Donna found purpose and joy again, through her community

Donna Vassallo’s life had lost much of its purpose and joy when her husband Louis died in 2018. But a session at First Light’s Camp Widow program helped turn all that around. Now the mother-of-two is helping to re-ignite that feeling in other young widowed people across Brisbane. 

Donna Vassallo was on social media in 2021 when something popped up on her feed about First Light’s Camp Widow program.

“It was literally a week prior, and I thought ‘there’s probably no tickets available’ but luckily I got one,” she says.

“It ended up being something that really changed my life.”

Donna became widowed in October 2018, just 10 months after her husband Louis was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of cancer (Metastasis Squamous Cell Carcinoma).

“No one in our circle of friends even understood what widowhood was all about, it was something that happened to people in their 70s and 80s,” she says.

“So I threw myself into work and my kids and I didn’t really see any bigger purpose in life.”

Donna says it was a session hosted by Julie Cross on finding joy at that first Camp Widow in 2021 that changed her perspective.

“It was all about going back to the things that used to make you feel alive before you lost your partner or your husband,” she says.

“Both my husband and I shared a love for photography, so I thought, ‘Louis is not here, but I still have my camera’.

“That was probably the first thing I took away in terms of re-finding my purpose and joy.

“The second one was creative writing. I’m in the early stages of writing a book about my journey as a young widow.”

Donna says First Light has also helped her find purpose and joy, through the hosting of a monthly support group and coffee catch up in her local area.

“By being a host over the past year and providing a safe space for young widows, I also become a go-to person for them and have developed some strong friendships with other young widows,” she says.

“I have a great mentor/grief counsellor and through research for my personal journey, I’ve been able to move forward positively towards healing, which I’ve found valuable and can now share with them.

“But it has also become a community. There are some regulars that come every month, and we pick up on the ups and downs of everyone’s journey.

“I feel enlightened just being able to be involved in this sort of program, it’s lovely.”

Donna says First Light is so important for helping young widowed people on their early journey of grief and loss, and navigating their way towards healing, which is still quite foreign and sometimes dismissed as the key element in moving forward with life.

“So many people are judgemental towards their own emotions, because society expects you to ‘get over’ grief quickly,” she says.

“I always tell my young widowed community to just be gentle with themselves, because even though it’s uncomfortable, we all have to go through these feelings in order to get to the other side.

“A lot of us think we have to keep on performing, but that’s a false measurement society has that we have to “get better”.

“It’s not like an illness, so it’s about rewriting this message.”

Donna says First Light helped her see herself in a new light after the death of Louis.

“It’s about shifting the energy of the fact that yes, you know, things change and obviously dreams get taken away, but it’s about returning to our own self again. 

“We have to learn to look at what life truly means for us as an individual, not just as someone who was married with kids. 

“This is the legacy that our person had left behind, to continue on living for both of us, for the kids. To find our own purpose.”

Hope, community, understanding

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