“We’re sorry you’re eligible to join us, but we’re glad you found us.” Just like WAY’s invitation to register, compassion and understanding are at the heart of everything they do.
As the charity’s anniversary approaches a key milestone, WAY speaks to Good News Shared about their achievements over the last 25 years as they remain the only national charity in the UK for those aged 50 or under when their partner has passed.
Set up in February 1997 by journalist Caroline Sarll after her sister Amanda was widowed at the age of 35. Remembering how hard it had been for her mother, a young widow in the late 1960s bringing up two girls on her own, she began to research into what help may be available for her sister. Although there had been bereavement groups for mainly elderly people with different practical challenges – shockingly, 25 years after their father passed, there were still no organisations offering specific support to young bereaved widows and widowers.
So Caroline took it upon herself and organised her own group in South Wales with their first meeting in Cardiff of around 30 people. Now celebrating WAY’s anniversary with members and volunteers on Saturday, 26 February – exactly 25 years after the first WAY meet up in Cardiff, the charity will hear from founder, Caroline, current Chair Jo Sedley-Burke as well as Chief Executive Stephanie Patrick who will be revealing WAY’s brand refresh to members.
On the aims of the charity, Caroline says, “I was adamant that WAY’s focus would be on those widowed young helping others in the same position. I felt you had to have gone through an untimely loss to understand and have compassion for those experiencing the same. Quite simply, to be able to say: ‘I know’.”
With more than 4,300 members across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the charity has proved a lifeline for young people as they adjust to life without their partner. Offering peer-to-peer support to young widowed people married or not, with or without children, whatever their sexual orientation – there’s no doubt all members have access to a warm welcoming community. Being inclusive and mindful that people of all ages face bereavement, WAY also has a sister organisation called Way Up supporting those widowed in their 50s and 60s.
Vicky Anning, Communications Manager at WAY notes that “It’s still relatively rare to be widowed at a young age. A lot of members find that when they are widowed, there’s nobody else in their friendship circle or who they know, who has been widowed at a young age. That’s another reason why WAY is so powerful. Because you have immediate access to 4300 people who understand what you’re going through and who’ve basically got your back there to support you when things get choppy, and help you to navigate through the challenges that you might face in your first months and years of bereavement, which are often many.”
Prior to lockdown, thanks to the regional network of members, WAY volunteers organised lively social groups that meet up throughout the year – for drinks, meals out, walks and picnics. Members have also scheduled weekends away for adults and families, go camping, have parties and offer an alternative social life for people who have lost their partner at a young age. Most recently, the first weekend event since the pandemic was at PGL Caythorpe Court, Grantham with 100 WAY members and children.
Along with meet ups, the members-only forum helps those with much-needed support such as the initial challenges after your partner has passed. From when to take your wedding ring off, helping children through grief, to dealing with your late partner’s belongings and learning how to cook for one WAY offers specific guidance from those that get it.
Vicky sums up how crucial the services WAY provide are for those in need. “It’s a club that you know, nobody wants to be eligible to join. But when you hear about it, when you have been widowed it, it does make sense to have the support from people who have been widowed maybe a bit further down the line.”
Meetups took on a different form as a result of the pandemic as members held weekly pub quizzes and bingo sessions for our members via virtual platforms like Zoom. Vicky shares that the move to online was beneficial as “it brought people together across the regions which meant that some people who may have been quite shy about going along to meetups in the first instance were able to go along to a few online meetups before taking the plunge to go along to an in-person meetup.” Indeed, virtual get-togethers have been instrumental in providing emotional support as Emma Charlesworth, WAY Ambassador, notes her experience with the weekly Zoom meet-ups:
“It’s just that reassurance that actually, there are people out there who understand what you’re going through. But of course, everyone’s experience is different. There’s no carbon copy of what I’ve gone through, but a lot of the same emotions, the same feelings. It’s just a nice way of getting these feelings validated and having that reassurance.”
Emma joined WAY in June 2020, just under two months after being widowed at the age of 39 when her husband Stuart “Charlie” Charlesworth died of Covid-19 at the age of 45. She shares how the community maintains an openness in which there’s a safe space to talk through your feelings. On what people can do to help those in the same situation as her, she says, “Don’t be afraid to ask people how they are and also it’s important to know that you can still talk about the person that’s died. I think also, don’t try to come up with answers. There’ll be times where I will just ramble and waffle – I don’t want anyone to help me really, I just need to talk about it and offload. There’s an element there that, you know, you don’t have to solve people’s problems. You just need to listen.”
WAY’s diverse member group has been key in supporting those with different circumstances. In particular, Jo Sedley-Burke, WAY’s Chair shares that, “This isn’t just about anyone who was with a soulmate, and they were happy forever. Not all relationships are like that. And so sometimes, those people might feel that they can’t come forward into an organisation like WAY, so it’s about being open and able to have those difficult conversations.”
Jo joined WAY as a member in 2018 following the death of her wife Paula the previous year. She was co-opted onto the charity’s board in December 2018 after she approached them to discuss diversity. Having previously spoken about how same-sex widows experience a ‘second coming out,’ Jo has been at the helm championing diversity and inclusion within the charity. When looking at plans for the future, Jo shared, “WAY has moved on in leaps and bounds in recent years, but we still have some way to go. As we approach our 25th birthday, we will be looking at increasing our visibility as a charity especially for the wider community in relation to LGBT+ and BAME people. It’s about raising awareness and pushing the boundaries of our membership.” Often those from different religious or ethnic backgrounds are supported within their own culture and it’s not seen as an option to go outside for support. To navigate these communities, the charity has put together a strategy over the next five years looking into reaching these diverse groups.
Having campaigned with Stonewall for the right to have a civil partnership and then marriage for same-sex couples, Jo’s background has been instrumental in raising the rights of widows. “We encourage our members on a very regular basis, that if they feel able to, we’ll support them in that conversation. I’ve been surprised at how many people have kind of stepped up, who wouldn’t normally have got the opportunity if it wasn’t for WAY.”
Like Jo, Georgia Elms, WAY Ambassador and former Chair has been influential in raising the rights of widows, particularly in regards to bereavement support. Previously there was a rule that meant partners had to have been married to receive government support but this was scrapped in 2020. Almost four years after a court ruling the government announced, it will “extend eligibility for both Bereavement Support Payments and Widowed Parents Allowance for people with children who were cohabiting with a partner but who were not married or in a civil partnership.” Georgia shares how there’s still a long way to go as “there’s a Remedial order later on this year so we’re still waiting for it to come into affect.”
Georgia joined WAY in October 2006, four months after being widowed aged 36 when her husband Jon died suddenly from meningitis – leaving her with 1-year-old Daisy and finding out the next day that she was pregnant. She joined the WAY committee in March 2009 and was the Chair of WAY from March 2010 to 2018. “When I became chair, there were only 700 members and at the time WAY was a small charity. I’m glad to have put the building blocks in place, it was all about modernising and making the government structures better.“ The charity is going through strength to strength having seen a 25% growth in membership since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Notably, of the young widowed people who have joined over the last two years, more than 10% have been bereaved to Covid-19. It’s clear that charities like WAY are an absolute lifeline for those in need – Jo shares, “I went through some very serious mental health problems in the second year after my wife died. And I can honestly say that the kind of the members saved my life.”
WAY are also shaping the narrative of ‘chapter 2’ after loss. Given that the month of February is considerably tough for those who’ve lost a loved one, this Valentine’s day, their chapter 2 campaign focused on love outside romantic love. When thinking of ‘happily ever after’ after loss, we usually think of a new relationship. However, it can also be about finding happiness and new paths through friendships, travel, new work pursuits and new passions as member, Hannah shares, “I have started back at dance classes that I did years ago that fills me with so much joy but I’d given up long ago. I’ve also reconnected with friends where I’ve previously let the friendships drift.”
WAY relies on fundraising and generous donations, as well as membership fees, to help pay for vital services. To support WAY, help spread the word, or gift membership, click here.