A story of grief by a man and a boy
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:
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!