Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

being vulnerable

It has occurred to me on several occasions that sometimes I might actually alienate the people I hoped to reach when I first launched this blog: other widows and widowers also suffering the often overwhelming pain of grief. Until earlier this week, when I received a short Facebook message from a young widower, I was never quite sure why this thought troubled me. ‘You seem to be coping so well. I wish I had your strength,’ she said.

It can be difficult for anyone to see others appearing to be doing better than themselves. In ‘normal’ life this can create insecurities amongst family and friends around issues such as money, relationships, possessions and career success. For people who have lost their partners, the issues may also include the happiness of others; it can be challenging to be around happy couples (and perhaps even more challenging to be around unhappy ones). Personally I’ve always found it hard when widowed people tell me that they are X many years down the line and they are now doing great. The rational part of my brain tells me that this is a good thing and that it’s reassuring to hear that life can go on. The emotional part, however, can get a little caustic and spit out an unspoken comment like, ‘Well bully for you because I’m not!’

This lady’s message made me wonder whether certain things I’ve done since my wife died might actually have made some of the people I had hoped to help actually feel worse. Certain aspects of grief can be hard to explain so for this one I’ve chosen to go off piste with an analogy instead. When I take Jackson to a children’s party a big part of me absolutely dreads it. In fact usually the only part that doesn’t is my stomach because I know I’ll get to eat loads of things I usually try to avoid. Every other part of me dreads the comparisons that I’ll inevitably draw between Jackson and the other kids in terms of his development. I dread how he’ll behave knowing that he tends to have a really bad temper around people he doesn’t know. I dread the embarrassment I’ll feel when he demonstrates quite how much he loathes sharing. I dread what I might say to another parent if they say anything derogatory about his sometimes challenging behaviour because I’m fiercely loyal towards him and because I know what a tough time he’s going through in his confused little head. But most of all I dread seeing the other kids eating things like carrot sticks dipped in humous.

‘Timothy just loves olives. I mean, he can eat an entire pot from the Waitrose deli counter without even coming up for air. His absolute favourite variety is the Kalamata olive. What’s Jackson’s favourite type?’ I imagine another parent asking as I enter the room.

‘Oh, Jackson doesn’t eat anything green except for the icing off a Shrek birthday cake,’ I would reply before making my excuses to end the conversation.

I tend to find that it’s other parents that make me feel inadequate as a father. Given how challenging it can be you would think that there would be more solidarity in parenthood, but sometimes it just feels like a competition. Perhaps that’s because when you’re standing in a room with another adult you’ve never met, the only thing you immediately seem to have in common – apart from having a pulse – is that you both had sex once and that intercourse led to the birth of a child. And so that’s what you talk about (usually the child rather than the sex, but it’s something to think about for next time). Then it all turns into how many languages they could speak by the time they were three, what medals they won for their recent equestrian pursuits and how they were able to swim like Michael Phelps upon first breathing oxygen in the birthing pool. This sense of competitive parenting is probably not very helpful for anyone with any ounce of insecurity but when you’re raising a child alone because your wife has died and you’ve spent months with barely the motivation to get in the bath, it can be hard to find the drive to train your child to Olympic standard at the local swimming pool.

What I try to remember, however, is that you never get the full measure of a parent (or indeed any person) in just one conversation. Their child may choose fruit and vegetables over crisps and cakes at the buffet table but I’m always positive that they still have their meltdowns in the supermarket when they find the organic kumquats are out of stock. The fact is we only really tend to get a person’s headlines through brief conversation; we don’t see full copy beneath unless we get to know them well.

When this widowed lady wrote to me earlier this week I understood the impact that these personal headlines can have on the perception of others. From afar she thinks that I’m strong; being on the inside, I don’t. In fact I made it clear from the very first days of writing this blog that strength wasn’t important to me. Straight after my wife died I tried to prove to myself and to others just how strong I could be and I ended up hating the person I became. I was callous in some of the things that I said and dismissive of my grief. I tried too hard to act like Superman and it left me exhausted, anxious and, ultimately, depressed. I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t have to try to be a hero or prove myself to anyone. I let the grief take hold in the hope that I might be able to work through it if I stopped trying to run from it. I made up my mind to face whatever feelings came my way and to deal with them in whatever way felt appropriate at the time. Some days that meant not being able to find the will to get out of bed in the morning. Some days that meant sobbing myself into an emergency appointment with my GP in a reception packed full of people staring at grown man with tears violently streaming down his face. Some days that meant getting ill from the anxiety of stepping outside my front door. Some days it meant drinking so much that I’d make myself sick. And every single day it meant writing.

It’s simple really; some bereaved people throw themselves at sport, some at alcohol, some at travel and some at new relationships. I chose to write things down. Some things I shared in great detail and others I didn’t share at all. Those who have followed our story from the start will probably feel like they know a lot about my son and me, but as many bereaved people will know, no one really sees the full story about how we feel unless they are on the inside with us.

In some ways I imagine that I share so much of what I’m going through to help try to convince myself that my son and I are doing okay. Perhaps the act of documenting each day gives me the opportunity to evaluate our progress and give some context to the confusion we’re both living through. But when I read that message the other day, I quickly realised that nothing that I have done over the past year has been about attempting to be strong; it has all been about trying to muster the courage to be vulnerable. And that’s a hard path to choose – perhaps especially as a man – when society tends to dictate that strength is, well, a strength and vulnerability is a weakness.

12 comments on “being vulnerable

  1. Julia
    January 19, 2014

    This moved me in lots of ways, Ben.The bits about parenting and the competitive and daunting minefield that it is really resonated with me. I agonise a lot about my 3- year-olds eating (or non-eating unless it is white refined flour and sugar); his behaviour is so unpredictable and embarrassing at times that I can lay in bed at night engulfed by anxiety and fear about why he is like this. But I think it is more than anything the fear of what others think and how I compare him to other children and myself to other mothers. One of the hardest parts of parenting is other parents. I was completely unprepared for it. I have slowly formed my inner circle of parent friends; the ones who are willing to be honest, who don’t brag about their kids getting up at 9am or eating wilted chard for breakfast. The inner circle are the ones who admit to the vulnerabilities and the fear of so much of the unknown of parenting. I am being kinder to myself and learning to laugh at my son and I both negotiating the messy business of how to express our negative feelings. The ‘wilted chard crew’ can stay in the organic delis as far as I’m concerned!

    • Life as a Widower
      January 19, 2014

      I may just have to go and amend my post, delete your comment and pretend that I came up with the ‘wilted chard for breakfast’. Hilarious. Thanks for giving me a laugh. I think you’re bang on too for what it’s worth. When another kid kicks off at a party I don’t give a shit. When Jackson does though I often want the ground to open and swallow me up. I went to one today and he was well let’s say rather for forceful, but I just sat back and thought ‘Jackson is Jackson’ and he’s been ‘rather forceful’ since the moment he was born, if not before.

  2. Paul R
    January 19, 2014

    You are right, no one in the early stages of grief wants, or is willing, to hear that it gets better. I’m six months in advance of you on this journey and there was no way I could have understood emotionally that I’d be where I am today. While you are targeting younger widows/widowers I have found your words true to acknowledging grief. I’m 20 years your senior and my wife and I never had any children, but your words have helped, provoked thoughts and challenges, and encouraged me. Everyone’s grief journey is different and some take longer than others, but the common thread is that it hurts like hell and no one wants to be on this journey.

  3. Fi
    January 19, 2014

    Ben, I sometimes have the opposite worry about this grief journey- ie that I’m not upset enough when compared to others. I miss my partner every day, but as I was single for a long time before we met, I don’t have the worries that other widows have about living alone, or doing my own DIY etc. I didn’t take months off work, I haven’t been depressed or seen a counsellor, so I do sometimes think I’m not sad or grief-stricken enough when compared to other widowed friends. It seems odd that in dealing with the worst thing that has ever happened to me, I’m still worried about what others may think or how I compare.

    January 19, 2014

    Thanks for accepting me, have pre booked the book on Amazon.
    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

  5. Kat
    January 19, 2014

    I’ve just found your blog this week and haven’t been able read much yet as my dad is in intensive care. Thank you for sharing, just hearing about your experience is helpful.
    On the subject of comparing kids, mine is one of the ‘eat a bowl of olives & anchovies for breakfast’ but on the other hand, I couldn’t get him to the school disco if my life depended on it. They’re all nuts, but in different ways. A bit like grown ups I guess!

  6. Jenaluk
    January 20, 2014

    You have an amazing way with words and really made me laugh this morning regarding the olives from waitrose etc I have followed you from the beginning and you are doing a wonderful job for the 2 of you !

  7. Martin
    January 20, 2014

    Since day one of when my partner passed my family have been telling me to “be strong” and “don’t crack up, you have to be strong for her family”. One member even asked “when will you be over it?”. We had only been seeing each other for 8months when she suddenly passed due to a brain aneurism and it seems that some people didn’t think that was a long enough time to get properly attached or that because we were not married it doesn’t hurt as much. If you’re not married to someone when they pass what are you? Just another griever? I feel very lost and I am sick of trying to be strong, even as a write this I feel like I shouldn’t be burdening you with my problems.

    I know 1 bloke who has had the same sort of thing happen, and when we see each other there is a look in our eyes that screams “I need help, I need to show you how vulnerable I am”, but all we do is pretend everything is ok and how “strong” we are. I think a main reason behind this is that I/ we have lost that person in our lives that loved us for who we were, not because they had to. Loved us even when we couldn’t be strong, when we were vulnerable or if we made mistakes, I know I did with her, and we are scared that no one will treat us like that again. Reading your blog has really helped me to realise that it is ok to be vulnerable, something I knew already, but have only just started to embrace. Even writing this and letting people see it is big for me. Thanks for writing these blogs, it has really helped me to get to my conclusion. Now I know that I don’t have to act strong, I can be strong when I want, just like I can be vulnerable when I want.

  8. Lunar Hine
    January 20, 2014

    Yes to all of the above. A good friend recently sent me a quote which went something like:

    ‘Behind every great child is a parent pretty sure they’re screwing it up.’

    I feel I need to do at least twice as well as two-parent families to compensate for my girl’s loss. I know it’s not rational, but I really wish I could do that. On the plus side, she does eat olives :o).

  9. handikwani02
    January 21, 2014

    Ben I agree with you that it is not possible to share all your daily expereinces about the journey you and your son are on, yet what you share does show that life is not easy in such circumstances but you try to make the best out of what you have got. That does not mean it is all plain sailing bringing up children is an exploration one can never predict how their child will turn out but one can only hope they are doing their best for their child interms of the values one wants their child to adopt. Every child is unique in their own way they can not be someone else except being themselves that is what I can say.

  10. Rosemary leader
    October 14, 2014

    I was a child in the early 1950’s and I don’t think our parents worried a fig like they do now. Mostly they were just glad they had survived the war and had some kids. I think you sound a great person and as a widow myself of 8 months I know of some of the pain you experience and my heart goes out to you. But never let other parents intimidate you. They are not worth it!

  11. Mary
    June 8, 2016

    I am a widow too,aged 33,suddenly today evening I happened to come across this blog and some of the things are exactly what i am going through but cannot put into words…i enjoy each and every single words of your story and i can inderstand much.thank you.your write up helps alot.

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