'Like Rio, my beautiful wife was taken too young'
Lawyer Paul Verrico lost his wife and the mother of his two young children to breast cancer in similar circumstances to the recently bereaved footballer Rio Ferdinand. Life as a young widower, he says, is a daily battle
When news broke of the death of Rio Ferdinand's wife, Paul Verrico was at home watching Octonauts on CBeebies with his children. While the animated characters leapt cheerfully about on screen, he scrolled through the news feed on his mobile phone, reading the tributes to Rebecca Ellison, a mother-of-three, who had died of breast cancer at the age of 34. "At that moment I just thought, 'poor sod, he is now one of us'," he says.
Paul Verrico understands all too well what he calls the "visceral grief" of the newly bereaved. Like Ferdinand, he is a young widower, and their stories bear other remarkable similarities. In November 2013, his wife Anna died at the age of 36 from the same disease. She was young, super fit and with no history of cancer in the family. As with Rebecca Ellison, hers was a life ended cruelly short in a matter of months following diagnosis, despite receiving the very best medical care available.
Verrico, a 38-year-old principal associate at leading international law firm Eversheds, was left to care for their two children, Lucia, five, and Alessandro, two. He still lives in their dream home, a five-bedroom detached house in north Lincolnshire in England and seeks help from the same support services to which Rio Ferdinand perhaps now may turn.
Above all, he understands the brutal transition from being in a rock-solid loving partnership to struggling to plait his daughter's hair before school and explaining to her why she has only one parent waving her off at the gates.
"It is a bit like you are in the bottom of a funnel looking upwards," he says. "You can see light at the top and you just have to go round and round until you get there." He met his future wife on a weekend trip to Nottingham at the age of 18. Both came from similar backgrounds, what he describes as "the wrong side of the tracks". Anna grew up in a council house while Paul lived in a caravan from the age of seven to 16. None the less, both did very well at school and were hugely bright and ambitious. It was, in part, this shared drive that attracted them to one another.
"She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen," he says. "She had long brunette hair, a figure to die for and just the cutest smile. From the moment I met her I knew she was the one."
A year later they had set up their own window cleaning business and were married. Money was so scarce that their 300 guests were asked to bring a dish to the reception. Soon, Anna started an accountancy course and was fast-tracked into the British arm of Icelandic food manufacturing firm Bakkavor, rising through the ranks to become a financial controller.
Paul, meanwhile began a part-time university course while continuing to work at the cleaning business. He managed to attract the interest of Eversheds, which helped fund his studies and then offered him a job. Before either had turned 30 they had bought their own home and travelled the world.
Lucia was born in 2010 and Alessandro two years later. The family ate fresh food from their allotment each day and were considering buying a second home in Tuscany. "It is difficult to imagine how things could have been any better," Paul says.
However, on holiday to the Algarve in October 2012, Alessandro started refusing to feed from one of Anna's breasts and she found a lump. Initially, doctors back home said it was probably just a cyst but referred her to a specialist breast unit. After a few more tests came the diagnosis that she had contracted triple negative breast cancer (a type known for its aggressive spread and difficulty to treat).
"It was a terrible feeling. We were sitting in this room with puce-coloured walls and I experienced this numbing buzzing and all the things I had ever heard about the C-word flooded over me. You think this only happens to fat people or old people or people who smoke; why on earth is this happening to us?
"Anna was bowed by the weight of it and desperate that our children weren't going to be affected. We gave no thought to the fact this would kill her. She immediately said, 'what's the plan, how do I get better?'"
By the first working day of January 2013, Anna had already undergone a mastectomy and begun chemotherapy. She insisted on having it done at home so she could still read the children a bedtime story even as the debilitating chemicals coursed through her veins.
By May that year she had gone into remission and started training for a half marathon to celebrate her recovery. However, when she complained of a chest infection during a run towards the end of the summer, tests showed the cancer had returned and was terminal.
The news was delivered on the phone while the couple stood in the kitchen Anna had specially designed to allow them to cook side by side. They were told she had only months to live. In the end, her body gave way in the early hours of November 20 - not from the cancer but a blood clot caused as a result of the intensive chemotherapy.
"She died with hope," Paul says. "Even in the few minutes before, we thought she would stay alive. I came home that day, took my daughter to a local milkshake bar and told her that her mummy wasn't coming home. She said to me: 'Is it OK to cry, daddy?'"
Since that day, he says, everything has been devoted towards ensuring the children do not come to be defined by losing their mother.
The funeral was deliberately held on a Friday while they were both at playschool. Relatives were not allowed to come and stay at the house; the aim was to make it seem as if nothing was out of the ordinary. "They were too young, just making their first memories, and I didn't want that to be of their mum's funeral," he says.
Trying to keep up a brave face while falling apart with grief inside is, he says, an "absolute nightmare".
Then there is the daily struggle of being a lone parent. "Traditionally I'm pretty good at going out and earning a wage but not so adept at the softer stuff. I'm a good cook, thank goodness, but at the moment my little boy has been potty training. That's not something I ever expected to have to do on my own." He is lucky to have a wide support network - friends drop in to help on the children's birthdays and on his wedding anniversary last year spent the day with him "in shifts". He now works one flexible day in the week and has hired a nanny. Recently, he has started to see someone (a widow he met during a fundraising drive).
There are some support services available for widowers, such as the charity WAY Widowed and Young - which has a small presence in Ireland - but he has struggled to find suitable counselling for Lucia. Last summer he set up the charity Team Verrico to help the fight against lethal diseases - triple negative breast cancer in particular. Paul also participates in various online discussion groups, including one run by the bereaved author Ben Brooks-Dutton.
"It's very mutual and confidential and we talk about issues such as dating again and getting on with the in-laws. I can do that because I am not in the public eye. I don't think Rio Ferdinand could do that because people would report everything he is saying," he says.
Life goes on, even as grief waits in the wings, but there is, he says, another overriding feeling. Perhaps one which Rio Ferdinand feels more than anything.
"Today, I am as angry as it is possible to be. We were a couple who were married 17 years and never had an argument," he says. "We had everything in common. We were physically fit, ferocious, fearless, and had done everything together. We pulled ourselves up by our shoelaces and something we could never have anticipated floored us. That just still feels so dreadfully unfair."
Paul's website is teamverrico.org; widowedandyoung.org.uk
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