Pic © BHF
Like many of us, Hillary Surridge knows that life can change in an instant. One minute she was a happily married housewife, busy preparing for Christmas, and the next she was facing the most traumatic day of her life – suddenly losing her husband to a fatal heart attack, aged just 53.
Two years on, the day is still etched in Hillary’s mind. She remembers: “Ben had gone out and when he didn’t return, I started to worry. I then spotted that his motorbike was back, but didn’t see him lying outside until I opened the door.”
After alerting the emergency services, Hillary desperately tried to revive Ben. But despite her CPR training, she couldn’t get his heart to start: “He’d already had a heart attack when he was 40 and the damage was just too great.” Family rushed to be with the couple, including their daughter Rebecca, 27.
Ben was taken to hospital, but Hillary’s experience as an auxiliary nurse meant that she knew what was coming. “Eventually, a doctor arrived to see me. He said they’d tried everything, but that Ben was gone. All I could think of to say was, ‘thank you for trying.’”
Ben and Hillary had been teenage sweethearts, married for more than 30 years. Now Hillary felt broken. “We did everything together,” she says. “The loneliness was so awful.
“I don’t harbour thoughts that God did this to our family, and I understand that lifestyle was mainly behind what happened to Ben. But Rebecca had already moved away from home and we both struggled to cope. She wouldn’t talk to anybody, really shut down.”
To make matters worse, Hillary had no means of personal transport. Though she longed for company and comfort, she was unable to escape the isolation of her village. She hadn’t worked for years (“Ben was an old-fashioned gentleman who liked to look after me”) and suddenly felt very lonely, with almost no reason to go on.
It was actually Rebecca’s rabbits, still at the family home, who kept her focused. She says: “They relied on my care and were so lovely to watch; playing and jumping. I’ve still got the seven-year-old, Dexter. He drives me to get up every morning.”
This caring spark that Hillary clung to led her to the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in nearby Loughton.
In the months approaching the first anniversary of Ben’s death, the charity had moved into a vacant shop unit and was looking for volunteers. “We’d always supported the BHF, due to Ben’s condition,” says Hillary. “I kept looking at the notice, but thinking I wouldn’t be any use. Then one day something clicked and I plucked up the courage to phone for an interview.”
Training followed, before the shop opened last November. “The year has absolutely flown,” Hillary says. “I was doing just a few hours a week to begin with. Now I do as many as I can.” In the early days, Hillary still wasn’t coping with being alone, but soon discovered that volunteering helped with that, too. “I’m constantly talking to other people in the shop. By the time I get home I feel better for it.”
The shop team is by Hillary’s side, through thick and thin. “They know if I’m having a bad day,” she says. “They’ll put an arm around me, then give me something else to focus on.” Shop manager Emily, deputy manager Hazaear and staff member Lesley, are the hub of the family, though Hillary has also grown close to volunteers Rhohana and Stuart. “We get on like a house on fire,” she grins.
Hillary’s skills have also come on in leaps and bounds. “I was terribly nervous to begin with,” she remembers. “Now I look after the handbags, shoes, ties and belts. I sort, tag and price mainly, because I’m not overly confident in dealing with customers.
“I’d really recommend volunteering. It’s a great way to get out there, whether you’re on the till or behind the scenes. You can do as many or as few hours as you want, though I make myself go in on bad days, because it helps my confidence in the long-run. Neither age nor physical capabilities are a barrier; we all work hard together.”
When Hillary’s not volunteering, she admits that life can still be lonely. Her advice is: “Make sure you’ve got a good doctor who listens. Most importantly, keep people close.”
She also knows that grieving affects people differently. “Sometimes, something will trigger a memory and perhaps tears, but then you’ll also laugh at things you remember, too. People think I must hate Christmas because of the bad memories, but they couldn’t be more wrong. I love it, because I love to make other people happy. I love to give. That makes life meaningful for me.”
Hillary will spend Christmas with Ben’s family and host her own festivities on Boxing Day – but as soon as the bus timetable returns to normal service, she’ll be back to volunteering.
“At the moment, I’m most proud of surviving,” she says, “which I attribute to my time in the shop and the people who care about me.
“You’ve got to reach out,” Hillary insists. “I just hope my story helps someone else.”
2015 will bring happy times, too. Rebecca gets married on May 1, which would have been Ben’s birthday. “And I’d love a paid job in the Loughton branch, if one came up,” says Hillary. But she will continue to volunteer, because it just so happens the BHF shop used to be part of Loughton’s old Co-op – where Hillary first met Ben. “I feel his love and support,” she says. “I think he would be proud of me.”
- To volunteer for the BHF, drop into your local shop, call 0800 138 6556 or visit www.bhf.org.uk
How to get involved
- If you want to find out more about volunteering there are many different kinds of ways to get involved. Local charity shops, churches – and even nature reserves – are often in need of extra help, particularly at Christmas.
- If you’re not sure where to start then there are regional organisations that can help find you volunteer opportunities in your area:
- Volunteering England, 0207 713 6161 or visit www.volunteering.org.uk
- Volunteering Scotland, 01786 479593 or visit www.volunteerscotland.net
- Volunteering Wales, 0800 2888 329 or visit www.volunteering-wales.net
There are more heart-warming real life stories in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday