Twenty years ago, Renee and Norman fell madly in love. It was Norman’s dazzling moves that initially caught Renee’s eye at a local dancing club. After just a couple of dances together, they became inseparable.
"I KNOW I'VE GOT TO GO, AND UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN, THESE ARE MY WORDS..."
For those that knew them, Renee and Norman’s relationship was one of genuine love and companionship. They shared a long and happy retirement, growing old happily together. But in 2019, when Norman was 81, he was diagnosed with cancer, and things became very difficult. He became increasingly worried about 85-year-old Renee, who suffers from memory problems. Not only was she unable to make the journey to visit Norman in hospital, or pick up his vital medication when he returned home, but her own memory and mental health was worsening, leaving Norman deeply concerned.
That’s when their local British Red Cross team stepped in to provide practical and emotional support to the couple. Support worker Natalie, became “like a daughter” to Norman, reassuring him that Renee would get the care she needs after he passed away, and helping him write a love letter for her to remember him by.
Natalie continues to care for Renee, after Norman sadly died in 2020.
GETTING TO KNOW NATALIE
When Norman was first ill, he had to spend five months in hospital, and Renee, who was unable to drive, couldn’t travel to visit him. The separation made her very distressed, leading to a decline in her mental health.
The British Red Cross arranged transport for Renee to get to the hospital. There, she was introduced to Natalie, who had already started supporting Norman, and explains how she got to know the couple:
“[Norman] was in hospital. He'd been diagnosed with cancer and he was having the conversations with the medical team about the severity of it...
“So, I introduced myself to Norman, and his son was there... I said we can support, perhaps with medical transport, with helping to get to appointments, or just being a little bit of company."
“Norman was discharged home from hospital, and we went to see him every week… After several weeks [he] began to become comfortable with us and trust us.
“With Norman’s physical decline… his main concern was how Renee would manage. And he wanted us to get to know her and for us to work together, so that we were in her long-term memory."
“I said ‘what would make you feel better?’, thinking it would be something like carers, but he said, ‘I just want someone to keep an eye on her.’”
- Natalie, British Red Cross
WINE GUMS AND LOVE LETTERS
“I said, ‘have you thought about what you'd like to say to Renee, in terms of when you're not here?’… He said he wanted to write Renee some love letters.
“He knew she would forget more and more, so he wanted to leave memories and birthday cards for her, so he’s still with her.
“So, I bought Renee some wine gums, because she loves them, and she put her headphones on so she couldn’t hear, and we wrote love letters to Renee. I was the scribe, so I was only writing what he said. When I read it back – I didn’t want to show tears because I didn’t want him to be affected, but I just cried.
“We actually both started crying because it was not just what was happening between him and Renee, really it was the greater context of the outside world. We were living in a pandemic. Everything was different. Everything was strange. He couldn't have family members visit in the same way. So, it was a card that was written in a very unique time and circumstance and I think that kind of showed in that whole experience."
“When it was done, Norman was content. He had done everything he needed to do. And he said he wanted to be there for her [Renee’s] birthday which was in the April, and he did. He lasted through April and he died on the first of May."
On the day Norman passed away, Natalie took Renee to the hospital, so she could hold his hand in the final moments. She had Norman’s letter with her, which she said helped her deal with his death.
“It’s a reminder that life is precious… a reminder to cherish those we love.”
“A BEAUTIFUL DANCER”
Since Norman’s death, the British Red Cross have continued to support Renee with weekly phone calls and check-ins, and practical and emotional support throughout the pandemic – when she has been more vulnerable and isolated than ever. Renee is so grateful:
“I can’t thank them enough, the Red Cross, they’ve been marvellous taking me to see Norman every day, we never missed a day.
“[Norman was] a lovely, loving person and he would do a good turn for anybody! Anybody all round here, if they needed anything he’d come and help them, not a bad word for him… I don’t know, I just liked him. And oh, he was a good dancer, a beautiful dancer!"
“I couldn’t have met a better person. That was twenty odd years we'd been together… I had a good life with him … he was the love of my life.
“Every-every time I wanted to go the hospital to visit Norman, she [Natalie] was there, they were always ready, you know? … She’s a lovely person, they’re all good dedicated people who work for them.
“I can’t praise the Red Cross and Natalie enough. I can’t thank them enough.
“I have got it [the love letter] somewhere, because I said I’ll treasure this… Yeah, the lovely letter… I got happy memories!”
Loneliness can have a crippling effect on mental health. For people in situations like Renee’s, the simple act of a regular phone call, or visit from a friendly face, can be life changing. It’s the kindness and the company that makes all the difference.
“She struggles to cope. She still does,” explains Natalie: “I saw her this week, I had to take her to a medical appointment, and she said, ‘I still miss him’. Of course you do, that never goes away. That absence, she feels that forever.
“But she does have something comforting. She still has that relationship with us and it's nice because we know, and knew, Norman. And we knew her at that time. So, she has that kind of continuity… she can still talk about him with people that knew both of them at that time. And she still has those words from Norman. That helps her to cope. And that was part of his little plan."
“It brings a great joy whenever she refers to the letter. She smiles, she doesn't even have to see it or see the words on it for it to bring her joy, and to get to hear Norman again, talking to her. It's wonderful. And he was right – she did need it!”
- Natalie, British Red Cross
At Comic Relief, we believe everyone has the right to quality mental health support, where and when they need it.
Improving access to mental health services, and combating stigma around mental health problems in the UK has been a priority for Comic Relief for over ten years. We’re now also striving to achieve these same goals internationally, and raise the profile of the rights of people in low and middle-income countries living with mental health conditions.
With your donations, we can ensure that more people like Renee access the support they need, in the UK and around the world.