Widowed at 38, Michelle Moriarty knows about grief and what to say to someone who has lost a loved one

By National Regional Reporter  Eliza Borrello

At just 42, Michelle Moriarty has learnt a lot about grief.

In 2018, she became a widow when her partner, 39-year-old Nathan Johnston, died suddenly.

“Nathan and I had our whole lives ahead of us and I had a two-year-old and a six-year-old and we were very excited about life and life changed … every aspect of our life changed that night,” she said.

Looking for others who shared a similar experience, Michelle — who lives in Bunbury, two hours south of Perth — set up a young widow’s Facebook group.

“Despite having so much support from family, friends and my community, I still felt really isolated in my grief,” she said.

Nathan Johnston holding the couple’s son Cody Johnston.(Supplied: Michelle Moriarty)

“The main benefit for me, in the early days particularly, was just that sense of ‘I’m not alone in this; it’s not just me that this has happened to.'”

The group now has more than 300 members.

“[It helped] being able to connect with others emotionally and support each other with the issues we had to face, because there are a lot of unexpected processes and tasks, some are formal, some are informal … after the death of a loved one,” Michelle said.

Michelle and Nathan met when they were 17.(Supplied: Michelle Moriarty)

Last year Michelle’s father died unexpectedly too.

So she set up another Facebook group, this time for widows over 55.

“[It] was something I felt was important, as my mother was now widowed, similarly to me,” she said.

What to say to someone who has lost a loved one

Michelle is now using her skills as a social worker to offer grief counselling.

She has also set up The Grief Language Project®, promoting grief education and helpful things to say to people who’ve lost a loved one.

One of her aims is to normalise the experience of grief within communities.

“If your gut instinct is telling you that you should ask someone how they’re travelling, that is the perfect way of saying it,” she said.

“It’s very gentle, ‘So how are you travelling?’

“It’s [also] a lot broader [than asking someone how they are] and it provides the person experiencing grief with a sense of control over what information they choose to share.

“They can offer something about their feelings if they want to … but it also gives an option to give you an answer that suits them without being triggered.”

Michelle says she and Nathan were very excited about living their lives before he died.(Supplied: Michelle Moriarty)

Michelle said her late partner Nathan Johnston did a lot of the couple’s gardening.

After he died, people really helped by offering to help with the weeding, lawn mowing and keeping plants alive.

“Especially in those early days of grief [it’s helpful to ask], ‘So what can I do for you?’ Michelle said.

“‘Are there any tasks or any appointments or any things around the house that I can help with?’

“‘Do you need a meal?'”

Michelle also said that saying someone’s loss was unfair could go a long way.

“It is unfair that our person died and that acknowledgement and witnessing someone’s grief is so powerful,” she said.

What not to say

Michelle says checking in with people in the weeks, months and years after their loss is important.(ABC News: Eliza Borrello)

Michelle said there were some things that should be considered before speaking to someone who was grieving.

“If you’re grocery shopping and you’re trying to get on with a daily task and if you see someone that you might have seen 20 years ago and they ask a question that may raise trauma such as ‘So how did your person die?’, that might not necessarily be appropriate.”

She also said it was important to follow through with promises.

For example, if you say you’ll invite a grieving person over for a barbecue, you should do it.

“I really hung on to invitations [like that] and was disappointed when people didn’t follow through,” Michelle said.

A story of hope

Michelle is grateful to have found new love with Ross Craigie.(Supplied: Michelle Moriarty)

Last night Michelle won the 2023 WA Rural Women’s Award for her commitment to supporting widowed people across regional WA.

“It’s an absolute honour and privilege to be recognised in this role… and it means a lot to me,” she said.

Michelle’s grief is still palpable and she says Nathan will always have a special place in her life.

But she wants her story to be one of hope and is happy to share that she recently became engaged to Ross Craigie, who she reconnected with after Nathan died.

Michelle Moriarty and fiancee Ross Craigie celebrating her winning WA’s Rural Women’s Award for 2023.(ABC News: Eliza Borrello)

“In those early days I couldn’t see through to the next day,” she said.

“But here I am four and a half years later and I delight in life. I’ve found joy in life and I love.

“I keep people who fill my cup and make my energy levels high, I keep them really close to me.

“I think that’s really key going forward as well and just hanging on and remembering that tomorrow’s a new day.”