IT is a club to which no-one ever wants to belong and five years ago former Dromara woman, Christine Gemmell, felt like everyone else, never expecting to become a member - much less its UK chairperson.
Yet today, as she overees her important duties for the Army Widows Association (AWA), she can appreciate the fact that the body which had always hovered in the background of other people’s lives has helped induce a renascence in her own.
“The Army Widows Association is a group that no-one happily joins and yet, through my own experience when my husband died in 2005, I can see how it helps women tremendously in picking up the threads of their lives again,” said Christine, daughter of Joan Browne, well known member of Dromara Historical Society.
“We help army widows in all sorts of ways, through friendship and advice, through ‘signposting’ to other agencies, and through funds for group events and, in special circumstances, individual needs.
“And although independent, we retain close links with the army, so we can raise our collective voice from time-to-time and do a little bit of shouting in the direction of the MoD on issues which affect us - such as the current need for a level playing field when it comes to pensions.”
Campaigning is high on Christine’s agenda, as are fund-raising concerns since the AWA achieved its charitable status 18 months ago.
It is a huge workload for the busy Salisbury woman who works three-and-a-half days a week at Salisbury District Hospital, but it is a role she finds fulfilling and emotionally rewarding: “Being able to empathize with newly-widowed members is vitally important, because I know exactly what they are feeling and the rollercoaster of emotions they face in the early days after losing their husband and life partner.
“When my husband Steve died - not in a conflict situation, but due to a sudden heart attack while working on a special investigation in Northern Ireland - I appreciated the letter of condolence I received from the AWA. It was just comforting to know that someone had taken the time to write to me and the people there were thinking of me, but expecting nothing in return.
“Then, I received an invitation to attend one of their weekend get-togethers and thought ‘Why not? I have nothing to lose’. I found meeting with other women in my situation was therapeutic because you don’t have to explain yourself. They instinctively know how you feel and they can understand your pain.”
Now, having “been there, done that and got the whole outfit”, Christine felt ready to take on the challenging chairperson role for the UK-wide organisation last July - mainly because she wanted to help steer the group which had done so much to cushion her own distress, but also because she thought, “I can do this; I can cope with life now.”
“There are lots of widows out there unfortunately - we now have a data base of 220 names and 10 regional groups, including one in Northern Ireland - and many strong bonds have been forged and close friendships formed.
“I have made great friends from all over the country and I have done things I thought I never would. Recently, when the AWA was named as one of the official charities to benefit from the Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I sat in on my first conference call which was an interesting experience. We got to chat to some of the people involved in the other charities which have been chosen and I ended up saying ‘g-day’ to a ‘flying doctor’ from the Flying Doctor Service in Australia.”
Christine now hopes that being on the official beneficiary list for the Royal Wedding will significantly raise the profile of the AWA, which she says has been beavering away in the background for many years without gaining any real recognition or creating much public awareness either.
“I think that now people are maybe more aware us, maybe because of the conflict in Afghanistan, but it is terrific that we have been chosen as one of the charities for Prince William and Kate’s wedding, which will definitely get our name out there,” she adds. “Anyone can make a donation through the Royal Charity Fund website and people who may normally send a tea-towel or something to the Royal couple now have the option of making a donation to one of the listed charities instead.
“You can also leave a message for the Royal couple and you will receive a reply, so it is a great Royal memento for well-wishers.”
The horrific tragedies in Afghanistan have certainly increased the number of condolence letters being dispatched from Christine’s office in the past few years and among the most recent was one addressed to Banbridge woman Carley McKee, whose husband Stephen was killed by a roadside bomb in the war-torn country a month ago.
“I had tuned into the local news on Sky TV and I was aware of the tragedy before being officially notified by the Army Aftercare cell,” she says. “It is always devastating to hear news like that and I know I must sit down and write another letter to yet another devastated wife. It is never easy, but it is a job which needs to be done - and one which I hope brings some small comfort.”
Although she gains much from reaching out to other widows, the nature of the work can, at times, be emotionally overwhelming for Christine, whose teenage son was only 13 when he lost his father, so to redress the balance she has taken up golf as an outlet for when she is feeling frustrated and in need of “bashing a ball about”.
“There will always be days of sadness, such as birthdays and Christmases and the milestones of life reached by my son Tom, but knowing you are doing something worthwhile definitely helps,” she says. “In the AWA, we also take part in training days with army personnel so we can give some input into how to break bad news from a widow’s perspective.
“People say there is no good way to break bad news, but there is definitely a less bad way and anything you can do to ease the pain is time well spent.”
* More information is available at the group’s website; www.armywidows.org.uk and the gift website can be accessed at www.royalweddingcharityfund.org