Tuesday 16 January 2018

The widow who learned to live

life fell apart for Beibhinn Ramsay, a young mother of two, when her devoted husband was struck down by a bug and died during a family trip to the US. Emily Hourican talks to her about her struggle to cope with the loss

TOUGH JOURNEY: Beibhinn Ramsay was devastated by the sudden death of her husband, Alastair, when he was just 39. 'Nothing was hopeful,
not the kids, nothing. There was a huge sense that life had abandoned me,' she says. Photo: Gerry Mooney
TOUGH JOURNEY: Beibhinn Ramsay was devastated by the sudden death of her husband, Alastair, when he was just 39. 'Nothing was hopeful, not the kids, nothing. There was a huge sense that life had abandoned me,' she says. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The power to face death, and to triumph over it, is so much a matter of effort and good faith. A willingness to keep trying, keep searching for the light, keep believing against the evidence that happiness will come.

"You keep doing and doing, and eventually it becomes a little bit lighter, then a little bit lighter again," is how Beibhinn Ramsay puts it. Her account of losing her beloved husband when she was just 31 and the mother of two very small boys, and the subsequent journey from trauma and despair back to peace, is a moving testament to the power of belief in better. Love's Last Gift charts a trajectory from desperate clinging to the shared past to an acceptance of life's fundamental mystery, and the beauty of our part in that.

Beibhinn, who was brought up in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, the seventh child in a family of eight, knew she had met her soulmate in Alastair Ramsay, a partner with international consultants McKinsey & Co.

And, indeed, theirs was a deep bond, based on closely entwined dreams, a shared interest in adventure and philanthropy, and devotion to their two sons. It was a story of good fortune and great love, a life in England viciously interrupted by Alastair's sudden and untimely death at 39, just four years after the wedding.

On a family trip to America in 2007, Alastair ran a high temperature and began vomiting. What was presumed to be food poisoning worsened within 24 hours, and he was taken to hospital. There he died, less than 48 hours after becoming ill. The swiftness of the blow, spinning daily normality into grief, was a surreal experience for Beibhinn who was in a sedative-induced sleep down the hospital corridor at the time of Alastair's death, having been told that whatever was killing him, may also have begun to attack her.

"I remember thinking, 'But you know that he's dying. How can you go away from that? Come on, you're the big romantic. Don't you want to go with him?' But I was overwhelmed by the desire not to go with him," she confesses now, with appealing honesty.

"There was a very real fear of death, of my own death. I didn't want that to happen. You might think you want to join someone in death in a romantic sense when you're far away from it. But in the moment, when it's actually happening, you think, 'No!' And so I allowed them to sedate me through it, and I wasn't by his side when he died." Telling this, Beibhinn, who is dark, slender, full of an infectious, vivid energy, shows a serene kind of acceptance, but that was a long time coming. In fact, Alastair died from streptococcus, a common bacteria that normally causes a painful sore throat at worst. Only in a very few cases does it provoke a physical overreaction so severe the body goes into sepsis and kills itself. "Just bad luck," is how the doctors put it.

The sense of shock is palpable within the book. "It was ridiculous, and very surreal," says Beibhinn now. "Like watching someone else." Her response was to throw herself into activity, into organising a funeral that was a celebration of Alastair's life. "Despair was coming, I could feel it. I was trying to control it, trying to be so busy that there wouldn't be time." Back in England, with Alastair's mother -- herself widowed at 36 -- and sister, and her own loving, supportive family, Beibhinn fought to keep her head above the morass of despair that waited just beyond the to-do list.

"It felt like a bomb dropping, and me trying to hold it together when I could feel it breaking at the seams. In those moments, after the bomb dropped, there was pure black. Nothing was hopeful, not the kids, nothing. There was a huge sense that life had abandoned me. Nothing was as I needed it to be. Finally I woke up to the fact that my life really had flipped over, that I couldn't do things the same way any more. I was on my own with two kids, I needed to live differently."

At the same time as coping with the practicalities of life alone with small children, the intense pain, guilt and anger, were shattering. Beibhinn searched frantically for signs, subtle indicators to tell her that the man she loved was somewhere still, accessible even if only through a glass darkly. No signs were forthcoming. 'Alastair should not have died. He should not have died' ran through her head like a constant, dismal refrain, closing down every other thought, intensifying the struggle to simply survive each day. Drowning in grief, unable to answer the questions voiced by her older son: "Are you crying about daddy again?" or manage the wordless expression of that same grief in the tantrums of the younger boy, Beibhinn, nevertheless, knew she couldn't accept her parents' suggestion that she move home from London, back to the bosom of a loving family.

"I found I didn't want to abandon the life Alastair and I had together, our dreams, the way we wanted to bring up our kids.

"I didn't want to be the person who went out and tried, but was bitten and came back. I felt that to do that would be to negate him in some way."

Instead, she took a giant leap into the new. Alastair's will, as well as leaving his young family well provided for, stipulated that a percentage of his estate go to philanthropic work. Instead of simply handing the sum over to an appropriate charity, Beibhinn decided to set up a trust -- the Alastair Ramsay Charitable Trust (Arch), to administer the money, and establish a child-focused charity, Child Health, in Brazil. "Setting up Arch wasn't just realising his dream, it was something I loved, too. It was a way of maintaining a relationship with someone who was no longer here."

Brazil, though far, was in a way an obvious choice -- "I spoke Portuguese, I had lived in Brazil before, and we had right of residence. It made sense." It was also a way of escaping the kind of message she was getting from all around her, roughly translated as: "You'll be happy again, but in a second- or third-class kind of way ... "

"I needed to feel that the best days weren't gone," she explains now. And so Beibhinn moved to Florianopolis, a large island off the coast of southern Brazil, started the boys in a Steiner school and threw herself into helping the sick children of the city's poorest families.

It was a move that gradually reawakened her belief in life's bounty. "We were so welcomed. The boys settled and were very happy. It was so right for us." Fulfilled by work, confident in the happiness of the boys, Beibhinn was even able to begin a new relationship, and then found, to her astonishment, that she was pregnant again, despite having a coil fitted. "It was difficult for me to accept. It was such a huge surprise," she says now. Hence the book.

"Once I became pregnant, it really struck me how married I still was. With the other two boys, Alastair and I had welcomed them with so much love, with all of ourselves. I thought, 'If I'm going to do this with this new baby, who deserves everything the other two got, I have some things I still need to work through'." And so she wrote, a raw outpouring that brought her still-unresolved grief back to the surface, along with bouts of crying so intense they left her light-headed. Yet the process was healing, ending finally in liberation.

"The book tells my sons this big love story. They see that I love their father. They will always have that. I tell them that love never ends, but life goes on. They can have a loving relationship with my boyfriend, and it doesn't take the place of their relationship with their father." The unquestioning good faith of small children is one thing. Telling Alastair's friends and, particularly, family, about the baby, was harder. "It was very difficult for them. They were still in mourning. Alastair's mum admitted she wasn't very happy. She had never married again herself after being widowed, and it was hard for her to accept."

Despite deep sensitivity over this upset, Beibhinn herself was determined to embrace life's attempts to reach her.

"The widow is such a beautiful image that you and everyone else can get stuck, can fall in love with the story. People are so sympathetic, they want to help. And you can become comfortable with that. This pregnancy was like a smack. A wake-up call. But it's such a celebration. Proof that you're still alive -- so much still alive that you're having another living being. The baby helped to show me that I have to embrace life still, with all the good and the bad. Nothing will take away from what my relationship with Alastair was, but I don't have to cling to that to show that I appreciate it. It was beautiful, amazing, and there's an element of it that's always going to live on within me, but there are also other wonderful things."

So she threw off the safe, seductive, ultimately stifling role of widow, writing her grief into tranquillity, and through these things has come to the end of a journey that began in such pain, though constantly illuminated by her determination to see beyond the darkness. Child Health is now self-sustaining, as was always the intention after three years, and Arch has no further fundraising role, and exists now only to administer any profits from the book.

"I've come to the end of that whole process of mourning, of living my day-to-day life with Alastair, although we'll always have the children, they are our ultimate project. There will be more charity work, but not through Arch. I would love to write more books, and I will stay in Brazil for the next few years anyway. The father of one of my children is here, so that changes my decisions."

In winding down the activities of Arch, Beibhinn was truly certain of only one thing -- that she could have no continuing certainty around what Alastair would have wanted. "Five years on, I don't know what he would do. People say, 'Oh, he would have loved that'. But would he? How can I know?"

Beibhinn's third child, another boy, was born on a Sunday morning at the end of May, at 4.25am, three years after Alastair died, also on a Sunday in late May, at 4.52am. "If it had been the same time, I think the world would have stopped for a minute," she laughs. "But life will never give you certainty. It's not in life's gift to show us clearly what happens next." There is a wistfulness behind the humour, and yet acceptance of what cannot be.

These days, she is at peace with loss, because she has embraced the need to free both herself and Alastair. "I have a great sense of liberation for him, and an overwhelming sense of love. In the last few months, I've been imagining him with another wife, other children, and actively wishing that for him, wishing that he experiences love even more than we experienced love. I just want the best for him. I have no belief structure as such. I have no idea about all of this, it is a huge mystery and I'm overwhelmed by this mystery, and so grateful that I am part of it. I'm here to learn -- everything is teaching me. Even the worst moments of my life, moments that have broken me and been awful, those same things have given me incredible senses of liberation, deepening, maturing, compassion. There are no answers in this book. I'm just sharing my story, not trying to teach. Everyone who reads it will take what they want from the story."

Love's Last Gift by Beibhinn Ramsay, published by Hachette Books Ireland, €13.99

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