Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

beautiful ladybirds

Earlier this week I met with a child psychologist to discuss my son; naturally I’m concerned about how he has and will respond to losing his mother at such a young age. Jackson was at the scene when Desreen was killed and he was clearly affected: he grew scared of sirens overnight; he became confused and cross; and his temper, at times, was out of control, to a point where I was frightened that he might hurt himself if it couldn’t be stopped. And back then he wasn’t even three years old.

This week he turned three-and-a-half and it was on his ‘half birthday’ that I found myself discussing his well-being in the company of an expert who I noticed used the words dead and death a lot. The conversation made me realise that, while I’m satisfied that I took the age-appropriate steps to explain my wife’s disappearance to our son, I had somewhat shied away from consistently explaining that she had actually died.

‘Jackson, Mummy’s gone away and she can’t ever come back. She didn’t want to go. She would never have left you out of choice because she loved you more than anyone or anything in the world. But Daddy’s still here and I’m going to look after you now. And I know how to look after you because Mummy taught me.’

Those were the exact words I used to explain Desreen’s sudden departure from our world. I’d taken advice from child bereavement charities including Winston’s Wish, Grief Encounter and Child Bereavement UK, and so I understood that, at the time, Jackson was too young to understand the meaning of dead or killed. But recently I’ve noticed that some of my son’s friends, especially those who are six to twelve months older than him, are more aware of death. I suppose I have spent the last few months enjoying watching him live through a stage of blissful naivety. But all the while I’ve been very conscious of the fact that he won’t dwell there forever; I’ve been constantly reminding myself that I need to continue to help him understand the realities of life.

As I sat chatting with the psychologist, I asked how she would explain death to such a young child.

‘I’d be very concrete about it,’ she said. ‘Don’t make things opaque.’

She told me how she would describe the difference between a person who is alive and a person who has died: essentially that one functions while the other doesn’t. She also advised me on how to use insects to – one alive and one dead – to demonstrate the point.

The next morning, on Good Friday, I was cleaning the house when I found a dead ladybird on the floor. I scooped it up and went to find my son downstairs.

‘Jackson, can you see how this ladybird can’t move?’ I asked. He prodded it roughly with his finger. ‘Well that’s because it has died, and when we die we can’t move and we can’t use our arms or legs.’

‘Yes we can!’ he said with a big smile across his face.

‘No we can’t, Jackson.’

‘Oh!’ he considered, looking a little confused.

‘Mummy died, too, Jackson. And that’s why she can’t move her body, either,’ I went on.

‘Yes she can!’ he giggled. ‘She can fly with a blanket on her back.’ It must be so confusing for a child to be told that his mummy is in the sky but that she can’t actually fly.

‘She can’t, Jack-Jack. Mummy can’t move her body anymore because she’s dead, too. Like this ladybird.’

‘Oh!’ he said again, this time stroking the bug’s back gently. ‘It’s beautiful, Daddy.’

‘Just like Mummy,’ I replied.

Within seconds he was playing with trains and laughing about something silly. I, on the other hand, had more grave things on my mind. It doesn’t matter how clear I am with him, I always worry about exactly how much of the information I pass on is processed by his infant mind.

‘Daddy!’ he whispered to me on Easter Sunday afternoon. ‘This bug is dead.’

I examined a centipede on the doormat he was pointing towards and showed Jackson that it was in fact still alive.

‘Can you see how his legs are still moving?’

‘Oh, yes,’ he replied. ‘When you die you can’t move your legs, Daddy.’ He froze and did his statue impression – something new and hysterical that he’s picked up from a party game, which sees him standing on one leg, wobbling, open-jawed and with eyes that look suspiciously full of motion for something that is supposed to be made of stone.

‘That’s right,’ I confirmed. ‘And can you remember who else has died?’

‘The ladybird and Mummy,’ he said before reprising his animate state and running round in circles to demonstrate how the living are still able to move.

Easter, I thought. How interesting that this is one of the only times of year when adults will comfortably talk to children about death. And yet what have we got to hide when it’s such an inevitable part of life?

15 comments on “beautiful ladybirds

  1. Surayya Cheema
    April 20, 2014

    I think it’s important to try to understand death because you’re right, it’s inevitable. Unfortunately it doesn’t make much sense to us at any age but talking about it does help. Even if it doesn’t help us to understand death much better, it does at least help us see that we’re not alone in our feelings.

  2. Claudio Faenza
    April 20, 2014

    My son is Also 3 and i have not be able to hide my emotions to talk to him so directly about it, it had been only 5 month for me. We got as far as mommy is an angel and when it thunders he says mommy is bowling in heaven

    • Liz
      April 26, 2014

      Hi Claudio, it’s hard. Ill be honest and say I didn’t even talk to my daughter (15months) for the first few months. I am not proud of that. It affects people in different ways. Me personally I found that focusing on work helped, I talk and show emotion to my daughter but not dramatically. I hide a lot, I feel I need to be strong(she knows already about her dad) when she gets a little older I will explain even more. I am just honest with her but also still quite hard/firm with her. I am still her role model!!

  3. whathabit
    April 20, 2014

    Brave of you to give him the words that are painful to hear, repeated and understood.

  4. handikwani02
    April 21, 2014

    The one thing reflected in most of your blogs at least for me, is that you want to get everything right, but that can result in you beating yourself too much. Remember yours is a trial and error expereince there is no ‘ book of instructions’ to follow and you learn from what you think are your mistakes. In my books you are doing brilliantly.

  5. Sue
    April 21, 2014

    When my husband Died in 2003, my grandson was just shy of turning 4, he loved his granddad dearly, helped from age 2 with his granddads Dialysis and what a fantastic little helper he was! on the day granddad died I took George into the garden and shown him the brightest star and said granddad was now shining the brightest! My daughter told him granddad had gone to sleep and would never wake up……………………………………. for three weeks he cried he shouted, whenever her phone rang he would say “tell the hospital to wake granddad”……which in turn upset Emma, so i sat and told him granddad had died, he took it on the chin pretty much, truth & honesty can work.
    Ben you are doing wonderful. x

  6. Dani
    April 21, 2014

    This is beautiful! I’m sure your wife is looking down on you both…filled with pride…and love.

  7. Karen
    April 22, 2014

    Only the truth will work no matter how young they are, my daughter was aged 4 in August 2012 when she found her daddy, my husband dead in the garden aged 38. Since then we have discussed how you die, who will die, how old you can die, we read headstones whenever we pass a grave yard and now we are on to how long before the flesh leaves the body! We do also talk about cremation and other forms like the vikings and Jesus……

    All of this she takes in her stride as it is the truth, not the sort of conversations i expected to be having with her at just turned 6 but i see it as a very heathly sign…..

  8. Emma Crazywithtwins
    April 24, 2014

    I can’t imagine how difficult this is. It’s not just having to explain life and death, it’s also life and afterlife and not knowing how he will interpret them differently. He is so young and I expect his understanding will change numerous times, before he grasps it. The experts can help you so far, but ultimately you know your son best, and the two of you will work it out somehow. You are an incredible dad, and though I don’t comment often, I read all your posts with a great deal of respect for you. The way you tell your story and teach your son about his mum, is both beautiful and moving. xx

  9. Liz
    April 26, 2014

    Erm, I read your story and almost everything I can relate to. I am in a similar situation, I hold everything together for my daughter and am trying the best to give her a childhood without the worry of death. She lost her dad at 15months, she is now 4. She knows her daddy is up in the sky( he is also a super hero angel) for me personally I want her to be aware of her situation, but not in too much detail. Softly softly and when she gets to about 6-7 I will explain a little more. The worst thing for me as a parent is knowing that questions will be asked and no matter how much I think I’m prepared, the little ones always surprise you😊

  10. Hi there. Just found a story on you in today’s Guardian. I live in Canada so your fan base is spread out! I haven’t lost a partner. My mom died a few months ago – a totally different thing I realize but the grief I feel over her death (I can still hardly believe it when I type it) has led me to read more of others’ experiences. I am deeply sorry for your loss and so appreciative of your blog.

  11. Tayler
    May 11, 2014

    My partner passed away April last year, I do talk to our son about her being in heaven and tell him stories of her when i have the strength, he is only fourteen months old and can say words like Daddy, Granddad and Nana but I know I will have to tell him as clear and straight forward as possible when he starts to understand more of the world.

    My eldest nephew was almost five when he asked me why my son does not have a mummy, it was completely unexpected and I had not even thought about how to tell him, I explained to him that he does have a mum and that she died and went to heaven, with that he was quite blunt and said ‘she’s in heaven because she is dead’ and i told him yes that he is right, he then went on to tell me a story about his parrot that died and his hamster that is now in heaven as well.

    As hard and upsetting as it was to say, he did make me smile with his stories, I think that because he already had the concept of what it means to die, he understood perfectly what it meant to be dead and has accepted the fact that he will never see aunty Fleur again.

    I’m hoping that by talking about Fleur, my partner, as he is growing up I will be used to talking about her to him so when the time comes it will be a natural conversation and he will hopefully understand as my eldest nephew did.

  12. Eleanor
    May 29, 2014

    I admire the courage you find to make sure that your son has an understanding of where his mum is. It must take a lot. My son is still too young (19 months) for me to even start that journey with him. I hope when he gets to the right age I will have courage like yours.

    • Life as a Widower
      June 2, 2014

      I think it’s always okay to ask for help. There are organisation out there who can offer support when the time is right for your son, even if you don’t feel it’s the right time for you.

      • Eleanor
        June 2, 2014

        Yes, I agree.. help is what gets me through each day. I will certainly look out for support when it’s time. Thank god there are all these organisations about!

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