Thursday 22 March 2018

Why Melanie had to tell the story of her life and times with Gerry

Anna Carey reports on the anguish of Gerry Ryan's partner

Anna Carey

"I now don't have anybody to tell my stories to." This plaintive cry from the heart by Gerry Ryan's partner Melanie Verwoerd encapsulates the agony of a grief very special to her particular circumstances.

Her sense of loss at the untimely death of the man she loved is palpable.

Melanies's decision to articulate some of her private heartbreak on the Marian Finucane radio show last week, provoked mixed reaction.

There are those who feel that the the grief enveloping Gerry Ryan's wife and children meant Melanie should have stayed silent.

But hers is a particularly personal sense of loss.

From her viewpoint, her relationship with Gerry Ryan was a lifetime commitment.

"I thought we would grow old together,'' she said her voice quivering.

She spoke of a world the couple had together, far removed from the glitzy goings-on of the Dublin celebrity scene.

"Sitting on the couch, watching DVDs, and having take-out was what we really liked to do,'' she said.

But suddenly that world came to an end.

Gerry's wife Morah graciously acknowledged Melanie as Gerry's partner at the funeral eulogy.

But when it was all over Melanie - not part of his family circle -- was inevitably left to grieve alone.

As she said, she now has to cope without anybody to tell her stories to.

When Gerry Ryan died, he was still legally married to his wife Morah. No one would question Morah's right to be the chief mourner at the funeral of the man who was her husband for nearly three decades and the father of her children.

She graciously acknowledged Gerry's partner, Melanie Verwoerd, when she spoke from the pulpit, extending her sympathies to both Verwoerd and her children.

But the fact that Morah was clearly Ryan's widow seemed to encourage some of the press to present Verwoerd as his mistress, rather than his second partner and the woman who, as her recent heartbreaking interview with Marian Finucane revealed, had the appalling experience of finding his body in the house where they spent much of their time together.

The experiences of Melanie Verwoerd highlighted the awkward situation of these men and women.

No one who listened to Verwoerd talk about her life with Ryan ("I saw myself being with him for the rest of my life") could have doubted the seriousness of their relationship.

But she wasn't his wife. And she's not his widow.

If you've been with someone for decades but have chosen not to marry -- or have been unable to do so -- what do you call yourself?

"People who have lost partners still go through all the phases of grief as those who have lost spouses," says Yvonne Jacobson, MRCS's counselling services manager. "It just complicates it a bit more.

"[Unmarried partners] may need more support than normal because normal ways of dealing with death is funeral, wake and the general support afterwards, which is more clearly defined when you're married," says Jacobson.

"There are rituals for bereavement and, depending on your situation, you may not be able to take part in those rituals, so you may need more support from a professional."

There are plenty of people dealing with the loss of a partner to whom they weren't married, as Melanie Verwoerd found out.

"It was really amazing the amount of cards and letters I got from the public and I can never thank them enough," Verwoerd told Marian Finucane.

"I got a few from women who had been in similar circumstances and they were really, really supportive and helpful."

Perhaps we should remember that grief is always grief. "It's not the title or the legal position of the person as much as the feelings they have," says Yvonne Jacobson. "If someone is devastated, they're devastated."

We Irish like to think we'regood at funerals. When someone dies, we know what to do -- we go to the funeral to show our respect for the person who has died and if the person was married, we show their widow or widower that we know how awful this is for them and that we care about them. We publicly acknowledge their grief.

But what happens to people who aren't, technically or legally, a widow?

In a traditionally conservative country where marriage was, for a long time, the only legitimate way to experience a romantic relationship, the status of unmarried 'widows' in the eyes of the community still isn't always so clear.

Those left-behind partners can find themselves in a strange limbo.

This is especially true for the second partners of people who have already been married and are legally still joined to their ex-partner.

There are plenty of people who have lived apart from their legal spouses in happy new relationships for years.

But when they die, the primacy of the original marriage is highlighted, while the second partners may find themselves shunted aside.

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Irish Independent

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