Bereaved couple who met at support group celebrate engagement

Published on: Wednesday, 20th July 2022
George and Ruth

After the tragic death of his wife of 61 years, and son within a few weeks of each other, retired aircraft engineer George Palmer sought the help of a borough-based bereavement group to deal with the loss. 

The 86-year-old – who says that the Treetops Hospice Tears to Laughter group was a ‘revelation’ – never expected that, as well as making life-long friends, he would find love again.

But recently widowed Ruth Vowles, a retired teacher from Sandiacre, has helped make George smile again and, after a whirlwind romance, the pair are set to wed later this year. 

“Neither of us will forget Liz (George’s wife) or Steve (the husband of Ruth) – and we still have many times when we support each other during tearful moments,” said Ruth, who describes the peer support sessions at the Risley-based charity as ‘a big hug’.

“I feel so lucky, though, to have met such a lovely, kind man who wants to make me happy.

“We’re looking forward to an exciting future together after two very traumatic years. We both fully understand how important Liz and Steve still are to us and talk about them often.

“They are still very much alive in our thoughts.”

Ruth’s husband Steve, a former electrician, was just 67-years-old when he died. The couple had been together for 46 years. 

Steve was diagnosed with a low immune system in his early twenties. He contracted bronchiectasis – a condition in which airways of the lungs remain persistently widened – and, later in life, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease; more commonly referred to as COPD. He had also suffered two strokes which had affected his eyesight and memory.

Steve’s condition deteriorated at Christmas 2019, and he was admitted into hospital for the first time on Ruth’s birthday in May 2020.

“Seeing him being taken away and not knowing when, or if, I would see him again was very, very difficult. Because of Covid, we had been shielding; we had stayed in the house right from the very beginning because of his immunity issues, so being apart was tough.”

Steve died suddenly in the Royal Derby Hospital with Ruth by his side and close friend Jane there to support her. The family held a ‘small but intimate’ funeral due to Covid restrictions. With Ruth’s children living miles away, she felt lonely in the weeks that followed his death, in spite of their wonderful support, and that of friends. 

She joined the Treetops Tears to Laughter bereavement group when it first began in September 2020 and says that having someone to talk to has helped her. 

It was also where she met George, whose wife Liz, who suffered from dementia, was also diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2019. She died just six months after diagnosis.

George found his beloved wife’s death difficult. Then, only 12 weeks later, his son David died suddenly of an aortic dissection; a serious condition in which a tear occurs in the inner layer of the body’s main artery. 

“I had lost two of my close family members in a short space of time and was devastated,” said George.

“I was comforted by David’s wife, Ange, who attended the Treetops Hospice bereavement group to help her cope with his death. I became a virtual recluse; I had only recently moved to Sawley from Norfolk to be near my son and knew very few people. 

“After a lot of persuasion from Ange, around a year after Liz’s death, I went to my first ‘Tears to Laughter’ support group. It was the best thing I did and helped me through a very difficult time.

“The group was a revelation. I found that I could talk to other members of the group without feeling embarrassed.”

Ruth says that she finds the group ‘warm and friendly’ and a ‘lifeline’: “It’s a warm and caring place to be and although I found it hard in the beginning, everyone was so welcoming and supportive. It has been a lifeline for me.”

Friendships were formed at the informal sessions – they’re held every Friday morning at the hospice in Risley – and both George and Ruth would look forward to meeting up every week. 

“I made some great friends who I knew were only at the end of the telephone if I needed them,” said Ruth.

“After a few sessions, we all started going out for lunch once or twice a week. But when I broke my leg in June 2021, I struggled to get to group.

“It was then that George started to chauffer me around and our friendship blossomed. 

“We would regularly share our evening meals together and, in October 2021, we went on holiday together as friends. In February 2022, we decided that we wanted to spend our future together; we wanted to get married.”

The pair initially tried to keep their intentions secret, but Ruth accidentally let the cat out of the bag to her friend, Carol. 

“We held off, though, making our engagement official until George proposed to me on my birthday,” said Ruth, “I wanted to bury my husband’s ashes first – this seemed only right.”

The proposal took place in the stunning gardens of the Palazzo Pfanner in Lucca, Italy. George picked a secluded spot where he asked Ruth to be his wife – although he didn’t get down on one knee to make the proposal!

“The grass was wet and, if he had gotten down on one knee, I would have had to have helped him to get back up again!” said Ruth.

“George was very nervous as he wanted the proposal to be special. He guided me to one of the most romantic spots in the gardens before asking me to be his wife. 

“We’re now busy planning our wedding, which will take place outdoors, at the Botanical Gardens in Gibraltar this October. It will be a simple affair surrounded by our friends and family, including long-time friend Carole Riley, and John Gray from the ‘Tears to Laughter’ group – both will be witnesses at the ceremony.”

The pair are very thankful for meeting at Treetops Hospice. 

“George and I feel lucky to have attended such a wonderful group where we have time for sad reflections but have also created so many wonderful memories,” said Ruth.

“It has given us the chance to be honest about our feelings, which is often difficult with family as they just want you to be okay, particularly when they live so far away.

“The last few months have been an emotional time, deciding what is appropriate and thinking about the feelings of other members of the family.

“Neither of us will forget Liz or Steve and we still have many tearful moments when we need to support each other. 

"But we hope that people realise that it is possible to love more than one person in this life and us getting married again doesn’t detract from our previous, very happy marriages.

“We’re excited about the future together.”

For further information on Treetops Tears to Laughter group, visit www.treetops.org.uk, call 0115 9491264 or email supportandinformation @ treetopshospice.org.uk

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