Sir Andrew Strauss hopes people in the UK can become more open to talking about death and set aside the British “stiff upper lip”.
Former England cricket captain Strauss lost his wife, Ruth, to non-smoking lung cancer in 2018.
On Sunday he will run the Virgin Money London Marathon in aid of the Ruth Strauss Foundation (RSF).
One of the charity’s main aims is to help parents have that most difficult of conversations with their children – to tell them one of their parents is dying.
“For a long time for Ruth and I, (her terminal illness) was this massive elephant in the room,” he told the PA news agency.
“Ruth was courageous enough to say to me, ‘the only way I save my remaining time on this planet is to know that you and the kids are prepared for what’s coming’.”
Strauss said Ruth arranged counselling with Jenni Thomas, whose advice on how to handle conversations around death with your children are on the RSF website.
“One of the most powerful things that Jenni said to Ruth and I, not long after we met her, was, ‘you know Ruth, the kids are going to miss you awfully, and especially in certain times of their lives, but it isn’t going to stop them living fantastic, positive, hugely productive lives, and they can handle this’.
“That was such a weight off Ruth’s mind to hear that, and that’s the way it’s played out. They get stuck in, they’re at school, they’re growing up as kids do, they feel like they have got good friends and family and support structures and I couldn’t be prouder of how they have reacted to the whole thing.
“That was one of the big motivators for us setting up the Ruth Strauss Foundation – we had that help and support, and unfortunately 40,000 kids every year are going to go through something very similar to us, and how do we make sure they have access to that sort of support as well?
“It requires parents to do what’s quite unnatural – we feel our role as parents often is to protect our kids from tough stuff and unfortunately with those awful experiences, they have to be part of that journey.
“It’s hugely important, both at the time but also afterwards, that they don’t feel like they were either not told the truth or lied to. So that helps the grief process, they have to go through it as well.”
He said it was vital those conversations with children continued after a parent’s death as well.
“I hear that a huge amount, that kind of British stiff upper lip thing of, ‘we’ve just got to crack on’. Culturally we need to move past that,” Strauss added.
“We have made a lot of progress in a lot of other areas around depression and mental health and I think this is the next step for us, to be much more open and expressive about death.
“We’re two and a half years on now (from Ruth’s death) with the boys but we still try to find reasons to, ‘go there’ – it might be on Ruth’s birthday or the anniversary of her death or Mother’s Day. We will go through some photos and we will share some memories.
“I’m not sure we still get it completely right but I don’t think my boys are uncomfortable talking about it, and that’s a good place to be.”
The other major work of the RSF centres around the co-ordination of research around non-smoking lung cancers – who it affects, early diagnosis, treatments and the sequencing of those treatments.
Strauss said the Foundation was trying to set up a workshop of experts next summer and added: “It does seem to be on the increase, particularly among young women. Knowing more about that, hopefully, will allow us to prevent people getting it in the first place.
“Then there’s early diagnosis, which is a struggle with all lung cancer because often you only get symptoms when the cancer has spread and obviously that’s too late. Then of course, it’s (finding out) what are the right treatments and the right sequencing of treatments, and again there is a lot of progress being made.
“But unfortunately it’s a tough disease, cancer, and if you look at five-year survival rates for lung cancers, it’s not nearly where it is it for other cancers, so there’s still a lot of progress that needs to be made.”
Strauss and his fellow RSF runners will be among around 40,000 people competing in person around the streets of London, with the same number again due to compete virtually.
The coronavirus pandemic meant last year’s race was not open for mass participation.
In this year’s elite race, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei will look to retain her title, just eight weeks on from claiming Olympic marathon silver in Sapporo.
Shura Kitata is the defending champion in the men’s race.
:: For more details on the Ruth Strauss Foundation, and on how to donate, visit: ruthstraussfoundation.com
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