Jenny-May Clarkson’s gratitude in grief: ‘Life, loss and my secret struggle with panic attacks’

''I'd have a real knot in my stomach, and then suddenly I couldn't breathe.''
Jenny-May Clarkson panic attack

When TVNZ sports presenter Jenny-May Clarkson shared her story with New Zealand Woman’s Weekly early last year, opening up about the severe food allergies her young twin sons had been diagnosed with, she would have been forgiven for thinking it would be the biggest challenge she would face in the year ahead.

Instead, it was just the first piece of bad news, with the blows she was dealt becoming more heart-breaking as the year progressed.

Her big brother, Jeffrey, was given the heart-breaking news that his bowel cancer was now terminal. Then, in late July – two years after his first cancer diagnosis – Jenny-May was with him, holding his hand as he passed away.

But as the family were coming to grips with Jeffrey’s death, they were dealt another blow when the broadcaster’s cherished dad, Waka, quietly passed three and a half months later from a heart-attack – or, more likely, says Jenny-May, a broken heart.

The depth and ferocity of that grief caught Jenny-May completely unaware. It came for her at the most unexpected of times, suddenly choking her at work. Terrifyingly, she began experiencing panic attacks, live on air.

“I’d have a real knot in my stomach, and then suddenly I couldn’t breathe,” she confides exclusively to the Weekly. “I had no idea what was happening. It would only last 15 or so seconds, but there were times where I didn’t think I was going to be able to carry on.”

Somehow, Jenny-May always managed to compose herself before having to stop the news, but the panic attacks continued for weeks until she told her husband about them. Then, after working with a counsellor she came to understand what she was experiencing, and why.

“What I didn’t realise, by not understanding grief, was that it was coming up physically. I now know you can’t suppress it – it’s going to come out somehow. And for me, the form it came out in was panic attacks, which is actually pretty sh** considering I read the news for my job,” she manages to laugh during her emotional interview.

Pick up the latest issue of the Weekly, out now, to read the full story with Jenny-May, in which she opens up about her struggles with panic attacks and anxiety, and what helpful strategies she is using to get through this difficult chapter in her life.

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