A Grief Shared
How did Simon Thomas cope when his wife died?
Former TV presenter Simon Thomas featured on the front cover of Christmas HOPE last year. The headline was ‘Living the Dream’. In the weeks after the publication came out, Simon’s life turned from a dream to a nightmare. His wife Gemma died on 24th November.
The next day he wrote on Twitter: ‘Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. Just three days after falling ill with Acute Myloid Leukemia, my dear wife Gemma passed away yesterday evening surrounded by her family and friends.’ He added: ‘If you are a prayer – pray for my boy Ethan. 8yrs, precious and in bits. Thank you.’
Hope of heaven
In the year since Gemma’s death Simon has posted regular updates on his blog at agriefshared.com. He is open and honest about his painful journey through grief which he describes as ‘the toughest challenge of my life’.
Simon was a Blue Peter presenter for six years before joining Sky Sports in 2005 to present Sky Sports News. He then became the lead presenter of Sky Sports’ live Football League coverage and by 2016 he was presenting Premier League.
He grew up the son of a vicar, but whilst faith was a big part of family life, it was never forced on him. Both he and Gemma were Christians, and Simon has describes their faith as the foundation on which their marriage was built. Though they went through some tough times together, including two failed rounds of IVF and a miscarriage, their faith gave them the hope and strength to get them through. Last year, shortly before losing Gemma, Simon said ‘My faith is about God walking through life alongside me; being part of my life, not just on a Sunday when I go to church with the family. My relationship with God is all-encompassing and that includes my work. So before every match I presented for Sky Sports I would simply pray “God, all I ask is that today I can do my job to the best of my ability.” I knew that without God, my job would be a whole lot harder.’
Now he has faced one of the hardest tests of all. When asked if he still believes in God he says, ‘If I take my faith out of the equation, then at that moment any hope I have left disappears.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’ (John 11:25). As someone who follows Jesus, Simon believes he will see Gemma again one day in heaven with Jesus. But in the years he has left, he now has a painful path to navigate, not least bringing up their nine-year old boy who now has to face the rest of his life without his mum.
Coming to terms with such sudden loss is a massive challenge. In the week before she died Gemma had no energy and was having bad headaches. She visited the doctor three times before receiving the devastating news that she had blood cancer – a rare strain of cancer called Acute Myeloid Leukemia. The speed of her decline was so rapid and so brutal that it meant Ethan’s only memories of his mum are of her still looking like mum. It was too early for the chemotherapy that had started immediately to begin changing how she looked. Whilst from his boy’s point of view he sees this as a positive, for Simon it meant they had no time to prepare for life without Gemma. Acute Myeloid Leukemia is an aggressive cancer which develops rapidly. As her white blood cell count went through the roof, her blood became thicker and thicker, causing damage to the blood vessels in her brain. Just three days after diagnosis Simon was told on a Friday morning in late November 2017 that his wife had just hours to live. The shock and pain of that news was indescribable, he says, but he also felt a bizarre sense of peace.
‘They talk in the Bible about “The peace of God that passes all understanding”. For most of my Christian life I didn’t know what that peace actually was or felt like. I thought it was just a peace you feel when you’re sat on a desert island or in your favourite place. But what it actually is, is having peace in the most unlikely of places; in the most chaotic and fear-filIed of places. It gave me the strength to be able to walk out of that room that morning, having just been dealt the biggest blow I’ll ever have (or hope I’ll ever have) and feel a sense of calm. I didn’t unravel. I didn’t lose it. I was able to calmly ring Gemma’s mum to say “You need to get here now, and can you bring Ethan from school? Gemma’s going.” I found a strength I don’t recognise in myself as I look back on it.’
There was a sliver of hope on that Friday morning. The brain can repair its self and the bleeding could have stopped, so Simon prayed time and time again, asking God to heal Gemma.
‘I simply kept laying my hand on Gemma’s head and saying “God please! I’ve read about you healing and I’ve seen it in the churches I’ve been at – stop this bleeding! I don’t want Ethan to grow up without a mum.’
But by one o-clock he sensed it was time to start saying goodbye.
He spent the remaining time recalling the good memories of how they’d met; their wedding day; the memories Ethan will have of his mum.
‘I prayed with her and I played some of her favourite music. That for me is the “peace of God that passes understanding”. I should have been losing it – yet I wasn’t.’
Later than night, when he left the hospital he says, ‘I’ve never shouted as loudly as I shouted at God. I don’t understand why he didn’t intervene. I don’t think I’ll ever find out. If God is who I think he is, he is big enough to take me ranting at him. If I take my faith out of the equation then nothing makes sense to me. This doesn’t make sense and life doesn’t make sense.
‘Ethan prays that mummy is having a good time in heaven. The painful bit is there’s an earthly wait. As he told his teacher “I’ve a really long wait ‘til I see mummy” and he has. He’s got the rest of his life.’
Into the unknown
In April this year Simon announced that he would be leaving Sky Sports at the end of the season. He wrote: ‘Gemma was a huge part of my time with Sky. Just three weeks after I joined we got married, and throughout these 13 years she was alongside me. When I had those times of doubt about whether I was good enough, when I had those two periods of depression, she was the constant. She was the one I’d always turn to for reassurance. She was the person I always rang as soon as we came off air… how could I ever do my job again without my best friend alongside me?’
Explaining why he was leaving he said, ‘Firstly and most importantly, I’m doing it for Ethan. On that first morning after Gemma went, I remember Ethan coming up to me in the lounge and through his tears he said these words: “Daddy, you know every weekend you go away and do the football, and I spend the weekend with Mummy? What do I do now?” And they have stuck with me ever since.’
As well as writing a book and raising money for a blood cancer charity, he says, ‘I’m going to be giving every ounce of energy I have to helping my boy navigate this strange new chapter of life and, as a Christian, I have to trust God in this. This is not blind faith, this is real faith – and sometimes, that means stepping out into the unknown.’