Today marks the anniversary of the day that then-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, placed the UK under lockdown restrictions, which were initially set to last for three weeks.
I think it’s very easy for so many of us to look back on this now and think about how alien, and, at times, ridiculous life felt.
Only being allowed out once a day. Not being allowed to mix with people. Supermarkets running out of toilet rolls, antibacterial wipes, and hand gel. Schools being closed. It was like something out of a movie.
Except, as I and so many thousands of others were very quickly learning or about to learn, this wasn’t something just happening on the news, it was affecting real people.
Just a few hours before that announcement, my husband Charlie, 10-year-old daughter Rebekah and I, went on a walk together to the fields at the bottom of our road in Bapchild, Kent. We ended up taking a selfie of our smiling faces.
You’d never know from looking at this picture – the one at the top of this article – that my husband, who had no underlying medical conditions, actually had Covid. Yes, we’d left the house but, in all honesty, we weren’t certain he had it.
He’d come down with a temperature the day before but, other than that, there was nothing wrong with him. He didn’t have the cough that everyone was talking about, and he felt absolutely fine – to the point that we joked it would be typical for him to come down with flu in the middle of a pandemic.
We didn’t see another soul on that walk, but I suspect that if we had, they’d never have realised that they were witnessing us taking what was to be our last family selfie.
Because he didn’t stay feeling absolutely fine. Over the course of the week, he deteriorated. We spoke to 111 twice. On both occasions we were told that, while it sounded like he had it, because he didn’t have a cough and wasn’t breathless, he needed to ride it out, take paracetamol and plenty of fluids.
OK, we could do this, we thought. He was still able to get out of bed and do some normal things. Heck, he was even standing in our bathroom shaving.
That shaving was at 9:30pm on March 29. At 3:30am on March 30, I was dialling 999 because he seemed to be having what I thought was a severe panic attack and struggling for breath. That’s how rapidly the severity hit.
Six hours. At 4:30am, he walked down the stairs with three paramedics, and we never saw him again.
At 6:30am, I learnt he was in ICU, sedated and ventilated. What followed was three weeks of waiting. Of hope, despair, love, surrealness, shock, and numbness.
The restrictions in place at the time meant we weren’t allowed to go to see him. For the first 10 days, I was able to speak to the hospital twice a day for an update, but as the pandemic worsened and the number of patients increased, I simply had to wait for them to phone me.
For the final week of his life, Rebekah and I were able to do a Skype call with him for about 10 minutes once a day. He was unconscious during the calls, but he looked comfortable. It was hard to process what we were being told with what we were seeing.
There were a couple of days where his eyes were open, and we could only hope that he could hear us and knew just how loved he was. By so many people. Numerous messages of support were sent in for the NHS staff to read to him. This was such a lifeline for us.
But just before 5pm on April 19, my husband died. Our daughter would be growing up without a father. And I, at the age of 39, was a widow.
On the day he died, I was offered the opportunity to see him to say goodbye. But they didn’t have enough PPE for both Rebekah and I, so I’d have had to go on my own. Then, I was told I’d have to isolate from Rebekah for seven days after. It wasn’t even a decision.
There was no way my child was losing her father, and then being separated from her mother for a week. She needed me. And I needed her.
Now, I’m nearly 42 and have been a widow for nearly three years – I was only married for 14. To call myself a widow felt, and still feels, ludicrous. I’m not a stereotype. I don’t wear black, or a hat with a veil to hide my face. I don’t hide from the world in mourning.
Because while I am, and always will be a widow, I am also so much more than that.
For such a long time, it was all consuming. As people celebrated lockdowns lifting and life returning to normal, all I wanted to do was scream: ‘But my husband is dead, there isn’t any normal anymore, don’t you get it?’ I had to adjust to being an adult without him for the first time (we’d been together since my 18th birthday), and I’d known him since I was 15.
Charlie had been in my life for 24 years and just like that, he was gone. Forever.
Not only did I have to adjust to being an adult without him, but I also had to learn how to be a solo parent, how to deal with grief, how to parent a child who was grieving, how to navigate work and how to look after a dog – alone.
I’ve had to learn when it’s OK to talk about what happened to us, and when it’s not. I’ve had to learn that, while I’ve been living this, when people hear our story for the first time, it can make them very emotional.
I’ve had to learn how to deal with my fear of judgement from others. What will people think of me as I no longer wear my rings? What will people think if I change my Facebook profile picture to one without him in it? What will people think if I go out, and smile or laugh? What will people think if I ever fall in love again?
I’ve learned that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. This should be a mantra and advice that is given to any young widow at the start of this ‘journey’, as absolutely nobody else is living this – only you.
There is no right and wrong. There is simply survival, and we all have to do whatever we can do to get through this in a way that works for us as individuals.
But one of the main challenges that still exists today for people like me is what feels like the inability to escape from it. The almost constant reference to it.
There have been repeated lockdowns, restrictions, testing, new variants, news stories, inquiries and it feels never ending.
And while I try not to get angry at news stories, I am bitterly disappointed by them. I feel that the focus isn’t on the experiences of the people really impacted by the pandemic. The people who died, who are grieving loved ones or suffering with long Covid. Names quickly got replaced by numbers.
It’s so difficult to navigate, even today, and my heart breaks for all the families, like mine, who have had their lives turned upside down because of the pandemic.
So please, today, spend a moment thinking of them and reflecting on just what the last three years have been like for people like me.
Yes, lockdown does seem alien now but, for some, it’s incredibly hard to escape from. It’s one of the reasons I’m so glad for the Widowed and Young (WAY) from Covid group on Facebook.
It was created by a WAY member whose wife had died of Covid, and he wanted to speak with others who had gone, or were going through this. It gives people like me the opportunity to share our experiences, the isolation we went through, the complicated grief that we all feel, the challenges with returning to ‘normal’ (whatever that is), frustrations and also, the incredibly dark humour we all seem to have developed!
The group makes me feel less isolated and supported by people who ‘get it.’ It’s a club none of us wanted to be a part of, but we all feel so grateful to have found each other.
Because that’s it isn’t it? We all look for the best ways to cope. The best way to survive and get through.
As much as it might seem impossible in the early days, we can, and we will cope. No, it’s not pretty. It’s not easy, and it’s a horrific life to navigate – but in our own way, we do it.
I still have moments of utter despair. I still have grief attacks when the sobs are uncontrollable, and the pain is just too intense. They’re less frequent now, but I suspect they will always be a part of my life. Yet, I can honestly answer ‘I’m OK’ when people ask me how I am.
I can honestly say that I’ve begun living again and not just simply surviving.
I can honestly say that I’ve had some amazing experiences I’d have never thought possible.
I can honestly say how fortunate I feel when I see the smile reaching my eyes again – and I’m proud of myself.
Covid irrevocably changed my life. I am and will always be someone who was widowed young, but it won’t define me. It won’t break me.
My late husband would never have allowed that. He’d have been quite cross with me if I’d let it. Of that, I’m sure.
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