Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

but nothing

‘Are you going to be okay with all this?’

These days I get asked this question every time I attend any social occasion that involves more than four people. I sometimes wonder if I give off an impression that makes people think that I might spontaneously combust at the prospect of a gathering. Yet this week I realised that perhaps I’ve underestimated people’s concern and overestimated my own steel.

Yesterday I attended my best friend’s son’s fourth birthday party. In fact, I attended two: one for his nursery chums and another for close friends and family. There were loads of people there, most of whom I’d either never met or not seen since long before Desreen died.

I completely expected the never met group to be a piece of cake. I was wrong. Suddenly the house was full of toddlers almost exclusively in the company of their mums. I was fine with that – I live in East Dulwich, London’s very own Nappy Valley, so I’d have a problem if I wasn’t by now – but unfortunately my son was not. After crossly consuming countless cakes and salty snacks, which provided much gastronomical guilt on my part, Jackson had a meltdown of epic proportions. Screams, convulsions, four little limbs seeming more like eight as each made its way angrily towards my face. And just one word shrieked painfully over and over – ‘MUMMY!’ The perfect moment for tectonic plates to shift, to crack the ground beneath my feet and to form a giant mouth that could swallow me whole. Instead just little mouths and brightly coloured paper party plates covered in crudités, which gently whispered to me what a failure I am as a father in the vegetable stakes. I’d simply have to deal with the party’s problem child like any other parent might – a swift removal, a calming conversation and a little chat about how social etiquette dictates that tearing out a four-year-old’s pony tails for touching a wooden banana, which didn’t even belong to the attacker in the first place, is never acceptable. A deep breath, a comforting suck on his dummy (my son, not I), a party permasmile drawn on my face and we were back in the room.

Round two – the not seen since long before Desreen died group. Two factions: those who don’t know what to say or whether to say anything because its been ten months (the majority) and those who don’t need to say anything because we share common ground (the other grievers). I was really pleased to see both and chatted to everyone but it was the other grievers’ comments that stood out the most.

‘You’ll learn to be a very fine actor’, one told me, hitting the nail quite firmly on the head. I’d been thinking along the same lines all week. Do people really want to know how I am when they ask or do they just want to see a young widowed father who is ‘doing incredibly well’? Either way, right or wrong, I find myself playing the role that I think people are hoping I will fill. The quote came from a lady who lost her son in a car accident 14 years ago, the day after his 19th birthday. I should imagine she’s more likely to receive an Oscar than she is to get over his death, whatever get over is supposed to mean. After all, who ever could?

The second made me realise something I really needed to understand about myself and about my son. ‘Well I guess you’ll never know’, my best friend’s mum suggested as I spoke to her at length about how I can’t tell the difference between toddler grief and a toddler tantrum. She’s right. I’ll never have the answer; there will never be a conclusion. Her husband, my best friend’s dad, one of the loveliest men you could ever wish to meet, died in 2009. She’s spent the last four years acting fine too. She’s also spent that much time not reaching any sense of conclusion to her grief. And I suppose I found a little comfort in that. I guess it made me conclude something about conclusions.

You see, I tend to find that people who are lucky enough never to have suffered the pain of grief usually want to reach a conclusion for those who are in its midst. They so desperately want the person they are talking to feel better, that they think concluding a conversation with some sort of comforting closure will help. Maybe sometimes it does. But sometimes we just want to talk freely without ending on a positive note, which is exactly why my friend’s mum and I are planning to meet up again.

This conversational skill, I should add, is not an easy one to master, even as a grieving widower. I’m a northerner so I say but all the time. As one friend from down south once informed me, I misuse it as a form of punctuation and I tend to drop the t too. I’m fairly optimistic by nature as well. These two factors combined leave me wanting to conclude conversations about Desreen’s death with comments like ‘But at least we have a roof over our heads’ or ‘But we’ve had lovely weather this summer, haven’t we?’ In the company of grievers, however, I’m much more likely to say ‘But… well but nothing actually. It’s just shit, isn’t it? There are no ifs or buts about it.’ From that point on I’ll have given myself and the person I’m chatting to permission to just talk without hitting some disingenuously positive dead end.

Of course, sometimes it’s good to talk about something else. Sometimes, in fact, it’s absolutely necessary. But when only one subject will do and I’ve got something I need to get off my chest, it’d be a great shame to end up talking about the weather with someone who can only handle it when the sun shines. Sometimes I just need to be with people who are also living through the storm.

Few things scare me more than a room full of toddlers and their mums

Few things scare me more than a room full of toddlers and their mums

19 comments on “but nothing

  1. Sophie
    September 1, 2013

    Fair play to you going to not just one, but two parties; I find the whole transformations of peoples’ faces when they recognise that, it’s you, the widow, has just entered the room utterly awful!
    Kids do play up at parties, it’s part of it in my experience with my two; you want the ground to swallow you up, you never want to be the one seen to be giving the strict ticking off in the corner, but it’s life, whether your partner has died or not. You sound like you handled it fabulously.
    Have you looked at the support from Child Bereavement UK? They offer one to one sessions but also CHYPS groups which are wholly beneficial; getting together with other families over four Saturday mornings, your kids suddenly realise that they aren’t alone and there are other kids out there without a Mum or Dad.

  2. Ceil
    September 1, 2013

    My feelings exactly …today and many days: “Sometimes I just need to be with people who are also living through the storm.” As you may know this is my second widowhood, super widow perhaps?….Although I don’t have a toddler; there are times when I am supposed to be social (and that’s my nature) that I feel like acting like a toddler…One person asked , “are you all right”..I smiled and said, yes….But I wasn’t all right and quite frankly, went home a took tantrum……
    Your blogs are wonderful

  3. Ben Dyke
    September 1, 2013

    Ben I am so sorry you have to go through all this. I’ll never stop being sorry even when you are years down the track. The only real conclusion is that bereavement hurts like heck and it doesn’t conclude. We are not built for this.

    I’ll never know (perhaps its clearer when the kids are older and have become more emotionally mature) whether any of the kids behaviour, difficult or otherwise, is a result of losing their mum so young. But I sure as heck don’t blame them if it is! They get disciplined like any child should regardless but I just end up hurting so bad if I perceive any link.

    Its not a sob story to continue to know the pain. Life grows around the grief and our capacity increases but the pain doesn’t go away. How could it? If you loved someone then their loss is unfathomable.

  4. sarah pointer
    September 1, 2013

    life isnt about waiting for the storm to pass, its about learning to dance in the rain x

  5. cath
    September 1, 2013

    Up North ,as you know we use “How are you :”as a greeting and its not really an invitation to spill your guts…rooky mistake when I first lost my Mum. The “Buts” really resonated too, “but I am really lucky to have so many years ” and so it went on instead of saying I am so pissed off she died I still to thus day stick to the script with certain people. x Keep saying it how it is Ben

      September 1, 2013

      ‘How are you? Y’alright.’ Done. A question and an answer from the same person. That made me laugh. You’re so right x

      • cath
        September 1, 2013

        🙂 Lead role in an RSC or failing that panto x x

  6. Judy
    September 1, 2013

    Just visited with a friend whose mother died two years ago today. Her dad died when she was newly married as my mom died when I was only 25. My dad died almost four years ago and at 60 I still feel like an orphan sometimes. The point being my friend and I can clearly relate to each other’s losses. What we talked about most today was how we miss these dear people with an ache in our hearts so big it will never fully heal, but each day we try to honor them by living our lives to the fullest. The easiest part for both of us and for you, Ben, I suspect is that the ones who were taken from us too soon left us with such guidance. Though I do not believe in ghosts or spirits or channeling the dead, there have been many times that my parents have guided me with the wonderful way they lived their lives when they were with us. Desreen is guiding you by the way she lived her life. Don’t let that paralyze you- make your own decisions and follow your own dreams, but just know her very essence will always be with you and Jackson.

  7. Izzy R
    September 2, 2013

    Dear Ben

    I too am travelling down the journey of grief, with the same timing as you. I too feel the feelings you describe in your blog. And, I did have a major setback recently, in the 9th month. Apparently, this can happen, in my case there were specific reasons.

    Please don’t become a very fine actor. It does not matter what others think. What matters is what is in your head, and in your heart, and you have control of both.

    Take care.

  8. Rebecca Wagstaffe
    September 2, 2013

    Tiny glib comment: few things scare ME more than a room full of toddlers and their mums to be honest..;)

  9. Gregg
    September 2, 2013

    I too am a widower but of just over two years now. I still have moments like your son…except I’m not allowed to kick and scream. Besides, it would hurt my back. Life continues but once in a while, I see what others have and I’m brought back to a place of feeling like a child who has t gotten his way. I want to stomp my feet and shout at God that its not fair. It has gotten better though. So life continues.

  10. Charmaine
    September 3, 2013

    I have found your blog so inspiring. You are brave and honest and echo so much of what I feel. I lost my husband and soulmate in August 2012 to Motor Neurone Disease. he was diagnosed and died within 6 months. If anyone had ever told me that a broken heart could still beat I’d of said that they were lying. Here I am one year on. Our three beautiful daughters too living proof that it is not impossible but unbearable. You are yet another person testament to the fact. I am so sorry for your loss. It would be wrong of me to say I know how you feel. However I know how I feel and it hurts like hell…

    Keep going, one day your son will be very proud as I am sure your wife is looking down on you with pride.

  11. Francesca
    September 3, 2013

    Hi Ben,
    I read about your blog in a magazine a few months ago and since then I visit your blog every so often, and every time I feel heartbroken. I have felt the pain of grief – I lost my father while still a child and growing up felt ashamed of not having a “normal” family. Although I don’t know you guys I often think about you and Jackson and feel a pang in my heart and sincerely wish the clocks could be turned back. I am so so sorry for the pain you two are going through. Like many others, I too think that what you are doing is incredibly brave and inspiring.

  12. Carol-Anne Gillies
    September 3, 2013

    I was widowed back in April when my 33 year old husband died suddenly without warning. Becoming a widow at 29 and left to bring up our 5 year old daughter on my own has been incredibly hard, I’ve been angry, sad, shocked and been consumed with such raw, gripping and completely overwhelming pain that I never thought was possible. I lost my dad, 3 brothers and sister in a house fire when I was 14 and maybe I just don’t remember how bad I felt back then but losing my husband is worse than anything ive ever experienced, I just can’t seem to accept that this is now our Life. I feel broken and haven’t stopped crying in almost 5 months…today I was feeling like I couldn’t go on and I stumbled upon your blog, I’ve read every single post and feel like I’ve been on your journey with you. I’ve experienced so much of what you’ve written but haven’t been able to express it to anyone so Thank you for sharing it, and definitely please keep writing. It’s strangely comforting to know I’m not the only one who feels the way I do. I only wish the reality was so very different.

  13. Janine
    September 5, 2013

    Sarah Pointer: ‘life isnt about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain’. Thank you. A friend sent me your comment via Facebook as a one sentence summary about daily life following the suicide of my lifelong significant other, the man I lways needed to know, and the father that loved his girl. Thank you again, and thank you too Ben. x

  14. Janine
    September 5, 2013

    Sorry, my post 1am keyboard skills are lacking.

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