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Jenny-May Clarkson opens up about the panic attacks she has suffered since grieving the loss of her dad and brother

The sports presenter opens up about how she is learning to cope with losing both her brother and father.

By Alice O'Connell
If you tuned into 1 News last year, chances are you watched along without any inkling that something was amiss.
Ever the consummate professional, sports presenter Jenny-May Clarkson kept up with her job, barely missing a beat and still injecting a bit of humour into the show.
Looks were deceiving, though. Underneath, she was suffering.
Her big brother Jeffrey had been given the heartbreaking news that his bowel cancer was now terminal and in late July − two years after his first cancer diagnosis − Jenny-May was with him, holding his hand as he passed away.
Just as the family were coming to grips with Jeffrey's death, they were dealt another blow when the broadcaster's cherished dad, Te Waka, quietly passed just three-and-a-half months later from a heart attack − or, more likely, says Jenny-May, a broken heart.
Jeffrey was the second son that Waka and wife Paddy had buried.
They lost a son Charles to meningitis when he was 10. Jenny-May, one of six children, was just six years old at the time.
"Losing two children, before you go, that's just not right," says Jenny-May, who is mum to three-year-old twin boys.
"I reflect on our kids and think, 'How did Mum and Dad do that?' Having to watch Jeffrey go through that journey and not being able to do anything for him – as a parent, that would be soul-destroying. They coped once, but I believe it was too much for Dad to go through again."
Although Jenny-May (44) experienced the anguish of her brother Charles' death, she was too young to fully understand the impact of it all.
"Without doubt Charles' death had a profound effect on me, but I walked alongside Jeff for a large part of his cancer journey and his death was more confronting, my first understanding of grief."
The depth and ferocity of that grief caught Jenny-May completely unaware.
It came for her at the most unexpected times, suddenly choking her at work. Terrifyingly, she began to have panic attacks, live on air.
"I'd have a real knot in my stomach and then suddenly I couldn't breathe," she confides.
"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.
"I got to that point where, in my head, I was going, 'Oh my God, someone is going to have to take over because I can't get the words out, I can't breathe'.
"I kept talking, but I was at my limit. And then somehow, I'd manage to get the last words out and the clip would start or we'd go to a break, and I could regather myself. Then, once I'd regathered, I was fine for the rest of the show."
It was a proud day for Waka when he walked his daughter down the aisle in 2015.
It would be weeks of this happening, and not mentioning it to anyone, before Jenny-May would understand what she was experiencing were panic attacks.
"I guess I never had to [mention it] because every time it happened I was able to catch it and it didn't become a big disaster live on air, so I could keep on going," she says.
But after a few weeks, Jenny-May mentioned it to her husband Dean (43), who she met four years ago, instantly fell in love with and accepted his proposal just 11 days into their relationship.
A former pastor, it was he who gently suggested it might be time to see a counsellor, which TVNZ was in complete support of.
It was during counselling that Jenny-May explored why she was having panic attacks and how to move forward.
"It wasn't until I unpacked it with her and she said, 'Jenny-May, you're grieving' that I knew that's what it was."
She's now regularly seeing a counsellor and knows there's no quick fix, but feels as though she's on the right path after discovering she hasn't been truly acknowledging her feelings or grief for some time.
"I've always been the sort of person who believes stuff happens but you pick yourself up and you get on with it – you just keep moving forward," she explains.
"I never reflected and when Jeff died, I didn't look back. just thought, 'Well, he was in pain and now he is no longer in pain. He's good now, so I should be good too. 'But actually, there were a lot of things that happened in those two years that had an impact on me."
She's been able to pinpoint exactly when that rising panic within her began – because it didn't just start after Jeff's death.
"It was when they told my brother there was nothing more they could do," she says quietly.
For Jenny-May it represented a complete lack of control –a place where her greatest fears lie.
"I remember not knowing what to say to my brother," she admits. "It left me feeling, what more could I have done? And what more could I have said? I now know just being there was enough, but it doesn't mean those questions still don't come to me."
She never let those feelings in and for months didn't slow down – she kept on moving forward, doing what she's always done.
"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 some-how. And for me, the form it came out in was panic attacks, which is actually pretty s* considering I read the news for my job," she manages to laugh.
Each morning Jenny-May makes exercise a priority.
Watching Jenny-May tell her story is tough – her throat tightens as she talks and it's often told through tears.
She shakes her head at the idea of being called strong, but it does take courage to recount a story like this one.
So why is she sharing it now?
"I know," she laughs.
"Everyone reading this will be watching me now, going, 'Damn, is she having a panic attack right now?!'"
But Jenny-May says she just wants to be open about her life.
"If just one person takes comfort or strength from me telling my story, this is so worth it. I think it's also good for people to see that just because you're on TV, it doesn't mean that you're not affected by grief, or by anxiety. We're all the same. If someone can take comfort in that, then that's choice. Also, the more I tell my story, the more opportunity it gives me to heal.
Life at home can be hectic for Leah, Atawhai, Jenny-May, Dean, Te Manahau and Libby-Jane, but a solid routine and help from Dean's parents ease the pressure.
It's now been weeks since she's had a panic attack, but it's a journey of ups and downs. Besides seeing a counsellor, Jenny-May is working every day at being kind to herself and finding a path forward – just not at the light-speed she normally likes things to travel at.
She's worked out that having a routine every morning is a game-changer. She has the boisterous twins, Te Manahau and Atawhai, at home, plus she and Dean have shared care of his two girls, Libby-Jane (14) and Leah (11).
It's a busy household, but they have the great help of Dean's mum and dad who live upstairs.
The boys wake at 6am, so Jenny-May gets a head-start and is up before 5am.
She starts by doing a mindfulness exercise (she's currently using the Headspace app on her phone), then does a daily diary exercise. She did a course with Mel Robbins and bought her diary, The 5 Second Journal, which has been a great tool.
"It's around gratefulness and a call to action, however big or small. It looks at how I'm feeling in that moment, acknowledging that feeling and why, and how I can lift my mood."
The mindfulness, the diary and exercise – whether it's working out in their home gym or going up the maunga nearby – are her three must-dos each morning. She also listens to her body – if she needs to rest, she'll sleep a bit longer.
Some days, it's too difficult and raw to confront the grief – other days, she feels she can explore it. But overall, Jenny-May is grateful.
"I reflect back on 2018 and choose not to remember it as a terrible year," she says.
"I'm grateful for the time I had with my brother and father. Some people don't get any time – but I did. You get so busy with life, looking after your kids, working, trying to get home when you can. But with my brother being sick, we were home a lot and I'm so grateful for that time I spent with Jeff, and with my father."
While her dad's sudden death was a major shock, Jenny-May is at peace with it.
"I do feel like a piece of me is missing and yes, I cry and feel sad he's not here, but he's still with me, he's with us," she confides.
"He always said to me 'Ko au ko koe, ko koe ko au' and it wasn't until he died that I truly understood this. 'I am you and you are me' − so I know he's always with me... he died just like that, no pain, and he was at home. I have no regrets with my dad."
A touching reminder for Jenny-May is that her father Waka and the twins Te Manahau and Atawhai share the same birthday.
From her brother's death Jenny-May learned to take things slower, for when Jeffrey died, she was back on air just two nights after his death − "my natural instinct was to stick to my normal routine," she tells.
So when Waka died, she took a full week – sitting with her mum and sister, Alicia, and two brothers Michael and David at his three-day tangi.
It was there she saw her mum's strength and, in awe of her, Jenny-May says, "She's been through so much, yet she's still positive. She's the strongest, most resilient person I know."
It was also important for her to support her sister, who she knows has had the hardest job as the only sibling who still lives near to the family home in Piopio.
"I'm so grateful to her and her whanau for supporting mum."
Jenny-May's brothers both live in Perth, so when they came back it was a chance to take time and sit, and just be with her family.
She leaned on Dean too, who was also very close to Waka.
"My father had a faith, just as Dean does, so they had conversations that I couldn't have with Dad," she says."They were very close. And Dean continues to honour my father. He did a hangi the other day and talked through what he was doing out loud to my dad. He said all he could hear, though, was Dad going, 'Oh, I don't think that's going to work, Dean.' My father was right. But Dean got there in the end!"
Jenny-May feels lucky that she has so many beautiful memories to look back on. She's grateful she decided to learn to speak te reo fluently in the last decade – something that brought the two closer.
The pair talked about this in a story in the Weekly, where Waka quietly told of his great pride in Jenny-May and the joy it had brought him.
"I know our relationship became deeper – it took our conversation to another level and I know he was deeply proud of me for doing that," she says.
In a special way Waka lives on forever through her boys.
One of the twins, Atawhai, carries her father's name (as well as Charles, after her late brother and grandfather), and both were born on her dad's birthday.
"It's beautiful... the boys will be forever connected – they'll know they were born on their koro's birthday, a special day."
It's with this gratitude that Jenny-May moves forward – slowly, coming to terms with her grief.
"Sometimes it's muted, sometimes it's there, sitting right in my diaphragm," she explains. "But I can sit with it now because I understand it's all part of the process. And maybe, just maybe, one day I will find peace."

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