'My husband died in front of me. Now I help others cope with grief'

·5 min read
Jane Dixon has now retrained to help others cope
Jane Dixon has now retrained to help others cope

Jane Dixon smiled as her husband Steve surfed down the slopes of a vast Arabian sand dune. The couple, from Wigan, were on a two-week break in Dubai in June 2018, and enjoying a day trip with their 13-year-old twin daughters.

"Steve wasn’t normally the sort to do anything like sand-surfing so I was surprised when he said he’d have a go," says Jane. "He looked to be enjoying it but when he reached the bottom, he took a little tumble and started holding his chest.

"He said he was fine and even climbed back up to the top of the dune. But suddenly, he collapsed to his knees and as I turned to fetch him some water, I saw a look of horror on my daughters’ faces. I turned back round and Steve was face down in the sand."

Jane’s life was turned upside down in an instant. Steve, a franchise director for a motoring company, had died of heart failure aged only 46 and suddenly Jane found herself a widow, stranded with her teenage girls in a strange country.

Happy on their wedding day (Supplied, Jane Dixon)
Happy on their wedding day (Supplied, Jane Dixon)

"We were in total shock," she recalls. "Steve and I had known each other since our early twenties and had been together for sixteen years, with five children between us. 

"He was so funny and could get on with anyone – whether it was the managing director of a major business or the cleaner.

"He’d had a few minor heart problems years before, but was never expected to die early. Only the previous day, we had been enjoying the sunshine and he was talking about how much he’d like to retire at 55 and enjoy some time at home. Now he was gone."

It was in the weeks and months after his tragic death that Jane realised how little was on offer in terms of help with bereavement for families in her local area.

Read more: Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss

"When we got home five days later, people kept asking me how I was and I said I was fine but clearly I wasn’t," she admits. 

"There were a lot of issues with our twin daughters, who had witnessed their dad’s death and were clearly traumatised by it. Yet funding had been removed from a local bereavement charity and at the girls’ school, there was a lack of understanding and basic communication about how to deal with bereaved children – something I’ve learned is not unusual.

"For instance, one of the teachers wasn’t even aware that Steve had died and wondered why my daughter wasn’t herself. I needed to do something to change this. Not just for our family, but for other families too. One in 29 children have a parent or sibling who has died – that’s one for every class."

Jane and Steve had been together happily for 16 years
Jane and Steve had been together happily for 16 years

Six months after Steve’s death, Jane organised a charity ball raising £17,000 in order to start a bereavement service in her area. After approaching a local youth club - Bolton Lads and Girls – who matched the £17,000, they were able to start the service which has now helped hundreds of families.

Jane, who was a stay-at-home mother before Steve’s death, also retrained with Child Bereavement UK and Grief UK. "I wanted to become a grief recovery specialist, helping people to cope with grief or loss of any sort – whether it’s the death or a loved one or a pet or loss of health or a relationship. 

"My main focus is helping children with loss, so I train teachers, carers and anyone who works with children in how to help them cope when someone dies.

"There are so many myths surrounding grief that we have to dispel, such the fact that many people think we should be hiding our emotions and not crying in front of others. 

"If a child gets upset in the classroom, they’re often asked if they want time out or to go to the toilet but they should be allowed to talk about their grief and express their emotions openly."

Jane says that her experience with Steve’s death has given her an insight that many grief counsellors or bereavement specialists simply don’t have. 

Jane has retrained and finds fulfilment in her new role. (Supplied, Jane Dixon)
Jane has retrained and finds fulfilment in her new role. (Supplied, Jane Dixon)

"Learned knowledge from a book is important but it’s nothing like lived experience," she says. "Before Steve died, even I was guilty of saying all the wrong things. 

"Steve’s dad died of a long illness a year before Steve died and I said: 'At least he’s not suffering’ and ‘He’s in a better place’. I now realise those things really don’t help someone who is grieving.

"That's why the training and communication is imperative with children. If they grow up with unresolved grief, never given the right tools or ability to talk about this they will likely will go into young adulthood with mental health issues including anxiety and depression.

Read more: Coping with grief

"This is why all schools should have several people in their care that can help a child who is going through grief or loss - and it shouldn’t always be the head of year or pastoral lead, the people most schools put forward for training," Jane adds. "You never know who a child feels safe enough with to make a disclosure - it maybe the welfare staff at lunchtime or the caretaker.

"My new job is so rewarding. Only this week I’ve certified five people – including a primary school teacher and a childminder – who can go back to their roles knowing how to help children through loss. 

"And after the year we’ve just had, there will be so many more families who need this help. I can’t imagine doing anything else."

For details of Jane’s courses contact familybereavementspecialist@outlook.com

Watch: Hospice of Michigan: How Music Therapy is Helping Children and Adults Cope With Loss

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life edit
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