Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

want mummy

For such a small chap, it seems strange to me that my son has become the elephant in the room. People seem comfortable checking how I am, but it’s often with much more marked pain that they inquire about him. The question that people (particularly mothers of small children) often want to ask but usually daren’t is, ‘Does he ask for her?’

Unlike most of my posts to date, this one will probably only work chronologically.

The night

Imagining it from a two-year-old boy’s point of view, the simple fact is this. When we left our house the day that Desreen died, my son was with both of his parents. When he returned home that night there was just Daddy. At some point during the evening Mummy had left without saying goodbye.

Once I’d been told she was dead and I’d given my statement, I had to wake my son up from sleeping in a strange bed to put him the kind of car he’d probably dreamed about getting in one day because it ‘says’, “Nee nor!” Except he didn’t look happy. He looked confused and exhausted. He’s a chatty little fellow usually but he simply sat in the car seat that the police had to drive across town to collect, with his head tilted towards mine, holding my hand while I told him that I loved him and that we’d be okay. I was high on shock at the time, so what the hell did I know about how we’d be?

When the night turned into morning

As if it’s not confusing enough for a two-year-old child to be driven home one parent down after midnight, our living room was full of people by 3am. Desreen’s best friends came over and we all sat and stared at one another not knowing what to do or say. I offered people drinks – water, tea or Hennessy was all I had. I opted for the Cognac because I thought that was what people did in times like this. Putting the kettle on just seemed too cliched, somehow. My son ate yoghurt and played with his trains, but he did both crossly. Eventually I took him to bed hoping that we’d both wake up relieved that we’d just eaten a bit too much cheese at our friends’ house that day.

When the morning turned into days

My son’s three favourite things in the world went missing during the chaos. His mother, his scooter and his Thomas the Tank Engine. While I set about recovering the two things that could be replaced, some other things showed up. Grown-ups. Lots of them. The house was packed. Grandparents, uncles, godparents, friends, neighbours. Everyone calling her ‘Desreen’ and not ‘mummy’. So he joined in. That was that. In a matter of days he’d gone from calling her ‘mummy’ to ‘Desreen’. It was like a dagger through my heart because I thought he was forgetting her.

When the days turned to weeks

Then something happened that brought me back to my senses. I put on a DVD, something like Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, a show he hadn’t watched in weeks whatever it was, and he knew all the characters’ names. So I realised that he couldn’t have forgotten the one person he idolised most, he was just copying the big people.

When the weeks turned into about a month

The single most painful thing I’ve felt as a bereaved husband so far was not for myself, it was for my wife. My son hadn’t asked for Desreen once in my company. I felt like she was being cheated. Like all the time and love she’d invested in him had disappeared in an instant. Sure, he’d stood at the front door and shouted her name when he thought she was coming in, but he hadn’t yet asked, ‘Where’s Mummy?’

When he finally did, he probably couldn’t have chosen a worse time. I was begging for it to happen. It wasn’t going to make me feel pain, it was going to bring relief. But he did it in front of a three men and the unprepared male doesn’t tend to be too great at this kind of thing. “Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy gone? Where’s Mummy gone? Want Mummy. Want Mummy. Want Muuuuuummmmmmyyyyyy!”

He’d be storing it up and now he was using it all in one go, and the men present unanimously did that thing where you think if you can tense your shoulders hard enough, you won’t be in the room anymore. A kind of cross between an ostrich with its head in the sand and the nose wiggle from the US comedy Bewitched that made the characters disappear. The weight lifted off my shoulders and was transferred straight onto theirs. For me it meant I could finally tell him what had happened (see previous post here), but for them it meant they were sitting in the middle of the one situation that they’d dreaded the most and that they didn’t know how to deal with.

When the answers turn to questions

The impossible thing about grieving toddlers is that you can tell them what’s happened one day but they’ve forgotten the next. Actually, that’s probably inaccurate – it’s unlikely that they ever really understood in the first place. ‘Death’, ‘never’ and ‘ever’ are still alien concepts to them.

My son does this thing that I’ve always loved. When I take him to bed and cuddle up, I can ask him anything and he will agree with a silent nod. It’s probably the only time he’s quiet because he talks, sings and giggles all day and often does the same in his sleep. It’s definitely the only time he’s not contrary because he says, “No!” and “Not!”, to almost everything anyone says.

“Jackson, do you want some milk?” Silent nod. “Jackson, do you want a dummy? Silent nod. “Jackson, could you do a better job at fixing the economy that the current coalition government?” Silent nod. No end of fun for me.

However, it means that when I ask him if he understands what’s happened to Mummy at the one time of day when we really get to talk as man and boy undisturbed, he silent nods. I go to sleep at something like peace thinking he’s starting to take it in, but the next day I really can’t be sure if he’s going to ask where she’s gone again.

When the questions turn to statements

I may find myself amending this post in a day or a week depending on what my son does or says next, but it’s now two months since Desreen’s death and I don’t think he expects her to come back. He wants her to come back but I sense that the anticipation has gone. It’s impossible to know though and so I’ll repeat what I’ve said before – you simply have to go on your parental intuition and your understanding of your own child when that child is a still toddler as yet unable to fully express how they feel.

But to me there’s a big difference between, ‘Want Mummy’ and ‘Where’s Mummy?’. I can deliver on the question and, as far as I’m concerned, he can make the statement every day for the rest of his life without causing me any more pain than I already feel, because I do too.

I have since written an extended and updated version of these events for The Guardian. Click here to view. 

32 comments on “want mummy

  1. Laura
    January 14, 2013

    I think ‘death’ and ‘never’ and ‘ever’ are still alien concepts, even as an adult. I still expect to see her when I see you xx

  2. Emma B
    January 14, 2013

    Hi Ben, big sis Burch here. I remember going through the above with Queenie like it was yesterday. Would love to sit and chat with you when you’re next over West sides or with my sis xxx

    January 14, 2013

    I’d love that too, Emma. Not gone much further than East Dulwich for a while but when I venture out I’ll come and see you and Mama Burch too xx

  4. Sara
    January 14, 2013

    This one made me cry. And, it made me laugh (the conversation). Other than that, I am speechless. Nothing easy, nothing easy.

  5. Tony Smith
    January 14, 2013

    Tony Smith: I’m humbled and so proud of you Ben and Jackson. I’m Dad to Victoria, Blanche and Hannah and GBoy to Belle and Jemima. I have a particular empathy with Jackson because my Mum was cruelly taken from me suffering from cancer when I was just 2. You have my love and support as Dad, Ben and as GBoy, Jackson XX.

  6. Linda Terry
    January 14, 2013

    Wow everyday its like you are shadowing my life. Someone sent me a link to this blog in an attempt it may help.
    My husband has just passed away in a tragic accident. It is a month today and he has left behind him, me his wife but also a 20 month little girl. She has not asked where he is yet, but I keep trying to use his name so he is not forgotten by her. He loved her so much and I want his name to be said with ease in our house. Life is really tough at the moment but your blog gives me some comfort that I am not alone with becoming a widow at a mere 35. Thank you Ben x

  7. Linda Terry
    January 14, 2013

    Wow everyday its like you are shadowing my life. Someone sent me a link to this blog in an attempt it may help.
    My husband has just passed away in a tragic accident. It is a month today and he has left behind him, me his wife but also a 20 month little girl. She has not asked where he is yet, but I keep trying to use his name so he is not forgotten by her. He loved her so much and I want his name to be said with ease in our house. Life is really tough at the moment but your blog gives me some comfort that I am not alone with becoming a widow at a mere 35. Thank you Ben x

  8. Stacey
    January 15, 2013

    Ben, you probably won’t remember me but I met you guys at Zac’s party at his house a long time ago and remember Desreen as a gorgeous ray of sunshine. So sad to hear your news and for your loss. The blog is an amazing way of crating support and I think you are amazingly brave to do what you are doing. Stacey

  9. Andrea Brown
    January 16, 2013

    Hello Ben. My name is Andrea, I live in the U.S. in Humble, Texas. I literally just found out about your story about an hour ago scrolling through my timeline on facebook. I’ve been googling your story and reading on what happened to you, your baby and your lovely wife. I’m so sorry for your lost and even though we don’t know each other, you will forever be in my thoughts and prayers. You are so brave. I can only pray for the strength and courage you display. I don’t know how i would deal with losing a loved one. God bless you and I pray that God watches over you and the Jackson!! I know he will be just as strong as you are!

    • alinapopescutxa
      January 20, 2013

      God bless you .I know for sure you will be strong enought to can go on.I know so well what you are feeling!

  10. Sarah davies
    January 16, 2013

    I read your blog this morning after seeing you on BBC….been thinking about nothing else all day! My husband died 2 years ago from cancer, 25th november 2010, only 8 weeks from diagnosis. Our little boy was only 2 at the time, everything you are describing is so like what we went through and are still going through. His understanding changes every day and he often says things which are poignant, sad, funny and sometimes bizarre! I guess he’s just trying to make sense of it. At the moment he thinks Daddy is in a magic flying bed surrounded by the nurses and that he follows us wherever we go in his magic flying bed! I think he only remembers him when he was at home in bed with district nurses coming in and out everyday. He has also started to say to me “Hey Mum, remember when Daddy….” I know he doesn’t really remember, he just thinks he does because I keep telling him things. I can’t believe that I have cried every single day for more than two years. He has often seen me cry and just says “You’re crying because you miss Daddy don’t you” and just carries on with what he’s doing. Sometimes I feel it’s almost cruel to talk to him about this wonderful man and what a fantastic Daddy he was and how clever and funny and kind and loving…..but then tell him that he can never see him or play with or talk to him….ever!
    I haven’t found anyone in my situation to talk to about how to deal with this. Very kind people offer advice but its often just textbook stuff and they don’t really understand what it’s like to have to deal with all this as well as your own grief.
    I was in awe of your composure this morning and how movingly you spoke….I’m a bit pathetic and just dissolve into tears anytime I talk about it. I don’t want my now 4 year old to grow up only remembering me being like this but it is so hard sometimes to get a grip! I am lucky in that I have fantastic friends who have come to my rescue many times but its still a very lonely place to be and the grief is still overwhelming. I will be following your blog……thank you!

  11. lisapignataro1
    January 17, 2013

    Your blog posts are so brave, so amazing. Im extremely sorry to hear of your loss. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Your strength is immeasurable. Xx

  12. Peter
    January 17, 2013

    My daughter is 29 and lives with me. I lost Julie in November I’m a father to five kids all grown up and a granddad to eight. but still I keep wondering what am i supposed to do. Two together works, there’s your individual roles but just me? My daughter can’t understand that. Sometimes I just dont want to be here. Dark thoughts worry me. I’m talking to an ex from 30yrs ago, she wants to meet up and yet I feel almost like I’m being disloyal. Mad! She’s gone. But then she’s still with me!!

  13. Tayo
    January 18, 2013

    So sorry for your loss. The accident down on my street. i still can believe it happen. Be strong lovely what you wrote about your son.

  14. susancarey
    January 19, 2013

    Very moving post, Ben. I lost my father when I was three years old and when I asked where he was, I was told, ‘the angels have taken him.’ Unfortunately there weren’t things like child bereavment counselling in the sixties and children were not expected to understand death anyway. I grew up on a farm and although I can’t know for sure, I think I understood from a very early age what death was.

    It sound like you are doing a great job supporting your son. I think it’s important at some stage you stress it wasn’t his fault. It seems that kids often blame themselves for ‘bad’ things that happen when they are very young.
    Much love to you both xx.

  15. Jayne
    January 19, 2013

    Hiya, just read what you wrote in the family bit of the guardian and just wanted to say how sorry I am and that you sund like you are doing a fantastic job of helping your son. My mum died when I was two, back in the sixties when people weren’t always sure of how to help children who were bereaved. Luckily I had lots of people to love me but my dad found it very hard to talk about her, and still does. Being open with children in a way that they can understand is just so important. I could really get the bit where you said he started calling her desreen and not mummy because that’s what everyone else was doing…think I did that and to this day never quite know how to refer to her which is very confusing. I also loved that in explaining where she is you told him that she wouldn’t have wanted to leave him and that she loved him and that you can look after him. From my experience I felt like maybe she didn’t love me enough to want to stay….its something that adults might find hard to understand but can be how children see thigns. And anger…letting him know it’s ok to be angry….brilliant!! Anyway, hoping this might be helpful to you….wishing you both all the best.

  16. Wendy
    January 19, 2013

    My mother died when I was three and I was brought up by my much loved father. Unfortunately he couldn’t talk about her. I am now 54 and have had a full life. I’ve often thought of trying to write something to try and show how much children do feel and miss their mum. I don’t think I could write it as well as you have. Those three years of love I had from my mother I cherish still. Your writing shows so much awareness. I think Desreen would be very proud of you and your little boy. I know it’s early days but I’m wishing you a Jackson a long, happy and contented life. Best wishes, Wendy

  17. Tina Burton
    January 19, 2013

    Benjamin, reading your piece about how to tell your toddler his mummy was gone, made me cry. I am so very sorry this happened to your beautiful wife. You are a brave courageous man to bring your fillings into the open. It’s probably cathartic for you and helps in some way – better than bottling it all up.
    I send you and your son my best wishes, and I hope you both find peace and happiness in the future.

    Tina Burton

  18. katerina63
    January 19, 2013

    Benjamin, reading your piece about how to tell your toddler his mummy was gone, made me cry. I am so very sorry this happened to your beautiful wife. You are a brave courageous man to bring your feelings into the open. It’s probably cathartic for you and helps in some way – better than bottling it all up.
    I send you and your son my best wishes, and I hope you both find peace and happiness in the future.

    Tina Burton

  19. Lauren
    January 19, 2013

    Just finished reading your story in the Guardian, so tragic. Just want to tell you how sorry I am for your loss and how well you are dealing with your son. It’s early days and you are doing and saying all the right things for your son, just remember you need to look after yourself as well. Desreen sounds like a vibrant intelligent woman, who you can both be very proud of. Even if you cannot see it just yet, I want to wish you both a great future x

  20. Shereen Jackson
    January 20, 2013

    Dear Ben, since the day our mutual friend (CB) told us about Desreen’s death, you and Jackson have been in our thoughts and we have been reading your incredible blog.

    There is something in particular that I wanted to share with you. A friend of mine lost her mother when she was two and last night I spoke to her and asked her whether she would mind sharing her story with you, particularly as you are trying to understand how Jackson is feeling and what he might be feeling in years to come.

    Although she has few actual memories of her mother, she knows that her Mum was an amazing, beautiful person, because other people have shared their own memories and there are lots of photographs of her on the wall that capture her beauty and how much she must have loved her children. Although you are saddened by the fact that Jackson might have been robbed of his own memories, of knowing how truly wonderful his own mother was, my friend feels that in a way she was spared a little from the massive trauma that her brother endured (who was four and ‘knew’ what had happened). But that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t loved, cherished, thought (and grieved) about her mother any less over the years. All children are different of course and individual but I thought it might comfort you to know that my friend has had much happiness and love in her life. It was only until much later in life (when she had her own child) that she was able to comprehend the true scale of her loss but by this point, as an adult and with the support of her partner, father and family she was able to understand it and work through it. Grief I am sure is never easy at whichever point you come to it but I don’t want to pretend to know much about this- I only wanted to share with you her story. The main support to her was her father who continued to be a loving, constant presence and although initially he could not talk about his wife’s death (something my friend wished he had done) in later years they have all talked, laughed, cried and celebrated her life.

    You have been there for Jackson from the second it happened in every necessary, imaginable, loving way- he will grow up happier and centred because he has you.

    I hope our paths cross again- Elvis and Jackson are so close in age!- but in the meantime I hope you are able to laugh, rest, sleep and feel safe again.

    Shereen and family x

  21. Charlie
    January 20, 2013

    Dear Benjamin, I just read yr Guardian article; I can’t yet read through your blogs, but I will.
    My mother died when I was two and a quarter, leaving five girls; I and my twin were the youngest.
    My father died a year later, and the three eldest girls were sent to relatives in New Zealand, which might as well have been Heaven, for all that I understood either. This was back in the dark ages, I’m 65 now….when our three elder sisters were sent to N.Z. they weren’t even brought to say goodbye, as “it might upset them”.
    Well, that early life, and the lack of any psychological understanding in those crucial early years, has left me with a rake of deeply embedded traits…and similar but unique traits in all my sisters. I must have waited for my mother to come back…then when my father died and sisters were sent away, I probably internalised it all as My Fault…I find it hard to wait for anything without a deep sense of foreboding, and always found it hard to totally trust anyone, as they might die on me. The big Love of my life died after seven years together….and bringing up my sons on my own, I probably, inappropriately, looked to them for mothering…
    I could write at great length about how those experiences affected my life and personality….and the long journey to unravel the approximate shape given to me by insensitive hands, to be able to re-knit to a truer sense of Self.
    But I feel you are SO on the right track with your understanding of Jackson….I’d just like to suggest a book to you, The Primal Wound, by Nancy Newton Verrier. In it she writes about how even a newborn child, with no language or concepts, can feel grief and bereavement, and even anger and depression, at being parted from the voice it has heard in the womb….the book is written for adopted children and their adopters, but I think some of it may provide clues for you along the way.
    Your intelligence, strength, love and empathy shine through your words, and your instincts so far seem really sound….I send Blessings to you and Jackson, and Every Best Wish for the road ahead…xxx

      January 20, 2013

      I almost don’t want to make any judgement on what kind of life you have had because to you it has just been yours. But I sincerely want to thank you for sharing your probably quite difficult story.

      • Charlie
        January 20, 2013

        By telling the story one can feel less isolated, and by learning to trust and put love out there, (quite a challenge for me!), and to count my blessings, I have achieved a sort of contentment….there is much to be joyous about in this funny old world!

        I guess pain is what creates empathy; may you find the happiness you must bring to the people around you. x

  22. Marie
    January 20, 2013

    Wow, I really do think you and all the other people commenting, sharing your thoughts about dealing with your grief will help deal with that grief. Your son will be able to look at all this when he’s all grown up and know just how much you love him and his mummy.

  23. Debbie
    January 20, 2013

    God bless you xxx I lost my mom four years ago my son was 16 and as she lived with us they were so close… he still won’t talk about her and he only cried once .l talk about her l the time with my daughter and we remember the good times ,if I ask him if he misses her he will say I don’t want to talk about it..I’m so glad you have taken the time to reach out to other men ,who find it so hard to talk about emotions .when your own grief is so raw .your beautiful wife will live on in your son and she is around you always guiding you .I feel my mom here everyday.keep strong xxx

  24. Feyi
    January 23, 2013

    It’s wonderfully to come across a man who isnt afraid to talk

    I’m sure by now you must be like enough with the “im sorry for your loss” but honestly its kind of a default thing of us to say so yes i am sorry for your loss

    Ben, have u ever thought about what you will tell him about the black side?

    His cute afro curls, do u know yet how to care for it lol…..its quite different you know? it may not seem important today but he will reach an age where he can’t tame that afro curl anymore and may seek help and when that day does come because yes it will there are many bloggers who specialise on teaching how to care for afro hair

    On another note Ben, the few post I have read from you……….you don’t mention anything about your faith in terms of do you believe in Christ or not. I don’t know if you have a faith or not.

    PS I too am a child of mixed races my mother died during my birth…while giving birth to me

      January 23, 2013

      Fortunately for me I already took care of his hair. Desreen had a bit enough job on her hands with hers!

  25. Karen
    January 24, 2013

    Hi Ben read your Very moving words in the paper today.
    My heart and prayers go out to you and Jackson. I know every day has it good and bad times. Reading what you shared with us today let’s me know that Jackson has got a great dad who loves him so much and will know how much his mummy loved him. God be with you and bless you.

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