Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

time heals

I was asked an interesting question about the blog in a tweet yesterday.

‘Is there someone you want to follow you who doesn’t already? If so, who?’

At first I approached it as one might the question about dream dinner party guests. I found myself dismissing some pretty big names quite quickly though.

Gandhi wouldn’t be able to re-tweet anything I said. Even if he were alive I reckon he’d be crap with technology.

Barack Obama’s got staff that run his social media activity so it wouldn’t really be him.

Ricky Gervais wouldn’t be able to stop himself making awkward jokes about death that would leave everyone apart from him feeling uncomfortable.

But then I realised that my answer wasn’t about politicians, opinion formers or celebrities, it was just about people. In times of loss that’s all we are. Human beings who are struggling to be human, never mind feeling able to fulfil any other role or achieve any other status.

So my answer was, ‘I’d like any person who has ever said, ‘I just can’t imagine what you’re going through’, to anyone who has lost someone they love to follow me.’

When I set up the blog I was pretty clear that I wanted people who were going through similar experiences to me to be able to find empathy online. But my goal evolves with every message I receive from readers who draw anything positive from my posts. To be really honest I don’t mind how people use it, why they read it or what they do with the words, as long as they help someone in some way.

But I’ve also realised that by opening up we all have the potential to change attitudes and challenging reactions to grief and loss, to make life less difficult for the bereaved.

So the reason I want people who ‘can’t imagine it’ to follow me is so they can. Only through learning about loss will the people who can imagine it be helped. That was quite a long introduction, but today’s subject is time.

‘Time heals’. Sound familiar?

Well if you’ve lost someone close to you then you’ve probably heard it and if you haven’t, you’ve probably said it. It’s one of the most popular clichés in the book.

But it’s bullshit.

I’ve not had much time to ‘heal’ yet but I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have and none of them are fixed.

No two people have the same experience or attitude when it comes to loss, so yesterday I took a step outside of my current life to mull it over. As a new friend would put it, ‘I took my grief head off for a minute’. I thought about my right arm that I broke in three places when I was about nine-years-old. I had a cast on for weeks while it ‘healed’ and when the bones were looking better and the NHS budget dried up, time dictated that it was appropriate for my arm to move on.

This was medicalised time though. It was a target. My arm is mess now. When I stretch both out at the same time whilst wearing a t-shirt, people can’t hide their horror. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I can’t see the difference’ or ‘I think it’s lovely. Nicer than the other one.’ I’ve got arthritis in it too and I’m only 33.

So time didn’t heal my arm. Time just changed it. See where I’m going here?

I also spoke to a very interesting professor over email last week. Prof. Sue Read from Keele University has developed a unique, specialist bereavement counselling and support service for people with learning disabilities.

Her view is that in today’s society, anything that detracts away from health, wealth and youth is frowned upon, and that the need to respond to loss and death can be rushed in order to get back to work and expected normality.

I for one, can relate to this. It was a pressure I actually put on myself because I thought three months sounded like a long way off at the time. The reality is, it has just felt like one long dark night.

She added, “Death is shrouded I secrecy, and one has to wonder about the secret versus public experience of death and dying. You only have to look at how we support compassionate leave; usually it has to be a close relative, and (at the discretion of the manager) can be up to five working days. After this time, the person has to go the GP and get a medical certificate, thus perpetuating the ‘medicalisation’ of grief.”

So we concluded that generally society’s way of dealing with loss, and expectations around the grieving process, is through time, both theoretically and emotionally.

But time is one thing we’re not in control of. We are subservient to it. We are nothing but slaves to the time dominatrix.

I’ve talked about strength a lot on the blog so far and the idea that people use the words, ‘Be strong’, when they don’t know what else to say. The difficult question to pose in response to this would be, ‘Why? Why should I be? My wife’s just died. I’m I to hide my feelings for your convenience?’

When it comes to the expression, ‘Time heals’, I imagine myself saying, ‘Oh brilliant! Thank you for letting me know. So, when will I be fixed then?’

It’s not a question anyone can answer, though. It’s not something that’s ever going to happen. If my arm is still causes me pain from something that happened when I was nine, how is my head and my heart supposed to be healed by time.

Time changes. Time softens. Time makes people who feel uncomfortable around a person’s grief believe that it’s time for that person to ‘move on’.

But I don’t believe time heals. I simply believe it’s time for us all to learn more about how to manage grief – our own and that of the people we love. Only then will we stop dishing out time as a convenient medicine to an inconvenient pain that can’t be healed.

32 comments on “time heals

  1. Sarah
    February 27, 2013

    When people try to say kind, well-meaning (usually cliches!) things to me because they don’t know what else to say, I imagine myself screaming back at them something that’s obvious to me but not to them. I don’t, because that would be mean and I know they are only trying to help so I smile and say thank you, then go home and cry with anger and the unfairness of it all. Why do people not think through what they say….I’m the one ending up hurt and upset by comments because I’m too afraid (too emotional) to just be able to say straight out why what they just said is meaningless, or irrelevant, or hurtful. I hope everyone who reads your blog will maybe at least have an idea of what to say to people like us, I actuall find that the most comforting thing is when people acknowledge that they don’t have the words but just give me a hug or even just touch my arm and a smile.
    ‘Give yourself time’ is something I hear so much….it makes me screaming, inside my head!!! How?!! I have a 4 year old and a 16 year old, I work and do everything that 2 parents usually share, they have parties, youth club, music lessons, swimming lessons, play group, school runs, etc etc etc, where the hell do I get time? Two and a half years on andcinfeel like I’m on a treadmill that I can’t get off because everything will collapse! I have tried it…..once I did nothing for a week, no shopping, cleaning, washing, the kids ate whatever was in the fridge or would walk to the shop by themselves for sweets and junk. At the end of it I was faced with an almighty mess of a house and it took another week of solid activity to sort it all out. I can’t afford to get off again!
    I have a friend who’s husband is away for a month……4 times I have listened to her complain about how she misses him and what household jobs haven’t been done because he’s not around!!!! People say give it time…..but they are the ones who forget what has happened and how much your life has changed. I’m still struggling to find our new ‘normal’ and worry that I never will. Sorry this sounds terribly miserable! Somedays are fine, others are not, I know that will change but when and how is something we can never know.

    • Cath Barnes
      February 27, 2013

      It’s so refreshing to read this blog and this comment so I’m not a mega bitch because I can’t stand those around me telling me that time is a healer thought it was just me ! How can time make my loss and that of my kids any easier ?? I suppose what I would rather hear is the truth , we will never get over losing my husband at 39 but our lives will go on simply because they have to.

  2. Bene
    February 27, 2013

    I am one of the lucky ones who cannot imagine what you are going through. Since reading your blog, I always make sure I tell my husband and kids how much I love them when I leave for work.

    An important that you made me understand is that sometimes words cannot help, it is better to say nothing and be there than tell someone that things will get better. One of my best friends lost her fiance a few years back and I remember not knowing what to tell her. Now I look back and think that maybe it was best that I had no words and that the only thing I could offer was my presence.

    Thank you for your beautiful words. Your wife can be so proud of what you are doing now.

  3. macrothings
    February 27, 2013

    I think `Time Hurts’ would be more appropriate, but then, that doesn’t sound very comforting…..

      February 27, 2013

      I take no comfort from anything anyone says. I’d rather they made me a pie.

      • macrothings
        February 27, 2013

        I was trying to express feelings rather than words, as you’ve said `there is nothing anyone can say’ that helps, but people reaching out, pies, that can in some ways.

  4. Bill Wright
    February 27, 2013

    I relate to a lot of what you have said here Ben. Last night, seven weeks after my two year older daughter died, I went to the inaugural session of a local Dad’s group’.

    A couple of the guys opposite me were a bit older and a few years further down the bereavement road. They were a bit ‘geezer-ish’, very much from the school of ‘Well, you’re a Bloke, you just get on with it, don’t you??’. The first 15 minutes they saw as an opportunity to engage in a bit of laddish ‘banter’ or to insist that they had no need for this group, even though they had found themselves turning up to it.

    I was beginning to bitterly regret attending, as I’d had high hopes of gaining further understanding of what I’m going through, emotionally, what there might be in store for my family and I, one, two, five, ten, twenty years down the line.

    When they realised that we weren’t there to swap horror stories of watching our children take their last breath, they relaxed into it. I mentioned that after seven weeks I didn’t feel like things were getting any easier and these two guys, gave me such a sweet indulgent look that you might give a five year old who has made a valiant, but unsuccesful attempt to tie their shoe laces. They explained to me that it never gets easier. I think I already understood that the ‘time is a healer’ was a fallacy, but that moment crystalised it for me. It simultaneously filled me with sadness and provided comfort.

    I hope that all six of us make it there for the second ever ‘Dad’s session’ next month. It was definitely a worthwhile experience, these sort of support groups are quite thin on the ground for men, but I’d advise every bereaved man to have a try if they have a group available near them.

  5. t sheeba
    February 27, 2013

    Enlightening! Still I am at a loss how to deal with a person who has had such expreinces! What can we tell them, what can we do!


      February 27, 2013

      Read my post called ‘helping widows’. There are links in there you might felt helpful.

  6. Karen
    February 27, 2013

    I like this….

    A talk by Barbara Monroe, the Chief Executive of St Christopher’s Hospice in London.

    When I arrived, what I saw resembled a physics lesson. On the table before her was a very large glass jar. Beside were three balls: one large, one medium-sized, one small. Without a word, she began to stuff the large ball into the jar. With a great deal of effort, she wedged it in.

    ‘There!’ she said. ‘That’s how grieving feels at first. If grief is the ball and the jar is your world, you can see how the grief fills everything. There is no air to breathe, no space to move around. Every thought, every action reminds you of your loss.’ Then she pulled the large ball out of the jar and put in the medium-sized ball. She held it up again, tipping it so the ball rolled around a bit. ‘Maybe you think that’s how it will feel after a time – say, after the first year. Grieving will no longer fill every bit of space in your life.’ Then she rolled the ball out and plopped in the small ball.
    ‘Now, say, by the second or third year, that’s how grieving is supposed to feel. Like the ball, it has shrunk. So now you can think of grief as taking up a very small part of your world – it could almost be ignored if you wish to ignore it.’
    For a moment, considering my own crammed jar, I thought of leaving. ‘That’s what everyone thinks grieving is like,’ the voice continued. ‘And it’s all rubbish.’

    I settled back into my seat. Two other glass jars were produced from under the table: one larger, one very large.
    ‘Now,’ she said, imperiously. ‘Regard.’ Silently, she took the largest ball and squeezed it slowly into the least of the three jars. It would barely fit.

    Then she pulled the ball out and placed it in the next-larger jar. There was room for it to roll around. Finally, she took it out and dropped it into the largest glass jar. ‘There,’ she said, in triumph. ‘That’s what grieving is really like. If your grieving is the ball, like the ball here it doesn’t get any bigger or any smaller. It is always the same. But the jar is bigger. If your world is this glass jar, your task is to make your world bigger.’

    ‘You see,’ she continued, ‘no-one wants their grief to shrink. It is all they have left of the person who died. But if your world gets larger, then you can keep your grief as it is, but work around it.’

    Then she turned to us. ‘Older people coping with grief often try to keep their world the same. It is a mistake. If I have one thing to say to all of you it is this: make your world larger. Then there will be room in it for your grieving, but your grieving will not take up all the room. This way you can find space to make a new life for yourselves.’

  7. Julie Neal
    February 27, 2013

    Hi Ben, your words are so true and each of your posts has struck such a deep chord within me. I lost my wonderful Mum and Dad within 11 months of each other 18 years ago now. My feelings of loss are no different now than they were then, I’ve just learned to cope with them over time. Each time another loss arises, be it my daughters leaving home, or waving goodbye to a loved one at the airport, I feel overwhelmed with grief once again. I’ve got better at hiding how I feel inside, but the grief and loss is never healed. You and your son are in my thoughts often, my heartfelt hope is that life will be kind to you both from here on in and may the force be with you always xxx

  8. Adrienne
    February 27, 2013

    Hi Ben, I lost my beautiful mum who was also my best friend to cancer nearly three years ago and I still feel as if someone blew a hole through me with a shotgun and left a shell of a person. I live one day at a time, get up face what comes and deal with it and that’s the way I cope. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your son x

  9. J. Shah
    February 27, 2013

    Ben, I like reading your blog.
    My 23 year old son (first born) died unexpectedly two years and two days ago. There are so many occasions when I have heard the expression ‘time heals’. In my experience, time has made it worse for me. The finality of his passing has well and truely sunk in now and it sometimes fills me with despair that I will never be able to hug him or talk to him.
    To outsiders looking in, two years probably feels like a long time. To me it feels like he died a few days ago.
    I heard these words from a friend: when you lose someone you love, you will always walk with a pebble in your shoe. At first it will be like a stone with sharp edges but gradually over time the stone will turn into a round pebble. My stone is nowhere near smoothing out.

    • Jessie
      February 27, 2013

      You are so right. I lost my man 16 months ago, and the pain is just as raw as it was when he passed away. My heart feels as if it is literally breaking and the hurt inside is unbearable.

  10. Paul R
    February 27, 2013

    Apologies up front because I think this may be a long comment.

    I fully agree that time does NOT heal. Time helps, nothing will heal my loss. One person I respect wrote to me that “eventually things will get less bad, then they will get better.”

    Four months after my wife’s deal, I finally understood the less bad. Yes, things had gotten less bad. I started getting out in the community. I joined a choir, I started doing volunteer work, I was also getting more involved with work.

    Time has provided perspective on my life and my loss. It hasn’t decreased the loss, it hasn’t healed the loss. It has provided time for me to widen my scope and to bring in new activities that I would not have done when Laura was alive. When Laura was alive we treasured our time together and, outside of work, we did everything together. So, the thought of my volunteering alone or expanding my singing with another group, would not have happened.

    Time is permitting me to explore more ‘me’ things. This isn’t healing my grief or avoiding my grief. It is permitting me to grow in directions that I probably would not have, if Laura was still alive. It is also helping me understand myself and the wonderful relationship I shared with Laura.

    As I travel further in my life and maybe find a new soulmate, it still won’t heal my grief. Yes, I think I can fall in love again, but I won’t love Laura any less. Falling in love again, also wont make it better. Nothing will make my loss better. It will only mean that my life is different.

  11. James
    February 27, 2013

    Hi Ben,Thanks for your blog it helps. Regarding “time” how long is it ,my wife died 3 months and 9 days ago we had known each other nearly 50 years and were married for 47 years I am now 75 perhaps I should be pleased that my grief wont be for that long but my wife deserves more , I feel for our children whose grief will be longer than mine their mother, my wife was a wonderful person

  12. lottiesc
    February 27, 2013

    No, to me time doesn’t heal but it helps one to learn to live with the grief and the pain one is feeling and experiencing on a permanent basis!

  13. Philip
    February 27, 2013

    What can I add about the healing power of time? Having just passed the 3rd anniversary of my wife’s death I can see, in myself and my young children, some signs of change. But “healing”? I’m not sure. I remember in the first days after her death, vocalising a strong desire to “get to the good, the happy, the sunshine” as quickly as possible. Like, to find dry land after treading water in a terrifying ocean of despair. I cant claim to have found any such safe haven, any such place of comfort. Solace has been hard to find.
    What time has done, I think, is slowly to reveal a clearer picture of my new circumstances, like numbness fading after a physical injury. What’s revealed is frequently troubling, a source of confusion and even anxiety.
    For me the whole process seems very slow and I can’t help but be frustrated and disappointed by the ways in which I’m still inhibited by my grief.
    I never judge the griever, but sometimes I judge my own grief process, wishing it was more “efficient”, that whatever healing is possible could simply take less time.

  14. Naomii Chaplain
    February 27, 2013

    People who live on a farm never think manure smells as bad as guests do. It’s not because it doesn’t stink…It’s because they have become acustomed to the smell. That is what the pain of losing a loved one is like. It never stops being painful that they are no longer here for you to touch, laugh with, smell, hear….It just becomes a part of your life that you grow to accept and live with. Time is a number. (I appreciate that word may well be grammatically incorrect)

  15. Judy
    February 27, 2013

    How is it that you have such a wonderful ability to hit the nail on the head? You really put into words what so many people feel about grief. Reading your other replies also helps. My mom died at the age of 55 after 10 years of illness. When I was young she used to tell me how much she still missed her dad who had died when she was nineteen. I remember in my blissful youth thinking …just move on. Luckily I didn’t say it out loud to her. Now, even 35 years later I get it. What I always say is that it doesn’t go away it just gets different. I remember clearly the first year I didn’t think about her birthday until early afternoon. I sat down and bawled my eyes out as if I were being disrespectful to her. Then I picked myself up and told myself not to beat myself up over it. I try to live my life in a way that would honor my wonderful mom. I don’t believe in ghosts, but there have been times when I feel I can almost hear her telling me not to use her death as an excuse for not moving on with my life. There is still a hole in my heart, but even now I try to fill it with the memories I have of her.

  16. Louisa
    February 27, 2013

    Ben, I totally agree – I’m 3 years down the line so most of my friends think I’m all better now but my whole life has been re-shaped into the new me – that’s not necessarily all bad, I see silver linings – the main one is I now ‘get it’ – I know what to say or do for others who are bereaved, I think I’m a more compassionate person for it and sadly the only way anyone fully understands is if they have suffered a close loss too. Time changes but doesn’t heal, you just learn to deal with it . I liken bereavement to a scab – every now and again the handy scab gets a knock and the wound opens up again.

  17. Siddiqa
    February 27, 2013

    Ben, i’ve been reading your blog and all i want to say is i would like to give you and your son a big virtual hug xx

  18. lesley
    February 27, 2013

    There is nothing I can add to these comments all of which are so helpful. It is so good to see I am not the only one who doesnt think time heals. It doesnt. I am learning to live with my grief. I will never get over losing my brother. My mum will never get over losing her son.our lives changed forever the day he died. People say the stupidist things thinking they are helping. And then I appear mean because I am upset with them when they were only trying to help. Everyones experience of grief is unique so how can cliches have any relevance??

  19. Mummy Kindness
    February 27, 2013

    My mum lost her brother in an accident. She says that you never get over losing someone, but eventually you learn to live with your loss. I’m not sure if this is helpful or not but wanted to share it with you anyway.

    Keep sharing, Ben. You inspire so many people with your courage and your fearless truth.

  20. SHB
    February 27, 2013

    I agree with Mummy Kindness, time doesn’t heal it is just a stepping stone moving you along. Lost my mother in tragic circumstances 31 years ago (suicide) and one of the comforts I have found was something my father said several years later, whilst I was going through a tough time, He said we had had the worst that could happen so anything in the future would always be copable with. My husband left just before Christmas, after 24 years, I find myself thinking it would have been easier had he died, because at least he would still have belong to us, and all our memories wouldn’t have been tarnished. Yet the new widower of a dear friend we lost last October also said yes but its hard accepting they are never coming back. There is no right way or indeed wrong way, there is no better or worse, we all live in our own hells…just trust that one day it will be better, and that your jar will get larger. Your are never given anything you can’t cope with, EVEN if it feels like it, look at how far you have come already. Every blessing Ben x

  21. Erika Deakin
    February 28, 2013

    So true Ben.
    Someone once said to me that grief was like a stone in the pit of your stomach. At first it is rough and extremely painful; an alien object that has fixed itself inside. Over time the stone becomes smooth. It never goes away but you learn to live with it being there.
    I could identify with this. My stone still gives me some serious gipp! Sometimes just a little niggle, other times a searing pain; but i guess i’m getting ‘used’ to it being there regardless of the constant battles we have.

  22. Mieke
    February 28, 2013

    I follow you and it makes me feel so much more aware of the value of my privileged life. Have had no such grief and it is good to realize that is a privilegde indeed. Thank you for that.

  23. Anon
    March 1, 2013

    I have recently finished my nursing course and started working on a ward specialising mainly in cancer. I started to read your blog pretty much as soon as you started writing it, I can’t even remember how I found it, and I’d like to thank you for helping me. What you’ve talked about with regards to grief in this post struck a chord with me. I am in the privileged position of caring for patients and their loved ones at a very difficult time in their lives. And whether their cancer is treatable and they have a clear path to potential recovery, or they find that there is no longer any active treatment available for them, I find that each patient experiences grief. It may be for their life before cancer, a part of their body or for their family. I am naturally an empathetic person, however, I realised that your blog has helped me even more to really try to understand my patients (and their loved ones). A grieving person or family can be difficult for outsiders to understand-in my experience this often results in people (health professionals included) trying to avoid those in their most fragile state. I am happy that your blog is having such an important impact on the way in which grief is dealt with, viewed and explored. Thank you.

  24. Celia Marszal Iannelli
    April 30, 2013

    Refreshing…..and truthful, love it!!!!!! Or he’s in a better place…well, that’s not comforting the better place would be with me……
    My beautiful husband died three weeks ago, and I am heartbroken, period end of story..

      April 30, 2013

      I agree. I never wanted to say those words to him or for him to hear them. I’m so sorry to hear about your husband. It’s the most heartbreaking thing imaginable x

  25. Mariam
    June 17, 2013

    This is such a refreshing post to read. It will be ten years next month since I lost my daughter, at the age if 18 months. to this day I still feel the loss, some times it hurts more than others, but it’s always there. Time doesn’t heal grief, we just learn to live with it.

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