'Goodbye Karen, and thank you - you were one of South Shields' very best'

Few are lucky to be as loved as Karen Ratcliffe, and I hope she knew how much she was.

By Ross Robertson
Monday, 6th September 2021, 3:13 pm
Karen Ratcliffe died in hospital aged 40 on August 17, 2021.
Karen Ratcliffe died in hospital aged 40 on August 17, 2021.

It must have been some comfort to her family to see the flood of kind and happy memories people have shared over these past few difficult weeks.

Her sense of humour, infectious smile, kindness, compassion and caring for others, and the way she could lift everyone’s spirits have been the common themes.

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Karen (back right) as an angel in the Hadrian nursery nativity, 1983

And who could disagree? Did anyone ever hear a bad word said about Karen? Could anyone say she had never made them laugh?

Karen loved people and to organise ways of bringing them together; her fundraising Christmas fairs, her special birthday parties, the pub quizzes she ran with her great friend Gordon, who was also lost far too soon.

She loved to travel, but equally loved her home town of South Shields and all its institutions, from the Great North Run to her beloved Customs House, where she was thrilled to get a job, and was a perfect fit.

The venue’s executive director, Ray Spencer, described her ‘colourful personality’ and how she ‘was so joyous and was adored by customers’.

Karen Ratcliffe with Lynn Davis, Kerry Oates and Alison Davis during a People's Angels RVI breakfast collection

Typing Karen’s name into the Gazette’s archive brings up just some of her charity work, including raising money for the RNLI, collecting for a breakfast scheme for visitors at the children’s cancer unit at the RVI with the People’s Angels, and an impressive effort at Sport Relief.

Behind all the smiles and laughter, Karen didn’t always have the easiest time of it. She spoke openly of her struggles with depression.

Being Karen, though, she used that as another way to help others, sharing her experiences and offering to be an ear to anyone else suffering.

She set up online groups so people had a place to chat to help get them through the day, including ‘Cuppas against Covid-19,’ so people could find a friendly face when isolation got too much.

Karen with fellow RNLI fundraisers Ruth Hedley, Philip Monck AND Clare Selby.

Through lockdown, she wrote quizzes in exchange for donations to The Customs House, so people could stay connected and raise money for a good cause while they did so.

But for all her hard work helping people with these events and fundraisers, it’s probably the everyday kindnesses and friendships that Karen will be most remembered for, to each person whose life she graced, for whatever amount of time.

I remember her popping up in multiple comment threads on Facebook one day and asking ‘how is it you seem to know all my cousins?’. One of them replied: ‘Everyone knows Karen, Ross.’

She seemed so woven into the fabric of South Shields, and so omnipresent, it’s hard to imagine life going on without her.

Customs House employee Karen Ratcliffe sadly died aged just 40. Image by Purple Sugar Photography.

I am by no means the best-qualified person to talk about Karen’s life, so many people knew her better than I, but I have known her since at least nursery school, possibly before, and she has always been around, whether that was at a quiz, a party, or just something as simple as walking up from Morrisons together, and it was always good to know she was there.

I remember going to her 40th birthday in the North Marine Park last year, and it being surreal to have known someone for so long from such a young age, and feeling like a child again at one of our kids’ parties in the 1980s.

We didn’t know then that Karen wouldn’t make it to 41. Life can be cruel, but if the saying that only the good die young is true, then she was proof of that.

So thank you, Karen, for the time we had you among us, for everything you did to make South Tyneside a better place, and every smile you put on the faces of those around you.

Goodbye, crazy lady, our town will never be the same without you.

:: Karen’s funeral is taking place today, and her family have asked for donations to The Customs House in lieu of flowers.

Karen (right) with (from left) Louise Bennett , Victoria Softley and Yolanda Alvarez at Sport Relief 2021 on The Leas