“When you have lost hope, you have lost everything: And when you think all is lost, when all is dire and bleak, there is always hope.”
I love this quote. But there can be times in our lives when it does feel like hope has all but gone. When the walls are closing in. When the darkness feels so oppressive that it begins to feel like there is no way out.
Many of us will face moments in life that will leave us questioning whether there is any hope. We may end up so floored by a life changing event or experience that we will be left wondering whether there is going to be a better tomorrow, and for some we’ll be left questioning if there is anything to even live for anymore.
This was me at the start of 2018. Just a few weeks before, everything in life had felt good. I had been married to my wife Gemma for twelve years; we had a wonderful eight year old boy called Ethan, a beautiful house and after over a decade at Sky Sports working my way up the broadcasting ladder, I was presenting live Premier League football. To those looking in they might have been left feeling that we had it all.
But then over the space of a few short weeks in the autumn of 2017 everything suddenly changed – forever. Out of nowhere I began to suffer debilitating mental health problems. Without warning I started to experience huge anxiety around work, something I had never experienced before. As the anxiety intensified, the panic attacks began to creep in. Every time I tried to work I felt a mess mentally. Meltdowns only minutes before going live on air for a game became a regular and crippling occurrence. Everything that had once felt second nature when it came to presenting, now felt virtually impossible. A job I had loved had now become a nightmare.
By the end of October I had to be taken away from the intense glare of the studio lights and cameras, and be given some time off work to get myself better. I remember so clearly feeling a sense of hopelessness. It felt like part of my world had totally collapsed and I was left full of fear that I would never be able to do my job again.
Whilst I began to tentatively take steps on the road to recovery, Gemma began to feel unwell. As the days of November began to pass, she was experiencing headaches that seemed to never go. As the daily headaches continued the fatigue she was feeling started to become so pronounced, that even the simplest things became exhausting. As we approached the penultimate week of November her health was declining rapidly. After three trips to the doctors over the space of six days where the advice was to do nothing more than rest, we had had enough.
On a Monday night we took her to A&E and by the early hours of Tuesday morning we were being told the news that sent a shuddering chill down our spines – ‘your wife’s blood is deranged; she has blood cancer.’ It was one of those moments where momentarily everything feels like it’s stopped. The news you’ve just been delivered is so huge, so life changing, that you struggle to even hear the words being said let alone register their gravity.
By that Tuesday afternoon Gemma was diagnosed with a rare, but very aggressive strain of blood cancer called Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. She was given a 50/50 chance of surviving. Whilst we held on tightly with both hands to the hope of that fifty percent chance of survival; by the Friday morning she had developed complications and despite the efforts of the very best doctors there was nothing more they could do.
By Friday evening on November 24th, 2017, at the age of just 40 and only days after diagnosis; Gemma died.
As Pittacus Lore wrote, it felt like at that moment I had lost everything. Everything suddenly did feel dire and very bleak; but on that freezing night in November 2017 and for many months afterwards, it didn’t feel like there was any hope. It felt that hope had died with Gemma. Even as a Christian, as someone who knew of the story of hope that is threaded through the Bible; I felt nothing but hopelessness and emptiness. Life just a few short weeks before had felt like a rich, beautiful painting. Yes, like life, the painting had its imperfections; but it was vibrant and full of colour. Now it felt like all the colour had been drained away and all that remained was an ugly jumble of black and white lines.
For the early weeks of 2018 life became little more than survival. Getting to the end of each day alive and with my eight year old boy Ethan fed and as happy as he could be given his heart had just been shattered, was a small but significant victory.
The days and the nights were like being in a relentless storm. The chill of the sea was the pain of loss – never relenting and from which there felt no escape. The wind and the waves were like the endless myriad of questions and worries about the future that filled my mind every second of every day. What would the future look like? How would it work? Would Ethan ever recover from the harshest of blows? The darkness that loomed above the storm was the fear. And that is my abiding memory of traumatic grief – pure, inescapable fear. If that was what life without hope was like, I felt like I had found it.
Often when I would think about hope during this bewildering period I would often just view it as simply a vague wish that something might happen, that something perhaps, at some point would change, that life just maybe wouldn’t be like this forever more. And then in May of 2018 something did change and it proved to be a profound moment in finding hope and ultimately life again.
For anyone who has been through the loss of a loved one they will know all about the ‘firsts.’ In the year that follows the death of someone we love there will be the unavoidable firsts – your first birthday without them, their first birthday, the first Christmas, if they were your wife or husband, the first wedding anniversary, the first anniversary of their passing and so the list goes on. They are inescapable, unavoidable and plentiful.
For Ethan and myself the firsts came very quickly. Less than two weeks after Gemma’s funeral it was Christmas. Then a month later it was my birthday and much as my wonderful friends tried to make it special; it was the kind of day where you wanted to bury yourself in a deep, dark hole and pretend it wasn’t happening. A few weeks later it was Mothering Sunday – a day celebrating mothers, except Ethan no longer had one. Every one of these early firsts felt like you were being punctured numerous times by a needle of painful poignancy.
Once these early firsts had passed there was a period of respite; but then, looming into view came Gemma’s birthday in May. The year before we had celebrated her 40th with a garden party at our house, a night when she was a picture of health and happiness with all of her friends around her. But here we were less than a year later and she was gone. As I sat and pondered for many days about what to do I felt a strange sense of hope. A sense that an anniversary that could end up being a day ladled with sadness and darkness could be something different. Something positive instead of a negative.
To cut a long story short, that ray of hope that struck in late March ended up becoming a huge garden party in May on what would have been her 41st birthday – over 200 people there, a marquee, music and a moment of reflection as we buried some of her ashes at the foot of the tree we had planted in her memory. Of course there was sadness, at times painful pangs of emptiness as my mind drifted back to her 40th party only ten months before; but it was everything I wanted it to be. It was like a proper goodbye, whereas her funeral five months before had been a pain filled blur.
As I stood next to her tree in the quiet of the warm May evening sunshine the next day, reflecting on all that had come before, it would become a moment that would prove pivotal in everything that has happened in my life since.
That moment in March, when I felt that unfamiliar sense of hope it sparked me into doing something. I could have passed it off as a momentary mad idea and thought nothing more of it. But instead it had set alight something inside me. Without realising it, hope had jolted me into realising that if I could grab hold of it, and run with it, then maybe, just maybe life could be good again.
As these thoughts echoed through my mind and I stared at her tree something changed. For months I had convinced myself that life would never be good again and that the only thing that would be good and positive would be seeing my boy grow into the man that I would know his Mum would be proud of. As for me; I had little hope or expectation. I had lost nearly everything I had cherished and however many years I had left of life, they would be about somehow just muddling through.
But the more I stood there with the late evening sunshine on my back, the more a feeling of hope welled inside me. I knew life could never be the same again – that was impossible; but why couldn’t it be good again? Why should I settle for some kind of plan b? A second rate version of life?
From that moment forth, I decided to find life again, infused with a very real hope that one day life would be good again. Was it easy? No. Was it straightforward? Absolutely not. For many months to come there were times when the darkness would once again close in. There were days when I would rise from my bed and feel a genuine sense of optimism about the day ahead; but then out of nowhere, an unexpected wave of grief would hit again and the day would become little more than a struggle just to get through. Hope didn’t suddenly wipe away all of my problems; but what it did do was infuse me with a determination to hold on, even if by only one single finger tip to the belief that one day life would be good again – a life where joy and pain could co-exist.
And this was an important reality for me to grasp. However much I yearned for a fulfilling, joy filled life again, the pain of what had happened to us as a family in late 2017 was never going to go away. But could joy and pain somehow co-exist alongside each other? The answer to this question lay in something Ethan said to me in March 2018 when he was given the amazing opportunity to be a mascot for England’s friendly against Italy at Wembley. It was an extraordinary night that I will never forget.
As we drove home later that evening with Ethan still in his spotless England kit he said something to me that I will always remember – “Dad, that was such an amazing night; but I feel so sad because Mummy wasn’t there to see me.” Hard thought those words to hear were, this was it – this is how his life and to an extent my life would work going forward. In all those life milestones ahead whether it be passing his exams, or perhaps getting married one day, they would be a blend of joy and pain, and one wouldn’t lessen the other. Whatever situations and challenges in life we face; it’s important to be at peace with the fact that it is OK in whatever moment you’re in; to feel a mixture of feelings – joy and pain can live alongside one another.
As I reflect on where I am five years on, I can scarcely believe just how much my life has changed. I have found love again with a beautiful woman called Derrina. I have married again and just a few weeks ago Derrina gave birth to our wonderful daughter Talitha. In spite of all he’s been through in his short life; Ethan is growing into a kind, caring and emotionally intelligent young man. And after fearing that I would never be able to go back to presenting live football again; I have gone back to it and love it more than ever.
Despite everything life has thrown at us over the past few years; I know that Ethan and I are incredibly blessed. I don’t write these words as a boast; but simply as an encouragement. Whatever you’re facing in life right now; however tough and challenging, there is always a narrow way through and there is always hope.
Hope does something to us – it changes us. From a place of despair it acts like fuel to drive us to being more confident, more resilient and to a place where anything is possible. If you’d said those words to me in early 2018 I’d have probably punched you. But that’s the power of hope – it can bring purpose out of pain, life out of pain and a will to embrace life again, whatever life may bring.