Michelle with her partner Nathan

Michelle's Story: Losing her partner to heart failure

When Michelle Moriarty’s partner Nathan Johnston died suddenly in 2018, the grief was unimaginable

But what hit her most was how alone she felt – despite having incredible family and friends all around her. This led Michelle to set up a support group for widows in her home state of Western Australia that has grown and grown in the intervening years.

Nathan with his son Cody

Michelle, who was left to bring up two children on her own aged 38, recalls: “When Nathan died I felt so isolated and alone in my grief despite the wonderful community around me. That’s how I met another widow and after we talked, I realised I needed to meet other people who were in a similar situation to me.

“Losing a partner is different. You lose that intense relationship. For me and Nathan, it was about being together on a daily basis, having plans for the future, bringing up children together and suddenly it’s all gone.”

Michelle, who is a social worker, formed a peer support group on Facebook within four months of Nathan’s death from heart failure.

The WA Young Widowed Support Group  began with just a handful of women – largely meeting online – but now has 352 members across Western Australia. Census figures reveal there are more than one million widows in Australia revealing a staggering need for her services.

Michelle says: “We're all very different, different backgrounds and walks of life but we connect with that shared experience. We can have conversations that may be very uncomfortable for people who have not lost a partner and we can talk openly without judgement."

Soon after setting up the widow support group, Michelle, founded grief-specific counselling services that are available online via telehealth across the country. It was important for Michelle to ensure people living in rural and isolated places could access this help.

When Michelle’s beloved dad Neville died last year, she realised there was another gap in dealing with grief in Australia – many people don’t know how to deal with friends and loved ones who are dealing with loss and very importantly don’t know what to say.

Michelle with her dad Neville
She says: “My friends told me that they wanted to help, but they didn’t know what to do and didn't know what to say. That’s not surprising because I also didn’t realise what was happening to me when Nathan died. I felt like I was going mad at the start, but I now understand what grief is and what it looks like and that what I was going through was healthy – it was a process that I needed to do to survive.”

It led Michelle to develop 'The Grief Language Project' to enable Australians to be able to talk about death and grief. It’s also available for workplaces and communities too.

She says: “It’s about having conversations that are safe and comfortable – providing people with tools about how they can help colleagues and friends navigate their grief. We reveal how you can incorporate simple strategies into your daily working and personal lives. For example, it could be as simple as saying you don’t know what to say which is far better than simply avoiding someone. This small act can have a huge impact by showing that your friend or colleague is not alone – and could make a big difference to their mental health.”

Michelle says we should also listen to our intuition and also not assume that just because it’s months after someone lost a loved one, they are ok.

Michelle standing in a doorway
“There’s a lot of intensive contact in those first few weeks but that tends to drop off. I’d say to people if you are thinking about checking in on your friend, do it. Send them a text or phone them. Ask if there is anything they need help with – like getting them some bread, milk, or groceries, having a meal cooked or mowing their lawn. They might seem like small things, but they can be life-changing for someone stuck deep in their grief.”

Michelle’s incredible work has led her to be awarded the WA 2023 WA AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.

She also has big plans for the future – she wants to develop online tools and resources and expand her Grief Connect service. She has also set up an Over 55’s Widowed Support Group

“There is so much work to do and so many people we need to reach. Even though I was a social worker and had dealt with other people’s grief on all levels, I still did not have a full understanding of just how grief impacts people. It was a huge learning experience entering into widowhood myself. Losing someone is always going to be hard, but having loved ones around you and a support network will make it easier to survive.”

Find out more about all of Michelle’s services, including Grief Connect: https://griefconnect.com.au/about/

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years