17 April 2018

“I wasn’t looking forward to beginning 2017 without Gemma being a part of it.”

Joanne Jones was still shell-shocked from her gorgeous sister Gemma Roe’s death, when she decided to take on a year-long series of challenges in her memory.

“Looking back over the past year it feels like a dream, but at the time going through all the emotions and the pain was so different,” she says.

“Sometimes I just wanted to give up and had to remind myself on many occasion as to why I began this journey.”

Joanne and sister Gemma as little girls So sweet: Joanne, left and Gemma were typical sisters growing up

Typical sisters growing up, Joanne and Gemma and their young families lived slightly further away from each other than they’d have liked, but they had that special bond that’s strong no matter how far the distance.

12 half marathons, 12 months for Winston’s Wish, because children need help to understand

Gemma had the most beautiful blue eyes, the biggest smile and the heartiest of laughs. Glamorous and confident, with a huge sense of presence when she walked into a room.

“She had a very very large personality,” smiles Joanne, 38, who lives in Warrington with husband Paul, 42, and children Kayleigh, 19, Ben, 15 and James, 14.

“She was just one-of-a-kind that it’s hard to put it into a few words. She was so funny, loving and completely crazy at times, always laughing and smiling. A really caring person who gave the best hugs.”

Even now, it’s hard to believe Gemma, who was 34, has gone.

Family montage of Gemma Roe and her children Gemma was the best mum ever. Here she is with her boys, clockwise from top right, Theo, Finley and Elliot

As mum to Finley, now seven, Elliot, five and Theo, three, Gemma didn’t always have much time for herself.

“Her boys were her everything. She wanted them to have a memorable childhood full of love and laughter and muddy puddles,” says Joanne.

But when Gemma did have a few moments and she put her mind to something new, she totally went for it.

Joanne, who’s a keen runner, had already completed three marathons and was delighted when Gemma told her that she’d taken up running, too. Gemma had set herself quite a goal – she’d signed up to run the Half Marathon in her hometown, Stafford, where she, Joanne and their younger brother had all grown up.

running shoes, iPod and water bottle

Joanne and the family were so proud when her little sister passed the finish line in under two hours, in March 2016.

“Gemma hadn’t been a runner for long, but got an amazing time – one hour 48 minutes” says Joanne.

Gemma had grown to really love running and a few weeks later, with husband Ed at the helm looking after their boys, she slipped out for a quiet run.

Tragedy

Initially, Ed was anxious when he saw an ambulance with blue flashing lights driving very slowly down their street.

He went outside to see where it was going and found Gemma on the ground with paramedics around her. Unbeknown to Ed, she had collapsed while out running and died instantly.

“Her heart had just stopped,” says Joanne.

“I’d heard of these things happening, but you never think it’s going to happen to you, to someone you love. Losing Gemma has left such a huge hole in my heart and I don't think it will ever be filled again.”

Joanne and Gemma on a hen nightHens and hugs: Joanne, left, and Gemma

The family pulled together and tried to be strong, as Ed worked to get daily routines back to as normal as possible for the boys. The children also underwent professional counselling to help them through the shock and grief.

Joanne was still in a state of disbelief when she decided to set herself a challenge, as a way of coping and honouring her beautiful sister’s memory.

Gemma had been so proud of her Stafford Half Marathon achievement, that Joanne decided to run a half marathon in every month of 2017, in her memory. The family’s shocking loss had also made her reflect on other families torn apart by bereavement.

How do children learn to live with such hurt?

“When I see her three boys I feel so much heartache for all those special moments they will never get to share with their mum,” she says.

“How do children learn to live with such hurt? All those difficult emotions that we as adults have had years to develop but still struggle with?”

Although Gemma and Ed’s boys had had private counselling, Joanne was aware that not every youngster might have that opportunity. When she heard about charity Winston’s Wish, which provides free counselling and support to grieving children who’ve lost a parent, carer or sibling, she knew Gemma would have approved.

Winston's WishWinston’s Wish provides counselling, support and therapy to grieving children who have lost their mum, dad or carer

Winston’s Wish helps children find ways of holding on to happy memories and to include someone who they miss on special days such as birthdays and Christmas.

With an original fundraising goal of £500 for Winston’s Wish, Joanne signed up for 12 half marathons, to run in Gemma’s memory.

It’s been her aim, too, to raise the profile of an amazing charity that is there for children when they need it – but that people may be unaware of until their own lives are touched by tragedy.

On your marks

The first race she ran was on January 17, 2017 in Helsby, Cheshire. It was a miserable cold and wet day, but despite the physical and emotional struggle, Joanne made it to the finish line.

That afternoon with friends , she and Paul raised a glass and toasted Gemma.

“We toasted her at the end of every run,” she smiles.

“Gem loved a G&T – a double!”

Joanne, Paul and pals after completing the Liverpool Half MarathonJoanne, Paul (second from right) and pals after completing the Liverpool Half Marathon

February was a half marathon in Liversedge, Yorkshire, but Joanne’s March running challenge was the most emotional of all – in Stafford, where just a year ago, things had been so different.

Standing at the start line wondering what was going through Gemma’s mind when she was stood here just 12 months ago. Has she been excited or nervous? Joanne wondered. Her sister had been so competitive.

In Gemma’s footsteps

“The route took me down passed the road we’d lived on when we were kids. Through the park and passed paddling pool we used to play in. Every step I took was in Gemma’s footprints.

“Approaching the finish line I was thinking about how Gemma was celebrating her amazing time with Ed and the boys whilst collecting her medal and now...now it’s a memory.”

The next four half marathons weren’t far from home, in Liverpool and Lancashire, while August saw Joanne fly to Dublin to run.

She did the Great North Run in September. That month, a gala charity benefit for Winston’s Wish was also held at Warrington’s Eagle Sports Club in memory of Gemma.

Joanne and Paul ran the Dublin Half marathon with their boysJoanne and Paul ran the Dublin Half marathon with their boys James, far left, and Ben

October’s half marathon was in Manchester, while the initial plan had been to take part in an annual event held at Tatton Park in November. But by then, Joanne had run through an awful lot of bad weather. With her birthday coming up in November, why not combine her 11th half marathon challenge with a holiday break in the Sunshine State?

Florida was amazing – but three miles from the finish line, Joanne saw a runner collapse and fall to the ground. Other runners rushed over to help: “It made me think of Gemma,” she says.

“It hurts knowing that Gemma was all alone when she died and took a lot of strength to hold back the tears. I still wonder if that girl’s okay and I’ll never know.”

Joanne and Paul after completing their run in FloridaJoanne and Paul completed the Florida Half Marathon

It was a deeply poignant race, but Joanne and Paul continued in their tradition and toasted Gemma later that afternoon – with cocktails.

In early December Joanne completed her final 12-month half marathon challenge, in Lisbon, Portugal. Travelling with some of her closest friends who had been her greatest support from the day Gemma died, they kept her spirits high throughout the weekend and she did not have much time to quietly reflect on what she had achieved.

“It was an amazing thing at the time,” she says looking back, although her 12-month challenge now seems like a blur.

“So many memories created and so much money raised for so many children who will benefit from it. But I was also glad it was all over.”

Joanne hugs Paul after completing her final half marathon challenge in LisbonAn emotional Joanne and Paul at the finish of the half marathon in Lisbon, Joanne's twelfth challenge for Gemma

Joanne not only completed her challenge, but exceeded her £500 fundraising goal for Winston’s Wish – with her supporters pledging an amazing £5,468 to the charity.

“I think Gemma would have been really, really proud,” says Joanne.

“In fact,” she smiles, “she would have probably wanted to do it herself – and raced against me, determined to win!”

  • If you’ve been inspired by Joanne’s story and would like to support Winston’s Wish – the bereavement charity that’s there for grieving children, her Just Giving page for Gemma is still open for donations. You can also discover more about the charity and how it could support someone you know, at www.winstonswish.org.