On the first step of a new journey

Last month Joanne Sweeney-Burke was invited to launch a new brochure for North West Ladies: Rosses Branch of the Widow’s Assocation. The event took her by surprise – her role, the ladies she met and her thoughts on leaving the group. Here she details what ‘widow’ means in today’s society.

Last month Joanne Sweeney-Burke was invited to launch a new brochure for North West Ladies: Rosses Branch of the Widow’s Assocation. The event took her by surprise – her role, the ladies she met and her thoughts on leaving the group. Here she details what ‘widow’ means in today’s society.

Twenty-five women from the Rosses in West Donegal along with a few unsuspecting men came together last month. The gathering in beautiful Dungloe marked the launch of a new brochure and ultimately a new direction for the local Widow’s Association. I was invited along to officially launch their new brochure and new name. So off I went with an open mind, but without a speech. I decided to wait and see who was there and as I usually do, get a sense of the room and the attending audience. But once arrived and listening to the other speakers, I really wished I had prepared something. Hotting up I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. I am very accustomed to public speaking but launching a brochure for a widow’s group was a new one for me.

However, as it turned out it proved to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking events I’d been to in a very long time. With words of wisdom, personal journeys and claps of respect it was soon my turn to take the mic. The atmosphere was sombre and I could feel the room fill with anticipation of my words. By this stage the emotion, while silent, was tangible. “I wonder really why I’m here,” I chuckled. A nervous disposition behind the mic and a diversionary tactic to get the crowd settled. And just in that moment as I asked the question aloud, the answer struck me like a bolt of lightning.

I too had taken a road less travelled, albeit, at the age of 18. My daughter Sophie’s Dad was killed in a road accident at 23, I chose not to get into the car that night, ensuring that Sophie wasn’t left orphaned. In that moment of death the lonliness or should I said the “aloneness” is overpowering. In fact I lost my hearing for three days as a result of the shock. So I wasn’t married to Henry so I wasn’t widowed. And so I didn’t know what I was or what I deserved to feel or act in this position. All I knew was that I was scared and lonely.

And as it turns out, I had experienced the same feelings felt by the ladies sitting in front of me and listening intently.

Fast forward 14 years and I’m married to Tom and our son Bobby has arrived (coincidently on Sophie’s 14th Birthday). It’s Christmas and Tom is ill for the second winter in a row with toxic septacemia. He gets out for Christmas Day, for our first Christmas together as a family of four. But on St. Stephen’s Day morning I am sitting in the Emergency Department and Tom is in toxic shock and his organs are beginning to shut down.

He struggles through and on New Year’s Eve, my 32nd birthday, his Consultant calls me. “Good news and bad news,” he says. “The good news is that your husband is not Brian Lenihan (who had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.) The bad news is, this infection is extremely potent and we are trying to contain it. At the moment we haven’t come up with a solution, but we will keep trying in the lab.”

In that moment I didn’t want to have to take those steps again, those lonely steps of being alone. I was parachuted back 14 years and saw myself in a very familiar and scary place.

I had a new baby and was facing raising him on my own, as I did with Sophie all those years ago. And so I retreated into myself to try and cope as best I could. I continued to mind the kids, run the business and visit Tom, but it has to be said on a very low gear and I was just about moving forward. I was thrown off-course and was terrified of what lay ahead.

Thankfully Tom got strong and the lab found a concoction to kill the infection, but he had a very long road to full recovery. But we didn’t mind that journey once we had him at home with us. Back in Ostan na Rosann in Dungloe with the Northwest Ladies, Rosses Branch of the Widows Association, I saw that pain of loss. I didn’t feel pity. I felt empathy. But when I got to speak to them I felt inspired and strong. Let me just introduce you to a few of those ladies. Maureen, the founder of the group who 11 years ago lost her husband. Six months later she took the brave step of trying to start a local widow’s group. On her first night, just three ladies showed up. Today they have almost 50 members. Now Muareen sits on the National Executive and is an inspiration to all the women she comes into contact with.

Rosaleen ran the family business with her husband. Three years ago she was widowed but it took her 18 months to attend her first meeting of the local Rosses group. Now she acts as a great host and recruits new women to the group. Brigid is a lady who I actually wrote about four months ago and who inspired me then, but I hadn’t met her in person. She was at the meeting and came up and introduced herself. She sparkled and has such a great spirt. At 82 years of age she has survived cancer three times and is still grieving the loss of her partner.

I met Carmel who struggled so much after the death of her husband that she retreated back from society. But on finding her “spiritual director” she was able to re-assess her life and give herself a new direction. She is now a confident woman open to sharing her experience with other women. She also interestingly suggested that we bring back the old tradition of the “black cross”. A black cross is worn by an individual in mourning so that people around them and in greater society are sensitive to them in this dark time.

I met Ann. I knew of her from her story in the media over the years. Softly spoken, but strong at heart, she speaks of losing little Mary aged 5 and still not knowing her whereabouts. Ann lost her husband in a tragic accident seven years ago. “There’s never a morning, a day, a night..” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but there’s no need.

I met Brigid. 13 months ago she lost her husband who died at home as the result of a heart attack. She recalls the heart attack he had when he was just 30 years old. “I think I could have coped back then, I was young. Now I just miss him so much.” The pain of her recent loss etched all over her face. “But this group has really helped me,” she smiles.

I met Sheila. 21 years ago she lost her husband. Left at 42 years old with two young children.

I met Susan, aged 87. She says, “we’ll think about it,” when I ask if I can come back to the group as I’d really enjoyed spending time with the ladies and had spotted a ‘sun holiday’ on the upcoming itinerary. The glint in her eye reflects her fun character and how she embraces every day of her life with love and kindness.

I met Mary. She lost her husband seven weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer. You can still see the shock in her eyes, seven years on.

While this group is affiliated to the National Widow’s Association of Ireland, they want to expand their reach by inviting single, separated, divoreced women or women who have lost long term partners through death.

They want to bring the group in a new direction and are appealing for women to come along to just one meeting.

Rosaleen McShane says, “if we are to ensure the future of this group today, tomorrow and long after we are gone, we need to take ourselves in a new direction and engage with women who have lost partners, whether married or not.

“We would like to invite women of all ages to come along to our next meeting. We recognise that lonliness can hit you at any age, at any time of life and in a variety of circumstances and we want to help other women by sharing our own unique experiences. We think we have much to offer.” You know I left that meeting feeling inspired, enthused but stronger. And while I consider myself to be a very strong person, sometimes that strength can disapate with the various struggles of life. It was the mutual understanding and respect in that room that reminded me that we should all acknowledge loss and pain, celebrate good days and life live in the now. Stand tall against life’s worries and I can safely say, ‘JSB you’ve battled and won before you can do it again.’ Thanks to the wonderful people at North West Ladies, Rosses Branch of the Widow’s Association. I had a wonderful evening in your company.

For more information on Northwest Ladies Rosses Branch call Rosaleen McShane on 087-2456257 or email ros_mcshane@yahoo.ie

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