Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

defining grief

It’s morbidly fascinating to watch yourself change so completely through grief. Before my wife died I could probably count the number of times I’d cried in the last five years on one hand. And they were about some pretty serious shit.

I’m not a ‘happy crier’, tears just don’t come if the news is good. I’ve got friends who cry at the drop of a hat, male and female.

One of my favourite people, who is sadly no longer with us, probably won my heart because of how many tears he shed. My friend’s dad, this man took my breath away the way with his uncensored tears. The way he’d happily cry at the achievements of not only his own kids but their friends too never failed to blow me away. He was an army man and a policeman, so stereotyping would have made you expect stoicism and a stiff upper lip.  But he was Warrant Officer Teddy Bear, PC Pussycat. A truly wonderful man who taught me a lot about wearing my heart on my sleeve.

My tears come often and without warning these days, but the fascination I now have with bereavement makes me stop and wonder exactly why I’m crying at any given moment.

Well two days in a row my emotions have overwhelmed me at exactly the same time – when I’ve dropped my son off at nursery. Yesterday, one of his carers told me she was leaving for a new life overseas. I was delighted for her and her husband and we chatted about their plans. But as I left my son to play, my eyes filled up with tears.

‘Why now?’ I asked myself. And then I remembered something I read last week. I’ve been working on a feature for a men’s magazine, which has given me access to some of the most respected writers on the subject of grief, as well as leading bereavement counsellors. In speaking with them, the same name came up again and again and so eventually I looked up Dr. Kenneth J. Doka. He’s a professor and an author, having written some of the most celebrated and widely referenced books on bereavement.

In reading some of his material I found an interview in which he explains the definition of grief.

He clarifies that grief is actually a reaction to loss rather than a reaction to death. He explains that although we obviously experience grief when someone we’re attached to dies, we can also experience it when we lose any significant form of attachment. According to Dr. Doka we can experience grief in divorce, in separation, in losing an object that’s particularly meaningful or significant, in losing a job that has meaning or significance. He states that whenever we experience an attachment and we experience loss in that attachment, grief becomes the natural way we respond.

I imagine that there will be some people who don’t like the comparison, perhaps because death is the most irreversibly final of all those losses. Death leaves no hope for a return or a reconciliation. My view, however, is that there’s no point comparing one person’s type of loss or grief to another. It doesn’t change anything, it’s not a competition and if it were, no one would ever come out of it feeling like a winner anyway.

But I understood this wider definition of grief as I walked away from nursery both yesterday and today. Another woman who my son loves and who has played an unforgettable role in his life has gone. Yes, this lady could come back and he might see her again one day, but I still know that the tears that I cried for her loss were through grief.

A reaction to this kind of loss might not be everyone’s definition of grief, but it’s gradually becoming part of mine.

15 comments on “defining grief

  1. Paul R
    February 26, 2013

    And those ‘little’ griefs can trigger the ‘big’ grief. Or the ‘big’ grief can trigger all those ‘smaller’ griefs that you were able to ignore before.

  2. Maureen
    February 26, 2013

    I couldn’t mistake who you were describing (Your Friends Dad) Our precious, lovely much missed Phil. x

  3. bedraggledandkicking
    February 26, 2013

    I agree with your perspective, and there is no reason to compare people’s losses, there are many levels and kinds of grief. But in grief associated with a death, I feel that there’s more going on than just the reaction to the loss. I think that for a lot of people who experience the death of a loved one, they also experience trauma. Be it the trauma of witnessing a death, the shock of an unexpected death, like the tragic accident your family suffered, or the trauma of watching someone decline because of illness…in my experience, this trauma also takes on a life of its own, in how it manifests itself in our bodies, reactions and emotions, perhaps as a part of grief? It might all just be semantics, but ever since I found myself experiencing grief, I can’t stop analyzing and trying to understand it, because my reactions are so unpredictable, and seemingly out of my control. Obviously, this is just my experience, and is not based on research…I haven’t read Dr. Doka’s work, but I am interested in his perspective on trauma/grief, so will have to look him up. In the meantime…we just keep riding out the waves, eh? Keeping tissue handy…

      February 26, 2013

      Perhaps I should right about trauma at some point. Perhaps I need to admit to myself that I’m suffering from it first and maybe read up on it too. Thanks for pointing me in that direction.

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  5. Fiona
    February 28, 2013

    I agree with grief and trauma, I lost my husband as a result of suicide, the trauma of this has made me feel that i have suffered a form of brain damage in that my memory, processing, concentration has gone. There are different levels of grief but the death of a loved one I think causes trauma to the brain, its like walking on mars, where you have landed somewhere alien, you need to adjust to a new life, a new identity

  6. Annon
    March 5, 2013

    Can I just start by saying how sorry I am to read about your loss of your beautiful wife and mother to your darling little boy. Your strength since losing your wife has been such an inspiration to me.
    I have been thinking of myself as heart broken since the man that I loved for 7 and a half years left me for someone else. But I don’t suppose there is really any such thing as heart broken, it’s more a type of grief. In the early days since the break up I felt quite depressed. I would have days where I couldn’t stop crying and couldn’t motivate myself to do much. Other than the things that I had to do, like cook, clean, wash clothes, iron, take the dog out and my son to and from school. I didn’t want to meet with friends, go to college, look for work or do any voluntary work. I would sleep all the time and felt constantly tired and tearful. As time has gone by I have started to feel a lot better and have gone back to college, started working voluntarily and am looking for a paid job. I have accepted that the man that I thought I was in love with, was not the man I ever thought he was. So he really just wasn’t worth being upset over. But something I just can’t get used to is seeing me son upset because he is missing his dad. I try to hold it together in front of him, as I don’t want him to think that he is upsetting me and to bottle up how he is feeling. But once I am alone at night the tears flow. I am upset for me son and worried for his future as he has developed anger problems since the break up. Which are becoming increasingly worse. I should point out that his father has not bothered to see him since the beak up and my son just can’t understand why not. He has even blamed himself because he did tell his dad not to call anymore at one point. He has asked me if I think his dad thinks that he is ugly. It’s so hard trying to reassure my son that there is nothing wrong with him and that it is not his fault that his dad doesn’t ring anymore. I praise my son for his good behaviour and really try to boast his self esteem. I have gotten him involved with as many male run after school activities as physically and financially possible. As he was beginning to show a real dislike towards men in general. I have toughened up towards him so now any bad behaviour will have a consequence such as no sweets, tv or hobbies. Beforehand I would let him get away with things because I felt sorry for him. Which was not good because he was getting mixed messages between home and school, and so school was bad in his eyes and he didn’t want to go anymore. Which caused real problems getting him there in the morning. I don’t feel there is much else I can do now to ensure my son grows into a happy, well behaved young man who doesn’t hate men. Although having said that I am open anyone else’s ideas.
    I’m sure you will be able to deal with your sons questions and emotions positively as he grows, as you seem so well informed on how to help children through grief. I wish you and Jackson all the best for the future.

      March 5, 2013

      How old is your son?

      • Anon
        March 5, 2013

        My son is now 7, although he was 5 at the time of the break up roughly 18 months ago. Obviously I am not claiming that my situation is anything like yours. It’s just that you blog got me thinking about greif. I do believe that adults and children can feel a sense of greif, when a loved one is no longer in their life for whatever reason.

        March 5, 2013

        You don’t have to feel the need to compare. I honestly don’t sit here with my grief measuring tape! I just ask because someone shared some good advice with me about child led play and reflective language. The first is essentially about spending a good amount of time letting your child do what they want and joining in. You’ll know what he’s into but let him lead you in the game or play and see where it goes, if he opens up some way. The other is about letting them do the talking so for example rather than saying, ‘don’t do this, don’t feel that, don’t be scared’ etc you’d say something like, ‘You’re angry/sad/other this week aren’t you? You’re not usually this angry/sad/other’. You’ve then left the conversation open for your son to open up and tell you how he feels. Or not, but that’s the point. In his time and on his terms without any pointedness from an adult. I could be way off the mark, but I’m trying it and it’s working for me. The other thing I do is actually let my son see my feelings. My son knows I’m in pain even if I hide it. So I express it front of him so that he will allow himself to do the same with me.

  7. Anon
    March 5, 2013

    Thank you for your advice about trying some child led play with my son. I will definitely give it a go and hopefully it will help him open up about how he is feeling. So it’ll either be a big star wars battle or a royal rumble wrestling match today after school. I can see a lot of the time that he is upset or angry just by his facail expressions, but I do struggle to get him to open up. As when I ask him out right are you upset? he’ll just say no, but his behaviour will say otherwise. So maybe if I word things differently like you say I will get a better response. I know that you let your son see you upset and I totally agree that this is best for him. He shouldn’t grow up feeling that men aren’t supposed to cry or show they feelings. Seeing you upset must make him feel that it is ok for him to be upset too, which is great because he is letting out some of his emotions. I’m not sure if my son reacts differently towards me crying because I am his mum rather than his dad. Maybe if I were a man he would just follow me, I don’t know. But he really doesn’t like me crying. He will tell me not to, and that he does’t like when I cry. Sometimes he just catches me unaware and will say something about his dad that sets me off. when he notices I am upset he’ll say let’s not talk about my dad anymore because it’s making you cry. I do tell him that it’s ok to cry and that it makes you feel better, but he is not having any of it. His school has spoken to me about getting him some counciling, I can’t remember the name of the organisation now. I said I’ll think about it as I just couldn’t see him opening up to anyone else either. But thinking about it now, maybe he will open up because he won’t be worrying about them crying. Thanks again for the advice. Take care of yourself and your little one.

      March 5, 2013

      Try Grief Encounter. They might be able to help.

      • Anon
        March 6, 2013

        Thank you

  8. Esther
    March 15, 2013

    Dear anon, I so feel for you and your son. It’s so difficult for a boy to lose a dad as your son really has. Steve biddulphs book called Raising Boys is full of compassionate advice to single mums on what their boys need and how to fulfil their needs as a single mum. I really wish you and your son a good outcome. Your love will be a great balm to him

  9. claire
    May 4, 2014

    “grief is actually a reaction to loss rather than a reaction to death”

    thank you so much for these words. they’ve crystallised and clarified a whole load of things in my life that I hadn’t really understood until now. you have helped me tonight, and I just wanted you to know.

    thank you for writing this blog and for being so determined to help other people who are grieving. thank you for your courage. hold fast x

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