Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

empty reassurance

My son’s behaviour has taken a nosedive. He’s angry. He’s suddenly become all-too-frequently furious and ferocious. Not having the right lid for a pan or the exact piece of Lego he ‘needs’ is an affront that more often than not leaves him incensed and completely enraged. If I were watching a child behave the way he does on Supernanny I’m quite sure I’d have to switch off out of pity for the parents.

I can’t turn my son’s channel over though. I made a promise to myself some time ago that I was going to try to see what most call tantrums as an outlet for his own grief. This is almost impossible but I try. Like most toddlers, Jackson is happy the vast majority of the time, or at least he appears to be. But when he tips over the edge, it’s almost too painful to watch. His ‘tantrums’ are more fierce than I have ever seen on any other child before and they always end up in my son screaming for his mum. No one who is still available to care for him will suffice. Only patience, love and understanding see him through and eventually return him back to the happy child he mostly seems to be. I’ve realised that I will need a lifetime of patience too because his reaction to my wife’s death is never going to go away. Sure, I expect it to change, move, shift and evolve, but why try to convince myself that this all has a happy ending?

I think the reality pill that I took months ago may be tougher for others to swallow. But what would really help me right now is for someone to be able to relate to the situation, to empathise, to try to understand and perhaps to offer me a little advice. Instead all I hear is: ‘It’s his age'; ‘They all go through this'; ‘You just need to be firm with him'; ‘It’s really nothing to worry about'; ‘He’s no different to other kids’. But he is, isn’t he? He’s the only two-year-old I know who’s already lost a parent and, at least in my mind, it goes without saying that his loss has had an impact on his behaviour, on his ability to feel like the world’s a safe place, and on his capacity to trust that those around him who are still here won’t suddenly disappear. And yet I face more platitudes; more serious issues brushed conveniently under an inconvenient carpet of grief.

I guess people are just trying to relate and to be kind. But I’ve never been one to think that a problem will go away by ignoring it. If others could see that I’d left him with a physical ailment unchecked, I’m sure social workers would be at my door. But when the impairment is psychological it’s all too easy to pretend that’s it’s not happening. Or, worse still, that it’s a sign of weakness to get it checked.

Tamtrums and the toddlersaurus

Tamtrums and the toddlersaurus

27 comments on “empty reassurance

  1. Deb
    September 25, 2013

    You are not alone. I lost my husband when my son was 2 and my daughter 19months old. Their tantrums open the door for brief insight into their inner grief and always end in sobs for their daddy. My daughter not as much as my son. We’ve been going for play therapy to help him better understand death and grief but we only just started at 4 and half years old. Prior to this he was too little understand so all I could do was weather his storms. Even his new teacher needed help to understand that he doesn’t have anger management issues and impulse control issues the way other kids do. He may have that but it is layered on top of dealing with complexities and sadness that no child should have to face, or can face, alone.

  2. Katie
    September 25, 2013

    I know I can’t possibly relate to your situation but splitting up from my son’s father when he was 3 years old is the only likeness I can draw upon. You spend your life blaming the situation but ultimately you will never know if it’s ‘just his age’ or it really is due to their loss as they can’t tell you, or won’t! All I can say is lots of love and support is one of the best ways to deal with the outpourings and a lot of patience!

  3. Carol berridge
    September 25, 2013

    Reading this has had a big impact on me Ben. Jackson will have tantrums, tears and temper and as you say it will evolve and it will manifest in different ways as he gets older. You are doing fine with him and your understanding is spot on. As you say he needs an outlet so the “normal” – whatever that is – ways of dealing with a child with temper tantrums such as time out and/or bed would not necessarily work with Jackson, it will make him sad. So just talk talk and more talk even when you think it’s not working, it’s communication without shouting or even a raised voice, with cuddles and a bit of laughter thrown in.
    Carol x

  4. Dave Varley
    September 25, 2013

    At two years old, who can tell what goes on his head, and unfortunately you will be his punching bag from now on. My 11 year old lashes out at me following losing her mother in May 2012. This can be over the simplest of things but when they blow up, boy do they blow up! Jackson will need an outlet for his anger and frustration and that outlet will be you, not because he is angry with you but because he will know that he is safe to lash out at you without fear of repercussion. If he is anything like my daughter, the tantrums will very quickly turn into moments when all he wants is a good cuddle from his dad, and this will be enough for him to realise that you are not angry in return. Experience has taught me that you need to weather the storm for a while, and you’ll come out the other side ok. It won’t be nice at times, but I’m sure the pir of you will be fine.

    P.s Love this picture!

  5. Donna
    September 25, 2013

    I have no doubt that losing his mum has an impact on his behaviour and will affect many aspects of his life but some of it could well be his age too. My little girl used to have tantrums that I had never seen another child have, not even my eldest! she would fly into a rage and meltdown over something so simple like the shape her sandwich had been cut in! i didn’t know quite how to deal with it sometimes as to me it was bizarre. But I found that telling her off made her worse and even giving a smack on the bottom, like some would say wouldn’t either. I would need to let her calm down and talk to her. Then I would talk to her after and ask her why she react like it. she also used to have night terrors which are not nice. But it may be worth speaking to some of the child bereavement services for advice. My other little girl was 18mths when her daddy worked away, she used to go to nursery one day a week, but suddenly became very unsettled about me leaving her and working, finally I learnt why. she said ‘daddy works but doesn’t come back, you will come back won’t you mummy’! You never quite know what is going on in their little heads but he obviously misses his mummy and sees his daddy sad, its hard for him. I wonder when the impact of losing their mummy at 1yr will hit my niece and nephew, and they begin to ask questions and want to understand why. I may come to you for advice then. XX

  6. Bill Wright
    September 25, 2013

    Wish I could give you some valuable insight Ben, as you know Ed is exactly the same age as Jackson, although losing his twin sister and still having Mum, Dad and big sister around is a different dynamic.

    Ed and Bella generally take their frustration out in each other and spare us. Tough to witness (and manage) as they were all such a happy gang of three, with Anni the glue that bonded them, being Ed’s twin an. Bella’s little sister. Everyone tells us it’s ‘normal’ sibling behaviour as if that is supposed to be comforting, but I know if Anni were here sibling harmony would rule.

    Thinking of you both.

  7. Nikki Schuster
    September 25, 2013

    I think you are spot on, that doesn’t really help you when you feel helpless in the face of it! I read how much you ‘get’ him, that must be so painful for you right now. All I can say is that by being consistent and containing for him you are hopefully be able of allow him to learn to feel safe and secure, in spite of his loss. Its a bloody tough road, especially as you must often feel the same yourself!

  8. Beverly Page
    September 25, 2013

    My husband died when my son was 22 months, he doesnt really remember him, I think he mostly remembers what we have told him, its early days for you, so it probably is his age and you are maybe making excuses for his behaviour, I know this because I did the same myself. All toddlers have temper tantrums but we have the unfortunate excuse of being able to blame it on grief, I dont believe a two year old knows what grief is, loss yes but not grief. That grief shows itself in later years when they start to understand grief, they see other children with both parents, they see other children with a ” normal” family, thats when the trouble starts, my son is nearly eleven now and Im facing different stages of his little life on my own, its now that he is asking questions that I find hard to answer.Its up to us to tell them about their mum or dad, after all when you think about it, can you remember when you were two?

    • Deb
      September 25, 2013

      I don’t believe that it is his age, nor that he doesn’t understand. What we’ve done for my son is helpful regardless of the reasons behind his behaviour. He needs to know that whatever he is feeling is okay. What you need to do is help him find a way to get his anger out, preferably before he errupts. What I say to my son is “you seem to be angry. It is okay to feel angery. But the way you are showing it is not okay. Why don’t we…” I was given a huge stuffed lion (the size of a bed) and one option is usually to go wrestle the lion. And he does go and physically wrestle this stuffed beast. And when his anger is out, he is always lying on the floor beside it crying. But then we deal with the grief without the anger. The options have changed as he has aged but have included ripping paper, banging drums, squeezing rubber toys, etc. He may not fully understand what you are saying now but it will come quite quickly.

  9. anyapilates
    September 25, 2013

    This is so hard…people probably feel that they are helping or offering advice and not realising how flippant it seems. Yes, toddlers do have tantrums and feel rage often disproportionally to what they’re reacting to (to an adult’s perspective), but also, Jackson is reacting proportionally to what has happened to him and so it can never be “just” a tantrum as he’s reacting in the only way he can physically and emotionally express. He doesn’t have the words and vocabulary that you do and can only vent in this way at the utter frustration and unfairness that all he wants is a mummy cuddle at that particular moment.
    I have no advice except for a combination of two things that I know: one from when I was going through an intense grief, I needed people to be understanding of what I wanted, even though I didn’t really know what I wanted. I wanted the knowledge of endless cups of tea available, even if I didn’t actually want a cup of tea. I wanted hugs and shoulders to cry on, in my own time. With my toddler, if he’s having a big ol thrash about something unfair then I now just sit back and let him, I offer him a cuddle when he wants it but don’t go to him open armed until he reaches for me. I don’t imagine that I can understand or rationalise how he is feeling. Or that he can. Just be there with him, just know that he’s hurting and his heart has broken. He doesn’t understand and doesn’t need the pieces to be put together by you, just for you to be there with him through it. That’s all you can do.
    Lots of love x x

  10. anyapilates
    September 25, 2013

    This is so hard…people probably feel that they are helping or offering advice and not realising how flippant it seems. Yes, toddlers do have tantrums and feel rage often disproportionally to what they’re reacting to (to an adult’s perspective), but also, Jackson is reacting proportionally to what has happened to him and so it can never be “just” a tantrum as he’s reacting in the only way he can physically and emotionally express. He doesn’t have the words and vocabulary that you do and can only vent in this way at the utter frustration and unfairness that all he wants is a mummy cuddle at that particular moment.
    I have no advice except for a combination of two things that I know: one from when I was going through an intense grief, I needed people to be understanding of what I wanted, even though I didn’t really know what I wanted. I wanted the knowledge of endless cups of tea available, even if I didn’t actually want a cup of tea. I wanted hugs and shoulders to cry on, in my own time. With my toddler, if he’s having a big ol thrash about something unfair then I now just sit back and let him, I offer him a cuddle when he wants it but don’t go to him open armed until he reaches for me. I don’t imagine that I can understand or rationalise how he is feeling. Or that he can. Just be there with him, just know that he’s hurting and his heart has broken. He doesn’t understand and doesn’t need the pieces to be put together by you, just for you to be there with him through it. That’s all you can do.
    It’s hard, so hard but you will get through it together
    Lots of love x x

  11. Lucy
    September 25, 2013

    Hi Ben, I have been following your blog and have so much respect for you. Your little man is just gorgeous. My husband is a clinical psychologist and I have just picked his brains – I do hope this is of some use – he suggested going to your GP and asking for help in the CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service). Hopefully, there will be someone within the service who could be of assistance, if this is a route which you feel comfortable taking. My husband also suggested that you should perhaps review the systemic reason for the tantrums, as they are usually an emotional response to an unmet need, whatever that may be. I am sure that my husband would be v happy to talk to you in more depth if you would like to, although he does not specialise in this area. Loads of luck with everything.

  12. Greet Grief
    September 25, 2013

    Ben,
    You are so right! Yes it is “normal” for a two-year old to have tantrums, etc., but there is nothing “normal” about his mother leaving him at this tender age and he knows it! My son did too, at 26 months old his dad died and I believe abandonment is at the core of the problem. Not that our children’s parent had any intention of that happening, but I believe that is what they feel internally. My son would look for him in all his familiar places, etc. and still no daddy…

    I did not have any formal help at the time, although I have had a life time of learning and the best advice I got and can give is to help him label his feelings – asking him at the time what is going on and using Sad, Mad, Glad as those words are understood at this age.

    I also bought my son a clown punching bag that was weighed down and stood taller than he was – I don’t know if they even have them anymore? When his mood would deteriorate, we would take turns punching and I would start labeling things that I thought he might be feeling and see where it would go from there. It often would end quickly with him loosing interest. Beware however, that after your son goes to sleep you might want your own session – I poked a hole in ours! Not sure whose benefit was greater?

    Hang in there Ben, you are fighting through the darkness and I applaud you!

  13. gcroft
    September 25, 2013

    Ben, I hope you don’t mind me posting the link below, but I came across this blog today about a woman who lost her husband to SAD when their kids were 22 months and 9 weeks old.

    http://widowsdontwearblack.com/2012/08/10/once-upon-a-while-ago/

  14. gcat
    September 25, 2013

    My twins were two when they lost their dad. Same thing (mostly for my son). Lots of hair-pulling tantrums. They may be related to grief, but are pretty normal for two year olds. The nice thing about having twins is seeing the range of response. My daughter doesn’t experience these tantrums. I chalk it up to the gender difference. Maybe I’m in denial…

  15. candidkay
    September 25, 2013

    While I’ve not lost my spouse (other than to divorce), I have lost my mom and dad over the past year–and my sister is dying. I can’t imagine being two, without the tools to express and cope. My parents took me to a therapist when I was young and it was the best thing they ever did. I was able to express through pictures what I couldn’t say in words. You’re not weak–you’re ever so brave. It’s hard to fight the mainstream and follow your gut. I hope you do.

  16. SHB
    September 25, 2013

    This reminds me of the story of the man in the supermarket with a tantruming toddler saying “keep calm George” “breathe George” “all is ok George” “stay calm George”. A lady walks up to him and congratulates him on how well he is doing with his son and that George is a lucky lad to have him for a father – Madam he replies I am George! :)
    Sounds to me like you are doing just the exact right thing for you and your son…love patience and tolerance are all that is needed to get you through this long tunnel and you have that in abundance. There is no right way to go through what you are going through, it just IS…so…. “keep calm Ben” “breathe Ben” “all is ok Ben” “stay calm Ben” :)

  17. Amanda Marie
    September 25, 2013

    Ben, the world is a beautiful, sometimes magical place but safe – I think not

  18. Jackie
    September 25, 2013

    I have heard my shrink give advice on this to others, and it is this: Hold the child tightly, tightly, tightly. Even if he struggles against you, he wants to feel safe and loved and held, even if he can’t have his mum. A strong, safe embrace to reassure him that there is something he can count on in the world will go a long way.

    I also would guess he’d advise you to validate his feelings. “I know, Jackson – you’re so angry, mummy can’t come back and it makes you so angry. Mummy loves you but she can’t come back, and it is so upsetting. It’s so sad.” I think the urge of most people (not you, but others) is to try to get kids to move past the feelings, when they really need to feel them and be told that feeling them is perfectly fine. The “Cheer up” and “Look on the bright side” crew have a lot to answer for, though they know not what they do.

  19. Ben Dyke
    September 26, 2013

    Ben its so hard knowing what is normal and what is related to the loss. Your consistent loving kindness to your son is a powerful medicine to the deep loss even if there is no immediate behavioural change. Over time I have got a bit better at identifying what is an attempt to play me and what is genuine loss. But its all painful to me! I have always affirmed my kids right to be angry about their mums death but have also explained how that hurting themselves or others whilst expressing it is not acceptable even though I understand. And when we all get it wrong then there is deep forgiveness in every direction and deep compassion. This will never ever change right from when the kids first suffered the loss at 2 and 5 to when I die!

  20. Andy
    September 26, 2013

    Ben, happy to talk to you any time about this. I don’t have all the answers but can certainly relate as I am in pretty much the same boat as you right now.

    My sons nursery have been really good support and his key worker who sadly lost her own mum last year is doing some specialist training regarding supporting bereavement in young children so they’ve been doing some one to one stuff with him and have created a memory box which switches between home and nursery and encourages him to talk about his mummy.

    Also I have been receiving support from the adoption team who have been really good. Spookily given the parallels we already have they were actually round yesterday the day you posted and we were discussing a similar thing which was about how I should respond to the outbursts of grief. One of the bits of advice i was given was to always to always use an acknowledgement thats requires no response rather than a question. For example ” I wonder If your upset because, I think your feeling sad because, it’s ok to be sad. Rather than ( which is what I was doing) “what’s wrong?” Why are you crying is it because you miss mummy?”

  21. Jo
    September 26, 2013

    I’m currently dealing with my 3 year old sons tantrums and night waking. My husband died a year ago, he was such a hands on father. My son is not only dealing with losing daddy but having to deal with the birth of a brother (I was 4mths pregnant when he died) , I don’t like saying this but I have also been absent, not physically but mentally. I feel spread so thin that I have taken him to a play therapist. She has not only been great support for him but also very supportive of me too. If he’s angry she lets him Tare the room apart and he feels better for it. My biggest problem is he chooses to start screaming in the middle of the night. Like you everyone likes to give me advice, even friends without children… He is grieving the loss of both of us, I’m working on being more present by having a special day once a week where, we go to swimming lessons and have a special lunch and play cars together, it’s getting a bit better… Sending you strength and courage.

  22. Michelle Edwards
    September 26, 2013

    Ben, I cannot imagine your situation to be easy in any sense, it must be so hard when your son is so young as they can only sometimes express their feelings through anger or in a tantrum. Maybe a good idea would be to go out together and get a tree or a plant for ‘mummy’ to put outside or indoors. Maybe your son could help look after this and let him know that if he’s ever missing mummy or feels angry he can go and tend to the plant, talk to it if he wants to ‘as mummy would be so proud’ if he helped you look after the plant for her – this may help. Its not professional advice but I know people who’ve used this technique and its helped their children very well. Best wishes and lots of luck
    to you both

  23. Pingback: the boss | life as a widower

  24. lifeasawidower.com
    September 26, 2013

    Thanks so much for all the incredibly generous comments to this post. I really do appreciate all the support and advice.

  25. Debbie Hoare
    September 30, 2013

    Im so sorry to hear about jacksons tantrums , and like some of your friends say it may just be ” normal ” but im six yrs down the line and have a very angry 8 yr old who really does seem to be annoyed as hell with me or life for something . He behaves perfectly with all around him, friends and adults alike and at school but at home on our own he is completely different . Rightly or wrongly i had kinda assumed that he had taken his dads death in his stride or it seemed that he had , and in fact his behaviour may still have nothing to do with it at all , but i am now struggling to cope with the constant outbursts which are getting worse the older he gets . I have resorted to going to the GP and we were referred to MAST – and possibly may end up at CAMMS too – i think Lucy mentioned them in a previous comment . Im hoping that having someone else to talk to to air whatever it is that he has a problem with will let him express things he cant to me . it s a very different dynamic when there is just the two of you , you are incredibly close and at the same time rub each other up the wrong way to epic proportions ! Anyway my advice would be to seek help earlier rather than later , Hal cannot control his anger at the moment but as painful as it is to be his punching bag at least its only in my prescence, its almost like a switch is flipped , at that point there is no reasoning with him , in some repsects i hope it is the fact hes lost his dad thats doing it and nothing else , but then again it doesn’t solve the problem which will never go away . Its just finding some mechanism by which he can deal with it better that’s the issue at the moment…..good luck with it all and i hope for you that it doesnt continue as he gets older . .

  26. D.Z
    April 28, 2014

    This blog has become my favourite blog to read. The emotional honesty and vulnerability I find endlessly refreshing. I understand a bit, the effect the loss of a parent can have on a child. I was taken away from my mum when I was 3 years old and although she didn’t die,( they say a parents break up has the same effect on the mind of the child as a parent death) I was physically separated from her and didn’t see her again until I was 17 years old. Today the issues I have are numerous. I have separation anxiety, I am unable to form close bonds with anyone- fear of losing them, I have rejection/abandonment issues- thinking my mum rejected me, I have anger and rage issues- I fly off the handle at the tiniest of things. The difference here is that Ben would benefit a lot from having consistent love, patience and understanding from the one parent he has behind. My dad, bless him although he tried his best was also going through his own grief and loss that it wasn’t easy for him to provide the emotional support that I would have needed to grow into a capable well adjusted adult.

    These formative years are very crucial for his long term future. This is where the true test of being a parent is called into question. This requires total sacrifice. Total selflessness and an inordinate amount of love and patience. It won’t be easy but it can be done. I wish you the best.

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