The widower of a woman who died from Covid-19 after opting against vaccination while pregnant has told how he feels his wife is still with him as he raises their daughters alone.
The family of mum-of-four Samantha Willis was left bereft after her death in August, just weeks after her baby was delivered by caesarean section in a futile bid to save her life.
As her husband Josh faces up to his first Christmas without Samantha (35), he described the deep sense of comfort he gets from spending time at his wife’s final resting place.
He also revealed that despite his devastating loss, members of his family are still not vaccinated against Covid-19.
“I can’t tell people to get vaccinated. I can only tell them our story and let them make up their own minds,” Josh said.
“The only difference between me and Samantha is that I was vaccinated and she wasn’t.
“I lost my smell and taste. Samantha, who had no underlying conditions, lost her life.
“Even after everything we’ve been through, there are still people in my family who aren’t vaccinated, but that’s their choice.
“It’s the anti-vaxxers who try and stop people from getting vaccinated that make me mad.
“What I would say is, if you’re on the fence about vaccination, think about what happened to my family because if Samantha had been vaccinated, she would be here today.
“I can’t turn back time and change what happened, but it isn’t too late for others.”
While adjusting to life raising his two young daughters alone, Josh has visited Samantha’s grave almost every night since her funeral.
“I just feel that wee bit closer to her when I’m there,” he said.
“I know her coffin is there under the ground and I feel like she’s there with me.
“I left the cemetery one evening and felt her link her arm in mine and walk beside me, then it was like she stopped when I got to the gate and let me go on my way.
“I know that it sounds stupid. I can’t explain it. People might say I’m making it up to make myself feel better, but it doesn’t happen when I’m feeling particularly sad. That day in the cemetery was just like any other day. I wasn’t feeling any worse than normal.
“There have been lots of little things. She would have spoken about white feathers. After she died, I was sorting out our bedroom. We had ordered new wardrobes, but they had been delayed and all our clothes were boxed up. I’d been putting off getting everything into the wardrobes because it was something we had been looking forward to doing together, but I decided I had to start sorting things out. I had everything in the wardrobe. I came to the last thing and it was my Ireland top — we used to go down to Dublin for the Ireland matches together. When I lifted the top out, there was a white feather stuck to it.”
Samantha and Josh met “by accident” on a night out in 2012, with their first date a monster truck event at Derry rugby club.
“Her friend had fallen on the floor and my friend picked her up. That’s how we met. It was a wee slow-burner and we got on well,” explained Josh.
The couple, parents to Lilyanna (4) and Eviegrace, who turns five months on January 5, married in 2019 after bringing forward the date — a decision Josh is now grateful they made.
“We had planned to get married in 2020, but everyone said it was too long to wait. It’s a good job that we brought it forward. Otherwise, we might never have got married because of Covid,” he said.
“You’re only supposed to do it [get married] once and I wouldn’t want to do it again because it was such a brilliant day.
“I wouldn’t change anything about it. We were looking forward to a lifetime together.”
Josh is now faced with bringing up Lilyanna and Eviegrace by himself.
“Lilyanna had been quiet for a very long time and it is only about six weeks ago that she seemed to come back around,” he said.
“She would just lie and watch television and didn’t really play much, but we have had her at play therapy and that seems to be helping.
“She did have her first day in primary one without her mummy, though.
“It’s been hard for me to give her the time that she needs because I obviously have Eviegrace as well.
“Beforehand, it was just me and her and now she’s coming to terms with having a wee baby in the house and not having her mummy around.
“To be honest though, if I didn’t have the girls, I don’t know where I would be today.
“It’s nearly like there’s a big wall in front of me that I can’t see over.
“I know what has happened but not why it’s happened. To be honest, I’m not sure I feel much different to how I did in August.
“I have to keep going for the girls. They keep me so busy that I’m that exhausted at night that I have no trouble sleeping.”
The couple, from Strathfoyle, Co Londonderry, were diagnosed with Covid-19 on the same day. While Josh experienced mild symptoms, Samantha began to struggle for breath.
“We found out Samantha was pregnant on Boxing Day last year. At the time, the advice was that pregnant women shouldn’t be vaccinated. When that changed, we decided we would wait until the baby was born,” he said.
“When I dropped her off at A&E, I didn’t even give her a kiss. I thought she would go in for a few days and get some oxygen and then she would come home, but it was the last time we spoke to each other in person.
“They decided they had to deliver Eviegrace to try and take the pressure off Samantha’s lungs.
“There were two things she really didn’t want to happen: to have a C-section and to give birth alone.
“Fortunately, I was able to Facetime her, so I could at least talk to her through the section and Lilyanna was there too.
“They showed us Eviegrace when she was born and then whisked her away because they didn’t want to risk her getting Covid, but it was the last time Samantha saw her and she never got to hold her.
“There were times when Samantha was in hospital when things were looking up.
“I thought she had a long road ahead of her and might need oxygen for a few months, but I thought she was coming home.
“Then one night, I was out in the car with Lilyanna and the hospital rang to say how sick she was. I had to tell her that her mummy wasn’t coming home. Her wee face dropped.
“Next year was supposed to be a fresh start for us. We thought we would have come through the worst of Covid and we’d be able to start doing things again.
“I suppose we have to get through the first Christmas. I’m hoping Lilyanna will be so busy with her presents that she doesn’t get upset.
“We just have to get through it. I know Samantha will be around us somehow, somewhere.
“It’s going to be hard for the girls as they grow up when they hear their friends talk about their mummies and the other mums are at their school plays and things like that.
“Lilyanna talks about her mum all the time. When she sees a bright star in the sky, she points at it and tells me that’s her mummy. I hope she doesn’t forget her, but Eviegrace never got to know her. That gets to me.
“One day, when they’re older, they will be able to watch the funeral and look at the pictures, which might sound strange, but they will be there for them if they want to see them.”