Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

tank engines

This is a guest post by writer, journalist and blogger, Emma Beddington

…but first an introduction from me

I don’t usually interfere with guest posts by weaving in my own story, but today I’m going to make an exception. I wrote to Emma Beddington a few weeks ago when I discovered a story she had written for The Guardian, which revealed how Thomas the Tank Engine had helped her son come to terms with the loss of his grandmother, Emma’s mum. I could hardly believe what I was reading and how moved I was by a story built around a little train that I spend so much of my life wishing would really ‘bust his buffers’ or ‘flatten his funnel’ and just naff off.

You see, Thomas lives with me every bit as my child does. His is usually the first name from my son’s mouth in the morning and the last in the evening. The day after my wife was killed, my son cried and asked not where his mummy was but rather, “Where’s is (sic) my Thomas gone?”

The fact is it was more unusual for him to not have his little toy train by his side all day than it was one of his two working parents. Sadly we lost not only his mummy in the carnage of the crash, but also Thomas. Thank God at least one of them could be replaced.

The Saturday that would come to follow my wife’s last evening with us, the three of us were due to go to Thomas Land and indulge Jackson in his love for the locomotive inhabitants of Sodor. Against my better judgement, I decided that the two of us should still go, that we’d never get the chance to go again on that day. I was exhausted, an emotional wreck, dying inside. The taxi driver who picked us up at the station apparently recognised me from the papers and chatted to me like I was a guy who’d just won the lottery. The only way I could stop his painfully jovial banter was to tell him I’d become a widower just a week ago. As I did, Jackson fell asleep leaving me to manoeuvre a sleeping toddler from the car and into a theme park that had become Christmas Thomas Land that same day. Fake snow, festive tunes, happy families and, perhaps worst of all, a child who wasn’t even awake to enjoy it. It was amongst the lowest and toughest moments of my whole life.

The next morning, however, my son woke up, turned to me and exclaimed in a spritely voice, “Thomas Land!” He’d had a good time, he had good memories and he had a daddy who could feel just a sliver of happiness that he’d gone ahead with the last day out that his mummy would ever have the opportunity to plan. And like Emma will go on to say about her own son, I don’t think I could have got through this dreadful situation without Jackson’s steamy little chum.

…now back to Emma, who I would like to thank for sharing her story.

Confusion and delay: bereavement the Thomas the Tank Engine way

After Emma Beddington’s mother died, at a railway station, her son’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine became a way to talk obliquely about danger and loss

When my mother died ten years ago, my son Theo was 18 months old. Precociously verbal, cheery, fond of earth moving equipment and the colour pink, and in no way equipped to understand death. So, at least, I told myself, rather shiftily. What would be the point of saying those words to him? “Granny’s dead”. It would be about as meaningful as telling him that competitive pressures and poor regulatory controls had led to a catastrophic boom in sub-prime lending.

Of course, it suited me not to tell him. Things were bewilderingly terrible back then. My magnificent mother – the lynchpin of my world, the person I most wanted to share every stupid detail of my life with, the person I most admired – had been killed in a freak accident at an Italian railway station. My family had been catapulted into a dark, new world of lawyers and coroners, funerals and obituaries. My stepfather was in hospital; my seventeen-year-old sister had moved in with us. I was six months pregnant.

I was coping, if you could call it that, by dealing with practical realities of my mother’s death without engaging with the emotional truth of it and this denial (for it was denial of a sort) informed how I dealt with Theo. Something in me revolted absolutely at the thought of having that conversation with my sunny, delightful son, whose eyes lit up when he saw pictures of my mother. “Granny!” he would say in delighted recognition. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do it.

It was cowardly and self-serving and wrong. It might be desperately hard to explain death to a toddler, but sometimes as a parent, it’s your job. Children aren’t stupid and they don’t exist in a carefree U-rated infant vacuum: Theo knew something bad was going on, but I failed to tell him what. When things go wrong, in the absence of honesty, children founder, lose their place in the world. Some blame themselves, some act out, some withdraw.

In my case, I was very fortunate. Theo found his own way, where I failed, and his way was Thomas the Tank Engine.

For a TV show aimed at pre-schoolers, there’s an awful lot of catastrophe in Thomas. The Rev Awdry’s world (as filtered through the HIT studios animated doom generator) is one of derailments, fires, collisions, billowing gusts of smoke, showers of coal, all rendered in eery stop motion, disaster edging jerkily closer in every frame. It’s dark.

For a year or so after my mother died, Theo couldn’t get enough of Thomas. He was drawn, again and again, to watch those five minute tales of doom and disaster: Percy showered with coal, the troublesome trucks tumbling down ravines, the glowering giant boulder that pursues the engines along the tracks, crashing, finally, into the engine shed with an impressive mini-conflagration. It was these grisly episodes that Theo insisted on watching again and again, terrified but compelled by the shocking moment of impact, the reaction shots of dismayed engines, the curls of crudely rendered smoke. Sometimes he would cry with fear, but with a restraining hand preventing me from turning off the tape: he needed to watch to the bitter end. The Fat Controller‘s ringing, admonitory “confusion and delay” set the rhythm of our early mornings, and our evenings.

As I walked him to nursery in the mornings, Theo would demand I tell him “a Thomas story”. He was a demanding listener, driving and guiding the narrative, from mishap to accident to disaster. Every time I tried to tie up a neat resolution (‘then the truck was mended and everyone went to the party!’), Theo would raise an imperious hand and correct me: “no, but then he ‘SPLODED!” It would be up to me to find a way to resolve things all over again.

There was something about Thomas, about the imminence of disaster and its resolution (or not) that spoke to Theo at that bewildering time. It confirmed what he had, inchoately seen and learned in his own life: accidents happen. But in Thomas’s world, and in the stories I invented, when accidents happen, they are fixed. The paint is cleaned, the track cleared, the trucks repaired. There’s no disaster too great for the officious Fat Controller to clear up, nothing that cannot, somehow be fixed. That simple resolution, seen over and over again, gave him the precious reassurance I had failed to provide.

I hate Thomas. I think he’s horribly reactionary, sexist, cruel, a colossal bore. I would gladly never see his leering face again or hear his tedious boasting about his buffers. Even so, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, because Thomas did what I couldn’t: found a way to talk to a toddler about death.

Confusion and delay: bereavement the Thomas the Tank Engine way

Confusion and delay: bereavement the Thomas the Tank Engine way

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