Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

little lessons

This is a short post about a small boy who could teach big people a fat lot. 

This weekend has been all about play. Someone cleverer than me got in touch to introduce me to the idea of play therapy. I know nothing about it yet, but I’d already set aside this weekend for me and my son to try to have some fun together. In the nine weeks since my wife was killed it has, in many ways, been the most emotionally fulfilling and educational time we have spent together. Without even knowing it he became the teacher and I became the pupil. He’s a damn fine tutor too. He instilled six little lessons in me, which I am happy to share.

Little lessons

On Friday night we got a knock from our neighbours (honestly, it can happen in London, you just need to be nice to them) asking us if we’d like to come out and play in the snow. It was time for my son to build his first snowman. Thinking he would shy away from the cold like his mum always did, he proved me wrong. His northern hemisphere genes trumped their southern hemisphere associates and he got busy throwing the white stuff and building his temporary new friend.

Sadly for me, I had to take a call from a national newspaper to run through some copy that would appear at the weekend. They’d interviewed me in my home earlier in the week following the story of this blog. I was tempted to call back later so I could continue to play in the snow, but I could see that my son was happy playing with his friends so I decided to answer. When you become a sole parent you can find yourself feeling guilty about any lost moment, but I’ve decided that if he is happy and fulfilled it’s okay for me to take five minutes.

The words I spoke in the interview had been slightly reworked, but the journalist had the courtesy and decency to change them back so that I felt the truth was being told. I left the call feeling comfortable with what was to follow.

Getting back to the snowman, I found that the snow was too loose to build a large structure (I think we call it ‘the wrong kind of snow’ in the UK) so we ended up with a kind of snowblob with a very short carroty nose. My son decided he was a ‘snowmouse’ and so he was. We’ve chuckled about it all weekend.

The next day a feature I had wrote for The Guardian earlier in the week (click here to view) was published. It detailed my experiences of dealing with a toddler who had lost his mum too soon. It was all my words, no reinterpretation and no pressure from the editor who commissioned the piece. I was pleased with the result and the reaction it stirred in people.

The day after, the other newspaper released its story. While the copy remained mostly the same, the huge headline designed to suck readers in suggested I had a choice in whether my son or my wife died. Something crushingly insensitive, implausible, abhorrent and odious to suggest. I won’t even bother with the link. Just read The Guardian or the blog for the truth.

Little lesson #1: Playing with your own words is fun and cathartic and makes grief feel a little lighter. Allowing others to play with them is not and makes it worse.

Saturday afternoon was party time. My son had been invited to a birthday party by two of his nursery friends just down the road from where we live. I was anxious about seeing the other parents, being asked questions about why my wife couldn’t make it and generally feeling like I no longer fit in amongst the happy families. My son totally stitched me up and fell asleep on the way there so I couldn’t even hide behind him. So I took solace in cake and Cava, made some notes for my blog, chatted to my wife’s best friend whose daughter is also on nursery with my son and met some really nice parents.

Eventually my son woke up, gave me a half-hour cuddle and then set about hunting down any train in the room, and probably tried to entice them back to our house as he did.

Little lesson #2: Being wheeled into a party asleep helps you avoid difficult questions and comments about loss. Waking up when it’s in full swing works because your peers are likely to have lost themselves in the hedonism of play, sugar and mild toddler violence. N.B. Cake and Cava may be the more socially acceptable choice for grown ups. That said, anyone who knew my wife would know she’d have had no inhibitions about having a snooze at a rave.

On Sunday morning, after a brief trip to the grown-ups’ gym for me, we set off to the school gym together to learn about football with some friends. In his typical style, my son shouted at the man who shouted the orders at him and quickly swapped his toy of choice from a football to a train. The markings on the gymnasium floor became a never ending network of tracks and he was the Small Controller commanding every shunt and signal. But whilst the football still had his attention, he took out some pent-up aggression on the wall and released any grief-induced anger before it bubbled to the surface.

Little lesson #3: Restrained angst caused by loss is more successfully released by throwing a ball against a wall rather than kicking it. Comfort can be found in toying with the familiar things we hold dear.

Next up was Play-Doh. We covered the dining room table with newspaper, took out several pots of nostalgia-inducing goo and went to work at turning the different primary colours into a clump of browny-purlpe mess. Chatting as we went, I brought up Mummy and explained once more what had happened. “Mummy gone!”, he confirmed. “Not come back!”, he went on. “MUMMY!”, he shouted towards the hall, “Not coming!’, he reaffirmed. And so we continued to play and chat.

Then trouble struck. He asked for something I kind of knew he didn’t want. His cold lunch that still sat on the table from an hour early. “YUCK!”, he exclaimed as he tasted a lukewarm morsel. Then it got thrown on the floor. I became nervous for the living room furnishings when I looked at the mountain of colourful gunk in front of him.  Faster than I could pull it away, it started to be launched across the room from his little hands, which are showing exceptional promise for cricket.

Many would say he’d got bored and was now throwing a tantrum. That word has left our house for now and I call it ‘toddler grief’. This means I always give him the benefit of the doubt and try to offer him comfort rather than punishment. We left the room, as we do, and went for a tear-fueled chat. I asked him what he wanted to happen next and he told me a nice lie down and cuddle would suffice. Fine by me.

Lying on the bed he, rather confusingly, gave me a little smile that melted into a huge angry roar. An angry shout as if I had done something wrong. But then the smile came back, followed by another angry roar. He was releasing a primal scream, so I joined in.

Little lesson #4: Screaming and shouting without inhibition allows a fast outlet for frustration, allowing you to get on with your day at peace faster than I ever thought possible.

Thomas was up next. A short film from his little engine friends before bed. I aught really to just edit a version of the the films and series so that we have all the songs in one place because my son is so happy when he gets to do, ‘me dancing’. To my surprise the credits to this steamy short had a rather modern Thomas & Friends rap playing over them. The rapper had some talent for spittin’ locomotive rhymes and the chorus had the makings of a hit. We went wild!

Little lesson #5: Dancing with to your kids’ beat is uplifting. No doubt about it. Seeing them lead you and seeing how happy it makes them to be in charge makes you feel better. If The Thomas Rap ain’t your thing, Rihanna’s We Found Love worked just as well over breakfast this morning.

And then to bed. My son often sleeps in mine and Desreen’s bed, always did. But last night he insisted on sleeping on my side. Something about being on hers made me upset and he saw me cry. “Want dummy, Daddy?”, he asked. “Take Thomas, Daddy”, he commanded, trusting his favourite toy into my hands. “TAKE IT!”, he insisted shoving the dummy into my mouth.

Little lesson #6: Dummies really are quite comforting. I can understand why they are so popular amongst minors. My son’s is too small for me but perhaps there’s money to be made from adult pacifiers. Especially where grief’s involved.

12 comments on “little lessons

  1. ButterNut
    January 21, 2013

    I can’t begin to imagine what you’re both going through, but I applaud your way of dealing with your & your son’s grief. Enjoy him, as they grow up so quickly.

    Keep on keeping on!

  2. Annie
    January 21, 2013

    I saw both newspaper articles. Unfortunately the crass, insensitive, story-perverting one will always do that. Thank goodness decent, ethical, truthful journalism exists somewhere. It must have hurt though.

  3. Tina Petch
    January 21, 2013

    Reading your blogs have made me want to hold on tighter and cherish every moment I have with my loved ones. I will check in regularly to see where your journey takes you over the coming months, you are a true inspiration and a great Dad.

  4. Alex James
    January 21, 2013

    Im reading your blog and hoping that others are finding your honest and creative way of step by step really useful.
    In the work Ive been doing with families pre and post bereavement Ive been trying so hard to move away from traditional ‘we counsellors and therapists know everything approach’ and encouraging families to be however they need to be . There isnt a right or wrong way only your own way, with lots of self care and permission to tell others when you need or dont need them.
    I was saddend to read that one paper had not produced what you had hoped but sadly in my experience they say headlines MUST be readworthybecause the public love a bit of sad intrusion into the world of others .I dont fully accept this and a battle I had many times with organisation and press. The Guardian however do seem to be very sensitive and in my own experience try to look after those they write about.
    Ive worked with those telling their stories over many years ,its true to say that telling it and seeing it there are can provoke many different feelings not least the sense of ownership being taken in some way.I hope you are recieving a lot of support through this alongside the very positive reactions to your blog
    Take Care of yourself

  5. Kerry Fox.
    January 21, 2013

    Hi Ben. I read your story in “the other paper” (and I agree re the awful headline grabbing comment) and now this blog. I wish I could convey how moved I was reading it.
    My boys also loved Thomas the Tank Engine. I reckon it wont be long before you have to move onto the wooden tracks and engines. Watch out though, it becomes addictive building bigger and better track designs. Oh, and expensive.
    It sounds like you have a good circle of friends to help you day to day. I hope they are there when you really need them. I also wish you luck with the support group.
    I am sure that Jackson will be your best therapy and you his. Good luck.

  6. emma
    January 21, 2013

    Agree! Dummies are wonderful!. I work non directively as a play therapist and its all about trusting that in the play, the child will take you where he/she needs to go. Following him, trusting him, reflecting back what he’s saying and doing are just what Jackson needs to feel you understand him. It sounds instinctive for you…Perhaps you should re train! Best wishes on your journey, Emma

  7. Tracy
    January 21, 2013

    I’ve just read your guardian article and been reading your blog today – I think so much of what you write will stay with me. I don’t know for how long it will linger but your writing makes me thankful for the blessings that I have and how your children can help you smile. I’ve added your blog to my favourites and I’m keen to hear how you are doing.

    I’ve been busy with two kids parties this weekend and enjoyed practising my crazy moves that wouldn’t quite be welcome in a adult party, but hey it makes my kids (and me) smile. My moves being my dancing of course;)

    My two year old is draped over me having an afternoon nap – her arm feels comforting and warm as she snoozes so thanks for reminding me of everything I have to be thankful for.

  8. Carole Batchelor
    January 21, 2013

    Hi Ben,
    I really enjoyed this post, you do have a way with words. I found your blog and wanted to talk to you after someone shared the tv interview link with me. I was widowed 6 years ago. I totally agree on the lessons learned from the press – been bitten and been impressed. What was surprising was the publications concerned were the opposite to what I might have expected. I also agree that screaming and releasing pain at the point it surfaces is hugely cathartic. I’m thrilled your story is getting people to talk about being widowed and young and the challenges that you and thousands like you face.

    Fairly early I discovered The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James. Reading it was a huge peace of mind – I was normal! Doing it (there are exercises) saved my life. Since then I trained with both Russell & John the co-authors to learn how to teach The Grief Recovery Method to others. Since then I’ve trained dozens of people – some of them widowers – but at every group I’ve run we’ve had a mix of men and women. Yes the women outnumber the men most of the time but this coming weekend it’s mostly guys – including widowers. Nevertheless you have given me food for thought in how I can bring what I do to the attention of even more men Clearly there is a huge need.

    Ben, I wish you everything you need for your journey.
    warm regards

    Carole Batchelor

  9. Kate
    January 21, 2013

    I have read every post you have made Ben, and while my heart breaks every time I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel for you sharing your grief in this way. I can only imagine the number of people you are reaching and helping. You are truly a remarkable man.

  10. Louis Chevalier
    January 23, 2013

    I, too, found the Grief Recovery Handbook really helpful. And you seem to have discovered what I think are the two most useful balms…to talk and write about what you are feeling and thinking and play…Do write lots and write blogs, diaries, letters for your boy that he can read as he grows up. He will need endlessly to know how much Desreen loved him and you,too…and play, play, play. I hope you have good friends to call on…………(My little girl who is now 10 lost her Mummy when she was 5…she was not killed..she just walked out the door without a word!!) You will need to be tough to encounter some of the idiotic things people say to single dads, particularly at school gates!! ‘where’s his/your Mummy?’ and overheard gossip..’never seen the child’s mother..must be something wrong with him/her’…..
    My thoughts with you…Louis

    • Louis Chevalier
      January 23, 2013

      Oh I forgot to say……Crying is good, very, very good………..but possibly not with the boy, on your own and with friends and mates, until later!!

  11. Ellie Freeman
    January 23, 2013

    I have been reading your moving and incredibly honest blog since reading the Guardian article. As the mother of a (train-obsessed) toddler and the daughter of a single parent, I can relate to some of your experience, although I have never lost someone close to me. I hope if I ever go through that I will be as strong and open as you are – you really are inspiring. Just the practicalities of bringing up a child on your own can be daunting.

    I can see you are keeping yourself and your son busy, but if you ever have the time or energy to get involved in something new, might appeal. Your story of your son playing in the snow made me think he might enjoy playing out on his street.

    Take care, keep smiling


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