a young widowed father opening up about living with loss
For such a small chap, it seems strange to me that my son has become the elephant in the room. People seem comfortable checking how I am, but it’s often with much more marked pain that they inquire about him. The question that people (particularly mothers of small children) often want to ask but usually daren’t is, ‘Does he ask for her?’
Unlike most of my posts to date, this one will probably only work chronologically.
Imagining it from a two-year-old boy’s point of view, the simple fact is this. When we left our house the day that Desreen died, my son was with both of his parents. When he returned home that night there was just Daddy. At some point during the evening Mummy had left without saying goodbye.
Once I’d been told she was dead and I’d given my statement, I had to wake my son up from sleeping in a strange bed to put him the kind of car he’d probably dreamed about getting in one day because it ‘says’, “Nee nor!” Except he didn’t look happy. He looked confused and exhausted. He’s a chatty little fellow usually but he simply sat in the car seat that the police had to drive across town to collect, with his head tilted towards mine, holding my hand while I told him that I loved him and that we’d be okay. I was high on shock at the time, so what the hell did I know about how we’d be?
When the night turned into morning
As if it’s not confusing enough for a two-year-old child to be driven home one parent down after midnight, our living room was full of people by 3am. Desreen’s best friends came over and we all sat and stared at one another not knowing what to do or say. I offered people drinks – water, tea or Hennessy was all I had. I opted for the Cognac because I thought that was what people did in times like this. Putting the kettle on just seemed too cliched, somehow. My son ate yoghurt and played with his trains, but he did both crossly. Eventually I took him to bed hoping that we’d both wake up relieved that we’d just eaten a bit too much cheese at our friends’ house that day.
When the morning turned into days
My son’s three favourite things in the world went missing during the chaos. His mother, his scooter and his Thomas the Tank Engine. While I set about recovering the two things that could be replaced, some other things showed up. Grown-ups. Lots of them. The house was packed. Grandparents, uncles, godparents, friends, neighbours. Everyone calling her ‘Desreen’ and not ‘mummy’. So he joined in. That was that. In a matter of days he’d gone from calling her ‘mummy’ to ‘Desreen’. It was like a dagger through my heart because I thought he was forgetting her.
When the days turned to weeks
Then something happened that brought me back to my senses. I put on a DVD, something like Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, a show he hadn’t watched in weeks whatever it was, and he knew all the characters’ names. So I realised that he couldn’t have forgotten the one person he idolised most, he was just copying the big people.
When the weeks turned into about a month
The single most painful thing I’ve felt as a bereaved husband so far was not for myself, it was for my wife. My son hadn’t asked for Desreen once in my company. I felt like she was being cheated. Like all the time and love she’d invested in him had disappeared in an instant. Sure, he’d stood at the front door and shouted her name when he thought she was coming in, but he hadn’t yet asked, ‘Where’s Mummy?’
When he finally did, he probably couldn’t have chosen a worse time. I was begging for it to happen. It wasn’t going to make me feel pain, it was going to bring relief. But he did it in front of a three men and the unprepared male doesn’t tend to be too great at this kind of thing. “Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy gone? Where’s Mummy gone? Want Mummy. Want Mummy. Want Muuuuuummmmmmyyyyyy!”
He’d be storing it up and now he was using it all in one go, and the men present unanimously did that thing where you think if you can tense your shoulders hard enough, you won’t be in the room anymore. A kind of cross between an ostrich with its head in the sand and the nose wiggle from the US comedy Bewitched that made the characters disappear. The weight lifted off my shoulders and was transferred straight onto theirs. For me it meant I could finally tell him what had happened (see previous post here), but for them it meant they were sitting in the middle of the one situation that they’d dreaded the most and that they didn’t know how to deal with.
When the answers turn to questions
The impossible thing about grieving toddlers is that you can tell them what’s happened one day but they’ve forgotten the next. Actually, that’s probably inaccurate – it’s unlikely that they ever really understood in the first place. ‘Death’, ‘never’ and ‘ever’ are still alien concepts to them.
My son does this thing that I’ve always loved. When I take him to bed and cuddle up, I can ask him anything and he will agree with a silent nod. It’s probably the only time he’s quiet because he talks, sings and giggles all day and often does the same in his sleep. It’s definitely the only time he’s not contrary because he says, “No!” and “Not!”, to almost everything anyone says.
“Jackson, do you want some milk?” Silent nod. “Jackson, do you want a dummy? Silent nod. “Jackson, could you do a better job at fixing the economy that the current coalition government?” Silent nod. No end of fun for me.
However, it means that when I ask him if he understands what’s happened to Mummy at the one time of day when we really get to talk as man and boy undisturbed, he silent nods. I go to sleep at something like peace thinking he’s starting to take it in, but the next day I really can’t be sure if he’s going to ask where she’s gone again.
When the questions turn to statements
I may find myself amending this post in a day or a week depending on what my son does or says next, but it’s now two months since Desreen’s death and I don’t think he expects her to come back. He wants her to come back but I sense that the anticipation has gone. It’s impossible to know though and so I’ll repeat what I’ve said before – you simply have to go on your parental intuition and your understanding of your own child when that child is a still toddler as yet unable to fully express how they feel.
But to me there’s a big difference between, ‘Want Mummy’ and ‘Where’s Mummy?’. I can deliver on the question and, as far as I’m concerned, he can make the statement every day for the rest of his life without causing me any more pain than I already feel, because I do too.
I have since written an extended and updated version of these events for The Guardian. Click here to view.