A story of grief by a man and a boy

helping parents

An article appeared in today’s Daily Telegraph about an issue that has been making headlines for several weeks – government plans to reform Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA). Currently the allowance is made available to widows below state pension age with at least one dependent child. It can earn a parent a £2,000 one-off lump sum and a subsequent maximum of £108.30 a week. The reforms will mean that from 2016 any parent who is widowed will receive a lump sum of £5,000 and monthly payments of £100 for just one year.

I’ve been very careful to present a story of bereavement and grief that is emotional rather than political or financial, and I intend to maintain that balance going forward. So today I’m going to try to explain the context of these changes on an emotional level. I’ll try to provide a little insight into what it’s like to be a 34-year-old father to a three-year-old child who lost his mum under devastating circumstances when he’d just turned two.

The myth of time 

Next week will be the first anniversary of my wife’s death. It seems safe to assume that under the new plans from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) it’s time for me to pull myself together. Before my wife died she’d started her own business and I was the MD of a successful PR firm. We were looking forward to what only appeared to be a bright future ahead of us. Then on 10th November last year she was killed and everything changed in an instant. Our son was all that mattered to me and he still is.

Since losing my wife I’ve learned that time is not a emotional measure and that a year is not a heal-all medicine. The truth is I feel less able to assert myself now than I did the week after my wife’s death. I was in shock and that shock gave me an incredible amount of energy to get through. Now I think that perhaps I’m depressed. I lack the motivation for things that used to excite me or that used to pay the bills. I care little for material things and I find it hard to concentrate on anything other than my son’s wellbeing and our loss. The notion of ‘moving on’ is completely alien to me. I wouldn’t even know what I was supposed to do. Would it mean working harder than I already did to be able to support my son the way my wife and I could when she was still alive? Would it mean putting financial stability ahead of our emotional needs by being at home less? Or would it mean going out there and getting myself a new wife who could help me to put food on the table too? I’m not sure whether the latter would make me a modern man or more akin to the Victorian widower who was encouraged to find himself a second bride just after he’d buried his first.

It seems, however, that time is everything at the DWP. To claim the initial bereavement payment of up to £2,000, you have to inform the department of your spouse’s death within three months. ‘Why didn’t you call us sooner?’ I was asked about five months after the ‘deadline’. ‘Because I could barely string a sentence together and because, after having worked full time for the last 12 years, I knew nothing about benefits’, I replied. To be quite frank, at that particular time, I couldn’t have given a shit about the money then either.

A child’s grief 

The news appeared in today’s Daily Telegraph after a collective of charity workers and lobbyists wrote to the paper urging MPs to reconsider plans to the reforms. The letter stressed that children’s needs can be greater in the second and third year after the death of a parent and that it is important for the surviving parent to ‘continue familiar routines’. I’m still twelve days away from the beginning of year two so I’ll have to speculate on this. My plan, however, is to provide the kind of care that my son had grown accustomed to when he still had two living parents. Once he started nursery, my wife and I ensured that we could operate a flexible working week, which allowed us to drop him off and collect from nursery each day. I want to be able to continue to do this when he starts school in just under two years. If I had taken the option of leaving him in full time nursery care and continued to work full time, I would in fact be in a better position to care for him right now than I will be when he starts school. It’s simple: the nursery day runs from 8am to 6pm whilst school is 8:30am to 3:30pm. To be the father I want to be to my son, I need options into the future and not just in year one. Perhaps the reforms suggest that I’m the unspoken kind of parent who lost his wife – the mother of his then two-year-old son – too soon. Sadly my family was never presented with any options for when this devastation would come.

I know from experience that grief often becomes marginalised the more time that passes, but I think this is further accentuated in children. ‘They’re too young to understand’; ‘It’s a blessing it happened when it did’; ‘They won’t know what they missed out on’ – all comments that young widowed parents might have to endure. But the reality is it’s getting harder to care for my son as he gets older. He’s more aware of his loss, he asks questions all the time and his behaviour has been negatively affected. He needs more emotional support than he did nearly a year ago when his mummy was first killed. And when I listen to some of the horror stories of children being bullied at school for having lost a parent, I look to a future where I can truly be there when my son needs me. The thought of asking my PA to take his calls or buying him a pony to make up for working late every night just isn’t an option for me.

I’m 34-years-old and I’ve lived my whole life under governments that have told me that my measure of success in life is to work hard and earn as much money as possible. And I’ve listened. I went to university and secured a degree. I started a job straight away, worked my way to the top of the ladder within 12 years and I married a woman with even more drive than me. But then one night a car drove into her and that ladder was pulled from under my feet. So now I realise that I’ll measure my success in life not by what I can afford to buy for my son but by the emotional support I can offer him. I just wanted to be a person who can say, first hand, that a bereaved parent and child aren’t fixed in a year.

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20 comments on “helping parents

  1. Avril Lamb
    October 28, 2013

    This is so very pertinent, can you not submit to the Telegraph for publication?

      October 28, 2013

      I hadn’t thought about it actually, but thanks for the suggestion

      • Sally
        October 28, 2013

        definitely you should x

  2. Carrie Dunne
    October 28, 2013

    Yes, you must get your article published! Well said and so so true on many levels. X

  3. Paul R
    October 28, 2013

    A bit off topic. You mention that the one year anniversary is in some respects worse than earlier months. It was 18 months ago yesterday that Laura died. The one year anniversary wasn’t as bad as I expected. Month 13 was my bad month. I was in shock for so long after her death that May 2012 was a lost month. In May 2013 I felt like there must be something wrong with me because I had almost no memories of the year before.

  4. Bill Wright
    October 28, 2013

    It’s a really good point Ben about how grief affects our ability to maintain the focus and drive that we previously had. Actually it’s quite an obvious point, but clearly not obvious enough to those aren’t in our boat.

    Whilst I have not been widowed and therefore not lost an income (sounds horribly cold and calculating when put across in financial terms, apologies) my ability to keep my family afloat has definitely been hampered.

    A few weeks before my two year old daughter, Anni, unexpectedly died last January, I had been involved in meetings with my financial advisor to do all of the boring stuff necessary to streamline finances (reviewing insurance and pension payments, pay off a car loan) and look to get a mortgage approval for a new house. Obviously when Anni died, I didn’t have the stomach to think about money and have merrily spent since, thinking I would be fine. I wouldn’t have been able to organise the proverbial piss up, let alone comb through my finances.

    I’ve had a bit of a rude financial awakening since and have realised that it all adds up and I now need to rediscover my inner scrooge. On the day of Anni’s and her surviving twin’s Edward birthday, 11 days ago, for the first time since the 1990s, I had to read ‘insufficient funds’ at the cash point. I was about to withdraw money for some red helium balloons we would be releasing later that day for Anni. As devastating as it was, it was probably the best day for it to happen as I hardly felt it. Although since then, my emotions have been a mixture of shame, embarrassment and disbelief. Luckily for us we are in a position where we can move a few things around, dust ourselves down and be more careful from here on in. Not everyone would have that luxury though and I can only imagine the financial hardships that other newly bereaved people will find themselves in through loss of income, or just plain and simple, taking your eye off the ball.

    On another subject of grief, bereavement and money a friend of a friend who is a financial advisor, told me back in the summer that I might be entitled to a pay out on my life insurance, because of the death of a child. He went through great pains to broach the subject sensitively and offered to look through my contract for me. I nodded, but honestly, I just haven’t been able to go there. Perhaps that makes me stupid, but I just find the thought of profiting from the death of my precious Anni uncomfortable. If I have denied her family some additional financial security, then perhaps I have allowed my own vanity to over come common sense. Something for other bereaved parents with life insurance to consider.

  5. menelikcharles
    October 28, 2013

    Now this is what you call the institutionalisation of the concept ‘pull yourself together’ or of the assumption ‘aren’t you over it yet?’

    Scary and offensive in one fell swoop!

    • Fiona Baxter
      October 28, 2013

      Yes, and since the payment is made only if you have children, I feel there is also an implication that they should also be ‘over it’ or ‘moving on’ after this time.
      Outrageous, whatever the age of the child.

  6. jennifer Bonus
    October 28, 2013

    Such a good article, everybody seems to think that a year is enough time to get over a bereavement and anybody who has lost a husband,wife or child knows that no time will ever really heal. I lost my husband when I was 35 and left to bring up our little girl by myself its being 14 months now and I probably find it a little harder now because im trying to find where I belong now and what to do next. on the subject above regarding payments im from Cork in Ireland and you are in entitled to €850 bereavement grant plus a €6000 lump sum payment along with €228 per week widows pension regardless of your earnings which you are entitled to until you reach pension age unless you get married again or co-habit with somebody. Also you are entitled for 5yrs to widowed person tax credit which helps if you are on a salary so straight away you don’t have to go back to being a single person tax credit. obviously as you said its all irrelevant really as Id much prefer my husband to be here to get a widows pension!! Anyway just thought I would share this with you and good luck with everything.

  7. Bill Wright
    October 28, 2013

    I’ve just read your piece again Ben and I really should have pre-empted my own self indulgent lengthy monologue, by agreeing with Avril, Sally and Carrie, that you really should get this published. These new proposals just propagate our fears that, as well meaning as some might be, unless you’ve been through this, people do not truly understand the negative impact and duration of grief. This can feel isolating and alienating, not the best remedy for helping those who most need help, to get back on their feet.

    It’s all very well policy wonks drawing arbitrary lines in the sand, but I cannot believe that the British public would be against supporting young widowed families, for longer than a year. It is clearly in the interests of the grieving, but also in, my opinion, in the interests of society.

  8. sharrongordon
    October 28, 2013

    Last Paragragh….. Wow.. for the sake of humanity and compassion…To the powers that be. someone PLEASE LISTEN AND TAKE NOTE.

  9. Michael L
    October 28, 2013

    Wow, things are better financially in Canada, too. I lost my wife in 2011 and was left with two kids, 12 and 9. I received a $2500 (£1500) lump sum (intended to help cover funeral costs) and now receive about $290 (£170) per month for spousal bereavement, I believe for life, and about $425 (£250) per month for child support, either up to the age of 18 or until the kids are finished school, if they carry on to college or university.

    The money certainly helps to replace my wife’s fairly meagre income, but mostly it helps us to make as few downward adjustments as possible to the kids’ “quality of life”. I can still afford my daughter’s piano lessons and their school trips and sports and such. Anything that helps to maintain “normal” as much as possible has got to be good for them.

    I’m also able to claim a “spousal” deduction for my daughter on my annual income tax return, which helps out by another $4000 (£2375) a year or so. The income replacement is more than one less thing to have to worry about while you’re dealing with everything else. It touches on so many things. I’m making sure I take my kids away for a good holiday every year as I find those trips are great memory builders and they’ll cherish those new memories as they grow older. We had always planned to move closer to the high school when the kids reached their current ages and I think I’ll still be able to swing that. It wouldn’t be worth the trade-off at all if I had to work more hours and be away from the kids more often to be able to afford it.

  10. Nicki
    October 28, 2013

    Good blog Ben! And I agree, the Telegraph should print it. What also needs to be mentioned is that Widowed Parents Allowance is based on the National Insurance contributions of the parent who died. They will not be drawing a state pension, so a small proportion of the money they paid in goes to the surviving parent and children. If it only gets paid out for a year, there is going to be a profit being made somewhere.
    The current system isn’t perfect. People who were not married don’t get it, whatever the parents NI contributions, and it stops on re-marriage or co-habitation (new parter expected to support your child obviously!)
    I could go on….
    Thanks for drawing attention to this issue. It is important to have some degree of financial security while everything else is falling down around us. Losing an income, a tax allowance, an annual leave entitlement, and now the NI contributions – it is crap!
    Lots of love to you and that gorgeous boy of yours. I will be thinking of you these next weeks.
    Nicki x

  11. Jo
    October 28, 2013

    Another thought provoking piece that rang many chords with me. I had no idea about the payment, and at the time that Frank died I was totally incapable of doing anything other than ensuring that my children were fed, watered and at school on time. I’ve noticed that the latitude that I was afforded in the first few months is waning, and as I approach the first anniversary of my husband’s death I sense in all areas of life that I should be over it by now. I was starting to wonder whether there was something wrong with me. You’ve made me realise that time is indeed irrelevant, and it’s not my problem it’s theirs. Thank you.

  12. Sarah Pointer
    October 28, 2013

    Agree with you Ben, a year isn’t long enough to adjust, I don’t think a lifetime is. I think as bereavement payments are contribution based and not means tested they should be left alone. Maybe the government should concentrate more on tackling the ones abusing the welfare system rather than saving money via the easier option. A word of caution though, in my line of work, I have encountered many people who have lost benefits when their children leave education and having been out of employment for so long or only working part time, they find themselves unable to meet their needs, especially when they are still supporting their now adult children. I know this is a long way off but i think that is why I have chosen to stay in work.

  13. Ben Dyke
    October 29, 2013

    Can I add that as someone who lost his wife in 2010 leaving me with a 5 and 2 yr old, that not only is the one year ending premature but that it gets taken away just when u need it when u remarry. My second wife came into a situation involving 2 bereaved kids and a widowed man who was 39 and had been married for 15 years previously and it would have been helpful if the Widowed Parent Allowance tapered off over a period instead of abruptly ending. Life upon remarriage got harder for the kids in some ways and I was less able to plough into work (I am self employed) and my wife also had a massive (still has) readjustment of priorities in becoming a mum. I must add that the fact such a benefit exists at all has blown me away because I actually felt cared for by the state and I don’t think I ever will again! And I needed it and still do!

  14. Warren Hallam
    October 30, 2013

    Hi Ben, this is a great article. I lost my wife in June 2013 and have a 10 year old daughter, Lucy. My family support contact from the hospice where Lisa died often talks about you and your articles and shares your thoughts. I have made a call to our MP, Toby Perkins and am sending his office various pieces of information on this asking for his support on lobbying against this change.

    Unfortunately my wife didn’t work for various reasons throughout her life and subsequently didn’t pay her “stamp” for more than 12 months. This means that I wasn’t entiltled to the lump sum or the higher weekley payment so just get the standard family allowance payment. I have a reasonably paid job but still find juggling all this hard.

    I hope that you are able to get though the next month, I won’t offer advice as it is so personal to every one.

    Take care Warren

  15. Andy
    November 2, 2013

    Your bang right to highlight this Ben and I totally agree that our children’s needs become greater as time moves on. My son is becoming more curious and is displaying more signs of grief and upset as we try and move forwards together. The widowed parents allowance for me means that I do not need to sell our home and can continue to keep the security of his and my home providing I continue to work full time in my decently paid but equally high pressured full time job. If the goverment think that everything thing becomes rosy again twelve months on they are very very wide of the mark. I would seriously question how much if any insight they have considered from widowed parents. Perhaps they should target their cost cutting on the real problems in this country rather than penalising people who potentially have been paying tax for decades but through no fault of their own find themselves in an incredibly difficult and tragic circumstances. Rant over otherwise could go on and on i your both ok I am thinking of you both very much during this difficult month.

  16. I was 32 years old and 10 weeks pregnant when my husband died. I submitted for survivor pension (Canada) and was denied as I was younger than 34 and did not have any children with him. The idea that a 32 year old childless widow does not meet the same requirement for financial support as a 34 year old childless widow boggles me.

    Fortunately for me I was able to have the claim re-assessed once the baby was born. They required me to provide acknowledgement from him that she was his child… how the hell did they expect me to provide that, he died remember!?!… luckily (?not sure if I really consider it luck) we went through in vitro fertility treatments and I was able to provide copies of medical consent forms we signed for the procedures, but if it was a natural pregnancy it would have been impossible!

    In the end we were approved, but how many young widows and widowers in Canada find themselves in extreme financial difficulties because they were 33 years old when their spouse died instead of 34?

  17. simone
    April 18, 2014

    I agree with Sally you should submit this. My sympathies to you and your son, I truly understand how difficult it is. I lost my husband in a motorbike accident when my daughter had just turned 3, she is now 13 ( I was 34). There is very little understanding of childrens grief and even less help when it is needed as they get older. There are different stages as children understand more. There is a general feeling not just with adults but also with children that they shoudl “be over it”. This is most definitely not the case. Whilst they trundle along for months or years at a time, events such as loosing a friend or member of the family will of course bring everything to the fore. Whilst they are younger this is easier although heart wrenching to deal with, when they get a little older it is more difficult lossing ther childhood beliefs leads to losts of questions, post 10 they will hide their emotions to save worrying you, add on puperty to the mix and things can get very messy indeed. The more intelligent the child the more complicated things become. The reason I say all this is not to scare you but to prepare you of the possibilies ahead, there was nothing out there for me when my daughter was young. I find I need more time, energy and yes money for bereavement councelling for my daughter ( NHS help is non exisitent) to support my daughter during this very diffcult time and unfortunatley the likes of Winstons Wish who are amazing I have head have nothing in this my area. I had anticipated stupidly I would be able to return to full time work around this time, this which is out of the question.
    The government actualy chooses carefully to reduce benefits to small pockets of the populations who can’t fight back such as widows/widowers and the elderly those least likely to be trying to get what are not due.
    We are indeed heading for the Victorian era where you have no choice but to remarry. I have lost count of the number of times people have asked why i havent remarried as if there is something wrong with me!!!! I just havent been fortuante enough to meet the right person yet. I can’t believe how little the goverment are giving ( well taking from partners NI) I coudl not have survived without working ridiculous hours without the widowed parents allowance, it has allowed me to be there for my daughter when she was young. Oh well at least with the new benefit you are not penalised for years on your tax, with the benfit being taken away if you are lucky enough to a some point to meet a new partner, have the energy and emotional wherewithal to sustain a relationship whilst trying to bring up and support your child alone and set up home together. If you do this the benefit goes and if the relationship doesn’t work out it doesn’t come back.I have never understood the the tax side the benfit is for the child, stops when the child is 16, is from the lost partners NI contributions and yet we are taxed, and indeed should we find it difficult to find work around school hours we can’t claim job seekers, I recently for the first time ever had no work for 3 months it was a nightmare! I like you had no idea about the benefits system, having worked full time since I was 16 then part time from when my daugther was 7 months. My mum dealt with all the forms as I just couldn’t. I used to be embarrassed to be receiving this benfit until I thought about all the years my husband had paid higher bracket tax and ni and thought actually yes my daughter she benefit a littlefrom his years of hard work.

    The light is always our child/children the only plus is that the relationship with them although bumpy at times is stronger that any other parent – chiid relationship. Hard as it is enjoy every minute of your little one you can, I have no regrets in decidign to work part time to be able to be there for my daughter, having as much fun as possible especially when she was younger. it is a struggle financially and I don’t give my daughter loads of stuff but she has had my time .
    You can’t put a price or a time limit on being a parent who is there.

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