Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

marginalised grief

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.

Dessie and Grandma, Christmas 2011

Dessie and Grandma, Christmas 2011

7 comments on “marginalised grief

  1. lovebryony
    July 9, 2013

    First of all god bless your Grandma, it sounds like she was just fabulous. I love ladies like that, the ones who keep a bit of glamour alive.

    Secondly thank you for writing this, I remember my Nana passing away and when I rang work to ask for the day off to spend with my family the reply was ‘who hasn’t lost a grandparent?’. Well up until that day I hadn’t, and my grief was personally. I didn’t want anyone else to witness it straight away.

    I think it’s so important to remember that every relationship we have Is unique and we mourn the loss of those people (and the relationship that comes with them) uniquely.

    Sorry this has turned in to a bit of a ramble, thank you again for this wonderful post.

  2. Naomii Chaplain
    July 9, 2013

    I love that photo. Two beautiful women.

    My grandad brought me up and was as much of a father to me as my actual Dad was and I loved him dearly. It used to make me want to punch the nicest of people in the face when they said stuff like “Oh, 77’s good though” ….almost as though it lessened my pain or made it ok that he was dead because he was 77.

  3. Paul R
    July 9, 2013

    I don’t think it’s the family relationship that matters but the loving relationship. All my grandparents and parents have died. But by far the most traumatic grief was when my wife died. She was my closest love for the last 30 years.

    Since Laura’s death I’ve met people who have had that love for a grandparent that raised them, an Aunt that was always there when parents were working, and even a neighbor where all the neighborhood children hung out at her home.

    If we didn’t have a loving relationship then there would be no grief and that would be a sad thing.

  4. the mmmmm family
    July 9, 2013

    Beautifully written, you always write with your heart. My nanny was 92 when she died and I was 31. She meant the world to me and I was with her when she took her last breath. You’re absolutely right that it makes no difference how long that person has lived for because when you love someone dearly you notice their absence more keenly. I’m glad you had special time with your Grandma and that she went peacefully. x

  5. 1writeplace
    July 9, 2013

    Thanks again for a beautiful post. Love the words and the pic.
    Take Care,
    Patti

  6. Ronni
    July 13, 2013

    I lost my Nan 6 years ago now. She had lived with us as a family for most of my life and was like a second mum to me. In fact whereas my mum would be constantly critical and negative, my nan would always know the right thing to say and was always delighted to see me in later years when i returned from uni etc. When she died aged 92 SO many people said ‘she had a good innings’ and couldn’t understand why i was so affected. The way i saw it was that i was lucky enough to have had her for such a long time, longer than many people have grandparents, and that not having her around was just unimaginable. I, like you with your Grandma, knew it was coming and tried to deal with it and prepare for the moment but when it came i just turned to mush. It was seeing her handbag that really tipped me over the edge. “But she never leaves her handbag behind!” :( This was yet another beautifully written post Ben. Thanks for sharing I sometimes felt guilty that i almost shouldn’t have been grieving so much when it was merely that she had gotten old and her time was up, as opposed to people such as yourself who have experienced such tragic sudden loss. Thanks again, and for what it’s worth you seem like an amazing guy. I’m sure Desreen would be so so proud of how you are coping with all of this. Ronni x

  7. rainydays34
    July 13, 2013

    I lost my Nan 6 years ago now. She had lived with us as a family for most of my life and was like a second mum to me. In fact whereas my mum would be constantly critical and negative, my nan would always know the right thing to say and was always delighted to see me in later years when i returned from uni etc. When she died aged 92 SO many people said ‘she had a good innings’ and couldn’t understand why i was so affected. The way i saw it was that i was lucky enough to have had her for such a long time, longer than many people have grandparents, and that not having her around was just unimaginable. I, like you with your Grandma, knew it was coming and tried to deal with it and prepare for the moment but when it came i just turned to mush. It was seeing her handbag that really tipped me over the edge. “But she never leaves her handbag behind!” :( This was yet another beautifully written post Ben. Thanks for sharing I sometimes felt guilty that i almost shouldn’t have been grieving so much when it was merely that she had gotten old and her time was up, as opposed to people such as yourself who have experienced such tragic sudden loss. Thanks again, and for what it’s worth you seem like an amazing guy. I’m sure Desreen would be so so proud of how you are coping with all of this. Ronni x

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