Kerry Baggott on the fine line between grief and menopause

I can tell you the precise moment I began ‘the change’. It was on the afternoon of 27 November 2020 at 2.50pm. That was the moment that I watched my husband take his very last breath. He was just 50 years old and I was 49. That was the moment I became a widow and the single mum to our two daughters.

Initially the change in my body came in the form of a bizarre sense of strength. I was so focused on being strong and showing the girls that ‘everything is going to be OK’. I clearly remember standing behind the podium at the crematorium in front of the small lock-down congregation saying goodbye to Jeremy, the love of my entire life – my best friend for the past 30 years – without shedding one single tear. I don’t even recognise that woman now.

Where did she find the strength?

I’d always been a fairly level headed woman, a capable juggler (admittedly dropping the occasional ball), outwardly confident, a self-proclaimed control freak and, thanks in part to Jeremy’s zest for life, I tended to be a positive, bubbly person. Jeremy had been sick with a blood cancer, called multiple myeloma, for two years by the time he died. It’s an incurable cancer, so we knew the end was going to come way too soon. It was a rollercoaster couple of years, but we’d both always been so strong and positive.

Now he was gone was not the time to fall apart. I was determined to show our girls that multiple myeloma was not going to kill us too. In the 18 months that followed I threw myself into fund raising; I ran a half marathon; I renovated a house and we moved home; I finally organised a proper farewell to Jeremy holding a fantastic ‘celebration of life’ and I and the girls took our first holiday as a family of three. All this while being mum (and dad) to our girls as they navigated the changes of teenage life while grieving for their daddy.

And then it finally hit me. Bam! I was utterly exhausted. My zest for life was gone. I looked haggard and tired. My resilience was depleted and it took the most minor thing to push me over the edge and into a sea of tears. I felt I was hanging on to life by my fingertips and my heart ached. The searing pain when I finally stopped trying to prove that ‘everything was going to be OK’ was excruciating. It wasn’t OK. It was far from OK.

In my darkest of days I just wanted to stop the world so I could get off it and be with Jeremy. I didn’t have the strength or the desire to carry on living any longer. The once confident me, was now thwart with anxiety. I couldn’t make any more decisions on my own. I’d panic at the slightest issue, catastrophising it.

At night I’d fall asleep thinking of Jeremy and there he was still forefront of my mind when I woke, increasingly in the early hours of the night. The lack of sleep was taking its toll. I began to snap unjustifiably at my adorable girls. Their bubbly, positive mum was disappearing.

Dragging myself out of bed some days felt a massive challenge. The thought of filling yet another long and meaningless day felt daunting. I was empty. I was lost and alone without my husband. This is what full-blown grief looks like. It’s ugly. It’s dark.

And then I started to forget things. Forget appointments; forget names that should normally be on the tip of my tongue. I even got lost driving into my local town. Was this what they call ‘widow brain’? Was grief taking over my body? I was so overwhelmed by my grief – controlled by it.

Surely I should be getting better after two years, not worse? By now 51 years old, my periods had been getting progressively lighter and irregular.

And then the sweats. Thank the Lord for the sweats. I say ‘thank you’ because the furnace that increasingly engulfed my body was the first physical symptom that told me that I was hurtling my way towards the menopause. It was a light bulb moment. Perhaps many of the symptoms I had been attributing to grief were, in part, menopausal?

Cat Amour, also known as the ‘Hormone Fairy’, is a certified menopause health coach offering a natural approach to peri and post-menopause symptoms. Not only does she work with a lot of widows, but she is also a widow herself.

Cat measures levels of hormones in her clients’ bodies using the DUTCH method – a dried urine test to measure hormones and hormone metabolites, which access hormone production and breakdown.

“Not surprisingly, widows tend to have extraordinarily high levels of cortisol – the stress hormone,” says Cat. “Not only are they coming to terms with the trauma of losing their life partner but also they suddenly have to make massive life-changing decisions and navigate a new life without their soulmate.

You’re running on adrenaline and cortisol. You’re probably not eating properly, sleeping well, looking after yourself and the eventual symptoms are severe fatigue, panic attacks, anxiety, low moods, brain fog – even hot flashes can be down to cortisol.

These symptoms are so similar to those experienced when levels of oestrogen and progesterone naturally start to fall – which is what happens in the peri menopause. So, when grief and peri menopause collide, the emotions and symptoms are exacerbated. You’re hit with a double whammy and it’s so hard to tell what is grief and what is the perimenopause.

When this happens, it’s even more important to look after yourself and nourish your body. For most widows, cortisol can be the primary culprit, so it’s vital we address this first as well as look to balance your other hormones. It can be a more complicated and emotionally tough process.”

The timings seem somewhat cruel. Losing Jeremy meant I was confronted with an involuntary change to my lifestyle; a vicious change to my dreams; a sobering change of perspectives and now, the inevitable, natural change in my body, all at once.

It’s a fine line that I continue straddle, but, drawing strength from the love that I will always have for my gorgeous husband, I do so knowing that I will get through this change and eventually I will create a new life worth living (for him) and me.

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We understand there’s a lot of information out there on the menopause. You can read through the NICE guidance on menopause management, as well as the NHS overview on the menopause.