Wednesday 22 November 2017

Widow on losing her husband to cancer at just 25: 'He collapsed on rugby pitch and doctors said it was 'terminal cancer''

Rachael Dickson Hillyard was 23 when she met her husband-to-be Fintan Hillyard, but their time together was tragically cut short

Fintan and Rachael together. Photo: Fintan's Fund
Fintan and Rachael together. Photo: Fintan's Fund
Moving on: Rachael Hillyard, pictured here on her wedding day, says she has to figure out who she is now after the death of her husband Fintan
Fintan was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Photo: Fintan's Fund

Chrissie Russell

Fintan and I had been together just four months when he collapsed on a pitch playing rugby one Saturday morning and had to be taken to hospital. I got a text from him that day saying "don't be alarmed…" but then, two days later, the test results came back revealing it was cancer and terminal.

To be honest, I'm not even sure I knew what that meant at that point. I just assumed it would be fine. It was 2013 and with the marvels of modern medicine surely we can treat these things - right? Because it was so early on in our relationship, Fintan said maybe we should call it a day. But that's not my character. I feel you've to give everything your best shot. I was also thinking about him and who would he have to distract him from this if he was just sitting at home dealing with this.

For about a year, he had a really good quality of life and we did a lot. Not a 'bucket list' - we weren't jetting off to the Maldives or anything - but we had a good time, going to concerts, laughing at comedians and taking trips in Ireland. We went to the Edinburgh Fringe, out to dinner - just nice things any normal couple might do.

About a year after we'd first met, we bought a house, Fintan proposed and we got married. Everything happened at high speed. If there were voices questioning me about if I was sure about what we were doing, then I didn't hear them. I remember my family asking "is this what you want?" and, when I said yes, they supported me. I think everyone just liked us as a couple and we wanted each other to have had that place in each other's lives. Fintan wanted me to be his wife. We both felt that the future isn't guaranteed for anybody so you live for today, and today we want to do this, so let's do it.

Soon after, we found out the clinical trials hadn't worked and the descent into palliative care began. Every day there was a loss of something. It was a hard decision to take, but for the last week of his life, he moved to a hospice. I remember the doctor saying "you'll get the chance to be his wife, not his carer".

I was 25 when he passed away. The days and weeks after were a blur. Organising the funeral was a huge thing because what do you do? How do you organise a funeral for someone who was 28 and didn't believe in God? I went away with my family and when I came back my friends had cleared a lot of equipment and all the Christmas stuff out of the house so I wouldn't have to see it.

Moving on: Rachael Hillyard, pictured here on her wedding day, says she has to figure out who she is now after the death of her husband Fintan
Moving on: Rachael Hillyard, pictured here on her wedding day, says she has to figure out who she is now after the death of her husband Fintan

Even so, it took me a long time to settle in that house. I considered moving but Fintan and I had put so much into making it our home and I didn't want to throw all that away just because right now it was hard.

Some people definitely found it hard to know what to say to me. I remember being in the bank and when they asked for my marital status, I could see their eyebrows raised in confusion when I told them I was widowed.

People give you this 'look'. It's pity I guess, sort of 'that's awful, but I'm glad that's not me'. But some people were, and are, incredible. My friends, family, Fintan's family have all been a huge support.

My Mum lives in New Zealand and sometimes that's hard because there are days when all I want is to crawl under the covers and have my mum look after me. In work, there's a woman who was widowed in her 30s and she's been a pillar of strength. She also told me to check out the website Widowed and Young. It was helpful, but at the same time 'young' for many of them was 58, not 25. Sometimes my granny will start to talk to me like we're the same and I'm thinking "no, you're 85, you had 56 years together, it's different".

I pushed myself to get back into social situations and probably pushed myself too hard at the start. I'd go on nights out and stand in a room thinking "this is the worst place ever". There were all these people and I felt like I couldn't relate to anyone because the last two years of my life had been on a different plane to everyone else's.

Those nights out in bars, I feel that's the end of that. Life's changed and now I've to figure out who I am and what do I want to be doing now? I've started dating. My friends now are all getting married, buying houses and meeting the loves of their lives. I'm very aware that my 20s only last so long and I don't want to wake up from a bubble of grief when I'm 40 and think what have I missed out on? The things I wanted in life, I still want and Fintan and I had talked about how life can't end at 25, so there's no guilt there.

Fintan was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Photo: Fintan's Fund
Fintan was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Photo: Fintan's Fund

The first date I went on, I didn't mention being a widow but he obviously must have googled me because he came back later saying "why didn't you tell me that?". Another time I did bring it up and never heard from the guy again. Friends insisted I download Tinder but it wasn't for me. It freaked me out too much when I'd see someone in a Harlequins rugby shirt and when the app proposed a screen shot of me, the image that came up was Fintan staring back at me. No, I thought. I just can't do this.

Our first wedding anniversary was really difficult. But on days like that I arrange to do something with his family and it's nice to have that connection. They know what I'm going through because they're going through it too. I've great support around me and I know I can say "I'm not ok" or turn up at my granny's and say "please feed me". When friends text asking if I'm ok, I know I can say "no".

I'm happy we set up Fintan's Fund as a legacy. It meant so much to both of us to be able to do things that weren't about his illness, but I'm very conscious that not everyone has that privilege. The Fund money is there for young adults with cancer to make memories. I also love that the events bring people together. I found it really hard that people we would have seen quite regularly now I don't really see any more. Guys aren't always good at expressing emotions, but they'll turn up at the events and pull on a rugby shirt and that's wonderful.

Even now, I've days where I feel off. Sometimes sunny days make me really angry - how dare the sun shine? But I've no regrets. I've had regrets about some relationships, but not with Fintan, not ever.

See Fintansfund.com.

Irish Independent

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