was heartbroken. But there is always a right time; the team at Sue Ryder helped me realise the time was right for me to go.

"I figured I could go once but I didn’t have to go back. I am so glad I did."

And so both Barbara and Pippa attended the fortnightly group one Thursday evening in July.

"We 'get' each other"

"We just hit it off," declares Barbara, who’s 60. "There was an immediate connection and by the end of that first meeting we’d swapped phone numbers."

The ladies chatted again at the next meeting and realised how much they had in common.

"No one ever fully knows what someone else is going through, but Barbara and I accept and understand each other’s grief, and that has created a really strong bond," says 63-year-old Pippa. "You are each going through your own private hell yet we both know we are there for one another."

"We 'get' each other without having to explain things or worry about what we’re saying," Barbara agrees. "Sometimes I do something and think I must be going mad – talking to Mac, smelling his clothes, wearing his jumpers. I’ll say this to Pippa and she says 'Me too!’ It’s comforting."

Their chats at our bereavement support group became email, text and FaceTime conversations, sometimes beyond midnight.

"Grief does funny things to you, including keeping you awake at night and attacking you in your sleep in the form of nightmares," explains Pippa. "Nothing goes unsaid. We talk, we laugh, we care. We discuss everything – mundane things and serious ones too."

Friendship: a lasting legacy

The friendship has since blossomed. The pair enjoy walks together, meet for lunch and are organising a spa day. Pippa and Barbara have both chosen to add a leaf to the Memory Tree at our Thorpe Hall Hospice in Longthorpe, Peterborough, in memory of their husbands. And they asked that the leaves could be next to each other.

"They never knew each other," says Pippa, "but I believe Richard and Mac sort of introduced us."

"In a strange way our husbands initiated this friendship," agrees Barbara. "What a wonderful legacy they have left us.

"Widowhood feels like a life sentence you are given for a crime you didn’t commit – but," she concludes, "because of the support group and my friendship with Pippa, I know I am not alone."

A black woman sits on a double bed next to a younger black male whilst they both look thoughtfully at a laptop. The son leans his head against his mother's.

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