How running helped me cope with my grief – and it could help you, too
Last summer, just two weeks after celebrating her 30th birthday, Abby Hills went for a run – and never returned.
It was a normal Wednesday evening in July. They’d put the boys to bed and Abby then decided to head out on a quick run. But after just 650m, around the corner from where the couple lived in Chelmsford, Essex, she collapsed. After becoming worried that she hadn’t returned home, Lee called Abby’s mobile phone – which was answered by a policeman – and rushed to the hospital where the doctors pronounced his wife dead.
‘I phoned my parents and told them it was an emergency, so they quickly came to watch over the boys while I drove to the hospital,’ Lee told RW. ‘It was about 9pm, so it was still light out. On the way to the hospital, I saw one of the side roads had two paramedic cars down it so I thought, I live in a small village: whatever happened, happened down that road. I assumed that Abby had been running with her headphones in, she’d crossed the road listening to music and a car – maybe going 10 or 15mph – had hit her. I assumed she was unconscious in the hospital and that I was going to sit next to her until she woke up.’
But the reality was very different. ‘When I arrived at the hospital, I immediately knew something was wrong – as the policemen refused to give me any details. I was led to the family room, where the doctor explained that Abby had collapsed and that, by the time the emergency services got there, her heart wasn’t beating. They reassured me that they’d tried – and were trying – everything they could to get it beating again, but so far hadn’t been able to, and at some point, they were going to have to stop trying.’
Sudden death is always a shock. But for Lee, 32, losing his best friend and partner of 12 years at such a young age compounded his grief. ‘When the doctor came back in to let me know that it had been unsuccessful and that she was dead, that was hard. But it was the next morning that was the worst – when I had to explain to my two-and-a-half-year-old that mummy wasn’t coming home.’
It’s almost impossible to imagine the pain Lee has endured – and the courage he needed to be strong for his children. ‘I had to use very final words: she’s dead, she’s not coming back. And it sounds really brutal but, actually, that’s what you’re supposed to do. I needed to do that for him, so he could grieve – and not hope that she might come back. I explained that she was with Nana in heaven, and he turned round to me and said "Back soon?" and I said, "No, she’s never coming back", and he burst into tears.’
At 30, Abby was young, fit and, as far as they were aware, had never had any health issues. This is why Lee is so passionate about raising awareness of SADS – sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. ‘In the coroner’s report that came back, it clarified everything I already knew: that she was healthy and nothing was wrong with her. Because the cause of the cardiac arrest couldn’t be found, it’s classified as SADS – when someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly [from a cardiac arrest].’
Less than a year later, Lee’s emotional wounds are still raw – but he’s determined to channel his grief and pain into something positive. That's why he’s running the London Landmarks Half Marathon on the 2nd April – raising money for the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young).
‘When I found out the cause of death, the first thing I did was go to my local GPs and ask for my boys to be tested. And the second was to work out how I could raise money and awareness. So I’m running this half marathon for CRY – who I also picked for donations at the funeral. I saw they take applications for the marathon, but I thought, I have two very young kids that I am now the sole carer for; I will not have the time to train for a marathon. But a half marathon, I could do.’
As Abby died while running, it could be tempting to look at running as the enemy. Lee sees it differently. ‘Abby didn’t die because she ran; she died because of a heart condition. It might have been the trigger at that point, but it’s actually nothing to do with running – she could have died during childbirth, she could have been walking the boys around the village or been in the supermarket.
‘I’m running to show people I’m not scared – to show running isn’t bad for you, and the same thing isn’t going to happen to me. I want to say, if I’m not scared, then others shouldn’t be – because running wasn’t the cause. Every time I go running, Abby’s on my mind. And when it comes to that part of the run that feels hard and I’m struggling, I’ll play one of the songs from the funeral, and it will remind me why I’m running – and I’ll forget the stitch. Abby definitely gets me through those tough moments.’
Lee’s hope is that through an increased awareness of SADS, other families won’t have to suffer like his. ‘If we can save one person, then it’s been a success,’ he says. ‘We’ll have prevented some more young children from losing their mum or dad, and prevented someone else from losing their partner. We can’t do anything to save Abby, but we can do something to save someone else.’
Lee is running the London Landmarks Half Marathon to raise money for CRY. If you'd like to sponsor him, visit justgiving.com. For further information visit llhm.co.uk.
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