Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

audio book

Adults who lost a parent as children often get in touch to reassure me that they got through it and that, for the most part, they now live happy and fulfilled lives. Some, however, say that they wish their surviving parent had been able to capture more memories of the one who died. A generation ago there was no such thing as the internet, camera film was expensive and non-digital photographs got lost.

There were also those who thought it kindest on the bereaved child to scrap all of the evidence of the deceased, thinking that it might somehow make the experience of loss less painful if their lives were all but erased. Personally, I can think of few things more heartbreaking.

I feel like I’ve been fortunate in how much of my wife’s memory I have been able to preserve for my son. Social media has documented her story and personality; thousands of photographs and films taken on cameras, phones and camcorders captured her image, voice and love for life; letters and cards she wrote show her humour and warmth. I’ve come to realise how blessed I am to be able to stimulate my son’s memories of the mother – who was taken far too soon – in so many different ways.

Naturally I’m devastated when I think of how much my son has lost, but that overwhelming pain makes me determined to do everything in my power to provide him with the stimulus he might need to feel a long term connection with Desreen. I’ve got no idea which of his senses will be the most evocative, though. Having written a book for him, it suddenly dawned on me that he might not care much for reading; music might be his thing, I thought. And then it occurred to me that I could fuse the two by creating a soundtrack of sorts.

This playlist includes songs that mean a lot to me. The first and last track opened and closed Desreen’s funeral. The last was also the first dance at our beautiful wedding. We didn’t choose it until the morning of our big day and until then we had something else in mind entirely. By complete chance we were both listening to the same radio station at the same time and simultaneously sent each other a text message to say we had to make this song ours. At the time we both thought it was about falling in love, but after Desreen was killed I discovered that it’s actually about dying and meeting God. Although devastating, it still makes me smile that our marriage began and ended with house music – I can think of nothing more appropriate for my good time girl.

All of the songs in between have varying degrees of significance, and each captures feelings and experiences covered in my book. I toyed with the idea of writing the stories behind each but, at best, I think music is personal and poignant. I would rather think of the songs meaning something to the reader and listener than just to me, so I’ve just included a few of the lyrics that I find the most stirring. You’ll need to be signed up to Spotify to listen to the playlist.

No One, Alicia Keys 

‘When the rain is pouring down and my heart is hurting, you will always be around – this I know for certain.’

Here With Me, The Killers 

‘Don’t want your picture on my cell phone; I want you here with me. Don’t want your memory 
in my head, now; I want you here with me.’

Better Man, Paolo Nutini

‘She makes me smile;
 she thinks the way I think.
 That girl makes me want to be better.’

The Writer, Ellie Goulding 

‘Why don’t you be the writer and decide the words I say?
 ‘Cause I’d rather pretend 
I’ll still be there at the end, only it’s too hard to ask.
 Won’t you try to help me?’

This Woman’s Work, Maxwell

‘Pray God you can cope. I’ll stand outside. This woman’s work, this woman’s world; oh, it’s hard on the man now his part is over. Now starts the craft of the Father.’

Sometimes It Snows In April, Prince 

‘Sometimes it snows in April; sometimes I feel so bad. Sometimes, sometimes, I wish that life was never ending. And all good things, they say, never last.’

Beautiful Boy, Ben Harper

‘I can hardly wait to see you come of age, but I guess we’ll both just have to be patient. ‘Cause it’s a long way to go and a hard row to hoe. But in the meantime, before you cross the street take my hand. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’

Finally, Kings of Tomorrow 

‘Where do we go from here? Time ain’t nothing but time. I now have no fear of my fears 
and no more tears to cry. Tomorrow means nothing at all.’

6 comments on “audio book

  1. Naomii Chaplain
    May 9, 2014

    I have been following you for 17 months now and it astounds me that I can still be left in tears when I read about yours and Desreens story. That magical bit about you texting each other at the same time with your wedding song is so – 😮well magical!!

    Lovely tracklist! Xx

  2. Lonifoundherself
    May 9, 2014

    You are doing perfectly. I lost my mother as a child and, unfortunately, lived among adults who just decided that the best course of action was to pretend she never existed at all. We never talked about our grief, we never made her favorite meal, visited her favorite places, or spoke of her at all. Her friends pulled back from us. It was like “poof!” She was just gone.

    As an adult I now work very, very hard to remember her and connect with her as best I can. I have a few of her things and I keep them out where I can see them. I listen to her favorite songs, make her recipes, and buy the perfume she wore. In these ways she stays with me.

  3. jacqueline martin
    May 9, 2014

    i lost my partner of 25 years 2 years ago very quickly to cancer he was my soulmate best friend and everything in my world our son has had his world turned upside down but hopefully has come through the other side i am writing all my memories down in a diary i can remember from the first time we met to the last time we said goodbye they say time is a great healer but i dont think i,ll ever get over missing him i think and picture him in my mind every day xx

  4. handikwani02
    May 10, 2014

    It does not matter how many times I read your blogs there is always something fresh with e blog. I will never get tired of telling you that you are doing a brilliant job in helping people to begin to have a deep insight into what grief is about.

  5. T.L.W.
    May 11, 2014

    I just stumbled upon your blog. My parents were killed in a motorcycle accident when I was 16 years old, my brother 15. We were taken in by our devastated grief stricken grandparents, and suffered years of emotional abuse. I am now a 42 year old wife and mother of two. I believe that a strong, loving support system is the number one factor in a bereaved child’s development as well as their emotional and mental well being. It is obvious to me that your child is fortunate to have a father like you that will do everything in his power to love and support in this tragic loss for you both. Keep doing what your doing. Trying. Putting your child first. Reaching out.
    I am looking for the charity organization you mention in the U.S. and I can’t find anything! I would very much like to be involved in some way, but it looks like it is only in the U.K. Are you aware of any organizations like this in the United States?

  6. Liz Hodgson
    May 13, 2014

    Dear Benjamin,

    I heard your Woman’s Hour interview and read your Guardian piece. I feel a connection with you and your boy & hope this is the best forum to communicate some of my thoughts to you.

    I am a 60-something woman whose father died suddenly (in a road accident ) when I was one. So I grew up without the opposite sex parent, as your son is doing.

    You’re doing really well! Your openness, your clarity, your ability to describe your feelings and needs – it’s all fantastic. People understand so much more about bereaved children now, so not only are you in a much safer place than we were, you’re contributing to that as well for others. You’re helping me gain further clarity after all this time, so thank you. I’m also here to tell you that a decent life is possible for us bereaved little ones.

    You have pictures of your wife holding your son – that’s key. I don’t have the equivalent. People didn’t do photos so much back then.

    To grow up without the opposite sex parent is something I don’t see addressed.
    First thought: how to know what men or women are like, as ordinary day to day people? You’ve only got one parent swearing and dropping things and cooking and so on. How to know they’re not 100% wonderful – after the understandable canonisation of the dead parent? And yes, I did find out – eventually.

    Next thought: how to know if you’re like the dead parent? No one is putting that particular pressure on you, which may be a good thing, but as I got older I yearned to resemble my father. How to do that when you’re not a large, dynamic man but a woman? I came to realise that I couldn’t fill the yawning vacuum in our family by myself, but I could reassure and respect my mum and make her laugh. From my teenage years onwards I spontaneously began to do that – well, the respect didn’t come till my 30s but come it did. In her later years my mum told me many instances of my father making her feel it was OK to be her. That and his lightness and levity was what had been missing – along with so much else – and that I could do something about.

    What’s also happened is that my son resembles my father, scaled down a bit, and that’s been lovely for me, even though I had to wait till my mum’s funeral to hear it from a relative who knew my father well. I couldn’t tell for sure, myself, although I’d had a moment when my son was small of looking at him and seeing someone I knew from a long time before. It’s extraordinarily comforting. Like something hasn’t all vanished, after all. You and your son may well have that to look forward to.

    My other thoughts could relate to any bereaved child. So: Babies do understand, in our own way, so none of that ‘s/he didn’t know what happened, s/he never knew them’ rubbish. Not true. You know how babies stare? How toddlers will walk along with their heads swivelled right round looking at something they’re being taken away from but are fascinated by? Small children pay exquisite attention. Just because we can’t articulate it doesn’t mean we don’t know.

    Next thought: Be wary of saying that he ‘lost’ his mother. Weirdly, to me that sounds like he was careless. It’s very hard to describe the strong feeling I have that children like me had nothing to do with this huge ‘thing’ that happened, and yet there it is. Sue Brayne mentions this in her book The D Word. They’re not lost, you know where they are all too well. Maybe it’s just me, and her, about the ‘losing’ thing, but I think it’s especially important for small children to be crystal clear that they are not responsible for the death. Anything that helps that is key. Saying‘ his mother died’ is just so much clearer.

    Next thought: memories. I’m a little dubious about acquired memories, myself. Being so young at the point of bereavement you can be – I can be – so very jealous of people who have a direct line to your own parent when you don’t. It’s not fair! A picture of my father with one of my cousins made me howl, for instance. What I do have is unconscious memory. I can’t help having my father in me. Your wife is there in your boy and you don’t have to work to make that so. He has a connection with her that no one else has – both genetic and subconsciously gained from his time with her. This is something you as the spouse do not have, but don’t forget that it’s there.

    Next thought: be careful about giving him the words to describe his mother – I think he did get to talk with her, unlike me and my father, and I think he refers to her as ‘Mummy’. So he’s OK there. For us pre-verbal ones, we don’t actually have a name of our own for our dead parent and can feel all wrong using the ones other people use for them, especially as they can change over time.

    Last thought: when you die it may hit him all over again. That was my experience, after my mum died, on the next anniversary of my father’s death. I’m talking half a century and more here! It hit me so hard and I really missed them both, for the first time. So your job, more than anything, morbid though it may sound, is to stay alive. Look after yourself, to give him every chance of making sense of his life meanwhile. My father died in his thirties, my mum despite everything in her eighties. There’s something to aim for!

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