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Why bereavement group has been a ‘big hug’ for former teacher after sudden death of beloved husband

A retired teacher whose husband died suddenly last year says that the support she has received from a new bereavement group in Derbyshire has helped her cope with the grief and isolation felt following his death.

Ruth Vowles, 68, from Sandiacre, says that the ‘Tears to Laughter’ group facilitated by Risley-based Treetops Hospice has been like a ‘big hug’ during a traumatic year.

Ruth, who has been attending the weekly peer-to-peer support group since her husband’s death last summer, said:

“To me, the group is like someone giving you a big hug.

“There are people there who know what you’re going through – maybe not exactly the same circumstances as you – but it’s the being there and being with other people, who make time for you, that’s so good about the group.

“I have sat in the group and cried, been really upset. You have days where you feel perfectly fine and others where you just think, ‘why do I bother?’. It can be lonely.

“We have a WhatsApp group, too, where everyone shares pictures of what they have been up to. It’s somewhere that you can share your feelings, and it lifts my mood.

“Julie Waite, who runs the sessions, really cares about everyone in the group. She makes you feel like you’re the person who she has been waiting for to walk through the door.

“Julie makes a huge difference to the lives of a lot of people, which is really important; it’s more than a job for her.”

Steve Vowles, a former electrician, was just 67-years-old when he died. The couple had been together for 46 years.

A keen sportsman who played both football and cricket locally, Steve was diagnosed with a low immune system in his early twenties. He contracted bronchiectasis – a condition in which the airways of the lungs remain persistently widened – and, later in life, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, more commonly referred to as COPD.

Why bereavement group has been a 'big hug' for former teacher after sudden death of beloved husband
Ruth and Steve Vowles

Ruth, who has two sons, Chris and Mark, and four grandchildren, said:

“Steve never let his illness affect his life. 

“He was very successful at his sport. But he had a couple of strokes and so had to take a step back. He became a groundsman, instead, at the cricket club. He just got on with it despite his illness.”

Steve bravely managed treatment for his illness at home, much to the admiration of Ruth.

Ruth said:

“It was quite intense. It involved having four needles in his stomach one week and four in his legs the week after. He was hooked up to a pump that would intravenously supply the medicine he needed. He was very brave.”

Steve’s condition deteriorated from Christmas 2019 and, on Ruth’s birthday, he was admitted into hospital for the first time.

Ruth added:

“It was important to him that he stayed home for as long as possible, but he was starting to struggle. His breathing wasn’t good, and he ended up in hospital three times.

“Seeing him being taken away and not knowing when, or if, I would see him again was very, very difficult. Because of COVID, we had been shielding, we had stayed in the house right from the very beginning because of his immunity issues – but that wasn’t hard, we enjoyed being together. So then being apart was tough.”

Steve began to receive treatment in hospital but, because of COVID restrictions at the time, Ruth was initially unable to visit.

Ruth said:

“His hospital bed at the Royal Derby Hospital had a window which he could see out of. I would stand in the car park and phone him so that he could look out of the window and see me and we could talk. 

“That time was tough. Steve just wanted to come home, that’s all he wanted, and I think the hardest thing, at the time, was him being given an end-of-life care plan. There was no family there to comfort him, and it all seemed very final when he was told that he had months and not years left to live.”

Ruth says that she never talked about death with Steve and when nurses gave him three options to make his final few months more comfortable – either nursing care at home, which Ruth had specially adapted for her husband, becoming a resident at the Macmillan Unit or taking a cocktail of drugs to cope, which would mean an extended stay in hospital – she thought that he would take up the option to come home.

She said:

“He didn’t, though, he chose to stay in hospital and to take the drugs. That surprised me, but I think he was quite desperate at that point and wanted to do all he could.

“Steve never talked about his feelings. I never knew why he chose to stay in the hospital, why he’d made that choice.”

The next day, after making the decision to remain in hospital, Ruth received a phone call to say that Steve had gone rapidly downhill overnight. When she arrived at the Royal Derby Hospital in the morning, Steve was heavily sedated and, a few hours later, he died.

Ruth said:

“I felt hard done by because we hadn’t had a chance to talk through how he felt. I never had the chance to tell him how much I loved him, how grateful I was for everything he had done for me and what a lovely life we had enjoyed together. That was the hardest thing for me. Also, one of our sons didn’t get the chance to visit him during his hospital stay.

“I don’t even remember our final conversation together. His death was just so sudden. No one, not even the nurses were expecting it. I think that Steve just thought that enough was enough. I was lucky to have the support of a friend, Jane, during his final hours.

“Leaving him in the hospital was just heart-breaking. The realisation that all of a sudden, you’re on your own. It was unbearable.”

The family had a ‘small but intimate’ funeral due to COVID restrictions but, with Ruth’s sons living miles away, she felt isolated in the weeks that followed his death.

She joined the Tears to Laughter bereavement group – people can self-refer or be referred to the group by others – just six weeks after Steve’s death and says that having someone to talk to has helped her.

Ruth, who has met many friends since joining, concluded:

“I don’t know how I would have coped without the group.

“It’s a light relief, and just seeing someone in person, being able to talk through your feelings and having them listen, has been good for me.

“I’ve always been very independent but, since Steve’s death, I’ve had to ask for help. That has been hard.

“You have to learn to get over that, though; you have to ask for help and realise that there will be days when you just want to stay in bed and read a book, that housework just doesn’t figure in your plans – what’s the point? There’s only me at home, and I’d sooner be out enjoying the garden or going for a walk; I do the basics, such as cleaning the kitchen and the bathroom, but I do find that walking around where I live, around Long Eaton and Sandiacre, has been good for me. I like to keep busy.

“The group is a place where I can share these thoughts. It’s a warm and caring place to be, and you can just sit there and listen. I found it hard in the beginning, but everyone has been so welcoming and supportive. It’s been a lifeline for me.”

The Tears to Laughter group meets every Friday morning at Treetops Hospice in Risley. It is an open group, meaning that there is no commitment. If therapeutic support is needed, Treetops can signpost to their Counselling Service for further help.

For further information, please visit: www.treetops.org.uk, or email: supportandinformation@treetopshospice.org.uk or call 0115 949 1264/07535 608 059.

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