Danielle, our Widowed Young Support Coordinator, shares her journey from horror and heartache to a place of resilience and hope.

How does an American girl from the Colorado Rockies end up living in Northern Ireland? And then getting involved with Care for the Family?

The first question is easy to answer. I attended Queen’s University in Belfast where I met Russell. We married in 2005 and welcomed in three gorgeous children: Samuel, Abigail and Madelyn. 

The second question is more poignant. It was incredible loss that put me in contact with Care for the Family because after only eight and a half years of marriage, tragedy struck. 

On 19 August 2013, everything changed. I woke up a wife but went to bed a widow. My husband Russell was killed in a road accident – in one horrifying moment my worst fear had materialised. 

This loss affected every area of life for my children and myself. One of the hardest things I have ever had to do as a parent was tell my children that daddy would not be coming home. Daddy had gone to heaven. These three beautiful little faces were looking back at me and I had never felt more terrified or helpless in my life. How was this my life? How was I going to manage as a lone parent with three small children, one of which had additional needs? Then a month into my grief journey I came into contact with Widowed Young Support. 

I was invited to a Care for the Family Playtime conference with a friend to look after a stand. I was determined to go, despite my recent loss. Saturdays were difficult now and I needed to be distracted. When I arrived, the stand was beside a Widowed Young Support display. It took me hours to work up the courage to approach the volunteer, but once I did the relief was palpable. On the following Monday evening, my phone rang. It was Care for the Family and they wanted to know how they could help.

In May 2014 I attended a Widowed Young Support Day in Moira in Northern Ireland. I remember feeling absolutely terrified as I sat in the carpark watching other delegates enter the building, just making sure that they really were as young as I was. But my current outlook was about to change – that support day became a ‘game changer’. It all comes down to perspective and how we choose to see our circumstances: I needed to change my perspective and face up to the harsh reality of living without Russell. 

During that day, I finally admitted to myself that life as I knew it was gone, but the life ahead could still be good, albeit, different. It was OK to grieve and cry. It was OK to be vulnerable and honest about life as a widow. It was OK to not be able to do everything I did before Russell’s death. In my head, I should have been able to carry the same load I had previously, plus everything my husband had done. Realistically, that was impossible.

The leaders and group facilitators had also been widowed young and this brought a vulnerability and authenticity to the day. I didn’t want to hear from people who just had opinions and theories, but rather, I wanted to learn from others who had been there. Listening to other stories was quite an emotional moment, and it was the first time that I had shared my story. Storytelling is so important! 

That day I left with my head held high and a renewed sense of hope. I also made a friend that day, and we have journeyed this season together. Denise has been an invaluable friend, and it made things a bit bearable knowing that there was someone else walking the journey with me. We decided that as the support day had been so helpful, we would travel to Woking in Surrey, for a residential weekend, which is what I needed. It was a comfortable and safe place to explore moving forward.

Shortly after Woking, we were both contacted about training to become befrienders. There was a desire deep within me to support others in the same way, and I was passionate about people finding hope. We hopped on a plane, made our way to England and hired a car. How difficult could it be to find the hotel? Needless to say, it was an adventure. But then our satnav stopped working, Denise’s phone ran out of battery and my phone lost signal. We got stuck in a dubious looking industrial estate, where our fearless Widowed Young Support leaders eventually found us. The evening session had already begun, and they just fed us and sent us to bed. We have never lived it down! 

It may have been a rather interesting beginning to volunteering, but this befriending journey has been highly rewarding. It has been a privilege to volunteer with so many incredible people who make themselves vulnerable to the broken-hearted on a regular basis. As befrienders in Widowed Young Support, we learn to use our stories as we befriend others on their journeys of loss. They hear our stories, and know that we simply get it.

My involvement with the team began to grow when I agreed to take on the admin for our Quality in Befriending accreditation in 2019. Shortly after this, volunteers were being trained up to lead sessions on support days and weekends, which would allow us to do more events. After training, I began leading the team in Northern Ireland. I loved my volunteering role.

Now I am on staff working alongside Steve, the current Coordinator, in preparation for taking over fully in May. I never thought that my journey would lead me here. It has been quite the adventure, and like many adventures, I have experienced joy, sorrow, tears; developed resilience; found hope and restoration. I look forward to supporting you in the future.

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At Care for the Family we support couples, parents and those who have been bereaved. If you would be able to make a one off donation to support our work, we would be very grateful. Thank you.

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