Life, love and loss: The Norfolk girl gang

Updated: 12 Jun 2023

A group of Oddfellows members from Norfolk have found friendship and support in a sisterhood after losing their husbands.

Glenda, Jenny, Rosemary and Jackie enjoy a chat over a cup of tea

Left to right: Glenda, Jenny, Rosemary and Jackie found friendship and support within the Oddfellows

Members of the Dereham Branch of the Oddfellows, widows Jenny Atkin, Jackie Madge, Glenda Davis and Rosemary Fraser say they had never felt more isolated than when their husbands died.

Empty chair syndrome

You become so used to doing things as a pair, you don’t know what to do when you become a one. Jenny

Jenny, 76, lost her husband Ray, after he fell down the stairs. She had called an ambulance to treat him for blood loss, and kissed him good-bye, but she truly expected to welcome him home the next day. Tragically, he never walked through the front door again.

Jenny, a grandmother-of-four, said: “’Empty chair syndrome is a grief that floods over you when you’re sat opposite an empty seat, or you look at a chair your husband should be sitting in.

“The ironic thing is, it wouldn’t upset me as much at home, but it would happen when I was out with friends and, naturally, they’d bring their partners, who they’d sit opposite. I would be sat at the end of the table opposite an empty chair.”

She added: “It’s an awful feeling – so much so that it stopped me going out completely. And that only made me more isolated. You become so used to doing things as a pair, you don’t know what to do when you become a one.  You suddenly feel totally alone.”

Sisters doing it for themselves

After Ray’s death, Jenny was persuaded by old friend Rosemary and her husband (also) Ray, to join them at their local Oddfellows group, based in Dereham. Jenny said, “Rosemary and Ray knocking on the door and taking me along to my first meeting was like a manna from heaven.”

Since joining, Jenny and the friends she met there have formed a ‘millennial girl gang’ which provides them with the love, support and companionship they never knew they needed.

It felt like everybody there understood, without saying a word. Jenny

As well as attending regular friendship group events, they shop together, go on holiday together, go out for dinner, and, most importantly – try to sit on round tables, so no one is left on the end opposite an empty chair.

Ladies sat around a round table

A round table is the key to making sure nobody is left out

Jenny, who married her husband aged 21, says her group of friends hasn’t filled the void left by her husband, but it has given her an understanding support network she can depend on.

She added: “I didn’t realise how lonely I was until I turned up at my first Oddfellows meeting. It felt like everybody there understood, without saying a word. I left school when I was 16 and once I was married that was it, I wasn’t expected to do anything but be a wife and a mother.

“I’ve spent most of my life being married so it’s even more of a shock suddenly being single.”

Modern support group

Rosemary, 70, and also a grandmother of four, was the first of the four women to join the Oddfellows in 2007 after moving to the area from Essex. Over time her husband Ray became the District Chairman and was a Trustee when he died.

After Ray died... I felt a deep need to return to my ‘second family’ at our local Oddfellows group. Rosemary Fraser, Dereham Oddfellows member

Rosemary is currently the Deputy Chairman of her local District, and will become the Provincial Grand Master (Chairman) on 21 March. She said it was during and after Ray’s illness the friendship group came into its own, helping and supporting her through a very demanding time.

The ladies support each other through difficult times

 The ladies have supported each other through difficult times

She said: “After Ray died I was a little concerned about going back. I’m a strong, confident person and felt I would be unable to cope with the sympathy. However, I also felt a deep need to return to my ‘second family’, at our local group. Going back wasn’t awkward at all, my friends just came up to me one by one and gave me a hug. Those hugs were worth a thousand words.”

She added: “Talking to people who have been in the same situation doesn’t cure it, but it does make it easier. The group, and the Oddfellows as a Society, is a big part of my support network locally, as my children and grandchildren still live in Essex.”

We all understand what it’s like to be widowed and we give each other the support we need. Glenda Davis, Dereham oddfellows member

Glenda, 82 and a great grandmother of six, was married to Michael for 54 years before he died five years ago. They’d originally joined the friendly Society at around the same time as Rosemary and Ray, and like them, saw it as a way to make friends in a new area.

She said: “When you’ve been someone’s wife for a long time, and then you’re not, you lose your confidence. But there’s no point sitting around doing nothing, you have to go out and do something.

“Our group understands what it’s like to be widowed and we give each other the support we need. When I moved house Rosemary and Jenny helped me. On my birthday last week they made a cake and sang happy birthday to me. It’s these small things that really help.” 

Back for good

Jackie, 70, joined the Branch with her husband Colin. They both became heavily involved in the organisation of the Branch, with Colin holding the post of Branch Chairman when he died.

The grandmother of two took a three-year break from the group when Colin passed in May 2014. However, she’s now back after Rosemary and Ray reminded her what she was missing out on.

I left the Oddfellows for a time, as it held so many memories for me, but when I decided to rejoin, they welcomed me back with open arms. Jackie Madge, Dereham Oddfellows member

She said: “Rosemary and I have known each other since school and Colin and Ray had become very good friends – they both had a wicked sense of humour and a cheeky grin. The four of us would go on holiday together.

“After Colin died I said I was never going to leave the house again. I lost all my confidence. Loneliness is a terrible thing, it can eat away at you.

“Rosemary and Ray were very supportive after Colin died. I left the Oddfellows for a time, as it held so many memories for me, which I wasn’t ready to deal with, but we all stayed in touch. Then as I built my confidence, I decided it was time to go back.

“They welcomed me back with open arms. They are my support network and I can rely on them for anything.”

These Oddfellows members from Dereham truly have each other's backs

The Dereham Oddfellows 'Girl Gang' truly have each other's backs

There for each other

Speaking on behalf of the four women, Jenny said: “The nice thing about having this group of girlfriends is that we’ve each got three friends in the same position, who understand. There’s always someone there if you want to talk about it, and there’s someone there if you don’t want to talk about it but just want some company.

“I still come home to an empty house but having this group of friends makes day to day life much more bearable. It’s been a gentle lifesaver, like a big comfort blanket.”

As one of the UK’s largest and oldest friendly societies, we have connected people with their communities since we were established in 1810. There are over 310,000 members and 124 local Branches which helping people across the UK get more out of life – bringing them together to enjoy social events, as well as being there in times of need through the support of care, welfare and financial benefits.

If you'd like some advice on socialising again after loss, or you'd live to know how you can help a friend who is going through something similar, visit our First Steps page, where you will find all sorts of information and support to guide you. 

You can use our Branch Finder to see which of our Branches is closest to you, or take a look at our Events page to see if there are any group activities or coffee mornings you can come along to! Everyone's welcome at the Oddfellows, and you can be sure of a warm welcome. 

You can also request a free membership pack by visiting our Contact Us page, or calling the Membership Team on 0800 028 1810.