Meet the Bristol woman bringing 'complete strangers' together to chat about grief

Anya Esser, 52, started Bristol Widowed Together after losing her husband Jonny in 2022.

A Bristol woman is bringing complete strangers together to chat about a very "unique" kind of grief.

For Anya Esser, 52, it was a "huge shock" to lose her husband Jonny to cancer, at just 48.

That was six months ago and since then she has struggled to find a bereavement group that "feels right".

The mum-of-two who lives in Southville explained: "I was in a slightly unique situation where you think ‘s***, this wasn’t meant to happen’.

"You just don’t think that one of you will die and leave the other the lone parent of two teenagers, to do it all on your own.

"I went to a group - and it was lovely - but it just wasn’t right for me. There were people there who had lost their mums who were in their 80s.

"Grief is grief - and it’s awful - but it’s not the same as being widowed before your time. Only somebody it’s happened to can say ‘yeah, I get it’."

Jonny's diagnosis came as a huge shock Credit: Anya Esser

Jonny's oesophageal cancer diagnosis came completely out of the blue.

Anya said: "He was really fit and healthy, never unwell, he barely drank, he ate really well and he was in training for a triathlon.

"One day he had trouble swallowing and he went to a specialist who told him it was probably just acid reflux.

"Then they put a camera down his oesophagus and discovered he had an aggressive kind of tumour.

"Thankfully we had another eight months together to write our wills and I would always encourage people to do that, because it really helped me afterwards.

"My husband had been saying for years ‘oh we must do our wills’ and I just said ‘yeah, yeah, let’s book a holiday instead’, because you just don't think it will happen to you."

Data released last month show that, in 2020, there were over three million widows - men and women - living in the UK.

Yet, even after further research, Anya still couldn't find a bereavement group specifically for those who had lost their life partners.

That's why she started Bristol Widowed Together, a Facebook group with nearly 40 members already.

She said: "I put a shout-out in all the community Facebook groups and people came back saying that it was a brilliant idea.

"I was sort of waiting for somebody to say ‘this group already exists’, but people could only suggest general bereavement groups

"So I started the group and I pushed it out on some Facebook pages, and I said ‘tell your friends - men and women.'"

Now, nearly a month on, the group has had its first meet-up and is planning a second.

The first gathering took place at the Tobacco Factory last Sunday, 28 May, and around eight members turned up - three of them men.

Anya said: "They said they hadn’t intended to come, but they were really glad they did and a couple of them messaged me afterwards and said thank you.

"We need more men because I think women find it easier to talk - we are used to standing around at the school gates, but men find it harder I think."

After the first meet-up, some members of the group shared their thoughts.

One said: "It’s so wonderful and refreshing to meet others who although all completely unique and individual circumstances have a commonality."

Another commented: “I can't thank you enough for setting up this first meeting, it was a pleasure meeting every one."

A group member wrote: "I walked away feeling like I'd just spent a couple of hours with friends I have known for years and really understand."

And, as one person said: “It's the club you never wanted to be part of but equally feel really glad to have found."

If you have lost your partner, you can join Bristol Widowed Together on Facebook here.