I couldn’t save my daughter’s life but I can save others.

In September, my daughter Gabi would have turned 19 and been a ‘Fresher’ had life gone the way she hoped. She would be in her first term at university. Excitement. Trepidation. Independence. Freedom. Opportunity. New beginnings for us both to look forward to.

I have been an empty nester for the past four years. That wasn’t the way it should have been.

At almost 13, Gabi was torn between her two favourite subjects, history- especially those Terrible Tudors (taking after her father who was a ‘History Boy’ at Oxford) and science. She had recently declared she wished to become a children’s doctor, so she could help children like her, when instead she died suddenly of a rare trauma-related condition called Non Epileptic Attack Disorder one Saturday morning in March, six years ago.

Faye’s daughter Gabi

I was widowed, a single parent for over a decade when my son Zach left home to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford and I became an ‘Empty Nester’ much earlier than any of us expected. I made peace then with the realisation that as so many opportunities opened up to him, the career path he had chosen and his life goals would mean he was likely never to return to live in Sheffield.

Now graduated and living life to the full in London surrounded by the host of amazing friends he met at uni, I enjoy hopping on the St Pancras train every couple of months. Once there, I get the hugs, cook-alongs, Scrabble tournaments (he mashes me every time, but I am well used to it!), National Trust visiting and Thames Path walks that continually remind us of all our happiest times together before he left home.

I confess it has been hard to see on social media, all Gabi’s contemporaries waving successful A-Level results and now starting their new lives. I know it is the last major milestone before they all go their separate ways in a variety of directions, but pictures of bulging car boots, duvets and toasters being unpacked in halls of residence (infinitely more salubrious than the ones my friends shared) and tearful goodbyes have reminded me of what we have lost all over again.

Not being an empty nester brings on a whole host of emotions: all the losses of dreams, hopes and unfulfilled potential are another form of bereavement all over again.

As I said in my blog about Zach leaving home four years ago https://www.keepyourfork.co.uk/blog/surviving-and-thriving-through-empty-nest-syndrome : ‘It is hard for any two parent family, but particularly us mums: I suspect because we are so often the main carer-nurturers and we do bear and birth our children, those umbilical cords are strong and pinging!

Faye Smith, director Keep your Fork marketing and training consultancy and son Zach as he graduated from The University of Oxford last July.

It is especially hard for sole parents of either gender I suspect, because there is not the partner still in the home to console or for mutual support. Although I do appreciate this is the time some couples look at each other and realise the children may have been the only glue holding their relationship together. That creates an opportunity to reform the relationship with new parameters and the same is true for us sole parents with our friendships.’

As I reflect on the past four years, I have done everything I planned to do in my last blog- apart from join an acapella choir, which is still on the cards. For now, I enjoy singing in my church community instead.

I have completely turned around my health and fitness, losing two stone and four dress sizes along the way through a nutrition plan and much healthier work-life blend with an uplifting regime of outdoor swimming (whatever the weather!), walking, training and running.

My weekly social calendar is packed with hosting other single women in my home, meetups at cinema and theatre – and come the weekend, a Sheffield over-40s Ramblers group is rapidly becoming a friendly, caring community. Lovely long walks at an energetic pace in the stunning Peak District in the ever-changing company of the hundreds of members. That’s if I am not setting off to see friends scattered around the country or down to London to catch up with my son.

The term after Zach left home, I was facing my 50th landmark birthday and took the opportunity to travel solo round Australia, keeping a promise to Gabi and something I had never previously had the courage, opportunity or funds to do. http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/promise-led-to-trip-down-under-in-daughter-s-memory-1-7848145

I never had a gap year before or after uni and putting my husband back through his law degree and training took all our spare cash for years, so I haven’t travelled much beyond last-minute European deals. In January 2016, I sold our family home and took off to Australia for two months, putting my clients into the capable hands of my exceptional trusted associates while I travelled solo round the continent. I photo blogged my adventures camping in remote eco resorts, driving abroad for the first time, taking an extended walking tour… and my only bucket list experience of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. It was a powerful time for taking stock, re-orientating, re-envisioning my life and a chance to grieve again for my daughter away from the usual cycles of work and life busy-ness and was covered extensively in the national media on my return. https://www.travelzoo.com/uk/blog/heroes-of-solo-travel-the-bereaved-mum-who-travelled-around-australia-in/

In order to keep positive about my return to ‘real life’, I made a list of 50 fun things I liked to do and made sure I ticked them all off in my fiftieth year. Walks, cinema trips to the Showroom, a nice chilled rose on a Friday evening at the Monsal Trail cafe… simple pleasures. By the time I was 51, I had ticked off 44 of the 50!

With my second ‘Empty Nest’ experience upon me coinciding with my engagement ending suddenly, travel has once again become a focus of my coming to terms with yet another new phase.

This time I am travelling to Africa with a special purpose to gain a whole new perspective with our amazing clients Africa’s Gift in January 2020, once again putting my business in the hands of those same trusted Associates. Led by my friend Ken Dunn, former national Geography Teacher of the Year and the completely inspiring founder of the charity, I will be showing women how to save their lives and those of their children by using a revolutionary award-winning environmentally- friendly cloth slow cooker called a Wonderbag. http://www.africasgift.org/make-difference-your-armchair/sponsor-wonderbag/

Recognized as one of the top 50 world-changing innovations, each Wonderbag is changing and saving lives in Africa, by reducing the amount of time spent stirring the pot and collecting fuel wood, as well as cutting the amount of water required by 80%. Once food has been brought to the boil, the pot is removed from the heat source and placed into the insulated bag to finish cooking. Each household using a Wonderbag also saves 1.6 trees and a tonne of carbon emissions every year.

Over 3 billion of the earth’s population, 50% of humanity, still cook on an open fire. Four million people across the planet die annually from indoor air pollution causes, because of inhaling burning fossil fuels and half those deaths are children under the age of five. Six people every minute, one every 10 seconds. In just one refugee camp in Darfur, over 200 women a month were being raped while walking up to 10 kilometres a day to find firewood. Then these women are experiencing over 200 times the smoke inhalation recommended safety levels.

Faye and Ken Dunn planning her Wonderbag community development trip to Lesotho in January 2020

To find out more or even join me on this life-saving trip, you can visit the Africa’s Gift website for inspiration. http://www.africasgift.org/ And if you can’t come, perhaps you or your business could sponsor a Wonderbag for me to collect in Johannesburg and distribute directly to the women I train in their use. How awesome is that? You can literally save lives today! https://www.africasgift.org/make-difference-your-armchair/sponsor-wonderbag/

Finally, my advice remains the same to anyone facing the empty nest. Make that list of lovely things you enjoy- especially those you haven’t had the time or energy to do before- and DO them. Gather your mutual support network to do them with. And always, always focus on the positive. Our able-bodied children leaving home is a natural part of life. Their independence is to be applauded, encouraged and embraced. Weeping, laying guilt trips and in any way suggesting they are responsible for our happiness will not help them… or us. As my coach friend Lisa Read says, always ask yourself what three things are positive about any difficult situation to revolutionise your mind set.

And to really get those endorphins buzzing again, find something you can do for those who have less than us to gain a greater sense of perspective. As Charles Dickens once said, “no one is useless who lightens the burdens of another.”

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