Elizabeth Bargery: ‘Mum helped me rebuild my life’

Elizabeth Bargery was just 33 when her husband died suddenly a few days after the birth of their son. Heartbroken and unable to see a way forward, she turned to the one person who’d always been there for her, her mum, Jane.

Elizabeth’s story

Elizabeth Bargery, 35, a veterinary physiotherapist, lives in Cardiff with her parents and her three-year-old son Hugo.

Mum was with me the morning I found my husband dead, two weeks after the birth of our son.

It was her name I screamed when I touched his cold skin, her arms I fell into as trauma enveloped me, her voice whispering words of comfort through her own tears.

Back then, when I thought about my future, it looked bleak, terrifying and overwhelming. And it would have been all those things, and worse, had it not been for Mum’s constant presence, and encouragement that I could, and should, rebuild my life.

Dan, who I married in 2017, was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 18, but it was generally well controlled with medication. In the four years we were together after meeting online, he’d suffered a handful of seizures but when he had one a few days after Hugo’s birth in January 2019, I was frightened enough to move my mum in.

Elizabeth Bargery and husband Dan
Elizabeth and Dan married in 2017

Being woken suddenly could trigger a fit, so we agreed he’d sleep in the spare room, and Mum would help me with the baby during the night.

The last time I saw Dan alive, we kissed goodnight, said ‘I love you’, and went into our separate bedrooms. The next morning, with Hugo cradled sleepily in my arms, I found Dan cold and stiff in bed [Dan, 29, had died of a major epileptic seizure during the night].

Since that moment, Mum and I have barely been apart. She has supported me in every way imaginable and beyond.

From the outset, she refused to let me completely lose myself in grief, reminding me I was a mother – I had to think about Hugo. I wanted to retreat from the world, hide away and sink into my despair. She wouldn’t let me, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

She gently but firmly insisted I make up bottles and change nappies. She sent me out for walks with the pram. Later on, she packed me off to baby groups and took photos of Hugo and me at his christening and on his first trip to the beach. She kept me living in the present, engaged in my role as a mother, and making memories, even when it was the last thing I wanted to do.

When I revealed to her my darkest thoughts – that I resented Hugo because had he not been born Dan might still be alive, or that I wanted to die myself, and the crushing guilt and shame I felt for thinking like that – she didn’t judge or condemn. She just listened, understood and held me.

A few days after Dan’s death, I left our home in Northampton to move in with my parents in Cardiff.

I couldn’t bear to stay in the house he’d died in, all our hopes and dreams for the future replaced by nightmares of that moment when I found him.

Elizabeth Bargery and mum and son
Elizabeth with Hugo and Jane in 2019

Sharing Mum and Dad’s two-bed apartment with a baby wasn’t how any of us thought our life would be. Mum had planned to be a devoted granny, who came to visit and help, while also enjoying her retirement and travelling with Dad in their campervan. I should have been watching Hugo grow and change with Dan by my side, living the future we’d planned together. Instead, we were trying to navigate this new life thrust on both of us.

Of course, at times it was claustrophobic, especially during the 2020 lockdowns, but I never wanted to be away from Mum. I needed her in an almost primal way.

Not just for practical support – including caring for Hugo so I could return to work and study for a master’s – but to be the person I could say anything to, confess any emotion, cry with, even laugh with, when I still felt too uncomfortable being happy in public in case people thought that wasn’t appropriate for a widow.

When others would try to console me with platitudes such as, ‘At least you have Hugo’ or ‘You’re young, you’ll meet someone else’, she never did. She simply let me be sad, angry and, over time, stronger and hopeful that I could survive this experience.

In November 2020, my parents and I bought a four-bedroom home in Cardiff to share. Mum was very clear this had to be what I wanted – she and Dad would do whatever I needed, never wanting to smother me or stand between me and more independence.

I worried about this disruption to their life and plans too – two 60-somethings taking on life with a toddler – but Mum always said: ‘I’m not leaving you until you want me to.’

As a widow I’ve learnt there is so much judgment – but never from Mum. She doesn’t care that I still have Dan’s clothes in the attic, or that recently I’ve started to think about dating again. If I want to meet a friend for a drink, or I need to be alone in my room, whatever I feel is right for me, her support is unwavering.

I know soon Hugo will question why his daddy isn’t around and why we live with his grandparents. Mum has assured me that however I want to explain it, she’ll take my lead, because he’s my son and it has to be my narrative. She’s very clear with Hugo that she is Granny, I am Mummy. Her help is invaluable and her bond with Hugo so beautiful, but I make all the decisions and she never tries to take over my role as his mother.

My world collapsed when Dan died but, with Mum’s help, I’ve slowly rebuilt it. Even though I still have dark days, I also know how far I’ve come, and that there is further to go in forging a future for Hugo and me, with her by my side.

Jane’s story

Retired teacher Jane Williams, 63, lives with Elizabeth, Hugo and her husband Andrew, 66.

One of my happiest memories of Elizabeth is from a few days after Hugo was born, out with Dan for their first stroll as a family. Pushing the pram, she was glowing with pride and I knew in that moment she had everything she’d ever wanted. Creating her own happy family was always her aspiration, and I vividly remember the satisfaction I felt that my daughter had achieved her dream.

It’s a memory I summon when my mind wanders to that terrible morning when I found her cradling her baby, beside the body of her husband. Like her, I’m still traumatised, and that feeling of devastation I experienced has never left me.

I’m a fixer, someone who finds solutions, but no matter how much I practically and emotionally support Elizabeth, I cannot ‘fix’ this. I cannot bring Dan back and it is awful, as a mother, to feel so helpless in the face of your child’s desperate grief.

Elizabeth Bargery and mum
Elizabeth on her eighth birthday with her mum Jane

Some friends think I’m mad to want to share my home and life with a young child at my age, but to me it’s a privilege. I adore Hugo, who is my only grandchild, and having so much time with him, helping to raise him and watching him thrive, is just wonderful. We have a unique bond. Yet I would give that all up in a heartbeat and just be a typical grandmother if it meant Elizabeth could have her family life back.

It would have been so easy after Dan died for me to completely take over, but I didn’t. I knew Elizabeth would look back and regret missing Hugo’s early months and years, so I kept her involved.

On the day she registered both Hugo’s birth and Dan’s death, I encouraged her to dress up and do her make-up, so I could take a nice photo. And on every milestone, like Hugo’s birthdays, or when he got his first bike, even though there is always great sadness within her, I urge her to find joy too, so that when she reflects on these years, there are good memories among the hard ones.

One day I would like her to find love again, and perhaps have another child. Only once she is ready, though. There is no guidebook on how to help your child through bereavement but my mantra has always been: ‘Don’t let go’.

I held her hand as a child, and I continue to do that now – keeping her close, reassuring her she is never alone.

Elizabeth has received support from WAY (Widowed and Young), widowedandyoung.org.uk.

As told to Eimear O’Hagan