My life has been touched by some uber amazing women whose passion for life and the way they choose to live it have really inspired me. Some are bloggers, some are not, their lives are all different and they are all special. I feel honoured and privileged that they are sharing their stories and sprinkling a little bit of their awesome right here. May you be wom-inspired!
Meet Fiona Barnes
So a few months ago, my friend Steph ran the London Marathon. She is inspiration on her legs and you can find out why here. Anyway, Sydney is a long way away from London so I was virtually cheering her on via Instagram. As you do. So as fate would have it, Steph crossed paths with Fi at the finish line and when Steph shared a snippet of Fi’s story with a photo of them together, I knew Fi had to be a part of this series.
Fi is an amazing young woman and her story is one of heartbreak, love and courage. She’s so inspiring and if you read her story, you’ll find out why.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Fiona, I’m 27, I’m from Amersham which is a town in the countryside about 30 miles north west of London. I work in HR for the BBC and I have lived back at home with my parents since September 2014.
On the 21st September 2014 my partner, James, had a cardiac arrest and died at the end of the Reigate Half Marathon. James was also 27, he was fit, healthy and the happiest person I will ever know. I watched in horror as a group of friends and paramedics tried to resuscitate James for 90 minutes as our life together and all my future hopes and dreams vanished before my eyes.
James and I had known each other since school and we had been together for 5 years. We had a great life and a wonderful, easy love which just worked. We travelled the world together, we loved food and we had hopes of a life together for another 60 years or more. We thought we were invincible! We loved living, and embraced life with open hearts and minds. We loved life together, as we loved each other.
James died from sudden arryhthmic death syndrome (SADS). This means there was something wrong with the electrics of his heart but that I will never know what because diagnosis is impossible in a heart which isn’t beating. The senselessness of James’ death has rocked me to the core. His post mortem stated every organ was healthy and happy… There seemed to be nothing wrong with him. Yet, there was. It still pains me to write that this is why James died and to accept that someone so perfectly healthy and buzzing with life was harbouring a heart condition of some sort.
Unfortunately, James’ family have coped with their grief very differently to me and they do not speak to me. To say I have struggled with their rejection is an understatement and I spent a long time wondering what I could do to stop them blaming me. I have now come to a form of acceptance of their decision. I have overwhelming and incredible support from my family and from a huge group of friends, without whom I’d be lost. I have also found support from a charity called CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) who raise awareness of SADS and offer free heart checks for 15-35 year olds. They estimate that in the UK alone 16 young people die every week from this silent killer, and that 90%, like James, have no symptoms. It’s absolutely terrifying and sadly, something many people have never heard of, including myself until September.
James’ death obliterated my universe and I have spent the past 9 months trying to rebuild some sort of existence for myself from the destruction. I am lucky that I am a naturally positive person and I have been very focussed on trying to make some positives out of something so devastating. CRY heart checks cost them £35 per person and their statistics suggest that 1 in 300 heart checks show cardiac abnormalities. I decided that if I could raise enough money to fund 300 heart checks then I’d have saved a life and I’d have prevented one more partner and one more family having to go through this indescribable pain. With friends I have now raised nearly £20,000 for CRY in James’ memory and I ran the London Marathon on 26th April, which was a huge personal challenge both physically and emotionally.
Tell us 3 things you are and 3 things you’re not.
Full of energy. I wasn’t aware of this but I’ve been told it so many times that I can see it in myself now. I feel like I lose this during the darkest days of my grief but post marathon it has mainly been back with abundance! This isn’t just about physical energy, apparently I just have presence. I think this might be to do with my zest for life. I want to see things, do things, lap it all up while I can. I was like this before James died but this is especially true now I am living for 2. The flip side of this is that I don’t warm to people who moan, don’t see how much life has to offer and don’t know how lucky they are.
Determined. I am strong, I can be stubborn, I am a “bad ass” as my friend puts it. If I set my mind to something, I will do it and I will do it well. Now I have trained for and completed a marathon during the hardest time of my life I feel like I can do anything. I really believe that thinking positively and working hard for something you want will reap benefits.
Kind. I’m emotionally intelligent and very aware of how my friends and family feel. I’m very caring, warm and loving. Sadly, I would say that James’ death has made me less tolerant to petty issues and also more stoic than I was before. I’ve surprised myself with how in control of my emotions I’ve been and how resilient I am. If someone had told me a year ago that James would be dead, I’d have told them I’d have died too. But to get into bed and not get out was never an option for me, and it wouldn’t have been what he’d have wanted either. He’d be telling me to live, to do everything I want to and to do him proud. I think I’m doing well so far.
I am not…
Patient. I don’t like waiting for trains, buses or for the things I want in life. I have little patience with people who harbour negativity and feel sorry for themselves.
Career driven. I never have been, and also believe I never will be. I have had lots of jobs but I still haven’t found the one that really grabs me, as much as I’d like to. I enjoy my work because I love the BBC and the people I work with but I don’t live to work. I’m a firm believer in working to live so that you can buy some of the things you want, go to the places you want to see and do the things you want to do while you can.
Forgetting. I can forgive, but it’s very unlikely I’ll forget if a line has been crossed.
Complete this sentence, ____________________ changed my life. How and why?
Real love changed my life. It’s very difficult to write this because I struggle every day to fathom what I’ve lost in losing James. But, I haven’t only lost, by knowing and loving him I have gained in ways I doubt I’m even aware of. It’s the age old conundrum of “it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”. I weigh this up a lot and when I’m feeling horrible I think it’s rubbish, but I know when I look back at the love I had with James in years to come, loving him completely will have been worth the pain of losing him and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I was with James when I’d just turned 22 and before then my experience of love was that it was volatile, painful and difficult. I found the first few months of my relationship with James very weird because he was nice to me! We rarely fought, we joked a lot, we were very relaxed and we just loved each other’s company. If anyone asked me how things were going with James I’d always say… It’s just so easy. Being his partner was an absolute delight and in 5 years he never put me down or made me feel small despite my faults and irritations. I know that in the future, when I’m ready to love again, I’ll know what real, true, equal love should be like, and I’ll be stronger because of what I have learnt by loving and being loved by James.
What has been life’s greatest lesson?
My greatest lesson so far is that you cannot plan your life. I am not much of a planner and I naturally enjoy going with the flow, but I have friends who plan everything and it frustrates and irritates me. Some friends say “I want to get engaged in November and be married by the following August…” And I just think, you do not know what is waiting around the corner. You do not know what life will throw at you. Life shouldn’t be planned out years ahead, life needs to be lived in the here and now and enjoyed while you can.
What is your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement has to be running the London Marathon in April for CRY, and raising so much money for them. I am by no means a natural runner and I have spent most of my twenties avoiding exercise but to say that running helps me cope with my grief is an understatement. From January to the end of April I ran and exercised most days. I loved the focus, the goal and the routine. I loved how I could sleep because I was so tired instead of lying awake most of the night, I loved how strong I felt physically which made me feel strong mentally, I loved the high of endorphins after a sweaty work out, I loved how I didn’t really think about anything when I ran – it was an escape from the unending whirling in my brain. I know some people find it strange that I have found running so beneficial as it was what James died doing, but I know that running didn’t kill James, his heart did. The week James died he’d run a 5k race on the Thursday, he’d run up 800 stairs in a ‘towerathalon’ on the Friday, and he very nearly ran a Half Marathon on the Sunday. James was never going to not be pushing himself, exercising or exploring. He had recently bought a new bike he adored, he loved football, softball, basketball. We ran along the Thames, around Battersea Park, in Kingston more times than I can remember and we loved comparing our stats on the Nike running app and mapping our routes (to see how many calories we’d burnt and thus how many biscuits we could eat). When we watched friends run the Marathon in April 2014 James asked me if we could run it together before we were 30. I thought he was mad and thought it was something I’d never do! When I was on the start line I said to him – this is for you – and I know he’d be so proud of me. Marathon day was one of the happiest, most joyful and most emotional days of my life and I have been on a post marathon high for a month following it. People tell you it’s fantastic but you cannot explain it, you have to run it to know how it truly feels. For me, it was the culmination of the horror and hell, the despair and loss, the focus and goal, and my love for James wrapped into one. I smiled most of the way round and tried to take in as much as possible. I had amazing support and was even told by other runners how inspiring I am… It was a magical day. I was asked a lot afterwards whether it was painful. My answer is that nothing has been or ever will be as painful as losing James. Nothing will ever compare and no physical pain can come close. So, no, it wasn’t painful. James and I loved watching sunsets together and as my parents drove me home at the end of Marathon day the sunset was one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. I believe it was James smiling at me and saying – well done you, you’re amazing.
What has been your toughest obstacle and how have you overcome it?
I lost myself when James died and finding out who I am without him has only just started. To say I feel lost doesn’t begin to cover it. Most days I don’t feel anything other than numbness and a desire to keep as busy as possible. Everything I thought I knew about absolutely everything changed. I have also really struggled with the “grieving process”… With what is ok, what is normal, what others think, what James would think. I frequently feel disappointed and let down by my grief and my coping strategy in comparison to what I think it should be. I started to see a therapist once a week and after a few months I realised that therapy wasn’t about James, our relationship or what happened, it was all about me! My therapist challenges me a lot, helps me process my thoughts and ultimately understand who I am. It’s an odd concept because you spend very little time considering who you are (or I did, anyway) until you have to, and then suddenly someone is entirely focused on you, your behaviour, your wellbeing. I have found this focus on me very draining at times, and also quite overwhelming, but I hope I’m getting there slowly.
Viktor Frankl says “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.” Everyone needs a purpose, what’s yours?
For the rest of my life I will spread awareness about SADS, how big a silent killer of the young it is and I will tell everyone that if you are aged between 15-35 you need to get your heart checked. Even if you aren’t sporty or active, you need to get your heart checked.
Plenty of the sudden deaths in the UK occur when people are sleeping, watching TV or just resting. Getting a check could save your life and it could prevent someone else losing the love of their life. I would give anything to stop one partner going through this devastation. I will also always support CRY and I will always fundraise for them. I didn’t ever think about hearts or my loved ones’ hearts before James and now I think about hearts a lot of the time. When I had my heart checked the nurse said to me – “we care about the engines in our cars more than our hearts” and I thought it was so true. We just expect our hearts to keep beating until we are old and we don’t consider the possibility that they might not. Unfortunately I think even many people I know still think – oh, that’s awful, but it won’t happen to me, or to my son, or to my friend. James’ death has shown that no one is untouchable, no one is immune, and that this really can happen.
What are your words to live by?
A friend saw this on someone’s page when she was flicking through Tinder… “Life is not a Dress Rehearsal”. We laughed about it at first but now I think it’s the perfect short statement. I really think you get one shot at life and that it’s for living to the full. We should try new things, be kind to each other, explore, learn and love while we can. Life doesn’t wait.
If you could have any mentor, alive or dead, who would you choose and why?
I’m sure this is a cop out but I’m not really hugely inspired by anyone in particular enough for them to be a mentor to me. I admire people who achieve their goals through hard work and dedication. Mostly, I admire people who have had the unimaginable happen but who still keep a smile and remain positive. I think Victoria Milligan is incredible. Her husband and daughter died in a speedboat accident and she was seriously injured. I read an article about her where she said about her husband “I should have had many more years with him, but the happiness of the years we spent together is worth more than a lifetime of mediocre ones” I think that hits the nail on the head.
If you could play hookie for a day what would be on your list to do?
I would do it in the summer so I could feel the sun on my skin in the day and enjoy the long evenings. I would get up at 9, go for a long run along the Grand Union Canal and around Victoria Park in London. I’d go for Brunch with close friends and we’d sit outside in our sunglasses, have a few drinks and laugh. Forgetting the travel involved, I’d then like to go to the seaside for a long walk along the beach with my dogs, breathing in the sea air. I’d eat a big Mr. Whippy with a flake and think about James as I walked. In the evening I’d be back in London, meeting friends for dinner at a restaurant I hadn’t tried before, followed by drinks on a roof top bar, listening to chilled house music and planning upcoming trips to Ibiza and Burma. Right now that would be a good day for me.
You give so much to others, what do you do to take care of yourself?
I really don’t feel like I do give much to others, especially not in the past 8.5 months because my grief has forced me to be quite selfish and to put myself first. This isn’t something I find very natural! I would say that distraction has been my ally throughout my grief and although it’s perhaps not very healthy, it has stopped me from drowning. Whether it’s exercise, work, seeing friends, being whisked away on lovely holidays by my parents or shopping, I have been keeping very busy and that’s been the only way I know how to self care.
Thank you for sharing, Fi.
You can find out more about Sads and how together we can make a difference here: