'Dad died suddenly. Now I help thousands cope with grief'

·5-min read
Gabrielle and her family, in happier times (Gabrielle Williamson)
Gabrielle and her family, in happier times (Gabrielle Williamson)

Gabrielle Williamson was at a friend’s house last June when she received a call from her 18-year-old brother Findlay to say he was coming to pick her up. Their father Kevin had been rushed to hospital.

"It came totally out of the blue," says Gabrielle, 20, a politics student from Ayr. "Although Dad had been ill with oesophageal cancer since 2018, I’d seen him much sicker than this.

"In fact, we’d had a really ordinary day. I’d been baking a cake and he’d been playing out in the garden having a ‘sports day’ with our nine-year-old sister Poppy. So I certainly didn’t think this was ‘it’."

Tragically, Kevin, a much-loved local businessman, died in the early hours of the following day at the age of 49. "He had internal bleeding which thankfully, the doctors had managed to stop, and Findlay, my mum, uncle and I managed to be with him at the end," says Gabrielle. 

"We held his hand and told him how much we loved him. He slipped away peacefully but it was horrific for us.

"Until his diagnosis, Dad had been so fit and healthy. He ran marathons and didn’t smoke but by the time he got diagnosed – after suffering with a constant cough – the cancer was everywhere. 

"He’d been given three to six months to live and we were grateful that we eventually managed 18 months packed with lovely memories, but the grief was intense."

Gabrielle Williamson with her father Kevin (supplied, Gabrielle Williamson)
Gabrielle Williamson with her father Kevin (supplied, Gabrielle Williamson)

The support from the family’s local community was huge and over 1,000 people lined the streets for Kevin’s funeral. But there was another shock to follow when, a week later, Gabrielle’s mother Victoria became unwell and had to go into hospital.

"Mum had breast cancer in the past and we were shocked to find out that it had returned," says Gabrielle. "Her cancer had spread to tiny parts around her body and although it can be controlled, it’s incurable – although hopefully, she will live for many years."

Understandably, the entire family found themselves under intense emotional stress. Gabrielle had started a blog – just a month before Kevin died – to help combat feelings of isolation and anxiety. She was astonished by the response.

Gabrielle is using her Dad's legacy of positivity to help others
Gabrielle is using her Dad's legacy of positivity to help others

"I wanted to start a mental health blog because I knew that so many other people would be living with dying parents and I wanted to show them that they are not alone," she says. "My first post was simply four pictures from my Instagram page next to four pictures of how I really am, maybe crying or scared. I wanted to show people that social media isn’t real and that a lot more emotion can be going on behind the scenes.

"I couldn’t believe the response. The next morning I woke up and suddenly had 500 new followers from all over the place – the USA, Canada, Europe. They were aged anything from 14 to over 30 and the reactions were lovely.

"People were saying that it’s refreshing to see someone being so open about their mental health. I wanted to open up conversations about taboo subjects like grief and anxiety. 

I also wanted to show people that it’s ok to have a bad day. It doesn’t have to turn into a bad week or a bad month, you can pick yourself up from bad times and move forward."

Watch: Vanessa Bryant shares tips on dealing with grief

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Gabrielle’s community has now grown to nearly 3,000 people. She has started a virtual support group via WhatsApp and has had Zoom chats with people throughout the pandemic. Her blog has now caught the attention of the Scottish government and local authorities.

"I called it Let’s Blether because it’s such a Scottish phrase and I can talk for hours," she laughs. "But I’m working alongside the government to try to get more support for young people when it comes to grief and anxiety. I’m particularly keen to help young children – like my little sister Poppy – who really struggled to vocalise what she was feeling when Dad died. 

"I’m hoping we can introduce lots of different ways to help them with counselling and support or maybe a pen-pal scheme – these things may already exist but no one knows how to access them and that’s what I hope to change."

Gabrielle is in no doubt who is guiding her through the maze of bereavement – her father Kevin.

"Mum and I were talking about it last night, when I got quite emotional about missing him," she says. "I wish he was still here so I could share things with him. 

"I go up the cemetery and have a chat with him there. He was such a positive, energetic person and I know that it’s his energy and focus that keeps me going, doing something positive to help other people. That’s his legacy and that’s how he will live on."

Gabrielle’s blog can be found on instagram.com/lets_blether on Instagram

Watch: University of Arizona creates app to provide mental health support during pandemic

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