A story of grief by a man and a boy

postfatal depression

After recently spending an enlightening weekend at a residential camp led by the child bereavement charity Grief Encounter, which was primarily devoted to children who had lost a parent, I began to experience a new kind of sadness for my son. The evening after we returned home, I looked at him playing with his trains on our kitchen floor and felt an emotional blow to my stomach. He’d only just turned two when his mummy was killed and he’ll be three next week. It suddenly occurred to me that not only has he lost his mum but also missed out on having a happy dad for a third of his life to date. Wondering how that might continue to affect my child into later life made me sad and concerned.

The next day I realised that, perhaps understandably, I worry about my son more like a mother than a father usually might. I worry about him constantly: about whether his bad temper is led mostly by grief or by age, about whether or not he’s brushed his teeth adequately, about whether the dummies he’s back on might leave them crooked, about whether or not he had enough breakfast before he went out, about whether the Disney princess outfits he keeps putting on just before I pick him up from nursery are a cry for help – I could go on all day. But the thing I find myself worrying about right now is my impact on him. I’ve learned that children are rarely given the credit they deserve when it comes to emotional intelligence, but Jackson often stops what he’s doing to ask me if I’m happy or sad. And this inevitably makes me worry that he sees his father as an unhappy man.

I started this blog primarily because I wanted to initiate a conversation about male grief. Things have evolved since that point, but in the beginning I was growing increasingly concerned that bereaved men were expected, perhaps mostly by themselves, to ‘man up’ and to hide their grief behind a stiff upper lip. I wondered what message I’d been sending to my own child by acting that way myself immediately after the death of his mum. I want him to feel that he could be open about his emotions and I hope to give him the best chance to grow into a man unconcerned by social pressures to conform.

I often jokingly refer to the time out I spend with my son as ‘maternity leave’. It started as ‘paternity leave’ but the more time passed by, and the more cake I ate and chardonnay I drank with caring young mums, the less traditionally paternal it felt. And as I sat worrying about the things that I once took for granted as my wife’s primary concerns (yeah, I said it), I started to wonder what postnatal depression must feel like for new mums. Pondering whether it was possible to be simultaneously happy and sad in the company of your own child, I checked out the symptoms and then self diagnosed a kind of postfatal depression. Since my wife died I’ve suffered nearly all of the same sorts of things around three in ten new mothers do following childbirth:

  • A persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
  • Loss of interest in the world around you and no longer enjoying things that used to give pleasure
  • Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time (fatigue)
  • Disturbed sleep, such as not being able to fall asleep during the night (insomnia) and then being sleepy during the day
  • Difficulties with concentration and making decisions
  • Low self-confidence
  • Poor appetite or an increase in appetite (‘comfort eating’)
  • Feeling very agitated or alternatively very apathetic (can’t be bothered)
  • Feelings of guilt

Perhaps many of us suffer some kind of depression when someone we love dies. But it’s a big word with many connotations and it may well often go undiagnosed, untreated or even completely ignored.

As for the my ‘maternity leave’ with Jackson, I think it may be time the two of us to embark on some manly endeavours. I’m not really that worried about my two-year-old son occasionally wearing a frock, but if I eat any more cake I fear I may find myself going up a dress size. And that would be an absolute disaster for my autumn/winter wardrobe, darling!

21 comments on “postfatal depression

  1. Mama bear
    October 11, 2013

    Lovely piece (as ever)
    My son spent 18 months at Jackson’s age wearing a pink tutu, he’s now a strapping big, hippy, haired skater boy, unfortunately (??) it didn’t last .
    Hug to you both

  2. Sarah Pointer
    October 11, 2013

    I caught my two comparing notes on how to deal with my sadness the other day. I wonder at times who is more mature?! X

  3. CardTherapy
    October 11, 2013

    Postnatal depression is still depression, life-threatening in its most severe form. It is merely defined as such because it occurs after a birth. Depression does not discriminate between sexes and bereavement can obviously be a major trigger, just as birth can. Neither of these occurrences of depression can be resolved with ‘manly endeavours’. Of course I understand your sentiment, you want to spend time with your son pursuing enjoyable activities. You just need to be aware it looks to me as if you are trivialising postnatal depression, and as I make it my personal goal to increase awareness of this condition which I am sure affects MANY more than 3 in 10, I needed to speak up.
    You are doing an amazing job with your son in extremely sad circumstances. Love and support always wins the battle, in any circumstances.

    • Bill Wright
      October 11, 2013

      I’d be very surprised if many people thought that Ben was seeking to trivialise depression. Quite the opposite.

    • Sarah Pointer
      October 11, 2013

      It depends from what perspective you are reading this but I don’t feel, as a bereaved parent, that Ben is trivialising anything.

      October 11, 2013

      Thanks for your comment. It was not my intention at all to undermine any type of depression, especially when I’m publicly recognising the fact that I have experienced many of the same symptoms myself. Given what’s happened in our lives this past year I, of course, recognise that rolling around in mud isn’t going to resolve my issues. I’m not attempting to make light of depression, I’m attempting to bring a little lightness of touch into our own difficult days to help get through them. This blog is often about my own self-counselling, something I was encouraged to do to help keep depression at bay. I’m trying to express my own feelings. In this post I’m saying that rather than only spend time worrying, which is how I fill most of my days, I also want consider trying to bring some fun into our lives. I suppose I may use humour as a defence mechanism for my own anxieties. And humour tends to be something that doesn’t always please everyone.

      • Bill Wright
        October 11, 2013

        It’s a small joy when I’m in a moment where I feel like I have to ‘perform’ and realise I haven’t lost my prized ability to be able to make people laugh. I enjoy it while it lasts as I know that within hours or minutes I can crash to rock bottom again.

        On this occasion I appreciated your little pieces of levity to mitigate the intense sorrow we are all feeling. Obviously we should never try to make people laugh at funerals as this would most definitely be a BAD thing to do.

        October 11, 2013

        I wish someone had warned me sooner. I was in such shock at Desreen’s funeral that I cracked a stupid joke about Mariah Carey before I started the eulogy. Only remembered yesterday. I conclude that the grief takes over an leaves us without the same degree on control we once knew.

  4. Bill Wright
    October 11, 2013

    No big deal about Jackson wearing a princess dress Ben, Ed loves to rock his sisters’ princess outfits! I’m with you the ‘post fatal’ depression thing, (it’s a lovely turn of phrase even though it is a horrid, horrid catalogue of emotions) I was also ticking off multiple bullet points.

    It interested me when you referred to the societal expectation on men to ‘Man Up’ when their world has been shattered indescribably through the shocking and premature death of a loved one, be it a wife or child.

    Our family liaison officer told us that it would be damaging to conceal our grief for Anni from her two year old surviving twin brother and big sister Bella (5). At first it seemed counter intuitive, but quickly began felt very logical. How could Ed and Bella make any sense of the utter devastation that had ripped through our family, if Mum and Dad were painting a cheery smile on for them? It would be distressing and confusing for them. So I totally bought into this ‘modern’ wisdom.

    However, two or three months after Anni dying, when my wife and I were only partially completing sporadic spells at work, it affected Bella, she wanted to stay at home as she was also too upset to go to school. My motivation for going to work then became to try and set a ‘good’ example to Bella as I didn’t want her falling behind in her first year at school. To this day, when I find it excruciatingly difficult to get out of bed, open the front door and face the world, that is still one of my main sources of impetus ‘Don’t let Bella see Daddy not going to work’.

    This week I had an interesting chat with a very good friend that I’ve made from a support group for bereaved Dads. I mentioned the whole, not concealing your grief from your children, concept and he debunked it. Sadly, he lost his only child so he does not have other children who would see him at his lowest, but when he was 15 his sister died. His parents were very typically stoic people of that generation and never demonstrated grief in his presence. I countered that this must have been damaging for him, but he believes his parents’ role was to be a positive force in his life and show him that life will and must go on. I’m not totally convinced, but it was food for thought. Perhaps if his sister had died when he was 5 years old he might have needed a different approach from his parents?

    I think the conclusion that I have come to, is that there is obviously no rule book, perceived wisdoms are often cyclical and will come in and out of fashion, we must use our parental intuition to guide us through, dependant on the situation and the personalities involved. If Bella and Ed are around me when I have a teary moment, I will not seek to conceal it from them, but if I feel that my melancholy is dragging them down and preventing them from doing what they should be doing, such as going to school, then I will look to moderate it in that particular situation.

    • Fluffy75
      October 11, 2013

      It doesn’t matter whether you show your grief or not kids will adapt as long as they still feel safe and loved, there is no right or wrong just getting up and facing the day ahead and focusing on the future is all you can do no matter how empty the present may feel! Do what feels right for you and your child and you can’t go wrong! Grief comes in all shapes and sizes as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else it’s ok. You are right to share your grief as even though it may not be exactly the same as someone else’s they are linked and knowing that someone has gone through that gulf can give someone else the strength to carry on xx

      • Bill Wright
        October 12, 2013

        Thank you, yes, that is exactly it, the key is that they should feel safe and loved

  5. dot schwarz
    October 11, 2013

    it would be sad f you had NO depression and it would be sad jackson had no response. GRief is normal. Some of us suffer more than our fair share. Sometimes our own fault in your case simply bad luck, fate or whateer you want to call t.

  6. Bill Wright
    October 11, 2013

    Oops, I think you can let yourself off on that joke Ben!. As the eulogy givers we are encouraged to introduce light moments to make people smile, not always easy, but the sentiment is right.
    Everyone else damn better keep their jokes to themselves until deep into last dregs of the wake!

  7. handikwani02
    October 11, 2013

    Every time I read or listen to your post, I cn nothethinking that you are making the best of your predicament. the fact that you are involved with people with similar experience should be intself helpful .

  8. suzjones
    October 12, 2013

    Don’t worry too much about the princess dresses Ben. My son used to sleep every night in a dress-up dress when he was about 8 or 9. He outgrew it. Since he is now a married man, I think it didn’t harm him too much.
    I think many forms of depression can have the same symptoms of PND since I could tick off so many things on that list and my last baby is almost 12 now.
    Take care. 🙂

  9. sharron gordon
    October 14, 2013

    but you have a great sense of humour, im not sure if that is the appropiate thing to say because this is painful ,even for us readers. However I would like to say that sometimes you make me burst out laughing unexpectedly… as with the last line on this post.Be gentle with yourself from time to time

    Peace always…in all ways x

      October 14, 2013

      Hi Sharron. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve realised that maybe I’m a bit depressed. If I have the symptoms of this kind of depression or that, it’s probably irrelevant because it’s still depression. The blog is sometimes painful because it’s about my life which is agony at times. But sometimes you still laugh when you’re grieving and that’s one of the many weird things about it.

      It occurred to me after I wrote this that perhaps some people read what I write and almost forget that there’s a grieving man behind the words – as though I were just a commentator. It seems strange to me that some might think that I’d intentionally make light of issues that are actually crushing me.

      But I don’t personally think it’s inappropriate to talk about depression and humour in the same sentence, because that’s how life can be.

      • sharron gordon
        October 16, 2013

        Yeah I guess life is like that Ben, however I have never ever forgotten that their is a grieving man behind those words because I myself find comfort in writing.
        I rememeber coming out of the bathroom that fatal morning and watching the news, and I literally just stood in the same spot for a long time…. simply because I could not get my bloody breath at how a life was just wiped out … just like that, everything else in comparison paled around me which is why I still read your blog all the time… It does not read like commentory, It is a person who can sit down and right about how he feels in the circumstances that he is and you certainly dont make light of any issue… As a reader .I read it and cry and cry any cry. then out of the blue, Jackson does or says something wacky or you throw in one of your quick witted lines….. I laugh… but still I cry x

        peace always in all ways

        October 16, 2013

        Bless you. There’s a bit in the book that breaks a hugely sad moment with laughter. It was something Jackson did when my grandma was really ill, the last time we saw her. In fiction there would be no room for humour in the scene, but he was just so hilarious in real life. And that’s what I meant with the reply too. Because there’s a funny little boy involved, sometimes I’m lucky enough to still laugh x

  10. sharrongordon
    October 14, 2013

    be gentle with yourself love, it may not sound appropiate Im not sure. Correct me if I am wrong. But your sense of humour is enagaging. I burst out laughing at the most unexpected times as with this last line on this post.

    Take care

  11. sharrongordon
    October 16, 2013


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