Karen Sutton, five years ago was washing the laundry when someone walked into her house. Simon Sutton, Simon’s husband, was on his bike ride with Mark.

Assuming they’d forgotten their keys, Karen went to answer and was surprised to find Mark on his own. As he approached her with his hands crossed over his mouth, the despair in his eyes was so intense that Karen knew something had gone wrong.

‘He said, “I’m so sorry.” I asked, “Is he dead?” And he said, “Yes”,’ she recalls. ‘I remember holding his arm, and asking, of all things, if he was joking. I started shaking.’

Simon was riding onto a grassy verge, and Mark asked him to take a moment. Mark glanced back to see that his friend had fallen from his bike. Simon was given CPR by a GP who drove past. An ambulance was also called.

Karen Sutton, 44, who was in despair after her late husband Simon (pictured) died from a heart attack has become Britain's first 'Widow Coach'

Karen Sutton, 44 (pictured), was devastated after Simon, her late husband, died of a heart attack. She has now become Britain’s first “Widow Coach”.

An hour later Simon, who’d had a heart attack, was pronounced dead at the scene. His age was 43.

‘At first I didn’t want to tell our two young daughters, to protect them,’ says Karen, 44. ‘But the police officers — who were crying themselves — said it was best to be honest. I sat them down and said, “While Daddy was out, his heart stopped working and he’s died”. Ella ran after Sydney, who burst into tears.

‘I felt heartbroken and powerless. This was a defining moment for them — they’d never be the same again.’

Karen realized that she was not alone after so many months. ‘I felt I was in pieces. I didn’t consider suicide but could relate to people who felt they couldn’t carry on. It felt as if I was in a coma. I wanted the pain to go away.’

These days, however, Karen’s grief no longer debilitates her. The pain and isolation of losing her husband has stopped affecting Karen. In fact, she now has a sense of gratitude for the lessons Simon’s death taught her — an unimaginable sentiment, perhaps, for the recently bereaved.

‘Of course I’m not glad Simon died,’ she explains. ‘I miss our wonderful conversations, but Simon’s death has taught me so much. I am more fulfilled and content than I’ve ever been. Learning to be myself again has been liberating and empowering.’

It’s for this reason that Karen, who quit her job as a midwife after Simon’s death to raise their daughters, Sydney, now 14, and Ella, ten, has retrained as Britain’s first Widow Coach. There are many other professionals who can coach bereaved people, but she’s the first to specifically cater to spouses.

Karen said 'because we don’t talk about death, we’re not prepared when it happens. The flurry of emotions that hit you are scary'. Pictured: Karen with Sydney and Ella

Karen said ‘because we don’t talk about death, we’re not prepared when it happens. It is scary to feel the flurry emotions. Pictured: Karen with Sydney and Ella

She draws on her personal experience and professional training to help women love again.

‘I wanted to let others know you can regain control,’ she says. ‘Being bereaved hurts but you can find joy again. Guilt is always attached but you can work through it.’

It is difficult to lose a spouse during middle age when most women have to manage children, work, and care for their elderly parents. ‘For some, those responsibilities keep them going,’ she says. ‘For others, they tip them over the edge.’

Death remains taboo despite all the information we post about our lives on social media. According to Karen, a pragmatic, humorous woman whose clients sing her praises, we live in a grief-illiterate society: ‘Because we don’t talk about death, we’re not prepared when it happens. The flurry of emotions that hit you are scary.’

She also said that women grieve differently than men. ‘Men are far more restorative, more forward-thinking and will usually meet someone new a bit quicker. Women are less reflective. They feel guilty — about the last thing they said to their partner, that they didn’t love them enough, that they want to start dating again.’

I held onto his hand. Sobbing, I said: I’ll be strong for the children 

Today, Karen is ‘at peace’ with her grief. She has been in a relationship for two years but her late husband’s ashes remain in her wardrobe. ‘I like to talk to him,’ says Karen. ‘I want to see what our girls will want to do with them when they’re older.’

Simon was her friend for five years, before she and Karen became married in 2003. ‘He was forthright, confident and funny,’ recalls Karen.

After Sydney was born three years earlier, the couple married. Ella came along in 2011. Simon, the managing director of a vet company, was a ‘hands-on’ dad who took charge of nappy changing and bedtime, later taking the girls camping. ‘He adored the children,’ says Karen.

Simon loved to exercise to relax. In his 30s, Simon completed three marathons.

Karen said Simon (pictured) liked to use sport to de-stress, completing three marathons in his 30s and cycling in his 40s - but developed high blood pressure

Karen said Simon (pictured) liked to use sport to de-stress, completing three marathons in his 30s and cycling in his 40s – but developed high blood pressure 

His blood pressure rose to 40 when he was already in his 40s. ‘His doctor had told him to monitor his blood pressure but, a typical man, he didn’t. When he got cross I would say, “You need to calm down, you’ll have a heart attack”, but I never thought he would.’

Mark and his wife, Mary, arrived in September 2016 to live with them. ‘Mark suggested they go for a ride in the morning. The night before they had a few beers and Simon fell asleep on the sofa — we thought we’d got the better of him.

‘But he came upstairs, got dressed, went back down to make the kids a hot chocolate, told them to be good and said he’d see us in a few hours. That was the last thing he said.’

Being able to accept myself has been liberating. 

Karen and the girls shared their bed that evening after they received the devastating news. She recalls: ‘I remember not wanting to go to sleep, because a new day would mean I couldn’t say I’d seen my husband that morning. It would create a distance from him.’

It wasn’t until the following morning, when Mark took her to the spot where Simon had died, that the enormity of his death hit her.

‘I lay on the ground howling,’ she says. ‘I wanted to leave my wedding ring there, to feel closer to him. Of course, I’m now glad I didn’t.’

Karen saw Simon’s body at the funeral director’s. ‘His hands were grey, and when I kissed his forehead it was cold, but otherwise he looked like he was asleep,’ she recalls. ‘I held his hand. Sobbing, I said, “I love you. I’ll be strong for the children and for you.” I sat with him several times that week. It helped.’

Karen said Simon's death gave her appreciation for the simple things, as she now enjoys runs and meaningful conversations. Pictured: Karen with her daughters

Karen stated that Simon’s loss gave her a greater appreciation of the small things. As a result, she enjoys running and having meaningful conversations. Pictured are Karen with her daughters 

Although her daughters didn’t want to see their dad’s body, they visited his casket before his funeral. ‘We wrote letters for him and took his slippers. They tied ribbons to the handles and laid their pyjamas on top,’ she says. ‘Children can be in despair one minute and playing the next. It’s called “puddle jumping” among grief experts.’

Karen felt helpless following the Cheltenham Crematorium’s funeral. ‘I thought, “Now what?” Grief is exhausting. Just functioning takes everything out of you.’ Unable to eat, she lost 1st 7lb in six weeks. Two panic attacks led to her being admitted twice to hospital. ‘I had chest pain that spread to my arm and jaw. These were my first heart attacks.

‘I became obsessed with the thought that I’d die and leave the girls without a parent.’

During her training she would learn of the importance of eating nutritious food while grieving — even if you don’t feel like it.

Finding joy after losing your job 

  • Move your partner’s possessions if seeing them is too painful. One client kept her late husband’s slippers by the door for two years, despite them upsetting her.
  • Be honest with your children, even if it feels like you’re sharing too much. Experts agree it’s better to tell them their father has died rather than ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’. They should also see the depth of your sorrow. Normalise it.
  • You should treat your body like an invalid, especially when it comes down to eating. It’s possible for your body to be in shock so stick with simple meals like soup and smoothies. It’s OK to buy these ready made if you can’t face cooking, but remember that junk will worsen your mood.
  • Accept that it’s fine to feel anger. Learn how to release it. Some people might shout, poke a pillow or exercise, while others may keep a diary.
  • Socialise. Although you might not wish to be surrounded by your friends as much, we can’t heal in solitude. Online support groups and meeting one-on-one with friends are available.
  • When you’re vulnerable, the paperwork that accompanies a death can be the final straw, so ask family and friends to help. Citizens Advice is also available for support.
  • At Christmas, take the pressure off of yourself. Tell people you are giving your time instead of gifts, turn down invitations you don’t want, and if you do say yes, plan an exit strategy in case you’re overwhelmed.

‘If our community hadn’t brought us meals we’d have lived off toast,’ she says. ‘It’s about finding things to eat that feel palatable and can be made in batches.’

Karen reached her lowest point in May 2017. ‘I’d been down for weeks and felt I was sinking deeper. I didn’t want to say or do anything.’ She was prescribed sleeping tablets and anti-depressants. ‘They shouldn’t be seen as a quick fix, but they helped,’ she says.

This summer she attempted online dating. Although she went on several dates, some of the men weren’t comfortable when she shared her story.

‘They felt they couldn’t compete with a dead person. A man who was also divorced was struggling to cope with the grief. It was too soon to start a serious relationship but dating helped give me a sense of normality.’

She sought professional help in the early part of 2019. ‘I hadn’t gone back to work, I felt unfulfilled, I’d put weight on and felt unhealthy. My daughters needed normality.’

A life coach was a great help. Karen gained mental clarity by exercising and eating healthy, as well as learning to not judge herself harshly.

Simon made her realize that she is not the same woman as she used to be. ‘Back then my idea of fun was to drink and dance. Now it’s to go for a run, to have meaningful conversations. Simon’s death gave me an appreciation for the simple things.’

Karen met Andy (54), her partner in life. He was a recently divorced engineer. They met through charity auctions. ‘He is respectful about Simon’s memory and encourages us to talk about him,’ she says. She and her daughters talk about Simon daily: ‘Their grief will show up throughout their lives, but I have instilled Simon’s love of life in them, and they’re happy.’

Karen began training to be a coach for widows in November 2019. With no precedent, she combined a course on how to coach those dealing with break-ups with David Kessler’s grief educator programme — a three-month online course — and a year-long course with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in America, covering everything from physical health to finances.

Her clients tend to be in their 50s or 60s. Some clients came to her after losing their husbands two months later, while others after 8 years. The average time is one year. ‘Some lost husbands suddenly, others after long illnesses,’ she says. ‘Each has different traumas.

‘I’m not qualified to deal with mental health, but I can walk with them and provide a safe space to share, with no judgment.

‘It’s an honour to watch their transformation as they take steps towards a brighter future. I’m proof that this is possible.’

Call the Samaritans at 116 123 for confidential assistance