There are few guarantees in this life, but for a while Paul Verrico believed he and his wife Anna would be one of those rare couples who get to celebrate their Diamond Wedding.
With time seemingly on their side, his optimism was understandable. Having met when they were just 18, they were married the following year and by the time they were in their early 30s they were settled in Epworth, near Goole, and looking forward to family life. Then fate intervened and instead of planning their next wedding anniversary Paul found himself organising his wife’s funeral. Overnight he also became a single parent, father to two young children aged just three and 18 months.
“Anna was 34 years old when she was told she had breast cancer. She was young, otherwise fit and healthy and we thought she would beat it,” says Paul, who is a partner at Leeds law firm Eversheds. “And she did, for a while. She had a mastectomy and underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, but less than a year after the initial diagnosis we were told the cancer had returned. That was in September 2013. Within nine weeks she was dead.”
Memories of that time have been heightened in recent days as Paul has watched Brendan Cox, husband of the late MP Jo killed on the streets of her West Yorkshire constituency, talk with quiet dignity about the woman he fell in love with. While the circumstances of the two women’s death were very different, they do share one thing in common - two children growing up without the guiding hand of the mother who gave birth to them.
“We really didn’t see Anna’s death coming, we were too busy fighting the cancer,” says the 39 year old. “We had decided to get the best medical treatment we could afford. She was under one of the most highly regarded oncologists in the world and she seemed to be doing ok. In fact three days before her death she led her football team, Scunthorpe United, out onto the pitch. But then she was gone.”
While undergoing treatment in London, Anna suffered an embolism and died at 11.30pm on November 19, 2013. Paul spent that night and the early hours of that following morning on Google. He knew that within a few hours he would have to return to Yorkshire to tell his children that mummy wasn’t coming home and he scoured bereavement and counselling websites for advice on how to break that most dreadful of news. His boss, another senior lawyer at Eversheds, sat with him through those dark hours working out just what to say.
“The biggest mistake that people make is to tell a child that we have ‘lost’ mummy or daddy because all they want to know is when they will find them again. Alessandro was just 18 months old, but our daughter Lucia was a very bright three year old. I knew she would have questions, so I decided that I just had to be honest.
“I remember driving back through town looking for a cafe where I could take her. I wanted it to be one of those that looked like it didn’t have much of a future. I didn’t want it to turn into a memorial which every time she passed would think, ‘That’s where I was when I was told mummy had died’.
“I’ll always remember Lucia taking forever to decide which flavour milkshake she was going to have before settling on strawberry with raspberry sparkles. We sat down and I just said simply, ‘Lucia I have some bad news. Mummy’s died. She asked if the doctors hadn’t been able to mend her and whether they had tried their best. Satisfied that nothing more could have been done, Lucia turned to me and said ‘Ok Daddy can I cry now?’ As the tears began to flow she told me that she was going to cry forever.”
Lucia’s tears did stop, but the family’s journey through bereavement was only just beginning.
“I just had to get through those first few days and weeks and even before Anna’s funeral I began to move her things into the loft. To some people I know that will sound quite cold, but I’m not sure that if every morning I had woken up to the clothes that I knew would never be worn again that I would have been able to get out of bed.”
Every day brought fresh decisions. Most came with no right or wrong answer, just hours of agonising deliberation. One of the biggest was whether to let the children go to their mother’s funeral.
“I didn’t want the first abiding memory of their mum to be of a coffin. We arranged the service for 11am and on the day of the funeral I took the kids to nursery as normal. I came home, put on a suit and then went to bury my wife. Afterwards, I came back, put on my jeans again and then went to pick them up. That was some day.”
Paul admits that many of those closest to him struggled to know how to react and while their intentions were well-meant they were often misplaced.
“Instead of kind words they brought plastic toys. I would have much rather they had brought a lasagne. Initially I did find it difficult. I was so busy making sure the kids were safe, that that the only time I had to grieve was between 7.30pm when they went to bed and whenever I went to sleep. If I went to sleep.”
Paul, who says his employer couldn’t have been more supportive, went back to work three months after Anna’s death. By then he had joined the WAY Widowed and Young charity and later he met a new partner. Life seemed to be settling down into a routine, but 18 months after Anna’s death Paul admits he felt the real body blow of grief.
“I got through the first Christmas and the first birthdays, but looking back bereavement was like a brain injury I didn’t know I had. Walking through Leeds city centre one day I saw a woman with dark hair and a baby in a pram at a cash machine. I was convinced it was Anna and followed her for 400m until I came to my senses. I began having nightmares about the last five minutes of Anna’s life and I felt like I was cheating on my dead wife by sleeping next to somebody else.”
Paul found relief through a therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, which is often offered to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had his last session on the second anniversary of Anna’s death.
“It felt like a line in the sand,” says Paul, who has also set up a charity in his wife’s name. Team Verrico was set up to raise money to help other families where a parent faces a rare or hard to treat cancer, providing second opinions or counselling to those affected. Paul’s new partner, Fleur Binnington, is Head of Counselling for the charity. “I’m very fortunate that Fleur has given me the space I needed to deal with my own loss and understands that nothing in this new normal is easy” Paul adds. As a volunteer led charity, no-one receives a salary, which makes us quite unique. In the last year, we have raised in excess of £80,000 to fund consultations, surgery, genetic testing and we have also sponsored 2 niche cancer projects at Sheffield University.
“Each day is a new challenge. The kids are getting older and Ally, in particular, has no memory of his ‘tummy mummy’ – we rely on pictures they have of their mum in their room and while my faith in religion was unsurprisingly shaken the one thing we could all agree on was that we would live by Anna’s own golden rule and that was was to help other people. That’s why we set up the charity and for Lucia and Alessandro that will be their mother’s legacy.”
To find out more go to teamverrico.org
WAY Widowed and Young is the only national charity in the UK for men and women aged 50 or under when their partner died. More details at widowedandyoung.org.uk