When Suzanne Constable’s husband, Simon, died unexpectedly of a stroke in April, she says her world fell apart. They had been together for 33 years, having met at school and got married at 16. And suddenly she had to learn who she was without her childhood sweetheart in her life.
“I was struggling, there’s no two ways about it,” says Suzanne. “Everything had been slung up in the air. I didn’t know how to be me without him. My whole adult life – and some of my non-adult life – he was the other half of me. Also, I was having panic attacks with increased frequency that were absolutely ruining my life, with seemingly no explanation for where, when or why they would occur. They were getting in the way of my grief, I couldn’t think about anything else. They made me really cross, sad and scared. They were just crippling me, not to mention sending my blood pressure through the roof.”
Simon had joined West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service when he was 19, working his way up through the ranks to become Watch Commander Constable at Crawley Fire Station. After nearly 29 years in the brigade, he was known for being a man who would do anything for anyone, and was adored by his friends and colleagues.
“I knew people loved him, but I didn’t realise the extent they did until after he’d died,” says Suzanne. “People have said to me that nothing has affected the fire service in recent years as much as losing him did. He was quiet but passionate, especially about helping people reach their potential. Everyone who knew him knew if they had a problem, they could always knock on his door.”
But Simon liked to keep his work and personal life separate, especially after being promoted to Watch Manager. So much so, that Suzanne had only met a few of his colleagues while he was still alive. But after he died, she was inundated in support, condolences and love from his former fire family. Among the fire personnel of West Sussex, she found new friends she had only ever heard about, who have now become some of her best in the world. And one of them, seeing how much she was struggling, suggested she reach out to The Fire Fighters Charity. Having seen her husband supported by the Charity in the past, and spent years helping with fundraising events, she agreed.
“I have to be honest, I felt a bit weird when applying, because I felt like an interloper,” she says. “I’m not very good at asking for help – I at least have that one thing in common with a lot of fire service – and it felt really weird and alien to me. Plus I thought counselling was just about trying to find the cause of a problem, but I knew what my problem was: my husband had died. I’m all about solutions, and the only solution I could see was the passing of time, which no psychologist could give me. But I felt I needed to do something to try and help myself, thinking if I could at least understand the panic attacks, maybe I could try to deal with them.”
Suzanne was invited to spend a week at Marine Court, our residential centre in Littlehampton, just up the road from her. One of the psychological team rang her before she arrived to try to put her mind at rest that she would be welcomed into the fire community, and nervously, she made her way there in October.
“I thought it would either be the best thing in the world, or the absolute worst,” she says. “I just thought, ‘if you hate it, you can just give them some money and go home’. But it turned out to be the very best thing in the world, and exactly what I needed.”
For someone who admits to being ‘a bit of a control freak’, Suzanne surprised herself how much she enjoyed handing over control to others while she was at the centre. “I found I loved the routine of it all,” she says. “No one had been holding me to account for my actions at home, and I’d been struggling to make myself do anything or go anywhere. But at Marine Court, I thought, I’ve committed to this, they’re spending these funds on me, I am blooming well going to turn up to everything.”
Another thing that surprised her was how well she responded to counselling with Psychological Therapist Shane. “I found the whole psychologist thing quite scary, but Shane was absolutely amazing and couldn’t have been better for me. He took the mick out of me, he put me at ease, and treated me like a human. It was just great.”
“I just thought, ‘if you hate it, you can just give them some money and go home’. But it turned out to be the very best thing in the world, and exactly what I needed.”
It was the panic attacks in particular that Suzanne wanted to find a way to combat, as they were taking over whole life: “I needed to take back control over something that seemed uncontrollable. I’d gone from having them every now and then to every other day. Not knowing why I was getting them or how to stop them once I had them coming was driving me almost as insane as having them. I wouldn’t do things because I was scared one would happen while I was doing something and I’d be put in danger. Shane got me doing some brilliant stuff to try and combat my panic attacks that felt very counter-intuitive to my mathematical brain. He taught me relaxation techniques and showed me how to do a mindful body scan, looking at my feelings in different ways to how I ever had.
During the early part of her stay at Marine Court, Suzanne experienced a massive panic attack that put her to bed for a whole afternoon. But she hasn’t had one since.
“I don’t know what voodoo magic Shane worked on my insides, but he fixed me, there’s no two ways about it,” says Suzanne. “I’d also been worried about going to the gym in case I’d had a panic attack while I had a weight above my head or something. But with the team’s encouragement there, I managed to get myself back into their gym, which is one of my happy places.”
Perhaps the most healing part of Suzanne’s time at Marine Court was the friendships she made. Meeting other members of the fire and rescue family who were, as she puts it, ‘also broken’ gave her a network to support and be supported by, as well as some unexpected socialising that she hadn’t planned for. But more than that, they were people who did not know Simon, were not grieving for him, and who could get to know Suzanne in her own right.
“Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the West Sussex firefighters, but they’ve become my friends because of his death,” she says. “But The Fire Fighters Charity gave me friends who are just for me, two of whom have become some of my best in the world. As far as I’m concerned, my time at Marine Court is done; it helped me for a week and absolutely put me back on track. But my ongoing support comes from the people I now know because of my time there. They’re my rehabilitation and they’re in my life for good now. I had a really grotty week last week, and met up with one of my new friends and had a really fab day. Who knows what I’d have done if I hadn’t seen him. Their friendships pull me out of the funk.
“Obviously, I am still completely distraught about losing my husband, there’s nothing anyone can do about that. But now I’m in charge of my body again, and I have new people in my life who make a genuine difference every day. Both of those things are completely thanks to The Fire Fighters Charity. I couldn’t have been more looked after in every aspect. I don’t know what the future holds at the moment, but I’m not scared of it anymore. Bring it on. We can do this.”
If you’re struggling with processing grief after a bereavement and can’t see a way to move forwards, let us help. Contact our Support Line on 0800 389 8820 or enquire via our online form.