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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C

Opinion A shock diagnosis left me a 30-year-old widower - here is how I survived

‘Something I’ve tried to live by over the past year is a lesson I learned soon after the bereavement- you honour the dead by choosing to live well, writes Noel Byrne.

THERE WERE ONLY three weeks from cancer diagnosis to death.

When you’re 30, you never think something like this will happen to you. This isn’t how it’s meant to be. We had so many plans – things we wanted to do and places we wanted to see.

The thing is that you’re not just grieving the person you’ve lost, but also the future you thought you were going to have with them.

Honestly, it’s hard not to feel like I’ve been robbed. That Kathy was robbed. That our families were robbed.

There is no greater plan here. Giving a 29-year-old woman an aggressive form of cancer that she never had a chance to beat, never even had a chance to fight against, is just so cruel.

Initial bereavement

When I returned to our apartment for the first time, there was a weird sense of comfort, but it also felt utterly surreal. Everything as it was, but at the same time, never will be again. 

I also wasn’t sure how I was ‘meant’ to feel. Although society seems to have this narrative around grieving and what to expect, I quickly learned there is no right or wrong way. Everyone handles grief differently.

It’s too unique an experience for there to be a fixed pattern that everyone follows. Grief is not a destination, it’s a journey. And there is no map.

A friend offered me some invaluable advice early on – don’t allow the expectations of others to impact you.

People may expect you to be a certain way but do what makes you comfortable. If this means lying in bed all day, do that. If it means going to a house party, do that. You do you.

Some people expected me to be depressed or in a constant state of upset when they met me – but it doesn’t work like that. I still go out, I still work, I still laugh.

It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten though and I have my ups and downs. Grief comes in waves but it won’t dictate my life entirely.

Crucially, it’s OK to be OK and a lot of people forget this.

Finding My Way

Something I’ve tried to live by over the past year is a lesson I learned from Dr Geoff Warburton’s TED Talk ‘The Adventure of Grief’.

You honour the dead more by choosing to live well.

To some this may seem like a difficult choice but consider this – how would Kathy want me to be?

Would she want me to close myself off from the world or to shut out friends and family? Would she want me to just mope around all the time? No, of course, she wouldn’t.

How would I want Kathy to be if the roles were reversed?

The last thing I’d want for her is to spiral into an unending sadness. I’d want her to live the best life she possibly could. 


When you feel sad – be sad. Sometimes it can come out of nowhere and overwhelm you. Let it. It may only hit you every now and again. 

I think if you bury the emotions, or just ignore them, it’ll do more harm in the long term. Embrace the emotions, let them bring you wherever it is they’re going.

Talking is important. Who you talk to is up to you, whether it’s a family member, a friend or a counsellor.

My approach has been to be open and honest about how I’m doing and how things are going. If someone asks, I’ll answer them honestly but will never force the conversation on anyone. Some people find discussions about death and grief a little too much and that’s fine too. 

For people who are supporting someone who is bereaved – if you do ask someone how they’re doing, just remember that you don’t need to solve any problems, sometimes listening is all that’s needed.

Equally, people may not want to talk so don’t pressure people into doing so. They will when they’re ready.

Saying that I went through, and continue to go through, periods of wanting space and wanting to be alone.

There are times that I don’t want to talk and that’s OK too. Having family and friends around is important though, to know you can reach out when you need the help.

Friends have been a vital part of my life over the past 12 months. Whether intended or not, they bring a sense of normalcy. With friends around me, I never feel alone, I feel that I can do this and that I will find my way.

A New Routine

A month after Kathy’s funeral, I was keen to get back to work, to get back to a sense of routine. Once I went back though, I realised I’d made a mistake. I didn’t want routine at all, I needed the opposite.

I finished working at the start of April and it allowed me more time and space to do what I wanted, to go at my own pace. I believe this was the best decision I made. If you feel the need to and are able to do so – I’d highly recommend taking such a break.

I ended up spending a lot of time going for walks and hikes – and just generally embracing nature. Being out in the open grounds me and really declutters the mind. It’s a sense of calm I treasure.

Push back

Kathy and I were together for 11 years. She shaped me into the person I am today right up until her last breath. It’s her strength and positivity that I’ve tried to channel over the past year. It’s shaped my actions and choices and will continue to do so.

When something like this happens, it really does change your perspective on life. It forces you to reassess where you’re at and what’s important to you.

As a society, we often just do what’s expected of us, what we think we’re meant to do. We’re merely going through the motions and not really living at all. We use different excuses to settle for the way things are, even though it leaves us unfulfilled.

Deep down, many of us want things to be different, to take a path we’re afraid to venture down for fear it won’t work out. The truth of it is that sometimes it doesn’t lead where you hoped but at least you gave it go. You took the chance and that’s more than most people do.

For me, my path has been unexpectedly rerouted, but this is part of my story now and it is part of who I am.

The day Kathy died, part of me died too. Certainly, this was not how our lives were meant to be nor something I could ever have imagined happening to me. 

But when life pushes you to the edge, you have to push back. 

Noel Byrne is a former journalist and has returned to college to undertake a Masters in Public Affairs & Political Communication in TU Dublin.

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