Victoria Milligan on tragedy, survival and human spirit
July 10, 2020. Series 1. Episode 6
Victoria Milligan’s life changed forever on May 5th 2013 when a boat trip in Cornwall with her husband Nicko and children, Amber, Olivia, Emily and Kit, then aged four ended in horror. Thrown into the water at high speed, their boat circled back on them, killing Nicko and Emily. Victoria lost her leg and Kit was seriously injured. “In a moment,” she says “I went from a perfect life to becoming a widow, a bereaved parent, a single parent and an amputee.” In this episode Victoria, who is now training to be grief therapist herself, explains how she coped with a multi-layered trauma, and ensured that she and her children not only survived but thrived carrying the memory of Nicko and Emily with them into a new life. A true testimony to the power of human spirit.
Victoria’s Crisis Cures:
1. Small achievable goals. Don’t plan too far ahead. That has massively helped me and still does every day.
2. Find your mantras. Mine is: “We are good enough”. I try and start every day by saying that to myself, however I feel. Don’t wake up and tell yourself you should have got more sleep, or I shouldn’t have drunk so much. And I start the day positively through exercise. That works for me.
3. Self-care is key. We are all natural care givers but we have to make sure we put enough time in for joy and happiness. If we’re not in a good place emotionally and physically we’re not in the right place to look after others. Being a little bit selfish is not a bad thing.
Victoria’s website: www.victoriamilligan.co.uk
Child Bereavement UK: https://www.childbereavementuk.org
Cornwall Air Ambulance: https://cornwallairambulancetrust.org
Julia Samuel: https://juliasamuel.co.uk
We’ve talked a lot already about self-pity in this podcast. But no-one would blame Victoria Milligan, even now seven years after the accident, if the first words she uttered were ‘Why me?’ But it was clear, in the first five minutes of our conversation, that they are not in her vocabulary. The total lack of self-pity was, for me, one of the defining features of this podcast. The strategies she deployed to make sense of the senseless, as she puts it, were another. Dealing with just one of Victoria’s tragedies would be devastating. Tackling them all is unimaginable. But it’s through recognising them all as separate individual challenges that have to be broken down and dealt with using different tools and emotions that has enabled Victoria to cope. Taking one day at a time, how being kind to yourself will allow you to take care of others and the fundamental importance of finding the right way to manage your pain. That there is no manual for grief. Victoria rejected therapy when it was first offered. “All I wanted was Nicko and Emily back and no therapist could do that, so what use would they be?” she says. But overtime she came to understand the enormous value of grief counselling to help her through the loss of her child and her husband and to come to terms with her injuries. That she now wants to put all that she has learned to positive use as a therapist and writer herself – to find a positive from her tragedy – speaks volumes. A heart-breaking story told by an inspirational woman.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.00 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? A new podcast series designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been trying to put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:02.24 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but our guests will talk about their experiences honestly, often with humour but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply, these are crisis stories worth sharing.
00:01:32.06 Andy Coulson:
Welcome to episode six of Crisis What Crisis? I hope that the stories you’ve heard so far, that have range across the personal and the professional, have been useful and have provided some perspective. Today I’m joined by Victoria Mulligan, a woman who has endured what I think all of our guests to date would agree, is a challenge of a different order. That she would tell you that crisis is not a competition speaks to her unbelievable spirit and provides a clue to the approach that she took to her life after 4.00pm on May 5th 2013; the moment that she, husband Nicko, and their four children were thrown out of a speeding boat whilst on holiday in Cornwall.
00:02:09.13 Andy Coulson:
Nicko was killed as was eight year old Emily. Their son, Kit, then aged four was badly injured and Victoria herself, lost her left leg. An unimaginable set of traumas which, even as I say them now, are hard to really comprehend. And yet seven years on Victoria has more than survived. She is a motivational speaker, writer and is now training to be a therapist. She is also an ambassador for Child Bereavement UK and has raised over a million pounds for them and Cornwall Air Ambulance.
00:02:39.03 Andy Coulson:
Victoria hates the phrase ‘moved on’ because that suggests that Nicko and Emily have been left behind. Instead she says that she and daughters, Amber, Olivia and son Kit are going forwards with Nicko and Emily still very much part of their lives. What is also remarkable is Victoria’s determination to share her story in the straightforward, selfless hope that others might learn and benefit from it. And not just the story of her grief but also her survival, the methods and strategies that she’s deployed so effectively to allow her and her children to live on and to thrive. Victoria, thank you for joining me today. How are you?
00:03:19.21 Victoria Milligan:
Thanks Andy, yeah I am good thank you. I am actually off to Cornwall on Friday. So it’s always quite an emotional time, the lead up to going back to the place where we had our holiday home and obviously the worst thing that ever happened in my life did happen. And I sometimes question why I still go down but I didn’t want there to be anywhere that we couldn’t go that was a kind of black spot and I didn’t think it was giving the children a great sort of script to show that you don’t face your fears. So I do feel slightly kind of anxious I would say, this week, because I’ve worked out that the run up to events is often worse than the actual event itself. So hopefully when I get there it will be good but it is always daunting the thought of seeing where something so horrific happened.
00:04:08.10 Andy Coulson:
But you’re very much part of the community down there, aren’t you? It’s obviously a terrifically important place for you but it’s also, I imagine, a very sort of reassuring place to be in a way?
00:04:20.16 Victoria Milligan:
Yeah, it is. I mean, we don’t own a second home down there now, we did. But we’re very much welcomed and looked after by the locals. And anyone that knows that part of the world that the Cornish are often not as welcoming to tourists as they might be. But they’re so lovely and kind and it does really feel like a second home. And you know, as you said in that introduction, that I do feel that Nicko and Emily move forward with us in our lives. And we had so many happy memories down there that to block off somewhere that was such a happy part of our life feels like the wrong thing to do, even though I do arrive and get a bit of a kind of stab in the heart of woe, you know, kind of memories coming flooding back.
00:05:11.04 Victoria Milligan:
But then we’ll look at the favourite beach, where Emily used to love paddling in the rock pools, and the golf course where Nicko used to love playing golf and of course they’re both buried at St Enodoch so we’ll go and visit their graves and have picnics and try as much as possible to remember the happy moments, because even though two of the most precious people have been taken away from us, no one can take away what we had with them.
00:05:38.04 Andy Coulson:
One common factor that’s emerging in the conversations that we’ve had so far around this issue of crisis, are the clues from life before if you like, that resilience is something that develops. It’s not a skill that you suddenly learn or a switch that you can flick. When you look at your younger self, long before the accident, does that strike a chord?
00:06:02.16 Victoria Milligan:
Yes, no, definitely and I totally agree with that. I’ve done a lot of work recently actually with a therapist that I’ve been working with, about the identity and who I am now, when I was happily married mother of four and now I’m sole parent, widow, bereaved parent, which area of work do I go back into? And we’ve done a lot of soul searching and looking back into my past and my parenting and the script that my parents gave me. And my mum was an incredible figure, she died unfortunately just in January but…
00:06:37.05 Andy Coulson:
00:06:37.10 Victoria Milligan:
… a long battle with cancer. And she grew up in the backstreets of Birkenhead, I grew up in the Wirral. Two up, two down, five children, alcoholic parents, so she was a survivor. You know she had resilience with a capital R, she was amazing. And then lived a very lovely life with my dad, who had started a company and done quite well, but she was very much, no you don’t take anything for granted and you word really hard for things. And she was a bit of a tiger mum, I think, before tiger mums were a thing. So there was four hours of piano practice, there was tennis every night because you’re not going to be successful at something if you don’t work super-hard. So I think she definitely…
00:07:21.15 Victoria Milligan:
I got a lot of strength from her and I’m very grateful, actually, for the way that she’s brought me up in terms of the characteristics that she’s given me about perseverance. You make a choice, if you want something and you want to do something you have to make a choice. You set your goal and then you work towards that goal, you work out what the path is and then you are successful in it if you put the time and effort into it.
00:07:45.21 Victoria Milligan:
And I think I’ve definitely taken that from her because when you are in crisis or something out of the blue happens, you know, we do have a choice. The choice is you crumble or you live a lesser life than you were before. You try and numb the pain through anaesthetising, through busyness, through drink or drugs or exercise or whatever it is. Or you make a choice that you are going to survive and you don’t know how you’re going to do it but you know that you are going to do it.
00:08:16.16 Andy Coulson:
It’s not just survived though, is it? It’s the thrive piece that you seem to have done such a remarkable job of embracing.
00:08:25.16 Victoria Milligan:
I do call surviving and thriving, I think what I’ve done for the past seven years, because I very much felt for the first few years I was just surviving. I was sort of like a bit of a robot going through the motions of life and parenting and food and choosing schools and that there was no joy, there was no fun. And it was such a contrast to our life before which was happy and upbeat and positive and joyous and I thought this is just not fair on them. It’s not fair on me.
00:08:53.24 Victoria Milligan:
We’d had such an incredible life and we’d worked so hard to have a good life with Nicko and Emily and yes, they’re not here and that is desperately, desperately sad but they are never going to be here physically and we have to try and find ways of honouring their memory and living a great life without them physically present. And that’s what I’ve tried really hard to do over the last seven years.
00:09:18.08 Victoria Milligan:
And I think having done so much work into looking into my past and my parents and what they have shown me on how to live a life, which was yeah, make a choice, challenges, work hard, but also a lot of fun and love and joy, I want my children to have that script as well so they know when they grow up that that is what life is about. You work hard at things, you work on your resilience, you work on adaptability, which is what we’ve all had to work on, but that that there is fun and joy if you put the effort in and face those emotions.
00:09:51.19 Andy Coulson:
You married Nicko in 1999, he was a very dynamic successful guy working for Sky TV. You were working as a personal trainer, four fantastic kids. You lived in London spending a lot of time down in Cornwall, as you’ve described. You’ve said yourself that it was a perfect life but what’s very clear is that you and Nicko fully appreciated it. You said at the time of the accident, I think, perhaps even on the day of the accident, Nicko sort of was very clear about how truly happy he was that at the age of fifty-one that he’d made it. That must be an enormous comfort for you as you’ve tried to deal with these traumas?
00:10:35.00 Victoria Milligan:
Yeah, no your absolutely right. And the day of the accident we were having fish and chips in Padstow, takeaway Rick Stein’s on the boat. And he had been down there as a teenager, so he used to go down when he was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and he said, ‘if seventeen year old me could see me now he’d think I’d done pretty well’. And it does give me great comfort because we got married when I was twenty-nine, he was thirty-nine. We met when I was twenty-six, he was thirty-six. So he was slightly older, he’d seen all his friends get married and have kids. He’d been that slightly sad single person, going away with all his mates and all their kids on holiday. And he was so happy to have met me, to have got married to have these four amazing children that I think he just never thought he was going to achieve that.
00:11:23.07 Victoria Milligan:
And as you said, he was very successful and very respected in his work life as well. So, I think in a way where so many people are striving for more and they don’t think they’re good enough, that he very much realised that he was and his life was good enough. And he didn’t need more, he had us, we’d worked hard on building this incredible life together and we really loved each other and loved our life. And as you say it does give me great comfort thinking he was taken away from us way too soon, fifty-one is too young to die, but he had achieved so much in life and died a happy man.
00:12:04.18 Andy Coulson:
Three years after the accident, Victoria, you gave a Ted Talk down in Truro. And I would urge anyone whose listening to this podcast to find another eighteen minutes in their life to watch that talk on YouTube because it is, I think, in and of itself, a testimony to the strength of human spirit. But can I ask you, Victoria, to talk us through what happened that day?
00:12:34.03 Victoria Milligan:
Yes, we were down in Cornwall on the first May bank holiday in 2013. We’d had a holiday house down there for about four years and we’d bought a RIB speedboat the year before. Nicko’s kind of pride and joy, absolutely loved it, we’d had so much fun on it, driving going to see coves that you can’t get to by car or foot. And we took it out that Sunday and we weren’t doing anything different than we’d done any other weekend. It was a beautiful, beautiful day, first time we’d taken it out that year, we’d had an amazing morning rock climbing on Davant Bay and splashing in the sea and we were just having a really lovely bank holiday family weekend together.
00:13:22.11 Victoria Milligan:
We took the boat out at lunchtime, took it over to Padstow, as I said, for Rick Stein’s fish and chips on the quay and then took it up and down the Camel Estuary toward Polzeath and back. And it was just a magical time with everyone was on a real sort of high, you know the sun was on our faces, we were riding in the waves, kids just screaming with delight, Nicko absolutely loving it. And it just all started to go wrong when I realised the tide was going out and we should get back to shore. We’d moored our boat in Rock and we were all, as I said, on such a high, I think one of the kids shouted, ‘let’s go round again, let’s go round again!’ And it was that sort of fateful turn that a too fast push on the accelerator and a slip on the wheel caused our boat to go into a sort of wheelie, I found out afterwards from the marine investigation board.
00:14:17.00 Victoria Milligan:
So it reared up and as it tried to right itself it slammed down onto the water causing similar G-force to a jumbo jet taking off. So the six of us were flung into the freezing cold water, all in lifejackets. The kill cord hadn’t been attached to either of us, so that’s the safety device that stops the boat when someone goes away from the engine, the controls. The first thing I saw when I came up was the boat going round in very tight turns. So it was just a perfect storm of events with kill cord, tide going out, slip on the accelerator and the boat just kept coming back at us in very, very tight, very fast circles. So it was…
00:15:03.08 Andy Coulson:
How close were you as a group?
00:15:06.04 Victoria Milligan:
Well, I don’t really remember because it was very loud, obviously we were in the water, so you could just kind of see heads. I think we were all just kind of looking at the boat. We can’t have been that far away from each other and it was complete random who got hit and who didn’t get hit. I thought potentially it was just me and Kit, we were quite close to each other because I’d been holding him, who were in danger. He was shouting ‘no more cold water mummy, no more cold water’ he was terrified, he was four. So I just swam to him and thought if I can move us towards the beach but you can’t swim very far in a life jacket.
00:15:40.04 Victoria Milligan:
Sometimes I like to think maybe we, I swam enough to save our lives. I probably moved maybe a metre. But I remember turning round as the boat came round and not feeling the propeller cut my leg, but feeling the hull of the boat completely wind me in the chest. So it was obviously very close. And I thought Kit had lost his foot because his white trainer was on the surface of the sea. But it was only later that I realised that my leg had been very badly cut. But as I said, it was so noisy and loud and adrenaline is just pumping through your body at that time and also a kind of stubbornness of this will all be fine, it will all be okay, it will all be okay. I couldn’t hear any screaming or anything.
00:16:22.02 Victoria Milligan:
The Honour lifeboat came alongside ours and a very brave crew member jumped into our boat to stop the engine. And then it was kind of weirdly, eerily quiet. Again, I didn’t know where anybody was, I was quite badly injured so I remember seeing quite a lot of blood in the water, not knowing if it was coming from me or Kit because I couldn’t actually feel anything because of the cold again, as I said, the adrenaline is pumping through your body. I do then remember hearing Amber shouting ‘Daddy’s dead, daddy’s dead’. So a twelve year old girl who had seen Nicko in the water, it doesn’t really bear thinking about. And we were then rescued by the RNLI.
00:17:07.08 Victoria Milligan:
But it’s a weird thing, when I think about adrenaline, that I remember, even in the water, when I knew, when I’d heard Amber shout this that I was thinking, okay, so I’m now a widow, my leg’s not looking great, so I’m probably going to lose that, that’s fine, I’ll just get a prosthetic leg. I will move house and we’ll get some money. So we’ll sell our house, we’ll move there. I’ll go back to work and so planning my life within those kind of five minutes on my own, kind of going in and out of a coma, not a coma, sorry consciousness, with losing quite a lot of blood.
00:17:45.15 Victoria Milligan:
And I do kind of look back and you hear those stories, don’t you, about farmers in fields losing arms and crawling towards help. But that human survival instinct is so incredibly powerful and it wants you to survive, it is an innate thing within us that we need to survive. And that has carried on over the last seven years, that even though I wasn’t in that complete crisis situation, I know that inside of me my innate human nature wants me to survive this and has helped me survive this. There are a lot of kind of tools that I have learned along the way that will help us with resilience and survival but we are made to survive and adapt.
00:18:29.20 Andy Coulson:
So as you’re taken to hospital in Plymouth, I think, aren’t you?
00:18:35.21 Victoria Milligan:
It was Derriford, so it was in Devon.
00:18:40.09 Andy Coulson:
So the common view of crisis is that to cope with it, or to get the point of being able to cope with it, you must accept the position that you’re in. You know, that you need to be somehow present in the situation. And that was obviously an impossibility for you. In the days and weeks after the accident, how is it, when you look back, that you managed to function. You talk about that survival instinct but how did you function? How did you cope?
00:19:18.20 Victoria Milligan:
I think, when I look back at it, that initial aftermath, obviously a huge amount of shock, morphine. I had two operations, one to amputate my leg, another one to tidy it up and then I had more when I came back to St Mary’s but there was obviously a lot of physical trauma that I had to go through. I was so desperately worried for the children. Kit, they didn’t amputate his leg there, he had one more nerve attached to me. So his leg was pink, his foot was pink, where mine was sort of grey. Amber had had a massive circular cut from the propeller on her thigh so she was very close to losing her leg. She nearly lost a finger. Olivia wasn’t harmed but obviously suffering quite a lot of trauma.
00:20:09.14 Victoria Milligan:
And so I think I just went into maternal mode of thinking, oh my god, these three little beings, they were like twelve, ten and four. And again, that kind of tiger mum thing kicks in of just I’ve got to make sure they’re okay. They’ve lost so much. And also it didn’t feel real. When you talk about acceptance, as you said, I hadn’t accepted, I didn’t accept for a long time what happened to me, that took me a huge amount of time to get acceptance. And you know, again, as I said, I was in a huge amount of shock and there wasn’t time for me to accept what had happened, it was just trying to deal with the day to day. It was that incredibly small steps and that’s another kind of mantra that I’ve taken forward with me of just getting to the next hour. Waiting until someone could come and wash my hair, I couldn’t do anything. I was completely immobile; I was either lying in my bed or in a wheelchair. I had to ask someone to help me to go to the loo, someone to wash my hair, someone to take me up to the other floor to see my children, so in a way when we’re all slightly used to being in control, I suddenly wasn’t in control of anything.
00:21:17.05 Victoria Milligan:
So everything took so much time, I just remember wanting everything to kind of hurry up. Time takes on such a weird, I don’t know… it’s a bizarre thing, time, when you’ve been in crisis. I remember looking at the clock on the wall and thinking how is time even still going when Nicko and Emily are dead? They’re not here. Surely time has to stop. Does no one know that they’re not here? And then sometimes seconds would be hours, but then hours could be minutes. It was just so bizarre. But I just tried to focus on hour by hour by hour to get through those initial, horrific weeks.
00:21:54.17 Andy Coulson:
Did you try to sort of consciously set the grief to one side, if you like? Because that’s, in the introduction I said that it’s just so difficult to comprehend because you’re dealing with so much, almost in a split second every element of your life has changed. Were you sort of consciously setting the grief aside at that period, do you think? This is in the first early weeks after the accident. Or did you find that the two things were, because you had so much practical and your own physical health, but also Kit of course, very badly injured, and the other injuries that you described. Were those two things merging, if you like, or were you able to compartmentalise them? Was that one of the methods that you used to cope?
00:22:51.04 Victoria Milligan:
I very much remember thinking this is too enormous to deal with in my mind. I was so busy with physio appointments, prosthetic appointments, hand appointments for Amber. Kit had twenty operations after the accident. So we were being ferried backwards and forwards to St Mary’s. Sometimes he’d have his leg pinned back together, it wouldn’t work, they’d unpin it. So the trauma and worry about that was horrific. They didn’t even know if they could mend his leg or not.
00:23:25.00 Victoria Milligan:
The reality of the situation slowly started to seep in but I was interviewed by the police and the Marine Investigation Board. I had to deal with probate, estate, as you can imagine hundreds of people wanted to come round all the time. It was so full-on and I remember being terrified of the grief, absolutely terrified of it. Because to lose not only Nicko, but Emily as well, and two very different losses as well. And I think that’s taken me a long time to actually cope with them as individual losses because losing a child is very different to losing your husband. You know, I adored and loved Nicko, as I said, but you know a child is part of you, you’ve grown them for nine months, you’ve given birth to them, they are just a massive just loss of potential.
00:24:17.10 Andy Coulson:
Part of you, yeah.
00:24:18.03 Victoria Milligan:
They’re part of you and anybody who’s ever lost a child I think will agree that it, it think it’s the worst human pain anyone can go through. You’re constantly looking at their friends and their peers kind of wondering what they’re doing, what would she be like now? She’d be turning sixteen in August, it’s a horrific pain to go through. And one that I will never, ever get over which I think is why I hate that phrase ‘moving on’ or ‘getting over’ because why should I get over it? Grief is the honour of the love we had for these people and grief is deeper and lasts longer for someone that you’ve, you’ve… it’s all relative, your level of grief to the level of love that you had for that person. And I will never get over really losing them.
00:25:08.22 Andy Coulson:
Something else that’s come up in the conversations that we’ve had about crisis is the power of denial. That as a long-term strategy, of course, it’s not necessarily the right one but as a coping strategy it can be incredibly powerful. is that what you’re saying, really, in those early stages, perhaps even over a fairly long period of time, you recognise that, I just can’t try and make sense of something so senseless, and so denial becomes a tool, if you like?
00:25:43.16 Victoria Milligan:
I think senseless is a good word because I would wake up and I only had to look at my leg, that wasn’t there, to know that the accident had happened but as I said, I took so much time to get to acceptance, I had a lot of help with a grief counsellor. I had the boat going round and round in my head every night for about six months. And I was still trying to stop the accident happening in my head. I was still shouting at Emily and Nicko to try and sit down, don’t try and make the turn, don’t listen to them. Just sit back down, just go straight back and wake up in a sweat just screaming at myself because I could not accept that this horrific thing had happened to us.
00:26:20.03 Victoria Milligan:
And you’re right, you can’t ever kind of live in the present or the future until you’ve accepted the past and I didn’t want to accept the past, that was the problem. I didn’t want to accept that it had happened. And then it takes a long time for your emotions to catch up with the reality of what might have happened physically. So yeah that one day, 4.00pm, Monday the 5th of May, that awful accident happened and I lost my leg, Nicko and Emily. I don’t even know if I’ve accepted, totally, now that it’s fully happened. It kind of, as you say, makes no sense, it’s not like we were out doing anything particularly wrong, we were out having a gorgeous family holiday. So I think that I don’t know if it was denial or it was just very much knowing that I could not cope with Kit’s operations, my leg, my children, choosing schools, being a parent, whilst dealing with grief at the same time. So I knew at some point I would have to but then it was not the right time to do that.
00:27:23.20 Andy Coulson:
The worst kind of prioritisation is what you had to do.
00:27:28.23 Victoria Milligan:
Yeah, exactly. I knew I was capable of doing what I was doing at that time. I didn’t know I was capable of grief because as I said I was utterly terrified of it. But like anything, I think once you start to understand the path of something… and so grief is amazing, again, it’s human survival instinct that your body only gives you as much pain as you can deal with, I think physically and emotionally.
00:27:56.22 Victoria Milligan:
Once I started to let a little bit of grief seep in for Nicko or Emily, and horrificness and looking at their photos and happy times we’d had before it does then pull away and lets you get on with your day to day life. So it is that whole oscillating between desperate, desperate missing and wanting to hug and kiss and read Emily one more bedtime story but then dealing with cooking dinner or going to Sainsbury’s or taking the dogs for a walk. You know, you have to get with your normal life and it’s not like you’re in grief, in the depths of grief all the time. I would be in it and I’d process a few more emotions and think about them a little bit more but then I’d just have to get on with normal life. And that has been grief and as time goes on these horrific black moments of grief are slightly less and slightly last for less long and aren’t as painful. And the good moments probably last for a bit longer. So that, for me, has been the path of grief.
00:29:01.15 Andy Coulson:
Perspective, of course, is another box that must be ticked when dealing with crisis. This idea that things could always be worse. Again, a near impossible place for your Victoria, to get to I imagine?
00:29:15.19 Victoria Milligan:
Yeah, it is really. I mean, I did go and see one agent for a public speaking who said, ‘Well, you know, there are people here who might have been shot in the head and lost two arms and one leg’, kind of, what makes you so special? I was kind of like, okay, yeah, no I could have lost two legs I suppose but it couldn’t really be any worse. And I quite often think gosh, what if we’d come back from Cornwall and I’d just lost my leg? That would have been massive. Or lost Nicko, or lost Emily, but all three together, so enormous. And I think that’s why I didn’t know where to start.
00:29:54.20 Victoria Milligan:
And as I say, it’s only recently that I’ve started to look at each loss on its own. Because even my leg was like, ‘Pah, I’ve lost my leg, whatever, that’s just so irrelevant compared to losing my husband and my child’. But of course it is a massive thing. Because I have to learn to walk again and I get rubbed and sores and it hurts. And you know I had two legs for forty-one years so suddenly having to put on a prosthetic leg and deal with all of that is hard. And that is my day to day life. But I’d sort of dimmed it down as yeah, whatever, you know, I’ve just lost my leg as well. And the Paralympics make it all look very easy on those blades what have you. But it isn’t easy and you have to be very careful and very aware of skin and rubbing and sores and then I can’t wear my leg and I am back in the wheelchair. So it’s another sort of huge thing.
00:30:52.12 Victoria Milligan:
But yeah, perspective is difficult. I think perspective, going forward for me, I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I look back at the old me who used to slightly worry a bit more about how blonde my hair was or if we were going to make the kids’ swimming lesson on time or which particular villa we should choose. I don’t know, I’m making light of it, but now it’s more about happiness. I look at all of us and I want us to be happy, I really do.
00:31:27.02 Victoria Milligan:
And I think we owe it to Nicko and Emily to live a happy life because they can’t, they don’t have that time and we do have the time to do it. And we work hard as a team, I would say, before this of deciding what to do, where to go, how we remember them, how we remember them on the hard days. We’ve got Emily’s birthday coming up, as I said, We’ve got Nicko’s birthday in September, what we do. And it’s very much together as a little kind of group effort that we work hard with it.
00:32:01.04 Andy Coulson:
The practical impact, never mind the emotions, were of course enormous. The admin of grief, as you’ve described it, must have been utterly wretched to navigate. I mean, the inquest of course, which was a very kind of public event, must have been incredibly difficult to cope with? How did you approach that?
00:32:29.02 Victoria Milligan:
I mean, it’s all a bit of a blur I think, looking back at that. I remember giving a statement the day after and feeling quite lucid about it, quite clear, is that the right word, lucid? And I look back at the inquest and having to stand up in front of those people and yeah, that boat was out of control. That could have killed other people and looking back at that is so horrific. I mean, yeah, it killed my husband and my daughter and it is just the worst thing that has happened and could ever have happened, it was so horrific. But it did happen and I think the amount of times I’ve said in the last seven years, we are where we are, there is nothing we can do about it, it has happened and we have to try and make the best going forward from here.
00:33:22.11 Victoria Milligan:
We did due diligence, we looked into everything, but as you said, probate, estate, no one expects to die at fifty-one. No one has everything completely in order at fifty-one. There’s a lot of loose ends to tie up and finances and everything. It’s been really, really tough. And we were quite a traditional couple, we shared the load but I mainly did sort of house and family and holidays and schools and Nicko did the work and the finances and I’ve had to take on everything. And it’s exhausting as there is always something to do.
00:34:01.22 Victoria Milligan:
And I used to get really upset by it when I thought there was job that Nicko should do. That made me miss him even more and actually get a bit angry, like why are you not here? Like even if it was jet washing the patio or fixing a shower or Sky broke, you know, he would be the one that would do the Sky or the Sonos. But I’ve slowly just had to learn how to do everything and look at all jobs as a job, it’s not a man’s job or a girl’s job, it’s just a job that has to be done in the house. And the kids have had to get a lot better at helping me out and they have been an amazing. And they wrote me a father’s day card this year, I always find father’s day a bit difficult and I absolutely burst into tears. It said, ‘you have been the best father and mother to us over the years…’
00:34:51.04 Andy Coulson:
Oh my word, the bond between you, having that unimaginable shared experience, the bond between you must be incredible.
00:35:00.09 Victoria Milligan:
Yeah, exactly and I hope I have shown them a script that we can cope with anything. You know life if not always a bed or roses, there are awful things that can happen. I think there’s very few people that probably get to forties, fifties who haven’t suffered something. And as I said to you, I don’t think there’s a competition in crisis, I think it’s how we as individuals cope with it and I think there are very much lessons learned that we can share with each other, which is what you’re doing with your podcast, about how to get through very challenging times.
00:35:38.04 Andy Coulson:
What advice would you give to anyone who finds themselves in the orbit of loss or grief? What do people suffering shock in the way that you and your family were, what do they need from friends and relatives? You’ve talked about how some people struggled with it around you and didn’t quite know how to behave. Even people sort of crossing the street to avoid you. What advice do you give to people in those, who find themselves in that situation?
00:36:13.02 Victoria Milligan:
I would say for people suffering shock or crisis or trauma or loss you’ve got to be hugely self-compassionate. And that took me a long time to learn, berating myself for not doing enough, still being in bed at eleven and not even having breakfast or washing my hair, you’ve just got to be so kind to yourself because grief is exhausting. Trauma is exhausting, any form of loss is absolutely horrific and we can’t focus as much, we can’t process as much and of course we can’t get as much done in our day to day lives. So definitely self-compassion.
00:36:56.22 Victoria Milligan:
Self-care, I was very conscious that I had to keep my batteries fully charged physically and emotionally. And that for me, as a personal trainer, exercise has been a massive part of my survival. I just think if I can start the day with something positive, whether it’s a run or sitting on my bike or circuit training class, the rest of the day is shaped up well because I’ve done something good for myself and my emotions and I’ve released some cortisol, some adrenaline and there’s so much energy, it can be bad energy running round your body when you are going through grief that if you can get rid of that some of that excess energy through doing something positive it’s really good.
00:37:40.21 Victoria Milligan:
I didn’t drink for a year because I just thought actually hangovers and grief, probably not a great mix. And I drove everywhere and I wanted to escape also if I was at a dinner or a drink or something if someone had said something, completely unintentionally, that upset me, I didn’t want to be that person that everyone suddenly had to look after, that broke down in a flood of tears.
00:38:03.12 Andy Coulson:
Victoria, you’re being very self-effacing about all this as though this is a natural set of decisions that one might make and they’re not. Most people absolutely would not be making these kind of rational, and they’re the right decisions obviously, but in the circumstances that you found yourself the fact that you were doing that is astonishing. What do you… can you attribute that to a particular mindset or…? I guess that’s what I’m asking because that’s what the podcast is attempting to deliver is the ‘how’ as much as the ‘what’. So when you just describe there, I’m going to start my day with a bit of exercise, you’ve lost your leg.
00:38:54.07 Victoria Milligan:
00:38:55.03 Andy Coulson:
I don’t think anyone would have forgiven you for saying, do you know what, maybe that’s not the thing I’m going to do.
00:39:02.02 Victoria Milligan:
But then if I hadn’t I would be in a much worse position. So maybe I am too controlling, in a way. But I have just worked out what works for me and I think that’s what we all have to do as individuals, we have to work out what works for us. Because grief is incredibly individual. You know, I’ve read so many books to try and help me through it and you know, they kind of say, eighteen months’ on you should be over your grief. And grief is not linear, all the different emotions that you go through, acceptance, fear, anger, they come and go. It’s not that you tick one off and you go, right I’ve done anger now. I get angry all the time that I’ve been put in this situation or that Nicko’s not here or that Emily’s not here.
00:39:42.12 Victoria Milligan:
But I’ve learned what works for me. It’s definitely small steps, it is step by step by step. I don’t try and over-face myself with anything because I know that leads to anxiety and I can’t function when I’m very anxious. But I also look back and think Nicko and I were very, very happy. We’ve talked about that. So emotionally I was at the top of my game. I hadn’t gone through a toxic divorce; I hadn’t been in a bad relationship where I’d been put down and I wasn’t feeling very self-confident or very strong. So I was coming from a position of a very strong emotional supportive relationship. So I was in a good place physically and emotionally.
00:40:28.22 Victoria Milligan:
And, as I’ve said to you before, my childhood upbringing of being strong and resilient has helped me cope with what I’ve coped with as well. Don’t get me wrong, there are dark days, let me tell you. It’s not all I get up and I go for a run and I go for a bike ride. I might do that and then feel absolutely dreadful for the rest of the day because I’m just feeling desperately sad because it is desperately sad and I think you just have to be very honest. And that’s what I’ve said to people don’t try to make me feel better if I don’t want to be made to feel better. Sometimes I just want you to come round and give me a hug and sit there in silence and listen to me cry, I just don’t want to be on my own. But you’ve got to just be honest about what it is. It is a really sad situation that I find myself in.
00:41:18.06 Andy Coulson:
That’s what I mean about the people in the orbit of your grief and how people should behave around you. And that’s what you need really is for people to be there with you but also understand when you don’t want them there, or that you don’t want to talk about it. It’s not something today that you want to relive or pore over. Or maybe on another day it is.
00:41:47.19 Victoria Milligan:
Exactly. And also that it’s not about them. You know some people will see that as a personal affront that you don’t want to see them but one thing I have learned is that you’ve slightly got to be in control of it. Because at the beginning it was that sort of level of trauma brings a sort of fame and everybody wants to come and make sure that you’re okay and even people that you haven’t seen for ages. And I really had to manage people coming round. And as you say, just reliving it all the time, I just wanted to have a recording because everyone wants to know how am I? How’s Kit? How’s the leg? How’s Amber? And I just felt like I was a news station all the time.
00:42:27.00 Victoria Milligan:
Whereas I was kind of coping with and change over joint names on O2 from Nicko to my name. All that kind of horrific admin as you say that kind of goes on. But I think I learned to just be really honest with people and just say do you know what? I’m feeling really, really awful today and I don’t want to see anybody. Or I do feel like having some company, bring some sushi, come over have a glass of wine or just sit there while I rant a bit and don’t try and come and make me feel better when I don’t want to be made to feel better.
00:43:04.06 Andy Coulson:
The brilliant grief counsellor Julia Samuel, found you once you were back in London. How quickly were you able to embrace the benefits of counselling?
00:43:15.05 Victoria Milligan:
It did take me a while. I sort of sent her away when she first came to see me at St Mary’s I thought well how on earth can you help? All I want is Nicko and Emily back and if you can’t bring them back then there’s absolutely no point in you being here whatsoever. I phoned her probably a couple of weeks… that would be about two months after the accident because the children were starting to ask me questions that I didn’t feel skilled enough to answer and so I asked her for advice around that. So I suppose our relationship started to develop around helping me to answer children.
00:43:48.00 Victoria Milligan:
Because children are very black and white. They always talk about grief with children as jumping in and out of puddles. So they’ll be one minute be kind of absolutely crying and going ‘My god, I miss daddy’ and then the next minute they’ll be jumping on the trampoline with their friends laughing and then they’ll come in and go, ‘Well whose going to walk me down the aisle now?’ I just found it quite difficult to know what to say to them.
00:44:13.07 Victoria Milligan:
But it did take me, I’m going to say probably, I mean… they say with grief counselling that actually don’t even start to think about it until twelve weeks after a loss because it’s until the shock has worn off. But obviously for me I think the shock was so enormous I think I waited about six to seven months and then started to see Julia quite regularly and had a couple of years with her. She was absolutely incredible amazing, amazing woman. And we just faced what it was, we would just sit there and just swear at each other and go, ‘This is shit’ because you’ve actually just got to name it. And that’s the only way, by being honest about how you feel and being brave enough to share the emotions, is really one of the only ways that we can go forward.
00:45:02.07 Victoria Milligan:
So I had to learn to be brave, to share not just the sad emotions but the anger emotions or I’ve said this before that I wish I’d been the one that died because it was so painful I didn’t want to deal with that grief and the leg and the children, I didn’t feel strong enough and I thought well maybe Nicko would be better at dealing with it. You know they’re horrible emotions to admit to but you’re feeling them, so if you’re feeling it you’ve got to actually process it and share it. And I could share it with Julia because she’d just let me say whatever was inside and not bottling it up.
00:45:40.12 Andy Coulson:
As you said earlier, in an instant you’d become a widow, a bereaved parent, a single parent, an amputee, all of these things, all at once. How have you worked to address those identity issues, if you like?
00:45:59.18 Victoria Milligan:
It’s been really, really hard. It’s been a long old journey; I don’t know if I’m there now. But as I said, we’d worked so hard to create this family and I was this busy, mother, four young children and then it was a bit, well who am I now? What do I do now? And so I did struggle. I went back into advertising for a bit and again, perspective when I was in there I was thinking, I’ve been through so much and actually I don’t care enough about this brand winning this award and I shouldn’t be doing this if I don’t care enough this is not my purpose.
00:46:42.14 Victoria Milligan:
My purpose is helping other people really, cope with what have been through. And that is what has led me to my journey or physical motivating, motivating people. As you said, I’m an amputee, I want to motivate other people to find their level, we can all do something physically. But also starting this therapy course, I just think, obviously my credentials come from having been through something horrific but I do really want…
00:47:15.05 Andy Coulson:
And this is to train as a grief counsellor.
00:47:18.19 Victoria Milligan:
As a therapist, probably specialising in grief but also identity and parenting, because I think so much of what we learn from our parents and what we teach our children shapes their future and who they are as people, and I think that is such an important part of parenting. I don’t want to mess them up. I don’t want them to ever think, well, I’m twenty-eight and I’ve dropped out of everything because this horrific thing happened to me and my mum couldn’t cope with it. I don’t want that to be them. I want them to be people that have experienced something awful in life but have learned so much from that experience and that emotion and they know who their true authentic self is.
00:48:06.00 Andy Coulson:
You’ve already been a counsellor of course, since the accident, to your three children and no doubt other members of your family. How do you approach the event itself with your family now? Do you still go back to the day, other than when you’re talking to people like me and explaining it because that’s part of your purpose now, but do you still talk about the day, is that an important thing? Or not?
00:48:47.12 Victoria Milligan:
We don’t talk about the day. No, I mean we have done a lot, you know, it’s seven years ago and my eldest still gets flashbacks, she will talk about them. They’re all, as I said, it’s very personal, they’re all completely different. She is a bit like me, she likes talking, she’s very emotive, she will process, she sees a therapist as well which she finds incredibly useful. The day was so horrific I don’t… we haven’t blocked it, because I think again, that’s not a good thing, but it’s not going to come up in a day to day conversation unless Amber wants to talk about flashbacks that she’s having, then I will sit and listen to whatever she wants to say.
00:49:31.00 Victoria Milligan:
No, it’s more, we will talk about… it’s not just grieving for those two people. I think what’s been interesting this year with the seventh anniversary of the accident in May, and in fact Julia Samuels has written a brilliant book called This Too Shall Pass and she talks in it about our emotions having to have time to catch up with any change. So you can get married and sign a marriage certificate but your emotions about now actually becoming a wife or a husband, could take a lot longer than that one second that you sign the marriage certificate and the same with us. But she does say that it takes between seven and ten years to fully adapt to a trauma situation.
00:50:11.09 Victoria Milligan:
And I do agree with that. I do feel, at this seven year period, that it finally, maybe I’ve finally reached a moment of acceptance. I think we’re all in a good place whatever that is, I think we all know this horrific thing has happened. We all grieve for the life that we had with them and that is hard going forwards because they should still be part of our lives. And so we grieve for the future we should have had with them as well. That is difficult because they should be with us. So as I said, next week will be hard, because we will arrive, we will look at that spot in the Camel estuary where we lost two very precious people. But we will go and visit the graves, we won’t talk about what happened, it’s too horrific to talk about but we try and… there’s pictures of them all over our house and we try and talk about them as much as we can.
00:51:07.07 Andy Coulson:
What’s your view on how we approach death and grief as a society? Are we getting better at it, are we having the right conversation do you think?
00:51:19.11 Victoria Milligan:
I think it’s less of a taboo. I think the more we talk about it, it’s a bit like mental health, the more we talk about it, the more we’re honest about it. People still don’t really know what to say, I think that is the problem. And I’m writing a book at the moment and there is a section on there about what is the right and wrong thing to say and some of the wrong things that people have said to me and how to be more helpful about it. But it is the only rule given in life, isn’t it, that we will all die? Hopefully it will be at a normal path in life, when we’ve reached old age and ninety and you know drop dead doing something that we really enjoy doing.
00:52:00.17 Victoria Milligan:
But often it’s not that way and we have to… you know people say ‘oh, live every day like it’s your last’, of course you can’t do that. We can plan for what we want our future to be but we can only control so much in our life. I’m not saying we have to think, oh we might die at some point, but I’m very aware of my mortality. My children are incredibly aware of my mortality because I am their only parent now.
00:52:30.00 Victoria Milligan:
And so at the beginning I would get twenty, thirty missed calls a night if I went out because one of them would be convinced that I’d died in the car on the way there because they know, from a very young age, that bad things can happen. And that’s very sad for young children to kind of know that. But in a way they know a bit more about reality that awful things do happen. So I try and reassure them that hopefully I will be there to see them get married, see their children, my grandchildren, that would be amazing but we don’t know. So I think we have to be a bit more real about it but not in a kind of morbid way if you know what I mean.
00:53:13.11 Andy Coulson:
Tell me a bit more about the book, what’s the thinking behind it?
00:53:16.22 Victoria Milligan:
So again, it’s my journey, it’s my story. I think it came about because as I said, I was desperate for a manual of grief and the only ones I could find were quite sort of dry and linear and ‘this is what you go through, the five stages’, and then there were a lot of sad stories about other horrific things that had happened. But mine is hopefully a bit of a manual to hold your hand and let people relate to if they’ve been through loss, trauma, sudden change, like Covid but at least with that we were all in it together. And I very much felt isolated and on my own, reading anything that I could relate to and go ‘Oh my god, I felt like that’ and ‘…that’s what I went through’.
00:54:03.06 Victoria Milligan:
It’s so reassuring to know that you’re doing something kind of okay, because grief is such a weird place to be. So it is about grief and strategies of coping with any kind of loss or trauma and hopefully it will help a lot of people, a lot of people can relate to it. But done in a slightly tongue in cheek way as well of funny things that have happened because sometimes laughter is the only thing that can get us through these horrific dark days.
00:54:32.05 Andy Coulson:
How important a part has humour played for you?
00:54:36.06 Victoria Milligan:
Massive actually. I mean, even at the start in the hospital where I think I said in my Ted Talk people would say ‘…just come over here and put your feet up, oh sorry not you because you’ve only got one now’, or ‘…take it step by step’ and then realise how many foot metaphors when you’ve only got one.
00:54:53.23 Andy Coulson:
That’s often the case in a hospital environment because it’s how they’re coping themselves to do their jobs I suppose. But once you’d left hospital, how important did humour continue to be?
00:55:05.22 Victoria Milligan:
I remember the first time I properly, properly laughed was on my birthday. So my birthday is the 16th July, next week actually, and I had my five great girlfriends that were my support crew who came round and because I couldn’t walk, Kit couldn’t walk, my house and garden had been turned into a slightly kind of old people’s home with wooden ramps everywhere and I was wheeled out into my garden and someone had brought round some amazing food. And we sat there and just chatted and people were telling stories about their past, about my past, it was a great sort of distraction night. And I don’t know for some reason we just all belly laughed all night. And my first reaction was I kind of woke up the next morning feeling quite guilty that I’d had such a good night. But then I just thought, god, I feel like I’ve had a holiday, that was amazing. I feel like I’ve been taken out of my grief, horrific situation.
00:56:10.20 Andy Coulson:
A proper release.
00:56:11.11 Victoria Milligan:
Right, and been put back in. And it felt so good that I then realised… felt the power of, don’t feel guilty about having a good time because just do anything to get through. You’ve gone through something so awful and so horrific, whatever it is, that you deserve to have moments and pockets of joy. And I take that with me now. I plan joy into my life because I’ve kind of worked out that happiness for me is… yeah, we all love the big things, the ski weekend and fiftieths in Ibiza but sometimes there’s just not quite enough of them to get you through your everyday life.
00:56:51.12 Victoria Milligan:
And if I can just get coffee from my favourite coffee place or a glass of wine with a girlfriend or whatever it is at the moment a dog walk, it’s not going to be restaurants and theatre but… it might be now, then make sure I’ve got enough of them through the week to get through that week. So if I’m feeling really down but I’m going to Ibiza for a fiftieth in September, that is way too far away. I’ve got to make sure I’ve got some nice things to look forward to tomorrow.
00:57:18.05 Andy Coulson:
Victoria, I’ve no doubt at all that anyone who’s listening to this now would want me to pass on their condolences, first and foremost to you and your family, but also their thanks for sharing your story. As you say, it’s only by properly talking about grief and crisis that we can get a bit better with dealing it. But before you go I’d like to ask you for your three crisis cures. These are three things, other than another person, that you turn to in the difficult moments.
00:57:52.04 Victoria Milligan:
Okay, so I would say, I mean, I’ve mentioned them already, but for me step by step. So that’s small achievable goals, not planning too far ahead in to the future, that I think has massively helped me and still does massively help me. That whole area of self-compassion and realising, as Nicko did, that we are good enough. Don’t wake up in the morning and start your day in a bad way go, ‘should have got more sleep, I shouldn’t have drunk as much, I should have done more yesterday’ it’s like no, start the day in a positive way and mantras of we are good enough to start the day.
00:58:29.19 Andy Coulson:
And exercise is a key part of that for you.
00:58:32.22 Victoria Milligan:
Well that’s me, how I start the day in a positive way and that rolls into the area of nutrition as well, that self-care area. And also just being a little bit selfish. It’s like you know, we have to put ourselves first. We are all natural care-givers and we do feel good looking after other people but we have to make sure that we put enough time in for joy, happiness, looking after ourselves, because if we’re not in a good place emotionally and physically we’re not in the right place to look after others as well as we can do. So I think being a little bit selfish is not a bad thing.
00:59:13.18 Andy Coulson:
Amazing, Victoria, happy birthday for next week and thank you once again.
00:59:21.00 Victoria Milligan:
Thank you very much.
00:59:22.10 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to email your feedback to [email protected] where you’ll also find the show notes giving you the key insights from our guests. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, thanks again.
00:59:45.02 End of transcription