When TV presenter Simon Thomas’ wife Gemma died suddenly at the age of just 40, rather than finding solace in the familiarity of their family home, it became a painful reminder of what he’d lost. He talks to Rosalind Sack about finding hope again
SIMON, GEMMA AND ETHAN AFTER MOVING TO THEIR NEW HOME IN CAVERSHAM. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@SIMONTHOMASSKY
So often we tell the emotional tales of the safety, security and sanctuary that our homes bring. When we’re at our lowest ebb, retreating back inside the comfort of those four walls very often renews us, recharges us and provides a place of calm and rest. And whether our home is the beautifully furnished apartment of an interior designer or a messy family house, the theme that often permeates individual stories of home is that it is as much about people as place.
For TV presenter Simon Thomas it’s this very fact that has been so painful in the wake of the sudden loss of his wife Gemma to acute myeloid leukaemia in November 2017. After a devastatingly fast decline, Gemma died just three days after being diagnosed, leaving Simon and their then eight-year-old-son Ethan in deep shock. Where once they had felt so at home, they suddenly felt so lost.
Setting up home
It was in summer 2011 that Simon and Gemma first set eyes on and immediately fell for the charm of a converted Georgian farmhouse that was for sale near the river in Caversham, Reading, close to friends. Light years away from the two-bedroom flat where they were living with their two-year-old in South West London, the characterful house was moments from countryside in a beautiful quiet spot, was spread over three floors with large sash windows overlooking half an acre of garden.
THE BEAUTIFUL GARDEN AND LIVING ROOM AT SIMON’S HOME IN CAVERSHAM. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@SIMONTHOMASSKY
“We didn’t research the area, or look at what the schools were like, we just went for it. We moved with the dream that in a few years we might have more kids and you could imagine the place being filled with the sound of children and laughter. It was really impulsive, a place like this wasn’t going to come along very often in life, so we thought, ‘Let’s just do it, life’s too short’.”
The cruel reality was that it would be their family home as they knew it for just six years and, sadly, it would never live up to the hope with which they had built a life there. In that overwhelming haze of disbelief in the weeks and months following Gemma’s death, Simon’s connection with what had been such a beloved home, where her creative touch was woven into the very fabric of the place, suffered a seismic shift. The place that had once felt the most friendly and normal, became the loneliest of all.
“For those first few months it felt like the place was my enemy,” recalls Simon who, at that time, found sleeping in what had been their bedroom too painful. “Even now, there are fluctuating emotions with it. There are some days when it’s nice to be back here again, but because so much has changed, more often than not I come back feeling it’s not really ‘home’ anymore.”
The memories live on
The memories of Gemma still fill the house; from her favourite spot on the sofa in the living room, to Ethan’s room where they would enjoy cuddles before bed and, of course, in the bedroom they once shared. Framed photographs of her warm, beaming face are given pride of place around the house and, occasionally, Simon will still stumble across a note she’d written to Ethan in his bedroom, or an anniversary card she’d sent him in the bedside cabinet.
GEMMA’S FACE STILL SMILES OUT FROM THE PHOTOGRAPHS ON THE MANTELPIECE. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@SIMONTHOMASSKY
Perhaps his most vivid memories of her are in the kitchen – one of her favourite rooms. Three years ago they replaced the dated pine cabinets with a beautiful shaker-style Neptune kitchen chosen by Gemma. “She was an amazing cook and that was really her space. She loved being in there and it was everything she wanted,” says Simon.
Sadly she was only able to enjoy it for a year and a half and, as is so often the case, it’s in the mundane moments of the everyday that grief can creep up and wind you. For Simon, the cupboard which houses all of Gemma’s baking equipment and ingredients – the cupcake trays and various tiny bottles of essences – has taken on a new poignancy.
It was just a cobweb on a mixer, but it said so much more.”
“She was a really good baker – I always used to say she should go on the Great British Bake Off – and so I bought her a lovely cream coloured Kitchen Aid for Christmas a few years ago. Several months ago I glanced at it and took the plastic cover off the metal bowl and there were cobwebs on the mixer. My heart just sank because it hadn’t been used since she left and she loved it and used it regularly to make all her lovely cakes. It was just a cobweb on a mixer, but it said so much more,” he says.
(LEFT) GEMMA SHOWING OFF HER TALENT FOR BAKING (RIGHT) HER BELOVED KITCHEN. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@SIMONTHOMASSKY
Even when pacing up and down the garden with the lawnmower Simon admits, while being long past the denial period, he still catches himself picturing Gemma smiling or coming out of the house to catch his eye and making the cup of tea symbol with her hands.
“They are things you take for granted because you have this expectation that they’re going to be there for a long time. If I’ve learnt anything it’s that you need to savour everything, even those seemingly mundane bits of life,” he says.
The new normal
Being surrounded by the incredible support from friends and family gave Simon and Ethan a life line in the months after Gemma’s death – for many weeks there was barely a time when the two of them were alone in the house, day or night.
But as lives gradually shifted back into normality around him and Ethan returned to school, the new normal has been a painful adjustment. Simon left his job as a sports reporter for Sky, not least so he wouldn’t be away from Ethan every weekend, and without that reassuring rhythm of the days and weeks that he once knew, the quietness of the house has at times felt inescapable.
Weekdays and evenings at home when Ethan is at school or in bed are especially difficult and he chose to write his memoir, Love Interrupted – Navigating Grief One Day at a Time, in a shared office space in town, admitting: “There was no way I could have done it here.”
If Ethan has had a big school dinner and isn’t hungry, finding the motivation to cook a meal for one isn’t always easy either. “The reason why we enjoy food is that it’s that communal experience, we enjoy making meals and sharing them with each other. Eating on your own and congratulating yourself on cooking a really lovely curry isn’t quite the same. My guilty pleasure is still Super Noodles, I’m afraid!”
“It felt like the right time for me not to open the wrong drawer and find all of her clothes any more. And, rather than it being a really morbid day, it became quite a happy day.”
Yet through the darkness there have been some, surprising, moments of light. The weekend before the first anniversary of Gemma’s death Simon enlisted the help of her mum, her sister and a couple of friends, along with Ethan, to help sort through her clothes and other belongings.
“It felt like the right time for me not to open the wrong drawer and find all of her clothes any more. And, rather than it being a really morbid day, it became quite a happy day. There were sad moments, of course, but it was happy because we were sharing memories and reminiscing and laughing when we found her 30th scarf – she had an amazing collection of scarves!”
(LEFT) ETHAN WITH HIS TEDYY BEAR MADE FROM GEMMA’S DRESSING GOWN (RIGHT) ONE OF SIMON’S SNAK NOTES FOR ETHAN. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@SIMONTHOMASSKY
They each chose some treasured items of Gemma’s to keep – among Ethan’s was her dressing gown which they had made into a teddy bear with a message on its front from a letter that Gemma had written to Ethan before going away for her 40th birthday weekend. It even wears its own mini dressing gown made from the same material and sleeps with Ethan in his bed every night. In return, for Simon’s birthday, Ethan gave him a cushion created with the fabric from two of Gemma’s favourite skirts.
New home, new start
Eighteen months on, and Simon has redecorated parts of the house and has found renewed peace spending the long summer’s evenings in the garden. Mother’s Day has now been renamed Ethan’s day – a day to remember Gemma and celebrate Ethan – and Simon writes kind, funny, motivational notes which he puts in Ethan’s school snack box to keep him going when he’s finding it hard.
His open and frank accounts of dealing with grief and mental health through his book, social media and blog, A Grief Shared, have won him fans and supporters around the world and have, no doubt, given comfort to countless others navigating a similar journey. But with the passing of time, and much thought, Simon has decided that when Ethan starts secondary school, it will be a new start for them both, in a new home.
‘TEAM THOMAS’ AT HOME. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@SIMONTHOMASSKY
“Time isn’t a healer, time is a changer. So I can now spend the day, I wouldn’t say quite happily, but I can be home in the day time. I can lie here in the evenings and feel ok about being here,” he says. “I think it’s in the knowledge that this is only for a time.
“I know that moving is not going to solve everything – missing Gemma is not going to change. But I think being in a place where we’re not constantly surrounded by the very poignant reminders of Gemma, I wouldn’t have that false expectation or hope because I’d have no memories of her ever being there.”
Everyone’s path through grief is different, but I think we need to create our own new chapter and new memories somewhere completely different.”
Where they move to throws up another conundrum: “If you have those moments of regret and you’re only a mile down the road I think it would make it harder knowing that lovely house which ultimately you had to lose – or chose to lose – because of what happened, is not very far away. Everyone’s path through grief is different, but I think we need to create our own new chapter and new memories somewhere completely different.”
THE TREE PLANTED JUST BEYOND THEIR GARDEN IN MEMORY OF GEMMA. IMAGE: INSTAGRAM/@SIMONTHOMASSKY
Wherever Simon and Ethan’s next chapter takes them, they have made their indelible mark on the farmhouse by planting a tree just beyond the end of the garden in memory of Gemma. “When we’re not living here anymore Ethan will always have somewhere to come back to and remember his Mum and those special, but tragically short six years we had together in this beautiful place.”
Love, Interrupted – Navigating Grief One Day at a Time by Simon Thomas, £12.99, published by Trigger Publishing, is out now. Proceeds from all Trigger books go directly to The Shaw Mind Foundation, a global charity that focuses entirely on mental health.
If you think this feature could help someone you know, do share it using the share buttons at the top of the page. And see more of our stories of life here.