Rhian Mannings has endured more loss and grief in one week than anyone should ever have to face in a lifetime.
Nine years ago, on February 22, her one-year-old son George suffered a seizure. An ambulance rushed him to Royal Glamorgan Hospital in South Wales, where Rhian and her husband Paul watched helplessly as medical staff desperately tried to save their baby boy’s life.
But there was nothing they could do. Two hours later George had passed away.
“George was amazing,” says Rhian, 43. “He was happy, always smiling, easy going and he just completed the family. We never expected him to die.”
Paul and Rhian returned home to their two other children, Holly and Isaac, who were then little more than toddlers themselves, to tell them their baby brother was now a star in the sky.
The couple, who had been together for 13 years, tried to make sense of what had happened to their perfect family. “That weekend we talked about it non-stop,” says Rhian. “We told each other we loved each other and that we would have a good life in honour of George. Things were tough but we were closer than ever.”
Then five days after George’s death Paul got in his car and drove away. He would never come home. Rhian didn’t discover he had taken his own life until two police officers arrived at her house later that day.
“I didn’t cry for months. I was in complete shock,” says Rhian. “My body completely shut down. It took years to accept it had happened.”
With her husband gone, Rhian had to wait a further four months to learn George had been ill with pneumonia and influenza. The news brought her some comfort as it confirmed there was nothing anyone could have done to save him.
Despite her pain, Rhian had a need to do something for the hospital where George had died as she felt it could be better equipped to support parents who had lost children. So she set up 2 Wish Upon a Star.
The charity, which receives National Lottery funding, supports families when they suffer the sudden death of a child or young person under 25. “I just didn’t want another family to fall apart like we had,” says Rhian, a former PE teacher.
Her determination has taken her on an incredible journey. The charity, which has supported over 890 bereaved families, pivoted much of its National Lottery funding during lockdown to move its counselling services online, along with social events such as quizzes and bingo. It has also been able to recruit two members of staff to help families in North Wales. “We can’t thank them enough,” says Rhian. “It has changed lives – and all because of National Lottery funding.”
The charity provides counselling and play therapy to support bereaved parents and children. It also helps fathers, who are often slower to engage. “We have a rugby team and football team and have organised paintball socials,” says Rhian.
“Often it’s just enough for these dads to know they’re with someone who really understands just what they’ve been through. I once got a letter from a dad asking me not to be angry with Paul and that he’d be so proud of everything I’ve achieved. That meant so much to me.”
Rhian has kept moving forward with her life and lives in Miskin near Cardiff, with Holly, 13, and Isaac, 12, and her new husband Craig (pictured above), who are all deeply involved with the charity.
In the past year, National Lottery players have raised £1billion to help people across the UK during these unprecedented times, and 2 Wish Upon a Star is just one of thousands of projects supported.
“It has been a massive comfort to keep George and Paul’s memories alive,” says Rhian. “I’ve met the most amazing people who have thanked me for helping them – but they’ve helped me too.”