‘It was earth-shattering’: Melissa had three young children when her husband died

‘It was earth-shattering’: Melissa had three young children when her husband died

By Elli Jacobs

Raising children is hard enough. Becoming a widow during that time adds a whole other level.Credit:Stocksy

The loss of a loved one is always painful, but when it’s the partner with whom you share children, it can bring added complexities.

“You may slip into an automatic mode where you prioritise your kids to ensure they’re emotionally supported, and to maintain a routine that keeps normality in the household,” says health and community psychologist Dr Marny Lishman.

“Letting your children know you’re there for them is key, because this is a journey that needs ongoing support,” she says. “Surprisingly, in times of distress you can often find meaning and realise that you’re stronger than you thought. In many cases, the loss can be transformative and a catalyst for personal growth.”

‘I didn’t have the courage to be direct with him about the reality of the outcome’

Melissa Reader, 48, lost her husband Mauro 15 months after his kidney cancer diagnosis. She is now creating positive change around how people spend the last stages of their life.

Melissa Reader, 48, found herself raising three children on her own.

“In September 2009, my husband Mauro was diagnosed just as he turned 40. He endured treatments that took him away from his family for weeks at a time, including being alone in hospital. I didn’t really understand – or perhaps I couldn’t accept – that he was terminally ill. In February 2011, he passed away in a very clinical and impersonal way. It was earth-shattering.

I found myself raising three children alone: our daughter Mya was seven, son Leio was four, and Orlando just nine months at the time. I was completely unprepared – emotionally, practically and financially.

We had missed many opportunities to make the most of our last precious months together. Consequently, I carried much of my grief in silence, unable to share my feelings with anyone. In hindsight, if we had been able to slow things down, to have more open and honest conversations as a couple and with Mauro’s medical team, we may have been able to make sense of what was happening and gently accept the situation. We could have talked about things that were most important to Mauro in the last stages of his life, including things for the kids to remember him by, like letters he’d written, and how to raise our children. Importantly, he’d ensured he had a will in place to best secure us financially.

Even though I had a sense that his cancer was potentially terminal, I didn’t have the skills or courage to be direct with him about the reality of the outcome. I felt that if I tried to talk to him about the situation, it would be the ultimate act of betrayal. He was just getting through each day by holding onto hope that he would get better, or at least not get any sicker.

After Mauro’s death, my sister became my greatest support. As a family, we scattered his ashes at his favourite spot, where he used to fish as a kid. On his anniversary or birthday, we go there and celebrate his life. At home we always remember him through the fun times we had together.

Even though I still hold a lot of sadness and regret around the way Mauro spent the last few months of his life, I’ve also developed deep insights into the unmet needs that exist around this last-life stage. As a result, I created The Violet Initiative, a national not-for-profit organisation that provides free information, resources and support for those navigating the last stages of life, and the grief and loss that accompany it.

Ten years on we’re in a better space, and as a family we talk about our grief more openly. A helpful mental practice I use to manage my grief is visualising a strong container. I place the grief in this space before it overwhelms me.”

‘I never thought I would find purpose through my husband’s passing, but I have’

Marie Alessi, 50, lost her husband suddenly after he suffered a brain aneurysm. As the mother of two young boys, she decided to focus on creating joy in their lives.

Marie Alessi now helps show people that healing through grief is possible.

“I had the biggest shock of my life when Rob passed away in 2018, aged 45. Our two boys, Flyn and Jed, were only 10 and eight at the time. In the beginning it just felt surreal, but I was quickly able to shift my focus to love and choose happiness over sadness.

Ironically, a few months prior, my husband arrived home late after work, having to detour because of a fatal car crash. That night we each talked about what we would like the other to do if one of us passed away. We both agreed that we would want the other to find happiness again, but we never believed such a loss would happen to us.

When it did, the words ‘find happiness and joy’ became my north star. I decided to take my children away for a few months and we travelled, creating new experiences.

Prior to our journey, I sought out a psychologist and for four months she held space for me to express my grief. Coupled with my mindset-coaching skills, I was also able to find meaning in our loss. This came in the form of learning to live in the moment, trusting my inner guidance and leaning into my intuition, which is where I eventually found empowerment through Rob’s passing. I also felt reinforced with an inner strength that’s hard to describe – it was as if Rob had poured his strength into me and has been cheering me on since.

This proved fruitful when, nine months later, Flyn said, ‘Our lives have improved since Dad passed away – not because of him passing, but because of what you’re doing with our lives.’

I never thought I would find purpose through my husband’s passing, but I have. Now, as the founder of Loving Life After Loss retreats, I show people that healing through grief is possible. It’s been the most sacred experience for me, to come together with others who understand the loss and to find support in one another.”

‘Life does go on and it’s become less painful, but still, it’s lonely’

Juliet Robinson, 58, lost her husband from a sudden heart attack. This created a strong bond with her young daughter and they’ve become each other’s support system.

Juliet Robinson has been conscious of not loading her sadness onto her daughter.

“My husband Richard died just prior to Christmas in 2019. Our daughter Annabel was 13, and we were both in the car with him. The shock was unspeakable. Adding to this grief, our dog died in February 2020, followed by my father two weeks later – both from old age, yet still unexpected.

A few days after my father’s funeral, we went into our first lockdown. We quickly found ourselves isolated and unable to access support and mental health services, which was incredibly frightening, and in hindsight potentially prolonged our grief.

The fact that life wasn’t normal for anyone made our situation just part of the strangeness, and thus coping with our grief a little bit easier. But in 2021, Annabel was diagnosed with PTSD.

Annabel used to worry about me dying, too, and had a lot of anxiety when she didn’t know where I was. Eventually, she spent time in the adolescent inpatient centre at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, where she received psychological support.

I’ve since found her some excellent specialists. Speaking with an adolescent psychology specialist was very useful for navigating this time and helped me understand how to support Annabel at home. I relied on talking to friends and family for my own grief.

While life returned to normal for many after lockdown, it wasn’t the case for us. Going out again was difficult, and everything felt raw and lonely. Coming home from work without my husband there to chat with about our days made the loss feel even more acute.

I’ve been very conscious of not loading my sadness onto Annabel. In the beginning, I cried with her sometimes, but mostly I cried in the shower or waited until she was asleep. Above all, I feel my job is to hold space for her and help her see that life can go on. One of my greatest challenges is the need to make decisions on my own.

Today, life feels pretty normal. We keep an eye on each other in social situations that may feel overwhelming. Our conversations now about Richard are mostly about fun memories and not so much about our grief, which has been very uplifting for us both. We also have two dogs who offer unconditional love and fun times. We recently had a dinner with some of his work colleagues and friends and it was a lovely celebration of his life.

Life does go on, and it’s become less painful. But still, it’s lonely. I’ve also realised that as a society we’re often uncomfortable talking about sadness or death, and yet we will all face it one day. Perhaps the more we can normalise this, the gentler the impact might be. For now I’m making the most of the time I have.”

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