Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

adversity opportunity

This is a guest post by Jon Cunningham

After their second child Freddie was stillborn at Homerton Hospital in London in April 2007, Jon Cunningham, now 39, his wife Venetia, 45, and their son Max, nine, jumped at an opportunity to move to Brooklyn, New York, where they now live with their three-year old daughter and sister, Chloe. Here Jon tells how starting anew after bereavement can be a great coping strategy. But when life catches up and presents new difficulties, opportunity can also reveal its downsides.

“Out of adversity comes opportunity.” – Benjamin Franklin

If I’d heard those words before, I didn’t think anything of them until six years ago. I’d never faced adversity. In my early 30s my parents were still alive and happily married; I’d partied my way through university, got a good degree and landed a job; met a fantastic woman, bought a house, had a baby and got married. Nothing bad had ever happened.

That changed on April 6th, 2007 when our second child, Freddie, was delivered stillborn.

Franklin’s words came back to me as I read Ben’s post finding myself. In the post, Ben considered the inflection point between his old, pre-loss life and his new, post-loss future. He asked: Would you carry on as before? Would you stay in the same home? Would you live in the same town? It’s a theme he returned to in old life. It’s a theme that’s impossible not to keep coming back to.

As an old friend of Ben’s I offered to write a guest post that I hope will provide one perspective; a post about the experience of my answers to those questions and how they affected my grief. We couldn’t carry on as before and we didn’t stay. Two months after Freddie’s death my wife and I were apartment hunting in New York.

Stillbirths are the dirty secret of pregnancy and child bearing. Little understood and rarely spoken about, but remarkably common, they number more than 3.5 per 1,000 births in the U.K. – that’s more than three times the incidence rate of Down’s Syndrome. Try finding a parent who didn’t worry about Down’s at some point during the pregnancy. Arguably, the same can’t be said of the greater chance of stillbirth.

After the numbing sterility of the hospital, whose walls and caring but clinically professional staff had been witness to untold stories of grief such as ours, the incomprehensibility of what had just happened hit us as soon as we returned home in the early hours of the morning.

Mark, the husband of a friend and neighbour, was asleep on our bed. That night we’d woken him and dragged him out of his own bed with several phone calls, each more insistent than the last, to come to stay in our house as our young son slept. Now we couldn’t face waking Mark again. It was absurd. We felt we had unduly inconvenienced him. He’d done us a huge favour and by coming back empty-handed, without the swaddled baby, we’d failed to keep our side of the bargain. In his half-sleep, and finding himself in a situation of almost unimaginable awkwardness, he mumbled his disbelief and condolences and sharply left.

That was the first of many such emotionally scarring encounters that we quickly sought a strategy to deal with. Before it manifested itself as the opportunity that Ben Franklin spoke about, that strategy was avoidance.

We were offered counseling at the hospital but just wanted to talk to doctors to try and get a medical explanation for what had happened. We were put in touch with Sands, a stillbirth and neonatal death charity that runs support groups, but we did not participate. With our own raw tragedy to come to terms with we couldn’t immediately contemplate the shared grief of others, who, like us, returned home from the maternity ward with no baby, only hours after entering with the anticipation, excitement and trepidation that builds up over nine months of pregnancy and perhaps years of trying.

When I returned to work a month after Freddie’s death, not one of the young, carefree, yet-to-face-adversity group of friends and colleagues that I’d so recently been a member of had the slightest idea what to say to me. And nor I to them. I couldn’t blame them. None of them had had kids, never mind lost one. And I wasn’t ready to open up about it – not in the office. (Later, in certain situations, I would take a different tack and explain what happened with brutal frankness. It was clear from most people’s reactions it was an experience very difficult to comprehend – and that didn’t make me feel better for having told them.)

Freddie’s death and my grief was now my dirty secret: acknowledged tacitly by the knowing, whispered clandestinely by almost everyone else.

Even in extraordinary circumstances, life doesn’t stop with a toddler to look after and the tipping point came when my wife first ventured to the bakery, one of the local shops she normally frequented almost daily. One of the staff, a kindly lady who’d chatted about her pregnancy, enquired plaintively, “Where’s the baby?”

We couldn’t face the house, the memories, the broken dreams. “If you’re moving anyway, why not move to New York?” asked my boss. Opportunity had presented itself. If it was fight or flight, we literally flew, in a plane, across an ocean.

It was at that point that Ben Franklin’s words first registered and had an effect on me. It seemed fitting that they came from one of the founding fathers of the United States as we started again in the new world.

Keeping busy can be a good deferment of grief. A new job, new people to meet, a new city and country to explore and culturally acclimate to, and all the experiences entailed within will certainly keep your mind occupied.

Freddie was, of course, always in our minds too. I don’t look to religion or spirituality for higher explanations and in trying to make sense of what happened I came to what I considered a rational conclusion: We’re just animals, this is nature, it happens all the time. Puppies. Kittens. Humans. It just happened to happen to us. There’s no meaning.

What did have meaning in our new life in New York was that we could choose how we broached Freddie’s story, with whom and when. (Only after a while… “Hi, we’re English, we moved here because our son died” is not a great ice-breaker.) After the helplessness, searching for answers we didn’t always find, and the almost uncontrollable urge to flee, we were now in some kind of control.

Yes there were times I sobbed uncontrollably on trans-Atlantic flights as I left my family behind to get things set up, freaking out my fellow passengers. But as we embraced our opportunity we initially felt stronger. It made us tighter as a family. We’d been through hell and nothing more could hurt us. Confrontation at work? Have to fire someone? Lay someone off? Nasty jobs for sure, but no problem. What could possibly be harder than carrying my son’s tiny casket to his grave?

Rationalization is one thing, but control can quickly be taken out of your hands.

A couple of years later, when the financial crisis hit and business dried up, my own job was at risk. My visa status was such that if I lost my job we’d almost certainly have to return to our old life in the U.K. The sudden end of our new dream, returning abruptly after a false start, felt very much like coming back empty-handed from the hospital on that tragic night.

At the same time, when the one thing that could possibly provide some kind of closure – a new baby – had become an obsession, we struggled to cope with a previously un-encountered problem: infertility. Confused and unable to isolate grief, frustration and stress, I began to question my motives about even wanting another baby.

The grief and the fresh start, the personal and the professional, the old life and the desired new one, the adversity and the opportunity, had become horribly mangled and entwined.

Fighting to preserve the idea of the new person I was trying to become, I threw my rationalist caution to the wind and had acupuncture to deal with the stress. At the first appointment, I broke down. Playing the role of psychiatrist as much as needle applicator, Jill the acupuncturist calmly reassured me that this was all completely understandable because I had “done a geographical.”

In the same ‘new me’ vein but under a different kind of needle, I got a tattoo, a memorial, intentionally above the t-shirt line on my upper arm. It’s always with me but cannot be seen by others, just like Freddie himself. But I sometimes wonder if I myself am just perpetuating the dirty secret.

Six years on from Freddie’s death we’ve ridden plenty of storms. We got green cards, I got a new job in New York, and after failed fertility treatments and two rounds of IVF we were lucky to have a daughter. We’re not necessarily new people, but we are different people. From adversity, we’ve had opportunities others dream of, and for that we thank Freddie. He’s not with us, but he’s given us the life we now lead and made us the family we are today.

But in the adversity-opportunity deal there’s a price to pay. We didn’t get to know Freddie. It was our hopes and dreams that died with him. And I often feel a piece of me died with him too. I don’t laugh as much. I am more introspective, and I was always that. I feel boring. (Maybe I was always that too.)

We chose to leave our friends and family, only to hit a particularly rough patch and wish they were around. We have remained a tight family unit, but to the point of sometimes feeling insular and anti-social. The strength we initially felt has been sapped by the mundanities of what is now our fairly normal life.

Are these the symptoms of grief? Or just age and the human condition? Does grief cause stress? Does grief exacerbate stress? Does stress exacerbate grief? Am I truly living a new life, or just running from the old one? I don’t think I will ever know the answers.

But what I do know is that adversity and opportunity is not a zero sum game. If you choose not to carry on as before, if you don’t stay in the same home, if you move to a new town (or country), there’s a darker side of anonymity: isolation. The distance between you and the woman in the baker’s is the same distance between you and your family and friends. The flipside of opportunity can be adversity.

family pic

Jon Cunningham pictured with his wife wife Venetia, their son Max and their daughter Chloe

9 comments on “adversity opportunity

  1. Paul R
    March 28, 2013

    After the death of my wife I seriously considered selling the condo and moving. Isolation wasn’t a problem as we had lived in the current place less than a year and I work from home, so I didn’t have many contacts in town.

    However, the headaches of determining what to sell and what to box up and pack, weren’t things I was ready to address. I’m glad I put that off, as the longer I stay put, the more I come to realize that the move here was a good thing.

    • Jon Cunningham
      March 29, 2013

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Paul, and I’m sorry to hear of your loss. I think I understand how you feel. I don’t regret our decision to move at all, but now we talk incessantly about whether or not to return to the UK. I read a quote recently which I found helpful so I’ll pass it along – although I didn’t write it down so I’ll have to paraphrase. It was a professor talking about hard choices, and he basically said in those situations you can’t make a wrong decision. The reason choices are hard is because there are two or more almost equally viable options. Whichever path you take, you’ll make it work.

  2. Bill Wright
    March 28, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your experience in such an openly, honest and eloquent manner. Being only two and a half months into the bereavement of my two year old daughter, I’m always eager to hear from those who are further down the line.
    The pangs of anxiety, particularly about your perceived insularity really struck a chord with me and is something I feel I might be ruminating on myself for some time to come.
    We had always planned to sell our 3 bed for a 4 bed to accomodate our 5 year old daughter and nexpected twins, after Xmas, but then Ed’s twin, Anni died.
    Within a few days of Anni dying on 8 Jan, we found ourselves driving around roads looking at houses we liked on Rightmove, steadily testing the water to see if we were up to the project, as it could be a good distraction, but we’ve decided to wait until we are mentally resillient.
    I admire your gumption and wish you all the best for the future.

  3. Jon Cunningham
    March 29, 2013

    Thanks, Bill, for reading, commenting and for your best wishes. If what I wrote is of any help or solace to you then it was definitely worth sharing.

    It may sound strange, but I can’t imagine what you must be going through after losing your daughter. When Freddie died, a friend told me about some friends of his whose 18 month-old had died in a tragic accident, and I couldn’t help feeling that would be much worse than what we went through. Yes, it was horrendous and shocking, but we never knew Freddie. And yet they felt sorry for us. They were thankful just for the short time they had together, whereas we had none. But to have spent time bonding with your child, seeing them grow, only to then lose them… Your family has our best wishes too.

  4. Grace Moody-Stuart
    March 29, 2013

    Jon, this is so beautifully and articulately expressed. I find myself sitting with tears streaming down my face. You have been so amazing as a couple, and as a family, you set an example to the rest of us who are bumbling haphazardly through life. I hope you do feel ready to come home soon. Your friends have missed you hugely and their lives will become much richer were you to return.

    • Jon Cunningham
      March 30, 2013

      Grace – you do yourself a disservice. With four kids, a dog, and two careers, you can’t possibly be bumbling through life. We on the other hand, are so bumbly the people we rent our basement apartment to are called Mr & Mrs Bumble. Truly. But seriously, we couldn’t have got through it without friends like you who were there through it all.

  5. Helen Nowicka
    March 29, 2013

    Thank you for sharing this Jon, and for being bravely honest. I am so glad for you and Venetia that moving to the US gave you the new start you needed and that you’ve been able to move forward as a family. Whatever you decide to do next, wherever you decide you want to be, it will work out. Be happy.

  6. Jon Cunningham
    March 30, 2013

    Thanks, Helen, you’re right, it will work out (is working out) and we will be (are) happy. Good luck to you and Dave on your US adventure.

  7. V
    March 30, 2013

    Thank you for sharing something so deeply personal.

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