After the sudden death of her husband two years ago, Waterside woman Caroline Smyth-Kenyon was able to rely upon the support of other young widows as part of a support network for those coping with bereavement.
Caroline received the support when she was living abroad, in Australia where her husband had served in the military.
The support network, funded by the Australian equivalent of the Royal British Legion, helped the young Londonderry woman cope with the sudden loss.
Now, after returning to the Waterside with her two young children, Caroline discovered that there was no group to help other young widows or widowers living in the North West, similar to the support network she had been able to take advantage of in Australia.
Rather than simply giving up, Caroline decided to take matters into her own hands and take the first steps towards setting up a support network in the North West with first-hand knowledge of the struggle coping with the death of a spouse at such a young age.
She said: “I am originally from the Waterside. I left in 2007 and emigrated to Australia.
I was married before I left and my husband passed away in 2012. I was supported by his work, the people that he worked for had a very good network. He was in the Australian army so you got support through Legacy, which is the equivalent of the Royal British Legion but within that group there were smaller groups specifically for young families, young widows and young widowers. We met once a month, families got together, organised events. It was just more of a social meeting - identifying with people in your situation.
“It was informal but at there were organised events. There was a dinner, the kids went, we did a weekend away so it was informal for us but it had been formally organised on our behalf. It was run by paid people who organised the events but the people who attended were widows.
The organisers were not but everybody who went was so it was easy to identify with the other ladies and the one man who was there.
After deciding that it was the best thing to do to bring my kids home, who are six and seven but were three and four when it happened, I looked for something similar and I found that there was nothing.
“In this Londonderry, North West kind of region, there was something on the internet called WAY, Widowed and Young, but it was all via the internet. I didn’t want to speak to anybody on the internet, I wanted to speak to people face to face. Not knowing any other widows my age, I didn’t even know where to begin. Basically, I said to myself ‘well, if I have been part of it for these last couple of years, maybe I would have the information behind me of first of all what to do and the benefits it would bring’. So I door-knocked around all the places in the town, like the women’s centre, the counselling services, in the Waterside the women’s centre down here, the Well women’s centre, just to see what was on offer. I went to the doctor’s surgeries and places like that. There was nothing organised but I found that there was a lot of support from those types of organisations and it was flagged up that there was nothing, that there was a gap there.
“Everything was along the lines of education, the counselling obviously has its place because you get referred and they have a specific service, but there was nothing social. There was nothing where people could share experiences without, you know, the therapy or the referral. Somewhere to meet and to talk.
“My pitch was, and people that I have spoken to, other widows, have said it is exactly how they feel as well. I felt that as a young person we were treated in a way that ‘time will heal’, ‘you will get over it’, you know, ‘move on’. ‘You’re young’ or ‘you’ve got your family’ are the types of things you are expected to think about. You don’t want to upset other people in your family - my parents are still alive, my grandparents are still alive - so I wanted them to see that I was coping. I talk about wearing a mask - a mask to family, to my children, has got many different faces. I wanted to show my feelings and show how hard some days are without actually saying that I’m not coping because 95 per cent of the time I am coping, it’s just five per cent.
“I want to feel my grief, to show my grief and share my grief without being judged as not being able to cope. I think it is important that the feelings that we are feeling are acknowledged and they are real and not hidden behind ‘I’m doing all right’ or ‘I’m coping’.
It’s not something that warrants therapy. You just need somebody who knows how you feel about it and who can say ‘I have felt like that as well’.
Shared experiences. Somebody who is not going to judge you for not coping, basically.
Asked how she made the first step towards establishing the group, Caroline said: “I just Googled ‘How to set up a support group’.
Obviously, for the legalities of how I take the next step I need to be legally aware of getting a group of people together.
What I realised was, unless you are going to charitable status, to join together a group is quite easy but reaching people was the hard part.
“A friend of mine, who is a young widow herself, was in a position through her work to be able to ask other young widows if a group like this is something that they might be interested in. It wasn’t that role that I had approached her about, it was because she was a young widow as well and she had used the WAY group on the internet. She thought it was a fabulous idea and through her work she was able to signpost this group to people, the ladies and gentlemen that she worked with.
“I then contacted venues and I knew that Foyle Widowers had used the Playhouse so I contacted them and they said that they would help us and support us.
I am also aware that there are two sides to the city so I needed a Waterside venue as well because you can’t assume that everybody has got transport.
I was able to get in touch with Saint Columb’s Park House and they were very supportive so we are using there for a meeting.
We are based there but we would like to organise trips away, to the cinema, maybe to the shops so that it is not all about sitting around in a room although we have got a place that is available, that is there for us if we need it.”
If you feel the group could help, get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org