“How running helped me deal with losing my father“

Posted by for Strong Women

When 28-year-old financial analyst Melissa Rawlings from Highbury, London lost both her brother and father to suicide – all within the space of four years – she turned to running and raised £10,000 for mental health charity Mind in the process.

I was 17 years old when I lost my father to suicide. It came as such a shock to my family – so much so, that it took a very long time to properly sink in that my father was gone. Needless to say, it was the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

My brother Marcus was only 15 years old at the time and about to start his GCSEs – the same time I was beginning my A-levels. It was during this time that Marcus and I became closer than ever, especially as we began spending more time together while working part-time at the same job on the weekends. We were there to support one another through difficult times when the pain was too much to bear.

We’re both similar in that we’re quite reserved and don’t outwardly show our emotions often, so we understood each other as we went on our journey to find a new kind of ‘normal’ without our dad around. One way we tried to cope was by making future plans to give each other something to look forward to. We would fill the calendar with dates like going to Santa Pod drag racing together, something we had previously done with dad. We also had mutual friends from the pub we worked at, so could meet those friends at bars together, rather than having to go alone. We were within each other’s reach if we needed one another. 

This was our way of taking each day as it came, and luckily, we both had the support of a loving network of friends and extended family for whom I’m so grateful.

But then one day, the unimaginable happened. Only four years later, I lost my brother to suicide too. I was 21 years old at the time and Marcus was only 19.

Losing my brother tore what was left of our family apart, as we constantly dwelled over all the ‘what ifs.’

Melissa-Marcus-and-Mum
Melissa with her Mum and brother Marcus

There’s a lot of guilt for those who’ve lost family members to suicide. My mum and I found ourselves constantly questioning if we somehow missed the obvious signs. Looking back on the night before Marcus died by suicide, my mum and I had agreed that in hindsight, his behaviour was odd. Yet, it was still completely unexpected as he had never voiced any concerns about being unhappy.

It was at this low point in my life that I found solace in the most unlikely of places: running. I was never a sporty person – at all. Quite the opposite in fact, I hated P.E. at school and would find any excuse to get out of it. However, when mum suggested we run the London Marathon together to raise money for Mind, a mental health charity, I knew it was something I wanted to do as we were approaching the 10-year anniversary of losing my father to suicide. We also felt that doing so would help us to share our story with others.

Melissa-marathon-2
Melissa with her mum running the London Marathon

When I signed up to the marathon in August 2018, I had zero running experience. I could barely run one mile, let alone 26, and wasn’t doing any other form of exercise apart from the odd yoga class. So, believe me when I say that it was a massive undertaking. In fact, when I told my friends about my plans to run the London marathon, they were genuinely shocked.

The training was hard at first, to say the least. I felt so disheartened when I had to keep stopping to rest, exhausted and out of breath before even reaching the first mile. I ran on my own because I was too embarrassed for anyone to see how much I was struggling with running. It took me four months just to be able to complete 5km. But mum was incredibly supportive and eventually we started to train together on the weekends.

At Christmas, I started to panic once I realised just how long it had taken me to just reach 5km – I had so much further to go in such little time, but I pushed myself to keep going. Over time, it eventually got easier and I began to surprise even myself as I added on more miles with every week. 

Heading into the new year, it was crunch time, so I followed a gruelling training schedule to catch up. It felt like I was running all the time and my body had its way of letting me know that it wasn’t used to all the mileage I was clocking in. After every single run, I would feel it in a different part of my body. One day my knee gave way and I had to get a taxi home. Some days the arches of my feet were so sore I could barely walk, while other days my hips ached as I bent to sit down. But by mid-February, I had finally conquered running a half-marathon without feeling like it was a struggle. Don’t get me wrong, I still got aches and pains, but I learned to run through the discomfort (unless the pain was really severe, in which case I would stop to avoid serious injury).

Come April 2019, as my mum and I stood at the starting line of the London Marathon, our tops emblazoned with pictures of Marcus and dad, I felt incredibly proud that we had made it that far. I also felt grateful for the people who had kindly and generously supported us, both with words of encouragement or donations to Mind.

The atmosphere was sensational– there was an immense sense of camaraderie. At one point, we all ran under a bridge (so there wasn’t any noise from cheering spectators), at which point all the runners started to cheer and sing themselves. People who noticed our shirts or had heard of our story tapped us on the shoulder as we ran, sharing their own similar experience of losing someone they loved to suicide. It made me realise just how many people are affected by suicide and it made me feel less alone. 

Melissa-marathon
Melissa and her mum wear shirts emblazoned with her father's and brother's face on them during the London Marathon

I was so swept up in the excitement during the first half of the run, that I didn’t feel tired or out of breath. In fact, thanks to the adrenaline and energy from the crowds, I found out that we actually ran the marathon much faster than we had expected to.

However, once we crossed the halfway point at Tower Bridge, something had suddenly shifted for me. My legs began to feel numb and wobbly, like they were made of spaghetti. I knew that if I stopped running, I wouldn’t be able to start again. I’m not going to lie, it became almost impossible from there. Mum seemed to be doing okay and urged me to keep going. What kept me from quitting was every time we saw family and friends cheering us from the sidelines. Seeing their faces that wanted us to succeed gave me a little boost each time – giving me the fuel I needed to go on.

It was around mile 21 that I began to completely zone out from the crowds – I was so focused on getting to the finish line. Mum helped by counting down the remainder of the run into small sections, one mile at a time. She could have sped on ahead, but she stuck with me so we could finish the race together.

Melissa-and-mum-london-marathon
Melissa and her mum complete the London Marathon

When I finally crossed the finish line, I thought I was going to cry – and I also couldn’t walk! It was such a massive achievement and we were both so happy to think that we had not only run a marathon together, but had also raised so much money for the charity. I also felt thankful for all the support of our friends, family and even the strangers who had cheered us on and helped me get through such a challenging experience. The icing on the cake: we raised a total of £10,000 for Mind.

After that marathon, I didn’t stop running. To this day, I run two or three times a week. I find that it helps me to unwind after a busy day and even on the toughest of days, I always return home feeling better than before.

Since then, I’ve joined a local running club and do parkruns at the weekends. Often using it as an excuse to catch up with friends while getting some exercise. From someone who used to find any excuse to get out of P.E. class, it’s hard to believe that running has become such a massive part of my life – but now I can’t imagine being without it.

I continue to support and raise awareness for Mind as they continue to provide support for people suffering from depression or anxiety – especially during such difficult and isolating times such as during the current Covid-19 crisis. Like Mind, I believe no one should have to go through mental illness alone.

To support Mind please go to www.mind.org.uk and donate now.

For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.

IMAGE: courtesy of Melissa Rawlings

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for more inspiring women and advice on making running a part of your fitness routine.

Sign up for workouts, nutritious recipes and expert tips. You'll also get your Beginner's Guide To Strength Training.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Share this article

Recommended by Rachel Tompkins