In the Spring of 2015, just weeks after their engagement, Ute’s fiancé David passed away suddenly. Exactly four weeks and two days earlier, the couple stood on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where David asked Ute if she would be his wife. With what felt like so much life and love ahead of them, Ute never imagined that her hope for the future would be replaced with devastating feelings of grief and loss.
Ute’s story is one of inspiration, hope and courage. She is someone who has moved from feeling completely hopeless, to wanting to live life to the full by helping other widowed people, and sharing the things that have helped her…
Hope for the future
On Ute’s 50th birthday in December 2014, David surprised her with the news that he had planned a trip to Paris in March. Things were really looking up for them, because just three months earlier, Ute had returned to the home she shared with David in Linlithgow, Scotland, permanently. Before this, she had spent 18 months commuting between Linlithgow and Southern Germany for work. Once home, she began working for her previous firm, in a role as a Senior Management Consultant, which she thoroughly enjoyed, and life was good.
When Ute and David’s trip to Paris rolled around in March, the pair climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower, where David surprised Ute again, by asking her to marry him. Her answer was of course, a resounding yes! Later that month, the happy couple flew to Dusseldorf, Germany to see James Taylor (David’s all time favourite artist) in concert. This trip was a present from Ute to celebrate David’s 50th.
Ute says that there was nothing that either of them looked forward to more than their future together – and they had plenty more exciting things planned. With so much joy and happiness surrounding their future, Ute could never have planned for what happened next.
“My wonderful, strong man was gone, and I was a widow at 50. Nothing made sense anymore and it was as if I was playing a role on a stage”
A few weeks after their engagement, David suffered an asthma attack and died suddenly in hospital. As someone who was rarely ill, and having only ever suffered from a cat allergy – David’s death came as a huge shock. In a single day, Ute’s life had changed forever. After arriving home from the hospital alone, with a bin bag that contained David’s clothes, shoes, keys and mobile phone; the next few weeks were a blur.
Thinking back to some of her first thoughts and feelings after losing David, Ute says, “I remember that time as moving through some kind of thick fog. My wonderful, strong man was gone, and I was a widow at 50. Nothing made sense anymore and it was as if I was playing a role on a stage. I was waiting to wake up and for the nightmare to be over.”
Although Ute had friends and family on hand to support her – offering her a shoulder to cry on, as well as bringing her cakes, books and wine – she still felt as though no-one fully understood what she was going through, or how erratic the grieving process can be.
She explains, “I was lucky to get a lot of support from my friends and family, but often it felt as if there was an invisible wall between the people who still had their “whole” lives and me. As if they are looking in from the outside, no matter how well they meant and how kind they were. And the last thing I wanted, was to be pitied and people feeling sorry for me – that made me feel worse.”
“I think people who haven’t experienced the loss of someone so close to them tend to underestimate the impact it can have physically and mentally. The initial fog is just the start, the really hard bits come later, when it sinks in that this is the new reality. I felt fragile, anxious and exhausted.”
“There was something strangely comforting and healing in fully leaning into the pain, the grief. Just letting it happen – as it needs to, we can’t run away from it”
Before long, Ute found herself going back to work at the consultancy firm. But she quickly realised that she no longer had the drive or the energy for it, and she began to struggle. Ute says, “After David died many things lost their meaning and my day job was one of them. It felt as if my brain had gone on strike. If the functioning capacity before was 100%, there was maybe 40% left at the most. The rest was occupied by grief.”
Realising this, Ute began searching for new meaning and purpose in her life; constantly asking the question – “Why am I here?” She questioned everything, and it felt as though she was on a chaotic rollercoaster where she couldn’t predict how she was going to feel from one minute to the next. Looking back at her grieving process, Ute says that getting closer to nature, journaling, painting, reading, and practicing mindfulness and yoga, were some of the main things that helped her to cope. She walked in nature, listened to the waves, and made her own soy wax candles and face masks. She read everything that she could get her hands on about people who had survived a painful loss and managed to find happiness again. And she also found comfort in writing about her grief on paper, often in the form of letters to David or herself.
Speaking about her coping strategies in the wake of David’s death, she says, “Some people find it helpful to keep busy and fill every slot in their diaries to avoid being on their own. For me the opposite was true as I found every social interaction incredibly exhausting and couldn’t wait to get back to my safe bubble of being on my own. There was something strangely comforting and healing in fully leaning into the pain, the grief. Just letting it happen – as it needs to – we can’t run away from it. Whilst social interactions drained me, I found that connecting with nature made me realise that everything is connected, which helped me to feel very close to David.”
Ute gradually started to appreciate life again...
Although the journey to finding peace and contentment again was a long one – involving hair loss, lunchtimes sat in her local cafe crying into her notebook, and an aching heart – Ute says that gradually she started to appreciate life again. It was at this point that she developed a desire to help others who were also coping with the loss of a partner. This urge to make a difference, sparked an idea for what is now known as Fire & Rain Soul Spa; retreats for widows and widowers organised in beautiful locations about Scotland.
Explaining the idea behind her venture, Ute says, “People who have lost their life partner usually still want to go on holidays somewhere nice – but going on your own is scary when you feel fragile, and you don’t necessarily want to go with happy couples or well-meaning friends who don’t really understand. Existing offers for the bereaved are usually either full-blown therapy or have a strong religious focus. I couldn’t find anything that’s about enjoyment, creativity and has a holiday feel to it.
“Fire & Rain is a project very close to my heart as for me personally working on it is also a way of honoring David’s memory. The name Fire & Rain comes from the James Taylor song with the same title, which David often played on his guitar. JT was his hero!”
As well as running the Fire & Rain retreats, Ute also curates and organizes art and craft experiences in Scotland for visitors from all over the world, with her other business Wild at Art. She had already begun setting up Wild at Art as a little side business while David was still alive, so she already had experience of organizing feelgood holidays and retreats.
Ute uses the retreats as a chance to share with others what she has learnt on her own personal journey with grief, and to give widowers a safe space to speak about their own emotions and experiences. They also focus on self-care and enjoyment – as much as this is possible after suffering a great loss.
Delving deeper into how she and her co-host Sarah (who is a yoga teacher and writer), run the retreats and what they have to offer, Ute explains, “Guests find time and space to be alone, but with the option to dip in and out of warm, compassionate company whenever they feel like it. That peer support is incredibly powerful – you can just be yourself without being judged.
“Often guests start to feel uncomfortable talking about their spouse and their grief to their friends and family – out of fear others might get sick of it. Because they look on the outside as if they were coping fine and seem “normal”, people around them assume they must be “over it”. Guests often feel a big sense of relief realizing they can talk about their story as much as they like and others are genuinely interested.”
The response to the retreats has been overwhelmingly positive, and Ute is grateful that she has been able to offer others the opportunity to practice self-care, discover new ideas, and share their experiences with other people who understand. Many of the retreat groups also keep in touch with each other and have formed WhatsApp groups, so that they can continue to support one another.
“I like the analogy of a bereaved person being like a work of art that has been shattered into pieces - when you carefully put the pieces back together again and seal the gaps with gold it becomes a beautiful new piece. But it can never be the same again”
Coming back to her own experience with grief and loss, Ute says that although she has been able to find some happiness again, she still misses David every moment of every day. But she explains that this is okay, she wants to move forward, not to move on. For Ute, moving forward means making every day as meaningful as possible until she is able to see David again one day.
She continues, “Near the beginning of this journey that nobody wants to be on, I could not imagine ever being happy again – but I am. And I want to live life to the full in the time I have left. I’ve learned how precious life and my time is. I’m living more mindfully and only spend it on what’s meaningful to me.
“The grief of losing David never goes away – and I wouldn’t want it to as I need to feel this connection. But it changes in shape, so it becomes possible to live with it. Together with the memory of that special person, grief becomes a part of you. I like the analogy of a bereaved person being like a work of art that has been shattered into pieces – when you carefully put the pieces back together again and seal the gaps with gold it becomes a beautiful new piece. But it can never be the same again. Grief isn’t something we pass through as there is no other side. We rather learn to live with it and build it into our new lives.”
Speaking directly to anyone else who may be dealing with grief and loss, Ute offers some kind words of advice. She says, “It will get easier, I promise. There’s a reason you’re still here – dare to take time out to allow yourself to just be, and observe how you feel. Try new things when you’re ready. Find the things that feel right for you and mean something to you in this new normal. There is no time limit to grief and nobody else can tell you how you should deal with it. Take one day at a time, or an hour, or even just a minute…baby steps.”