A story of grief by a man and a boy

grief expectations

In the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations the lead character, Pip, is introduced as a downtrodden orphan living with his abusive sister and her somewhat kinder husband. One day, when visiting the cemetery where his parents and siblings are buried, he encounters a shackled escaped convict who scares Pip into stealing food and a file to remove the chains. Cutting a very long story short, Pip goes on to live an unexpectedly enriched young life after he is promised a large sum of money, which he will receive some years later once he has become a gentlemen. First, however, he must leave his home in Kent for London where he will eventually achieve that status.

He puts this secret sponsorship down to a woman whom he thinks cares. She doesn’t – quite the opposite in fact. After being jilted at the altar, Miss Havisham makes it her life’s mission to reap revenge on men through her adopted daughter and ball-breaker-in-training, Estella. But still assuming Miss Havisham is behind his good fortune, Pip also concludes that she is preparing him to marry Estella and that, one day, he will also inherit her fortune.

Years later, however, the convict he helped, Magwitch, reveals himself to Pip as his benefactor, which rallies against all of his own expectations for his future. An unexpectedly privileged young life turns messy, complicated and dark as he becomes an man. Pip expects to secure his fortune at the end of his education but he also has expectations beyond it – he also assumes he’ll marry and then inherit an estate. Pip, perhaps, also feels some sense of shame and guilt for not living up to the expectations that he possibly should have placed of himself – not in becoming rich or successful – but in trying to be decent and do the right thing by those who have helped him along the way.

In summary, nothing is going Pip’s way. Then something changes, apparently for the better, and he begins to expect everything to go his way. It doesn’t and, naturally, that’s really rather disappointing for him.

Last Sunday I set out my grief expectations for the following week and in doing so I expected it to be tough. I’ve been writing a book about life (both before and since my wife was killed) since March this year. I’ve also been feeling really ill for the last couple of weeks, which has left me with little energy and no real enthusiasm to do anything. This week I needed to write around 10,000 words and then to start to edit what I’d written earlier on in the year. The writing actually worried me less than the editing because with that I knew I would need to revisit the toughest times that I have ever faced: my wife’s death, her funeral, telling my two-year-old son that she had died and the eventual aftermath of each. I expected this week’s grief to be debilitating and unbearable.

And so last Sunday, unlike Pip, I expected the worst. In editing the book this week I also found a line that reads:  At this point I took it upon myself to start expecting the worst and plan accordingly. That way disappointment was less likely to be the ultimate outcome. It seems that I have been approaching my recent life rather cynically. However, it turns out that I’ve had the closest thing to a great week that I’ve had in ages. Of course it hasn’t been without its low points but, on average, there have been more highs.

On Monday I decided that, once and for all, it was time to sort myself out because I’ve been feeling physically shit for far too long. This meant going on a similar detox to one that Des and I did over summer last year. Last time round it was like three weeks of food hell – we had to drink half of our meals and the majority of the ingredients were raw. By the end, however, we felt incredible. We were bouncing with energy and we both felt as positive as we could ever remember. This time round I’m doing it alone for a month but I’ve toned it down – I’m eating all the same ingredients, and I’m off the booze, but I’m cooking everything the way I like it. After just six days I already feel like a different person to the one I was last week. Taking some pressure off my system has helped take some pressure off my mind.

But it’s not just the detox that’s made me feel more positive. In feeling so utterly crap I was only able to see the downside to the writing. I was dreading something, which, when I took a step back, I realised I’d almost already finished. I suppose you could say that, unlike me, my metaphorical literary glass was more full than it was empty. But it wasn’t a sense of achievement that made me feel better either – it was the content of the book. It is, of course, often painful to read. If you’re reading this post then you already know that my wife was killed tragically in November, that I was widowed at 33 and that my son had already lost his mummy by the time he was two. And yet I was uplifted when I re-read the chapters because Desreen was right there. I’ve missed her so much and yet this week we have been reunited through words and amazing memories. I’d expected so many tears that I was willing to break one of the rules of this month’s healthy living plan by guzzling some Valium to keep me from plummeting back into grief’s abyss. But it turned out that I didn’t need to at all because this week I’ve actually smiled more than I’ve cried.

Desreen was hilarious; she did and said things that no one else would even think. She was mischievous and unpredictable. She was caring, loving, loyal, a brilliant girlfriend, a fantastic wife and the most amazing mum. I’m devastated to be writing about her death but I’m also so very proud to be writing about her life. And that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that I’m proud of anything I’ve done since she died.

So this has been a good week and, once again, it goes to show that you can place great expectations on grief, but, in my experience, it rarely behaves the way you might predict.

I'm devastated to be writing about my wife's death but I'm also proud to be writing about her life.

I’m devastated to be writing about my wife’s death but I’m also proud to be writing about her life.

7 comments on “grief expectations

  1. Elizabeth Hunt
    September 8, 2013

    I can’t begin to imagine what you & your baby boy have been through but in the last few months I’ve read your posts & thought what a lucky boy Jackson is to have a positive, fun & dedicated father. You have shared your grief, your fun times & your wife’s memories and inspired us all. You are truly remarkable & I wish you all the best for the future. Thank you.

  2. cath
    September 8, 2013

    Glad to hear this Ben, no rules,rhyme or reason to grief and the opposite of what you anticipated happened. Thanks for sharing your happiness as well as your words. I am sure many will find hope from this one x x x 🙂 ps when can we buy the book x x

      September 8, 2013

      Thanks a lot. Hopefully May next year but I’ll update the blog as soon as I know more x

  3. mrsemmasheppard
    September 8, 2013

    Beautiful words and a beautiful smile. You are doing your wife and son proud in every way x

  4. Ceil
    September 8, 2013

    Sharing your grief is a gift to all who have lost a loved one…I really get what you say: Expecting nothing…..and sometimes a surprise…….I set out to write (for myself) an “I remember you” book that encompass the years I shared with my first husband and our two children; and now I am writing a notebook full of “I remember you” for my second husband…Twice widowed…lucky or unlucky, depends on the day and how I look at it…
    I write a column for two newspapers and I have touched on grief also, in a broader sense……
    keep on keeping on, Ben…this is great stuff

  5. Naomii Chaplain
    September 19, 2013

    Combining spectacular writing skills and such amazing subject matter (Desreen herself, not her death) makes the painful parts and the snot and tears (mine, not yours) completely worth it. x

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