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I was shattered by the death of my husband… then I lost my daughter: One woman details her inspirational fightback from terrible heartbreak

© Andrew CawleyJackie Jones trains at BodyFit camp in Pollok Park, Glasgow before the latest lockdown
Jackie Jones trains at BodyFit camp in Pollok Park, Glasgow before the latest lockdown

The death of her husband nine years ago shattered Jackie Jones and, reeling from the loss, she struggled to piece her life back together. Then she lost her pregnant daughter.

“We were all there. They switched the machines off and that was her, she went very quietly and peacefully,” she said. “Her and Jack…we had named the baby Jack.

“I can’t describe how it feels. It’s like a red-hot knife is in my chest all the time, picking away at my heart, because I don’t feel like I’ve got anything left.”

Jackie, 54, had endured the death of husband Gareth, a soldier, after he took his own life at the age of 40 in 2011 and then suffered the loss of their daughter Holly, just 23, who died of cystic fibrosis seven years later.

Losing Holly, who was 18 weeks pregnant, broke Jackie’s heart, a heart already fractured as she struggled to understand the death of her husband.

She remembers wanting to crawl under a blanket and never see the sunshine again but has told her story to give others hope after gradually regaining a stability through hard physical exercise.

Gareth and Holly

Jackie said: “I knew I had to do something because if I fell any deeper than I was, I might not be here.

“I know that’s horrible to say after everything we went through, but I needed to do something and I was in that frame of mind where I realised I had to do it.

“When you wake up at 5am and hear the rain battering and the wind howling, you think, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to go’, but I always skip forward to the feeling I get afterwards. It’s really given me something to get out of bed for, a purpose.”

Jackie grew up in Girvan, Ayrshire, and had been working for the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes in Northern Ireland when she met Gareth in 1990.

He was in the Royal Welsh regiment, and they got engaged a year later and tied the knot in 1992. Gareth, a corporal, was deeply affected by the horrors he had witnessed during tours of Northern Ireland and Bosnia, and in 1996 he attempted to take his own life. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and referred for counselling by the army, but insisted he was on the mend.

He volunteered for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was also a devoted dad to Holly and her younger brother Louis. Both children faced challenges, as Holly was diagnosed with the lung disease when she was 18 months old, and Louis had autism.

The family was happy and when Gareth was stationed in Tidworth, Wiltshire, Holly developed a passion for horses and she met her future husband, Joe. She stayed in England to finish school when her parents and brother moved to Wales.

In June 2011, Gareth died by suicide. He had given no clues he had been struggling and did not leave a note.

His last words were to Holly when he phoned her to say, “I love you”, but she was not alarmed as he sounded normal and it was not unusual for him to make similar calls.

Less than an hour later, his body was found by Louis, who was then 12. Jackie tried to resuscitate him but he was already dead.

She said: “He didn’t leave a note, I had no inclination whatsoever and neither did anyone else. It came as a massive shock. Nobody knew anything and because he’s not here to tell me why, I feel as if even nine years on I can’t grieve properly, I’m angry.

“I’m angry with him because I want him to say this is why I’ve done that. Even if he’d left a note and said this is what it is.

“Over the years I’ve maybe made up my own mind it’s been the PTSD that got so bad he thought the only way out for us and to keep us OK was for him to do what he did. We had made plans for our future, we had made plans to get a house there and he was sorting out the training to do the job he wanted.

“You’re supposed to be some big rough, tough soldier in defence of your nation, but you can’t show your wife or family or your colleagues that you’re actually struggling?”

Jackie’s daughter Holly

When Holly finished college in Wales, Jackie moved the family back to Scotland. Holly got married to Joe and loved her job as a nursing assistant at Ayr Hospital.

But her health was deteriorating, and a type of bacteria growing in her lungs as part of the cystic fibrosis meant she would never be a candidate for a transplant. In 2018, when she was pregnant with Jack, she collapsed at Jackie’s home and stopped breathing.

Doctors at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow tried everything to save Holly and her unborn son.

Jackie recalled eventually turning to Joe and saying: “I think we need to let them go.”

Holly’s death had a devastating impact on the family, but Jackie was determined to keep going for Louis, Joe and her elderly dad. She found a purpose through BodyFit classes in Kilmarnock, and credits exercise with keeping her going through her darkest times.

She was already a gym member and also took Holly’s labrador, Otis, on daily walks but it was BodyFit that gave her the enthusiasm for exercise that has provided a vital structure to her life.

She was introduced to the classes at Ayrshire Athletics Arena by a friend of Holly, and prior to lockdown attended four times a week. Jackie said: “I’m making more ‘me time’ which is something I never bothered about before as I was all-consumed with everybody else.

“I think a certain part of me thinks I’ve got to keep going for them when what I really felt like was just lying in a corner and dying. Just crawling up under the blanket and never seeing daylight again.

“That’s how I feel at my worst and I can still feel like that because it’s raw.

“There’s support all the time at boot camp. It’s constant. You’re not just left to your own devices. Gradually I began to get a real liking for it about how it made me feel.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s not a second of the day when Holly’s not in my mind. For example, the second week before Christmas I couldn’t leave the house, I didn’t want to see anybody. That’s me at my worst.

“It started to make me think more of myself and what I needed to do and how I felt. I realised if I’m not on top form, then how can I be any good to anybody else?”


Need to talk?

Call Samaritans on 116 123 any time or email jo@samaritans.org (response time 24 hours)