A story of grief by a man and a boy
One of the things I really struggle with as a widowed dad raising a toddler alone is that I find myself constantly questioning what my son’s behaviour would be like if his mum were still alive. Take this evening, which was his nursery’s Christmas play, as an example. When we arrived he went straight to one of the carers to have a hat placed on his head to assume his role as a star in the nativity. He seemed a little coy as he walked into the church hall filled with other children and parents, so I offered to come to the front of the room with him and join in with the play. He took my hand but I could sense that he wasn’t keen to participate. First he removed his star, then off came the bobble he’d be given to tie his hair back, and then came the temper, which suggested to me that it was game over. I knew there was no way he was going to take part; I know exactly when my son has passed his point of no return.
It doesn’t really trouble me if Jackson goes through life without attempting to play to a crowd, because I know that his mum and I were both exactly the same as children. I am troubled, however, by the questions that rush into my head when I see him in a situation that seems to be making him uncomfortable. While other smiling parents and grandparents watched tonight’s festivities unfold, I wondered if it was the fact that all the other kids’ mums were there that was making him irritable. I wondered if the situation was bringing back memories of this time last year, when we attended a similar service just five weeks after his mummy was killed. I wondered if perhaps I was pushing our son too hard by surrounding him with so many happy families at Christmas time. And then I wondered if was just overthinking everything; perhaps the fact that he’d spotted a huge pile of cakes on his way into the building meant that he couldn’t focus his mind on anything other than eating them. Perhaps grief didn’t come into it all for him; maybe it’s just my plaguing grief that makes me question everything.
Once I had Jackson settled and filled with more sugar than a child of his age can handle without going crazy, I turned my thoughts from what was going on in his head to what was going on in mine. I took a moment to consider how I felt about being there.
I felt happy to see all of the other kids having fun. I felt proud of my friends’ three-year-old daughter – Jackson’s best friend – for narrating the whole nativity play from memory to a stunned audience. I felt pleased for the other parents that they were able to enjoy the moment. I felt sad for Jackson that his mummy wasn’t there with him. I felt sad for my wife that she wasn’t there with him too. I felt sad for myself as well. I felt a bit out of place. I felt a bit like I wasn’t really there. I felt like I was in the scene in A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present and taken to witness various joyous festive celebrations – but tonight my outlook felt bleak and weary like Ebenezer’s. I felt like I was looking back at the ghost of my own happy Christmas past. I felt gloomy about the spirit with which I’ll approach our Christmases yet to come.
As I stood at the sidelines holding my dejected child in my arms, I noticed one of the other dads beam at his son, who was singing to the audience, as the boy’s mum wiped a tear of pride from her eye. In that single moment I witnessed everything I expected early parenthood to be. And while others returned home with the warmth of Christmas in their hearts, I could focus on little else than the torturous questions tormenting my mind.
Perhaps Jackson wouldn’t have wanted to join in even if his mum had been there too. Perhaps all he wanted was to get his hands on the buffet. Perhaps he just doesn’t like getting up in front of a crowd. Perhaps I wouldn’t have given any of these things a second thought if grief had never come our way. But it has and I can tell you that it’s bloody hard work.