'Carol had her own minister in tears when she arranged her funeral... he said he didn't know if he could face death with her strength'
Trevor Wightman bottled up his feelings after his 'lioness' of a wife, Carol, died from cancer at 55. But a chance encounter with a Tyrone charity has led to him urging bereaved partners to seek help. Ivan little finds out more
They were the very picture of happiness. Smiling side by side on a canal barge in Amsterdam, Carol Wightman and her devoted husband Trevor were clearly enjoying their holiday of a lifetime, even though they knew the elegant Co Armagh woman was dying from cancer.
And just a few short weeks later Carol, whom her husband dubbed his 'lioness', was gone leaving Trevor with a whispered plea for him to be strong for her and her loved ones.
Carol and Trevor had been left in no doubt three years earlier that her cancer was incurable, but after postponing a course of chemotherapy she insisted on going to Holland to celebrate her 55th birthday.
The inevitable end for which they'd been steeling themselves for came quickly following their return home, after just 22 days.
Trevor (63) clings to the memories and the pictures from their last holiday together in April last year.
"It was a very, very special time," he says.
The happy thoughts of those magical three days however can't dull the three years of pain that Carol suffered after she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, which sees the spread of cancer cells to new areas of the body often by way of the lymph system or bloodstream.
For Trevor those years were traumatic too as he came to terms with the reality that he was going to lose his cherished wife, no matter how much love and care he was able to give her and no matter what the dedicated team of doctors and nurses could do for her.
Trevor is still in awe of the way Carol confronted death. She organised her own funeral service and asked to be buried in her wedding dress.
"She told her niece to make sure the dress was clean. She also sorted out the jewellery that she wanted to give away," says Trevor, an east Belfast man who now lives in Co Armagh and who didn't share his wife's religious beliefs, though he takes comfort from the fact that she garnered strength from her faith.
He adds: "Carol had her own minister in tears after she spoke with him about her service. He told me that he didn't know if he could face up to death with her strength."
On what was to prove to be her last day, however, Carol confided in Trevor that she 'was a wee bit scared'. It wasn't long before a nurse advised Trevor to summon members of the family to the bedside.
"Carol breathed her last breath once everyone was in the room. Even the nurse said it felt very spiritual," Trevor recalls.
"I was glad that Carol had her faith. She used to talk about wanting to see her late father and grandmother again after she had passed.
"And as she was slipping away I said to her, 'Away you go pet, go and find your daddy'."
Trevor says he has done his best to fulfil his wife's dying wishes that he shouldn't lose control. "She actually told me not to make a mug of myself," he laughs.
The Wightmans, who had both been married before, met each other at work and Trevor says that while others described them as chalk and cheese, they knew they were right for each other.
In their 12 years together - eight of them as man and wife - they lived life to the full and they were looking forward to growing old together.
But fate had other plans for Carol. And the cancer diagnosis in March 2014 hit them both like a bolt of lightning.
Carol hadn't been feeling well and after scans on swelling on her body, she was admitted to Craigavon Area Hospital and underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured ovary.
Trevor says: "Carol recovered amazingly quickly but when we went for the two-week assessment with the oncologist he said they'd found metastases but not the primary cancer.
"He revealed that there was no cure, there was no remission and all they could do was manage the cancer.
"He was upfront and honest. But he couldn't say how long Carol would have to live."
Trevor says Carol immediately turned into a 'lioness', vowing to face her cancer head-on, fighting it every step of the agonising way.
He adds: "She did her own research and she thought she would have at least three years to live. She was right, though she did have an extra month."
Trevor says his wife's courage and determination made him feel inadequate.
She told him she wanted to fill the rest of her days with 'trips and happiness' if she was up to it.
She underwent two courses of chemotherapy and one course of radiotherapy, telling Trevor: "It is what it is, so let's get on with it."
She'd been monitored regularly before more complications set in, necessitating more surgery.
Trevor explains: "Carol was assured she was still fit enough and she asked for another course of chemotherapy to be put back so that we could go on that holiday to Amsterdam.
"After we came home Carol was back in hospital and we were told that she didn't have long, that it could be 24 hours or a fortnight. She passed after two weeks and a day."
The 'wilderness' months between the hospital reviews and the consultations with the cancer specialists and waiting 'for the brown envelope from the hospital to drop through the letterbox' had been terrifying for Carol, and for Trevor who says: "I'm not criticising anyone but in many ways a lot of things stop on the way out of the hospital door and patients are left on their own to deal with everything. Nobody tells you what is going to happen."
But by pure chance, the Wightmans stumbled on a cancer care service that was to help them cope with their doubts and their certainties.
"Carol was a serial shopper," laughs Trevor. "We'd gone into a shop in Portadown and it was the first time that she had been out without her wig.
"The shop assistant who knew Carol took her to one side and said she hadn't realised she was suffering from cancer and informed her about a charity who help victims and their families."
The couple had never heard of Charis Cancer Care just outside Cookstown whose free services in their eight years of operation have been accessed by more than 6,000 people, sufferers and their families.
Charis was to become a pivotal part of the Wightmans' lives over the next difficult months and years.
Carol had rung the Charis centre overlooking scenic Lough Fea outside Cookstown shortly after she'd discovered about the retreat and arranged to go for counselling. It turned out to be a lifeline.
"Carol used to drag herself inside the centre but afterwards she bounced out like the Duracell bunny," says Trevor who initially went along with her for support, stubbornly determined that he wasn't going to ask for, or avail of, any help.
He says: "I think men often reject any form of counselling or therapy. At first, I railed against the idea too. But when I was at Charis, the director, Imelda McGucken, advised me that I should have some treatments or a little bit of counselling to give me some perspective on our situation.
"I did have a massage as I waited for Carol, to pass the time really. Afterwards I fell asleep and I soon realised that my sleep patterns had been shot to hell. I was sleeping on eggshells in case Carol needed me. And if she was awake, I was awake."
Something that Imelda said to Trevor at Charis struck a chord and led him to use more of the charity's services.
"Imelda said that Carol was relying on me and asked me what would happen if I got sick and who would look after her. I realised I wasn't only a husband; I was also a friend and carer," he says.
Trevor went to a number of counselling sessions which he found extremely beneficial in dealing with different issues in his life as well as Carol's cancer.
He says: "I'd also questioned what good reflexology could do, but after getting the treatment at Charis I didn't have an ache or a pain."
After Carol died, Trevor was encouraged to keep going to Charis for counselling and complementary therapies. He's now part of a bereavement group and he's become an ambassador for the charity, supporting a fundraising drive to massively expand their premises with new facilities for counselling and treatments plus a new relaxation room.
Trevor has found the bereavement counselling from Charis who receive no government funding and need £300,000 a year to keep going, crucially important. He says: "Being a carer is like being a hamster in the wheel. Your life for three years is medical appointment after medical appointment and then all of a sudden someone takes your wheel away and you think 'what happens now?'
"You're in a place where you're simply lost and don't know what to do or where to go."
In recent months Trevor has been recruited to share his experiences of cancer care and bereavement and he's recorded a video about his and his wife's journey.
He has also participated in an initiative by Queen's University Belfast looking at the role of cancer carers.
A study there has revealed that the health of people who have been looking after family members or friends can often be affected.
Trevor has spoken at a training course for GPs who deal with cancer and he has appeared on posters promoting the QUB project.
The main thrust of the message that he's tried to get across has been to urge other cancer families, particularly men, to seek counselling and to 'look after themselves'.
He says: "In my previous employment I saw a lot of gruesome things and like many of my colleagues from the time I looked on counselling as a lot of mumbo jumbo, but I found that it actually gave me clarity of thought and far from having a closed mind, I was spilling out all of my inner feelings in counselling sessions."