A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
By the time my grandma passed away this week she had come to terms with her death. She had been suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung, which made breathing increasingly difficult. But in her last weeks she was well cared for and made as comfortable as possible in the incredible hospice where my mum has worked as a nurse for over 20 years.
Her whole family gathered around. Her children and grandchildren all visited with their respective partners, and her great-grandchildren with miniature works of art depicting the lovely lady they’d come to see.
We all had our chance to say ‘goodbye’. This is something I’d never experienced before but that, personally, I would choose every time over the alternative. Perhaps because I got to spend some really special time with her before she went. Perhaps also because I saw her comfortable, perky, laughing and pulling her charming, slighting gap-toothed smile, which she always asserted with such force that her nose would visibly move too. She told me she would never get the space in between her two front teeth fixed because it would remove all the personality from her face. She certainly made the right choice. She was personality personified.
There are thousands of wonderful things I could say about the woman who allowed me my first taste of gin and sneaked me a cheeky puff on a cigarette when I was much too young to know what to do with it, but I won’t turn this into a eulogy. Instead I wanted to share an observation about grief. That’s what this blog is about after all.
I knew my grandma was dying. I’ve had weeks to process this and to come to terms with how I thought I felt. But here’s the weird thing. I don’t feel how I thought I felt. I’d forgotten to heed my own words and I’d started to marginalise my own grief possibly because of my grandma’s age (87) and because she’d ‘had a good life’.
The fact is she had. She raised a wonderful family and I’ve never met a single person who didn’t fall for her amazing sense of fun, her warmness and her outstanding dress sense (there was never a time I saw her out of pearls and heals). But still, another woman we all loved did die and that means we all the have the right to feel the way we feel and grieve the way we grieve, regardless of the length or quality of her time on Earth.
Having thought I’d known how I’d feel – that the worst possible thing that could happen to my life had already happened and that nothing could ever break my heart so badly again – I suddenly saw things from a different angle. I put myself in my son’s little shoes.
The word ‘grandma’ conjures up an image for people but sometimes that picture doesn’t do these women justice. For Jackson, his grandmothers are now the key living maternal figures in his life. Desreen’s mum, Bev, is raising him every bit as much as I am. She’s completely indispensable to the two of us. We both need her and we both need my mum too. So this made me think about that day in the (hopefully distant) future that Jackson has to tell his friends that his grandma (my mum) or his nanny (Dessie’s mum) has gone. Sure enough someone will inevitably offer him a platitude about their ‘innings’, but that won’t be a day when Jackson feels like he’s lost a grandmother. It’ll be a day when he really understands what it’s like to lose the closest thing he’s had to a living mum since he just turned two.
And that’s why I don’t believe in making assumptions about how bereaved people, young or old, should feel or cope with loss.
And that in turn is why I’ll continue to write what I write and support those who support others through grief.
My name is Ben. I was widowed on 10th November 2012 aged 33. Just 14 months into my marriage to the mother of my two-year-old son and the woman I’d loved for eight years.