A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
This is a guest post by Steve Smart, a co-ordinaor for the charity Care for the Family,
Steve Smart’s first wife Jo died in January 2007 of cancer, when he was 49. In October 2009 Steve married Paula, whose first husband Gary also died in 2007. They currently live in Essex. Steve has two stepchildren aged 10 and 13 and two adult children, Becky aged 26 and Michael 23. Steve works with Paula, as a co-ordinator for Care for the Family’s Widowed Young project, which offers hope and support to those who have lost a partner early in life. Care for the Family is a national charity which aims to promote strong family life and to help those who face family difficulties.
Jo and I had been married for 23 years. Doctors had diagnosed her with a cellular cancer a month earlier, but couldn’t find the primary site. We were told that she had six months to live, but she died that same night from pneumonia.
When I took the phone call from the hospital to tell me that Jo had died at 3.45 a.m., I was devastated. I remember thinking that the world suddenly became a very scary and strange place. My son Michael, then aged 17, was woken by the call so I had to tell him the news immediately. My daughter Becky was away at university so Michael and I drove to Leicester straightaway to bring her home.
So many hopes and dreams were shattered that night – we had been planning to look at properties in Spain where we’d always holidayed. I wanted my children to be carefree and independent, but instead they were now grieving and worried about me.
One of the hardest things for me about becoming a widower was my inability to be able to ‘fix things’ for the children and to make it better. As the man of the house I was used to mending things like the car or a leaking tap but I just couldn’t fix this and I felt powerless. I think that often men look for practical solutions when things go wrong.
In the days and weeks following Jo’s death I really needed to be around my family and very close friends. My brother, who lived 30 miles away, was a fantastic support and moved in with us for three days each week, for the first few weeks. Most of my friends were also a great source of comfort, but there were some surprises along the way and people who I thought would rally round just weren’t there for me. At the time I was hurt, but I later realised it was because they were trying to deal with their own grief.
Even though most of my friends were there, eventually I started to find it difficult to socialise with them because I was no longer part of ‘coupledom’. I also wanted to understand the emotions that I was feeling and so five months after Jo’s death I attended a Widowed Young support weekend event, organised by Care for the Family. Spending time with others who have been widowed young was comforting and helped give me hope for the future. I made new friends through the Bedfordshire charity CHUMS, which supports bereaved children and their families and I also joined the The WAY Foundation (Widowed and Young).
The first Christmas following Jo’s death was especially hard to deal with. Michael was away at university and I was on my own in the run up to it. I remember one of Jo’s relatives calling me in September, to make plans for our usual trip to Devon and me telling her quite bluntly that I just didn’t want to discuss it. In the end the three of us just spent the day at home with Jo’s mum and step-dad, it was very low key. It’s important to do what feels right for you – whether that’s keeping with old traditions or breaking them – just go with your gut instinct.
I think there’s pressure on the bereaved to act in a certain way. People are well-meaning, but eventually they just want you to ‘move on’ and be happy again. It’s important to try and move forward, but I’ve learnt you can never just ‘move on’ or ‘forget’ and people grieve in their own time and in their own ways. It’s been six years since Jo died but I still think about her most days. It’s important for me to still keep that bond with her. The children and I still mark anniversaries and birthdays. We have a photo of Jo and Gary in our lounge and this year I’ve made a promise to myself and my daughter that I will get our old videos with Jo in transferred onto DVD so that we can share our memories with family and close friends.
From my work with Care for the Family I’ve learnt that men and women deal with their grief in different ways. Most men don’t feel they need to talk and it’s quite rare for a man to open up or seek help. Often they try to avoid going through the grieving process altogether but most don’t realise that grief is our natural reaction to death and loss and that it is inevitable that you will go through it at some stage.
I’ve learnt that it is important to go with your grief rather than suppress it, which can be hazardous. I was lucky in that I realised quite early on after the funeral that I needed to talk to someone other than my family and friends about what I was going through and I contacted CRUSE Bereavement Care to arrange counselling. Care for the Family also put me in touch with a telephone befriender. Talking to those trained volunteers on a regular basis really helped me understand what I was going through and why I felt the way I did.
My journey through grief has taught me to be less judgemental and more careful about what I say to others. I am still surprised by some of the unhelpful things that people say such as, “once you’ve got the funeral over there will be closure”, and, “it’s been a year now you need to have fun again”. However, I understand that they mean well.
Although I would not have chosen this path I am now on, there have been many positive outcomes. I am now a much more sensitive, caring and compassionate person than I was before Jo died. It is a different journey but one filled with new hopes and dreams and new wonderful relationships.