‘He looked so peaceful when I kissed him goodbye’

Shelagh Green, Director of Careers Services at Edinburgh University. Shelagh's first husband died young at the age of 35 from a heart attack. Pic: Jane Barlow.
Shelagh Green, Director of Careers Services at Edinburgh University. Shelagh's first husband died young at the age of 35 from a heart attack. Pic: Jane Barlow.
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Shelagh Green lost her husband James at the age of 34. Now she has told her story in a new booklet to raise awareness of Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome.

Alison Cox MBE, a bereavement counsellor and Chief Executive of Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) which offers grief counselling and support to those who have lost a loved one to Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome (SADS), launched a new booklet, Young Sudden Cardiac Death: A Partners’ Grief.

James Green, husband of Shelagh Green.

James Green, husband of Shelagh Green.

The booklet features ten personal essays from men and women who suddenly lost their partner to a – generally undiagnosed – heart condition. It includes a piece submitted by Trinity resident Shelagh Green whose, husband James died at the age of 34 during a cricket match 2002. Here we reprint Shelagh’s essay in full.

On Monday 20th May 2002 James returned from work, kissed me goodbye and left to play cricket.

Two hours later I was told to go to the hospital as he had collapsed. I remember my stomach lurching and understood what it meant when people said their blood ran cold.

In A&E a young doctor questioned me, implying James took drugs, and said James was not responding to being “worked on.”

He then confirmed James was dead. I don’t actually know who was in the room – several of the cricket boys and my brother Ian – when, at 34, I learnt I was a widow.

James looked so peaceful when I went in to kiss him goodbye and told him: “So many people are going to be so sad that you’ve gone.” We’d known each other 17 years, been together for 14 and married six months. Ian phoned our brother Stuart and James’s brother Michael, who told their parents. His mum was in poor health, and confronting James’s death, not their mum’s, added to the family’s disbelief.

The days and nights immediately after James died were bizarre. Staying with Ian I recall some moments with great vividness, including his intervention when I phoned James’s work the next day trying to explain why he wouldn’t be in. I often went on autopilot, recalling little; and woke early, lying in bed with an aching emptiness waiting for sounds of life. I recall sore jaws from clenching my teeth trying not to cry, convinced if I started again I’d never stop. I found the shower was a good place to properly sob. I felt as James’s wife it was my job to register the death, although it was hard to hold a pen and sign my name. Everyone gave practical and emotional support but having things to do became important.

There were eight children in James’s family and it was good that some travelled from London in the run-up to, and planning of, the funeral. Ian and Mick planned much of it but we all met with the minister, including Andy, James’s best mate and best man.

We selected hymns we thought people could sing. Andy read a poem I chose. Mick did the eulogy.

Although James was Catholic I chose a cremation and celebration of his life rather than a burial, which was what I felt he would have wanted.

I wore black trousers but a colourful top and boots to the funeral; I didn’t want to send him off looking like a dowdy old woman. Stuart wisely suggested we visited his coffin alone. It was one of the toughest things I did that day. The funeral was awful but great seeing how loved he had been; feeling supported and cared for; watching Andy reading so emotionally; hearing Mick’s moving tribute to his big brother. It provided a kind of punctuation mark in the grieving process, and for me was a rejuvenating experience.

I knew returning to living was going to be way harder.

Saying my world turned upside-down doesn’t begin to explain it. The external world remained familiar, yet everything was different and out of place. I felt adrift and alone despite being surrounded by loving, supportive friends and family. Surreal - being there but distant, looking in on it all with a constant, knotted pulse in my stomach and a rawness where it felt I had no skin.

My family sidelined their grief, focusing on supporting me. It was particularly hard on Mum who understood the pain of losing a partner because of Dad’s death; but now suffered the sudden loss of her much-loved son-in-law, whilst also helplessly witnessing her child’s despair. She allowed me to vent my anger, uncritically concealing any hurt she felt, but sometimes I found her anxiety to help frustrating. She couldn’t make things better and I felt it was pointless 

Moving back to our flat and trying to find some way to connect into life was difficult.

Initially it just meant putting one foot in front of the other and reverting to the shower for a sobbing session when necessary. I couldn’t sit still, neither wanting to be with people or alone; so I wandered around town near others, but not having to engage with them.

On the bus I wondered what was happening in other passengers’ lives, knowing they could not guess at mine.

The Procurator Fiscal investigates sudden deaths in Scotland, which includes a police visit. The autopsy confirmed no suspicious circumstances so this wasn’t traumatic and it helped that one of the officers was my friend Neill. The cause of death was recorded as “Undetermined (pending laboratory investigation)” explaining further tests could take 16 weeks; and was finally updated to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy.

As testing began on James’s family, the sudden death of a cousin and ill health of others had a major impact.

Sibling bonds strengthened and dealing with the genetic implications united them even more. Some were reluctant to be screened, which depressed me as his death was easier to accept if others could be protected. Not being screened challenged that.

Mourning James meant mourning my opportunity to have a family and I still wonder what life might have been like with children. James’s death made me more independent. At 34 I didn’t feel my life was over. I’m who I am now as a result of many experiences and influences over my lifetime – including James - and I have managed to recreate a new life.

However, I’m not sure how I’ll feel when, hopefully, such time arrives as I’ll have been with my new partner longer than James and I were together. I am comforted that James’s family still want to be part of my life and so grateful they’ve been able to accommodate my new husband, and vice versa. James left home 15 years earlier and a sister remarked it was only seeing me alone that reminded her he was no longer still in Edinburgh.

However, it compounded the family’s grieving when their mum died six months after James.

My family are closer too now, and better value each other. We’re more open and demonstrative with a bond and level of trust that feels different. When I really needed them they were there for me and we have a shared experience that has cemented our relationships.

The same is true for some key friendships. A core of four friends saw me through – making me cry and laugh, giving hope and encouragement. They often didn’t know what to do – neither did I – but were just there. They remain amongst the most important people in my life. Some other relationships have drifted which feels fine too. Lives move in different directions.

James was a wonderful bloke and a fantastic husband. Driven, principled, determined – he had a zest for life, loved adventure and was the last to bed if there was a party.

His PhD in Tropical Ecology reflected his passion for the environment, with field work in Borneo, projects in Indonesia, and three years post-doc research in Cameroon.

He appreciated a Munroe or chaffinch as much as a rainforest or hornbill.

People mattered too and he ensured his family and friends knew that.

James was a competitive but fair sportsman. A smart guy, great company, and I’m very lucky that he was part of my life.