'It's this pain that I'll never see Gerry again'
Melanie Verwoerd admits that she is struggling to cope with the aftermath of her partner's death, writes Liam Collins
GERRY Ryan's tragic girlfriend Melanie Verwoerd has told how her circle of friends diminished significantly after the RTE star's sudden death.
Melanie, a former South African ambassador to this country who now heads up the Unicef charity in Ireland, had originally spoken to Marian Finucane on RTE and said she would only give one interview on her relationship with Gerry and the devastating consequences of his death.
"I am hoping by doing this one interview -- and one interview only about Gerry and his death -- the media may give us a bit of space to mourn Gerry privately" she said at that time.
But now, in her first full press interview, Melanie has opened her heart to the social magazine Tatler about life with Gerry and the terrible experience of finding him dead on April 30 last."I still find it really, really hard to get words to describe what has happened," she says in an interview for the magazine's November issue.
"I seemed to be walking around in a daze for the first four months. Now it seems like the shock is wearing off and it's just this unbearable pain of trying to deal with the reality that I will never see Gerry again."
After enjoying a night out socialising, the broadcaster made a late-night phone call to his producer in RTE to say he would not be presenting the Friday morning show. But when he failed to call Melanie that morning, she got construction workers to break into his Leeson Street flat, where he was found dead near his bed.
A garda investigation into the broadcaster's death is still ongoing.
What shocked Ms Verwoerd (43), the mother of two sons aged 20 and 17, was discovering the lack of control that people have over life and death.
"I've gone through difficult times in my life -- I've lost grandparents and stuff like that -- but I've never had to deal with something like this. It's really shocked me -- not only the event, but how incredibly difficult it is to deal with this whole process of mourning.
"I certainly will never look at anybody who has gone through something like this in the same way again. I'm a person, through my life, who has taken control of situations. That's what I do," she says. "But then, in that split second when I realised Gerry had died, it was as if every bit of illusion you have about control disappears on you."
She also reveals that nothing could have prepared her for the intensity of the media interest in the story.
Gerry Ryan (53) was one of the best-known and best-loved radio figures and a whole generation who felt they grew up with him -- sharing his early anti-establishment views, his foibles, the insights he gave into his marriage and his children -- were shocked by his sudden death.
"You know when you're with someone like Gerry that the interest is there, but of course I was going to be with Gerry for the rest of my life. I thought I still had another 20 to 30 years to deal with that (the media interest) before something like this would happen," Ms Verwoerd reveals.
"It's the not knowing. At a time when you feel incredibly vulnerable and all your beacons have shifted. I know it's a very gruesome image, but I've been thinking about this a lot. It's like someone has taken your skin off and you're so vulnerable and so exposed and then when you have to constantly watch what you say and who to, it is difficult."
She gave the interview to promote a massive public fundraising event aimed at raising €1m for Unicef between October 24 and November 7. As executive director of the organisation in Ireland, she has taken personal charge of the campaign, entitled 'Euro for Zero.'
In 2009, Unicef Ireland generated €2.9m, which was transferred to its New York headquarters for distribution -- but like all charities, it is now suffering form falling revenues.
The Irish branch also claims it was instrumental in persuading the Government to provide €10.7m which is sent directly to the UN organisation.
Unicef employs 15 people and its wages and salaries bill is €750,000, plus €286,657 in management and expenses.
Melanie reveals to Tatler deputy editor Shauna O'Halloran that she went back to work three weeks after Gerry Ryan's death, but the side effects of her grieving are still with her.
"I basically haven't slept since Gerry died -- so of course, I'm exhausted," she says. "One of the grievance counsellors told me that they've measured it, what they call 'five minutes of grief', which I think (happens to) everybody who's lost somebody really close to them, where you just get overwhelmed with pain. "The physical toll that it takes on your body is the same as what a marathon runner feels after one hour of running. It's very hard, in a way, to just keep going."
Melanie also lost her appetite and weight and with it, "my hair fell out, like someone who was having chemo".
"I have cried a lot," she says, agreeing that the 'soft' side of her personality was one that always endeared her to Gerry Ryan.
"I've always been a bit of a softie. When I was getting a bit emotional about a film or something, he would put his arm around me and say, 'God you're a great one for the crying, aren't you?' and you know, I think about that all the time. That's something people need to give people who mourn, space to do that -- people are very vulnerable with tears."
Her two sons, aged 20 and 17, have helped her through the process. They take it in turns to make sure there is someone at home with her.
She also compares her own suffering and the death of Gerry Ryan to that of children in Africa and other regions who benefit from aid provided by Unicef.
"I've always felt very deeply about the suffering of people, children in particular, but it's as if this has deepened it for me. I look at mothers now who have lost children through Aids and I say, 'How do they do that?' when they've lost two or three children.
"I'm falling apart, but they've lost two babies, how do they keep going? So in a way, it's made me more determined and more angry."
She says that she is doing the Unicef campaign in honour of her departed partner.
"I had been working on the campaign for a while and Gerry looked at some of the posters and creatives that we were working with and you will see on most of the posters there is a line that says, '22,000 children died every day. Are you okay with that?' -- and that's Gerry's line."
Melanie Verwoerd and Gabriel Byrne will guest edit next week's edition of LIFE magazine in the Sunday Independent.