The Burke Family

On 26 June 2015 my husband, Ryan, did not come home from work.  He wasn’t answering his phone either, so my parents came around and mum stayed with the kids (who were asleep in bed) while Dad and I went to his workshop.

When we arrived, we found Ryan was lying dead on the floor of the workshop.  Several days later we found out that he had suffered a pulmonary embolism.

Ryan was a fit and healthy guy, the last time I saw him he was on his way to the gym, and I was on the first day of school holidays about to head out for lunch with a friend.  I’d spoken to him on the phone in the afternoon that day and everything was fine.  It was all very sudden and unexpected.

The kids were very young at the time, Annie was three years old and Patrick was just two, but they still had some understanding of what had happened.  Ryan was their primary carer at the time and they’d spent a lot of time exploring nature together, inspecting and discussing dead things like insects and birds, so they seemed to grasp the concept that he was gone and couldn’t come back.

For me, I really struggled with being left on my own with the huge responsibility for two little lives solo.  Every decision regarding their education, health and general upbringing, now came down to me and me alone.

I felt like I’d lost my future, all those conversations about one day we’ll do this, or that, or maybe we’ll go here or there; planning holidays together, just planning weekends or even family activities, suddenly it was all down to me.  If I want to do something now, I have to plan it and do it all by myself.

When Ryan first died, my instinct was that it all about the kids.  I spent so much time making sure they were coping, exploring death and grief with them; we visited the church, the funeral home and the cemetery all before the funeral.

I got them into counselling, I made sure they had photos and photo books of their dad. I talked with their preschool teachers and daycare parents about their grief and how they were coping.

When people asked: “How are you?”, I always answered as a group: “We’re doing okay”.  I had rough days, but I powered on for the kids.  I didn’t cry enough, and I forced myself to do things that in hindsight, I should have let slide.

Eventually it all got too much and I started seeing a counsellor, I bawled through the entire first session.  Afterwards, I felt better, but I never talked about me and what I was experiencing.  I talked about the kids, their grief and my grief, but I didn’t talk about the depression and anxiety I was experiencing – I didn’t even recognise them as that.

Eventually I was at a point where all I wanted to do was sleep.  I could get up and get the kids to preschool and daycare, I was fine with work, or even social events.  But if there was nowhere I needed to be, I was home in bed.

I was terrified I was going to die.  Eventually it all became too much.  After two hospital emergency trips where I was told my heart was fine and my physical health was fine, a doctor spoke to me about anxiety.  Then finally, I was honest with my counsellor and I ended up on much needed medication for anxiety.

Things have been better since then, and slowly over the last few years I have gotten on top of it and mostly feel in control of my anxiety.  I wish I had taken more time to grieve for Ryan – I feel like I’ve missed the opportunity now.

I found out about Feel the Magic through a Young Widows Australia Facebook group that I’m on. Other people were talking about their kids attending Camp and their experiences and I thought it sounded worth exploring.

I was concerned by Annie’s lack of grief; she spoke about Ryan a lot but never displayed any real emotion about his death.  I felt it was important to recognise and experience the emotions of grief.  And I felt a lot of her grief was coming out as aggression, mainly verbal, but occasionally physical by lashing out at Patrick.  She was a little girl with a lot of big emotions she simply didn’t understand.

Annie attended camp in November 2019 and the experience has been amazing.  Before, Annie had never really showed her emotions about her Dad.  Although she talked about him a lot, she never really got upset or visibly grieved.  But since Camp, she is much more able to cry and to be open about her feelings and experiences of what we have been through.

We live in Broken Hill, so the trip for Annie to attend Camp Magic was a big one.  We drove 1330km over two days – luckily my Dad was able to come with us and help share the driving with me.

On the way home we took a day to explore the Zoo at Dubbo, I figured Annie might need some down time before rushing back to school.  In attending Camp the kids missed four days of school but it was definitely worth it.

I knew whichever Camp we applied for it was going to be a big journey for us – flying from Broken Hill is ridiculously expensive, so we made a road trip of it.  With fuel, food and accommodation it was an expensive weekend, but I strongly believe it was an investment in Annie’s well being.

I would say to others who are wondering about Camp Magic, it really is an amazing experience.  It gives kids a perspective that maybe we can’t, because we’re simply too close to it.

The best part is it makes kids feel like they are not alone, and that there are other people out there experiencing similar things, and most importantly, that it is still okay.  Seeing Annie open up to her grief and to finally be able to openly show and experience those big feelings was incredibly positive.

I think as kids mature and develop emotionally they experience their grief with different understanding.  Things can be quiet settled and smooth and then another wave of grief rolls around. Annie is becoming more aware of what she’s missing out on when her Dad isn’t at school events or special occasions.  She recently started talking about how we will have to tell her kids all about their Grandpa because they will never meet him.

I think the great thing is that Annie has now been given a language for understanding her grief and for the emotions she feels.  She talks about the ‘seasons’ and relates it to how she’s feeling on any given day.

Shortly before Camp, Annie’s friend in her class lost a very close family friend and when we returned from Camp, Annie shared her knowledge and helped her friend by explaining how people grieve, how they grieve differently and about the ‘seasons’ of grief.

I think the biggest benefit is that Annie now knows it’s okay to feel whatever she’s feeling, it’s okay to have good days and bad days, it’s okay to need and ask for help, and importantly, that she has a support system around her.

I would whole heartedly recommend Feel the Magic to other parents like me.

I am very keen for Patrick to attend Camp too, he is too young at this stage and we cannot realistically make the big journey from Broken Hill every year.  But I am hoping they can both attend a Camp in 2021, when Patrick is eight and Annie is ten.