A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
‘Are you going to be okay with all this?’
These days I get asked this question every time I attend any social occasion that involves more than four people. I sometimes wonder if I give off an impression that makes people think that I might spontaneously combust at the prospect of a gathering. Yet this week I realised that perhaps I’ve underestimated people’s concern and overestimated my own steel.
Yesterday I attended my best friend’s son’s fourth birthday party. In fact, I attended two: one for his nursery chums and another for close friends and family. There were loads of people there, most of whom I’d either never met or not seen since long before Desreen died.
I completely expected the never met group to be a piece of cake. I was wrong. Suddenly the house was full of toddlers almost exclusively in the company of their mums. I was fine with that – I live in East Dulwich, London’s very own Nappy Valley, so I’d have a problem if I wasn’t by now – but unfortunately my son was not. After crossly consuming countless cakes and salty snacks, which provided much gastronomical guilt on my part, Jackson had a meltdown of epic proportions. Screams, convulsions, four little limbs seeming more like eight as each made its way angrily towards my face. And just one word shrieked painfully over and over – ‘MUMMY!’ The perfect moment for tectonic plates to shift, to crack the ground beneath my feet and to form a giant mouth that could swallow me whole. Instead just little mouths and brightly coloured paper party plates covered in crudités, which gently whispered to me what a failure I am as a father in the vegetable stakes. I’d simply have to deal with the party’s problem child like any other parent might – a swift removal, a calming conversation and a little chat about how social etiquette dictates that tearing out a four-year-old’s pony tails for touching a wooden banana, which didn’t even belong to the attacker in the first place, is never acceptable. A deep breath, a comforting suck on his dummy (my son, not I), a party permasmile drawn on my face and we were back in the room.
Round two – the not seen since long before Desreen died group. Two factions: those who don’t know what to say or whether to say anything because its been ten months (the majority) and those who don’t need to say anything because we share common ground (the other grievers). I was really pleased to see both and chatted to everyone but it was the other grievers’ comments that stood out the most.
‘You’ll learn to be a very fine actor’, one told me, hitting the nail quite firmly on the head. I’d been thinking along the same lines all week. Do people really want to know how I am when they ask or do they just want to see a young widowed father who is ‘doing incredibly well’? Either way, right or wrong, I find myself playing the role that I think people are hoping I will fill. The quote came from a lady who lost her son in a car accident 14 years ago, the day after his 19th birthday. I should imagine she’s more likely to receive an Oscar than she is to get over his death, whatever get over is supposed to mean. After all, who ever could?
The second made me realise something I really needed to understand about myself and about my son. ‘Well I guess you’ll never know’, my best friend’s mum suggested as I spoke to her at length about how I can’t tell the difference between toddler grief and a toddler tantrum. She’s right. I’ll never have the answer; there will never be a conclusion. Her husband, my best friend’s dad, one of the loveliest men you could ever wish to meet, died in 2009. She’s spent the last four years acting fine too. She’s also spent that much time not reaching any sense of conclusion to her grief. And I suppose I found a little comfort in that. I guess it made me conclude something about conclusions.
You see, I tend to find that people who are lucky enough never to have suffered the pain of grief usually want to reach a conclusion for those who are in its midst. They so desperately want the person they are talking to feel better, that they think concluding a conversation with some sort of comforting closure will help. Maybe sometimes it does. But sometimes we just want to talk freely without ending on a positive note, which is exactly why my friend’s mum and I are planning to meet up again.
This conversational skill, I should add, is not an easy one to master, even as a grieving widower. I’m a northerner so I say but all the time. As one friend from down south once informed me, I misuse it as a form of punctuation and I tend to drop the t too. I’m fairly optimistic by nature as well. These two factors combined leave me wanting to conclude conversations about Desreen’s death with comments like ‘But at least we have a roof over our heads’ or ‘But we’ve had lovely weather this summer, haven’t we?’ In the company of grievers, however, I’m much more likely to say ‘But… well but nothing actually. It’s just shit, isn’t it? There are no ifs or buts about it.’ From that point on I’ll have given myself and the person I’m chatting to permission to just talk without hitting some disingenuously positive dead end.
Of course, sometimes it’s good to talk about something else. Sometimes, in fact, it’s absolutely necessary. But when only one subject will do and I’ve got something I need to get off my chest, it’d be a great shame to end up talking about the weather with someone who can only handle it when the sun shines. Sometimes I just need to be with people who are also living through the storm.