“On the 22nd February 2012, my son George died suddenly. As a family, we received no support whatsoever and were left to cope alone.
“5 days later, my husband Paul took his own life, unable to live with what had happened to George. Still, nobody came.
“We were abandoned by a system that didn’t really exist, and I know Paul would be here today if immediate support had been available.”
These are the heartbreaking words of Rhian Mannings, who has spent the last seven-and-a-half years since the deaths of her youngest son George and husband Paul devoting herself to helping families who have suffered similarly tragic losses.
Rhian, who describes herself as “a mum of two rugrats guided by two shining stars”, lost her son George to Bronchial Pneumonia and Type A Influenza when he was just over one year old.
Initially, her only aim was simply surviving each day and being there for her 2 and 3 year old children when they woke every morning. But proving that hope can rise from even the darkest of moments, if you are strong and determined enough to hold onto it, she set up 2 Wish Upon A Star just months later.
2 Wish Upon A Star provides bereavement support for families who have suddenly and traumatically lost a child or young adult, something Rhian and Paul found was lacking when they suffered the tremendous pain of the death of their youngest child.
I would be lying if I said I was not nervous about asking Rhian to share her story, about prompting her to share the darkest days of her life, of retelling the unthinkable moments that every parent, husband, wife, brother, sister and partner fear the most. It was only when I heard back from Rhian that I realised I could not have got it more wrong.
“Please feel free to ask anything you feel may help others… I get continued strength from talking about my experiences” Those 20 words very much set the precedent for the entire interview, the perfect embodiment of Rhian’s honesty and openness, willingness to help others, and determination to never forget those she holds so close to her heart.
I had the honour of hearing Rhian’s story, of sharing the wonderful memories she has of “her boys”; of discovering the legacies they have left behind not only for Rhian’s family, but for families all over the UK; of gaining an understanding of the truly incredible and inspirational work she has achieved with 2 Wish Upon A Star.
One look at Rhian’s Twitter alone provides just a mere glimpse of just how remarkable she truly is. “You are the true meaning of inspirational”… “I think you’re incredible and the work you are doing is outstanding”… “Rhian Burke was so brave through heartbreaking times”… I could go on forever listing the messages of support, awe and admiration, but nothing can do her story justice more than her own words; her own memories; her own achievements, goals and devotion to helping others…
KW: What inspired you to start 2 Wish Upon A Star?
Rhian: The aims of 2 Wish Upon a Star are to raise funds to improve bereavement services in Wales. Emphasis will be on bereavement support for parents after losing their child suddenly and traumatically.
As a charity we aim to:
- Ensure every Emergency Department in Wales has a suitable bereavement suite for bereaved families.
- Ensure that bereavement boxes are available for families at each of these hospitals.
- Ensure that immediate bereavement support is available for suddenly bereaved families.
- Provide a professional counselling service for suddenly bereaved families.
- Provide support to individuals who witness the sudden and traumatic death of a child or young adult.
- Provide staff support and training.
KW: Can you talk us through what happened to George?
Rhian: On the evening of February 22, 2012, our youngest son George passed away suddenly. He fell ill with no warning. He was crawling around as usual and playing with his toys when he suddenly collapsed on the floor. His body just went backwards.
I got up slowly. I wasn’t panicking as I didn’t think there was anything to worry about, but when I tried to pick him up his body was limp, like a dead weight.
That’s when I started screaming for Paul to come into the room. He looked, took him off me and said “Call 999, call 999”.
I was in the hallway trying to speak to the ambulance service, while Paul was knelt by George on the floor shouting for the paramedics to hurry up. Then George started fitting; slowly to begin with and then gradually getting more aggressive. I was in the street at this point, in the rain with my cordless phone just screaming for the ambulance to turn up.
We rushed to the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant and the amazing staff fought so hard to save him. Sadly, within two hours of being admitted he died. It became clear very quickly that the department was not equipped for such loss.
Handprints were offered but they had nothing to do them with. They eventually managed to take the prints, they cut his curls and asked if we wanted quiet time with our son.
Unfortunately, the department had no family facility, no quiet area, nowhere for us to say our goodbyes in privacy. They finally found somewhere. We followed a nurse down a corridor, as she carried our dead son in her arms. We eventually left George and went home to where our lives were, five hours previously, complete and full of happiness.
George’s first birthday cards were still up on the window sill and his presents piled up in the corner of the room. There were no tears, we sat in shock simply wondering how we were going to survive.
KW: What was George like?
Rhian: George was our little star. He had sticky out ears and a smile that lit up the room. He was the happiest child who adored his brother and sister and was laid back and content. He was my sidekick – he went everywhere with me and completed my world in every way.
KW: What were those five days like between George’s death and Paul’s death?
Rhian: It quickly became apparent that there was no support available to us. My family phoned national bereavement organisations and got nothing but answer phones.
We were told we would hear from people and never did, and nobody came. I couldn’t understand that when I had children I had so much support from health visitors and midwives, but when one of your children dies nobody comes.
We didn’t know what was going to happen next, where George was or even what had happened. My family and friends were amazing and even strangers in our community reached out, but we needed more. The police came knocking as they always do in such circumstances, but nobody told us to expect them.
KW: What was it like processing such an awful loss to then experience another tremendous loss in such a short space of time?
Rhian: I suppose I didn’t process anything for a long time. It was about surviving every day and being there for a 2 and 3 year old when they woke every morning. Shock is an incredible emotion. It’s the only way I survived. I hadn’t even accepted my son’s loss when I lost my husband and then the two blurred together as one.
I look back and have no idea how I got through it. It took over 3 years for it to hit me properly and even then it was something I struggled to accept.
KW: What was going through your mind when you saw those two police officers stood outside your front window?
Rhian: I just knew. I have watched enough TV programmes in the past to know police at your front door is not going to end well. I can remember sliding off the chair onto the floor. I heard my mum screaming and went into the hallway where the policeman took me into the lounge and told me that Paul had passed away.
I didn’t cry, I told him he was wrong. I’ll never forget that moment – a moment that smashed my world into pieces.
KW: Tell us about Paul… What was he like as a husband and father?
Rhian: The best! An incredible husband and Daddy. He was my best friend, my rock, the man I adored in every way. He had real presence and made everyone smile. A true gent who put everyone first especially his family. He loved his children and they worshipped him…
KW: What did you mean when you said you “existed” rather than coped with what happened?
Rhian: I got up every morning, I dressed the kids and fed them. I then sat in a chair and survived every day but I didn’t live. I didn’t go out, I didn’t take the kids to nursery, didn’t make memories, I was alive but dead inside.
KW: In those dark days and moments, how do you keep hold of the hope and faith that things will get better?
Rhian: I couldn’t give up hope, it would have killed me. I had to keep going for the children, my family. I owed it to Paul to keep the kids’ lives as normal as possible. My love for the boys kept me going every day and I had to believe they were together now and I was left to look after Holly and Isaac.
I wanted to make Paul proud, I wanted to live a good life for him and George. My family and friends gave me strength. They have stood by me through thick and thin.
KW: What advice would you give to someone who has recently suffered a bereavement to a loved one?
Rhian: Everyone is so different and circumstances differ from family to family. However, my piece of advice is talk. Don’t shut yourself away. I have talked about the boys non stop since we lost them and they live on in memories and photos. With children, be honest. Use the word dead or died.
KW: With 2 Wish Upon A Star, you’ve achieved some remarkable feats. But what has been your proudest achievement so far?
Rhian: There has been so many. The biggest was probably getting 2 Wish written into an All Wales pathway to support sudden death in children. I have been fighting to get a uniformed approach to sudden death in children and this was huge for 2 Wish.
Our new office base was opened in 2017, which is an amazing space for staff and families – that was pretty incredible too. To be honest, I am proud every day of my team and what we are achieving. We have supported over 490 families since we were established. That’s 490 families who would have received nothing without us.
KW: How does it feel to connect with (and provide such a huge source of support for) fellow parents who have lost their children?
Rhian: It’s incredible. Knowing Paul and George live on in the work of 2 Wish helps me personally so much but knowing families who are facing the hardest of times have support because of 2 Wish brings me strength and comfort.
Every family deserves such support, I’m just glad there is something for them if they feel they need it.
KW: How do you ensure 2 Wish Upon A Star stands out? And what are the biggest challenges of building relationships with, and finding, supporters of the charity?
Rhian: It’s hard work. There are so many amazing charities out there doing wonderful things. I do feel however, we come across as a very homegrown organisation with an open door policy at 2 Wish.
My staff are always on hand and everyone knows their names. We like to think we have brought our community together and I truly believe 2 Wish belongs to our town and the people who have helped it grow.
KW: How has online giving/support shaped the way the charity runs and grows?
Rhian: We have an in depth website which is crucial for organisations like us and obviously social media platforms are used daily. We have a huge following on social media because we want people to see what we are doing with their money and how we are raising it.
We are regularly thanking individuals and groups for their support – without them we couldn’t help so many. We use Just Giving and Virgin Giving a lot and really encourage people to use these sites. We rarely have cash given to us now in the form of sponsorship. In 2016, I won the Just Giving Outstanding Achievement Award which was pretty amazing too.
KW: Since Paul’s death, do you feel that we, as a society, have improved at all in ensuring people, particularly men, have plenty of places and sources of support? If not, what more can be done?
Rhian: I do think things are improving but we still have a long way to go. People are definitely talking more about mental health and there is a focus on men and getting them to open up but there remains a stigma.
Physical health is still recognised more than mental health and this needs to be re-balanced. People who are able to make changes happen need to sit up and help make a difference.
I believe the young Royals have helped a lot in getting people to talk about mental health but there needs to be funding available to help the right organisations.
KW: It’s incredibly brave of you to share what happened to George and Paul; it must take tremendous courage. Why do you believe it is important for you to do so?
Rhian: I share what happened to Paul and George because of my love for them, because I don’t want people to forget them and because we deserved better as a family.
2 Wish is hopefully making a difference to those who lose a child suddenly like we did George. We were abandoned by a system that didn’t really exist and I know Paul would be here today if immediate support had been available.
KW: I loved what you said after marrying Craig last year: “Today is truly the start of forever”. How important has he been in your journey since you got together?
Rhian: Craig has been amazing. Truly incredible. He accepts my love for Paul and I still talk about him a lot. Photos remain in our house and we talk to the children about their Daddy and Brother a lot too.
Craig is a kind, caring man who holds me up in the storms. We laugh together and cry together and he has given me hope for the future. We are once again a family; a different kind, broken but glued back together in a different way.
KW: We hear you’re writing a book. Tell us all about it…
Rhian: So I’m only 3 chapters in – its been really painful but I think it’s definitely helping. I want people to read about my journey, warts and all. I want them to know what my family went through 7 years ago, how we were abandoned and therefore, I am determined to make a difference.
I want them to know what type of people Paul and George were and I want them to see how your whole world is turned upside down so quickly. I want to talk about my mental health, my anxiety and PTSD and I want to explain why I am a different person now who is still struggling, but everyday I try my very best to keep going.
I really need to find time to sit down and get it done though – I have enjoyed what’s been done so far and I know someone somewhere may be helped by reading it…
I sat at my computer for over an hour thinking of a way to start this blog. To be completely honest, even calling it a blog sounds wrong. The truth is, a story such as Rhian’s is one that simply does not, and should not, abide by any rulebook, format or guide. Why? Because there is no structure or justice with what happened to George, to Paul, to Rhian, Isaac, Holly and the many other families out there suffering from a sudden bereavement.
Facing such a loss is unthinkable, and cannot be summarised in words alone, least of all my own. All we can do, all anyone can do, in such dark moments, is to talk, to listen, to find hope and to never forget the ones they love, to ensure “they live on in memories and photos”, as Rhian so eloquently put it.
I decided to start this story with a heartbreaking quote from Rhian, one that depicted the shock and trauma of the awful period in which she lost her son and husband. By ending in a similar manner would be going against everything I and many others have no doubt learned from hearing her story.
Having heard Rhian speak so honestly, openly and lovingly about George and Paul – her “little star and sidekick”, and “best friend”, “incredible husband” and “rock” – if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that endings only exist if you let them. Memories and words can last forever if you don’t let go, if you keep hold of the stories and never relinquish the hope and faith that comes with telling them.
I could provide a conclusion to this piece, but Rhian’s words will carry on with me, and hopefully you, for much longer than your laptop or phone stays on this page…
“Knowing Paul and George live on in the work of 2 Wish helps me personally so much but knowing families who are facing the hardest of times have support because of 2 Wish brings me strength and comfort.
Every family deserves such support, I’m just glad there is something for them if they feel they need it.”
If you or anyone you know has suffered from the sudden death of a child or young adult, get in touch with 2 Wish Upon A Star for support, help and guidance.
Want to support 2 Wish Upon A Star? From fundraising to volunteering and donating, here’s how you can get involved.