This article discusses the topics of death, grief and suicide, which may be triggering for some readers.
When Michelle Moriarty’s partner died shockingly young, he left her with two small children and an enormous hole in her life. Yet the Bunbury social worker found a way to help not just herself, but many others left floundering by starting up a grief support group.
Grief struck like a tidal wave when Michelle Moriarty’s fit, young partner suddenly collapsed and died of heart failure one day. It was so unexpected, so traumatic to lose her special person and abruptly become a widow, aged just 38. Everything changed with that one hammer blow. The future the couple had planned was gone forever. Sadly, they’d never again catch fish together, camp under starry outback skies, or watch dolphins play in the wide blue Indian Ocean. Five years down the track, Michelle is slowly rebuilding her life and recovering her sense of self.
What’s more, the courageous mother-of-two is now helping others do the same through her award-winning Grief Connect network. But she admits everything has been a struggle. “It was horrendous,” says Michelle, who was left to raise two little boys – then only two and six years old – in coastal Bunbury, WA. “From that point, every aspect of my life changed.” Nathan Johnston, her late de facto, left a giant void with his premature passing in June 2018, aged 38.
A bear of a man, standing 1.94 metres tall, the fly in/fly out miner doted on his son and stepson, always enjoyed a joke and “lit up every room” with his happy-go-lucky presence. “He was a big, silly kind of dad, a real cuddler, very affectionate,” recalls Michelle, who first met Nathan while they were still teenagers. “He was just this playful, jolly guy.” Travelling overseas separately in their twenties, they split up. “I was devastated and lived in London for four years,” says Michelle. But they reconnected back home in their thirties.
“I’d been married and divorced by that time,” says social worker Michelle. “Nathan and I started to hang out again and a relationship developed. I guess we both knew we wanted a family, so we moved in together quite quickly and our son, Cody, arrived pretty soon too.” For two years, life settled into a contented rhythm. Nathan would fly off to the mine, fly back when his stint was over, play with the kids, enjoy deep-sea fishing, socialise, maybe take the family for a caravan trip. And then, tragically, he was gone.
A few weeks later, Michelle discovered a jeweller’s card in Nathan’s wallet. Poignantly, he’d placed a solitaire diamond ring on hold four weeks before his death, planning a surprise proposal.“Until then, I didn’t really know what grief was,” Michelle admits, choking back tears. “I had the experience of losing my grandparents, but the death of a partner brings a whole other level of complicated trauma. “I was in shock for some time, which was debilitating. It affects your ability to concentrate and process information. That’s very difficult when your mind is just taken over by sadness.” She takes an emotional pause. “And secondary losses come along with the grief … It’s making one cup of coffee in the morning, instead of two.”
There are so many social changes, financial changes when you become a widow. How are you going to keep a roof over your head, put food on the table, go to work, get the kids to school? “A huge part of it is looking at that practical side of things – bank accounts, income, legal issues. Can you access your partner’s bank account? It all gets complicated and stressful. Simple things like letting phone companies know a person has died, and having to repeat it over and over again … “It’s not simply about losing your person, everything else is up in the air. What is your future? Where are your hopes and dreams, because they have all disappeared too? I had to find myself as a person again, rediscover my identity. Rebuilding takes time and it’s a real process because grief isn’t linear. It’s unpredictable and very messy.”
The importance of talking about grief
Family and friends rallied around, cooked meals, helped with the children. Everybody did their best but conversations could be difficult, confronted by such pain. “Some people avoided me altogether, or avoided the issue,” she says. “The subjects of death and grief are awkward and uncomfortable. As a society, we don’t really talk about them. People don’t know what to do or say.” Inevitably, all but Michelle’s nearest and dearest slowly drifted back to their everyday lives. “When there’s a death, at first there’s a flood of visitors,” she explains. “But gradually that dies off. It’s really difficult when they return to their normal lives, and you’re left to continue as a widowed person.”
Four months after Nathan’s death, Michelle felt incredibly isolated and alone. Despite the “immense” support she had received from her community, there wasn’t much other help available in a regional area like Bunbury. Bringing her social work experience to bear, Michelle decided to reach out to others struggling to cope with the loss of a partner. Sharing their stories, she reckoned, would have to assist on many different levels. “My hope, aim and vision is that no one grieves alone. We’re social creatures. We’re supposed to be able to reach out and support each other. It’s really important we learn to do that. Developing grief language is going to make the difference. It’s all about giving people hope, making them realise they’re not alone and improving mental health outcomes.”
How Michelle started her grief support group
First, she set up a Facebook group for young widows, which started with four members but now boasts more than 300. Then, in 2022, following the unexpected death of her adored father, Neville, she started another page focused on bereaved women and men over 55, like her mother. Grief Connect, an online organisation offering expert and peer support, counselling and practical advice, was her next idea. Like both Facebook groups, it is also open to men.
Michelle’s commitment was rewarded in March this year, when she won the prestigious 2023 WA AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award. “It’s been life changing and I’m very grateful,” she smiles. “The award has really brought widowed grief, and grief in general, to the forefront of public conversation and awareness. “It’s been incredible. It’s had such a positive response. Everybody has a story about grief. And this has connected me with many other rural women who have been supportive and encouraging.”
One of Michelle’s first recruits was mother-of-four Sonya Stone-Farrugia, who devastatingly lost her husband of 28 years – her former teen sweetheart, Richard – to suicide in September 2018. “It was very shocking because it came out of the blue,” confides the articulate, caring early childhood educator. “Initially, I think I just went into fight mode really … All I could think about was our children, who were then aged 17 to 25, and how I needed to protect and help them through their grief. I just kept telling them we couldn’t let this define the rest of our lives. “And while grief does define you as a person, and certainly changes the trajectory of your life, I wanted them to know we couldn’t wallow in it. We had to find a path through the grief to keep living.”
Her parents, plus a network of close friends and colleagues, provided unstinting back-up. But, like Michelle, the 51-year-old also encountered people who simply couldn’t deal with “the elephant in the room” when she was around. “It’s difficult and everyone deals with grief in a different way,” says Sonya, who lives in Australind, north-east of Bunbury. “Richard died at the house we were living in, and a friend immediately asked when we were going to move. “That was his reaction, that we must get as far away as we could. But I needed to stay there to process the grief and make decisions when I needed to, not off the cuff. I guess that’s just my personality.
“I remember the first day I went back to work, I walked into the staff room and a couple of colleagues were like deer in headlights – they didn’t know what to say. Honestly, I would rather people talk to me about it and get it out there.”Connecting with Michelle proved a godsend. “Meeting other people who had an understanding of what I was saying and how I was feeling was amazing. The Facebook group that Michelle formed for us, being able to chat to other people and support them in their grief at the same time as helping yourself, that’s fantastic.”
So, how do you best approach someone who has lost their partner? Through her Grief Language Project – yet another initiative – Michelle offers compassionate advice for individuals, businesses and community groups. “If your gut instinct tells you to ask someone how they’re travelling, that’s a perfect way of saying it,” she maintains. “It’s very gentle and a lot broader than asking someone how they are. experiencing grief some control over what they choose to share.” It can be really valuable to offer help with basic household chores – weeding, cleaning, cooking, shopping or organising appointments. But if you promise something, even an invitation to a barbecue, you must follow through.
Sometimes, according to Sonya, it’s enough just to lend a sympathetic ear and tell someone how unfair their loss is. “One of the best things ever said to me, and continuously, by one of my closest friends, was that it was really shit,” she chuckles. “That was her response, and it was great. “She just listened. She couldn’t help me, she didn’t judge. When she said it was shit, I knew she was there and understood, but she wasn’t going to dismiss those emotions I was having.”
Michelle firmly believes that the more we talk about grief, learn what it looks like and how to manage it, the easier it is when we come to it. “And grief does come to all of us, it’s part of being human.” Ruefully, she adds: “Time doesn’t heal the loss of a loved one, but it does ease the grief. It’s a lifelong process and it’s just about how we manage it. Quite often, in the widowed community, we talk about grief being like the ocean. Some days it’s really calm, sometimes it’s choppy and more challenging, or there’s a huge swell. Sometimes a tidal wave just wipes you out. That tsunami can be overwhelming. Grief is always there but I’ve learned strategies to handle it over time. “In the early days, I couldn’t see through to the next day. But here I am, five years later, and I delight in life. I have found joy and I love.”
There is a happy ending. Today Sonya has a “wonderful” new partner, and Michelle is engaged to marry old friend Ross Craigie, who reconnected with her after Nathan’s death. “He’s been amazing. He’s grounded and solid, and we do a lot of fun stuff together,” she says. “My dad was able to give our engagement the thumbs up just before he died, which meant the world to us.
“Re-partnering is not for everyone, but it’s all about being around people who put a smile back on your face. We’re allowed to enjoy life again! There can be a guilt that comes along with that, but just because you’re happy, that doesn’t mean you don’t miss the person you’ve lost.”
“It’s a big new journey,” agrees Sonya. “My partner, Scott, is helping me to grow and move forward as much as I can. I’m very lucky in that respect. While trauma can play a big part in your life, we all need to keep going. My mantra is ‘life is for living’, and I’m keeping to that!”