A story of grief by a man and a boy

smiley faces

I’ve felt a great degree of tension about how to best raise my son since my wife was killed. Immediately after her death I did my very best to act happy in front of Jackson during the day and then later retreat to my room to grieve honestly and alone. He was only two years old at the time but he was never daft; Jackson was aware of the change in me from the night his mum disappeared.

For months afterwards our relationship was challenging. When I felt at my lowest he was often at his most buoyant; when I felt okay his mood and behaviour clashed with mine and brought me back down. I think we both found it hard to deal with the fact that we weren’t always able to provide each other with a substantial enough dose of happiness to take away the pain of such intense grief. But I made a decision to be honest about my feelings with my son. I kept hearing stories about how children who had lost their mothers at an early age weren’t allowed to talk about them again in case they upset their fathers. I realised that I wanted to raise a child who understands that it’s okay to express his feelings, and that for me to hide mine would probably only end up demonising his.

Thankfully I am able to say that things have softened a little, lately. I suppose that through the struggles I’ve experienced in coming to terms with losing Desreen, the time I’ve taken off work, and my constant analysis of Jackson’s behaviour, I have probably become a better parent. I’m more patient, attentive and happy to admit when I’m the one in the wrong. It took me some time to realise that when he got the worst of me, I got the worst of him. Just today I noticed how much he retreated when I told him off for something that wasn’t really his fault (let’s just say he could have given me a little more warning before he did what he needed to do). I’m having a bad weekend because of a good night out on Friday – an all-too-frequent emotional response that hits me every time I try to enjoy myself, leaving me wondering whether I’d be better off boarding up my front door and living life as a hermit. When I saw Jackson’s reaction to my stern words – his back turned, his eyes refusing to meet mine, and his lips pouting deliberately and comedicaly – I knew it was time for me to apologise and when I did we were quickly friends again.

When Desreen was alive she often used to get asked what was wrong because she had a habit of contorting her face in such a manner that gave the impression that she was cross. I knew there was nothing the matter with her at all, but when people quizzed her about her mood it was then that she would get mad. ‘This is just my face!’ she would exclaim in a tone that only served to justify the enquirer’s concerns. Well I’ve thought of that face all weekend because of something that Jackson keeps saying to me.

‘What’s wrong, Jack-Jack?’ I’ve asked him several times as he has appeared to retreat from me. ‘Daddy’s not got a smiley face,’ he keeps replying, sadly.

And he’s right, Daddy’s not got a smiley face. But what’s a man supposed to do? I suppose I could ‘put on a brave face’. I guess I could ‘be strong’. Lying about how I feel is an option, too. I think there’s tension in all of the decisions we make about raising our children alone, just as there is evidently tension in my face. Perhaps in so conscientiously trying to build a happy life for my son and myself, Jackson notices more than most when his daddy seems sad. Maybe other kids say this to their parents all the time, too. It could be that I think too much and that if life hadn’t dealt me this hand I would dismiss his remarks as ‘funny’ or ‘cute’. But I suppose if I can take anything positive from his rather heartbreaking observation it would be that he’s not asking me why I am smiling. Thankfully he’s still familiar enough with that facial expression for it not to be his source of surprise, shock or even sorrow.


5 comments on “smiley faces

  1. Claudio Faenza Keplinger
    March 16, 2014

    Word by word is what I’m going now, incredible, I try to be strong in front of my son and hide my emotions

  2. handikwani02
    March 16, 2014

    He is just cute, his face brings a lot of sunshine no wonder he likes smiley faces!

  3. handikwani02
    March 16, 2014

    He is just cute, he brings a lot of sunshine no wonder he likes smiley faces!

  4. petrovna4
    May 26, 2014

    Ben, I have been lead to your blog by a dear friend today. I am so sorry for your loss. I am planning on getting your book as I need guidance. I have lost my husband of only 4 years this February in an accident, the day after Valentine’s Day and we also have a two year old boy. I am at a loss when it comes to trying to explain to him that papa is not coming back ever. How does a two-year old understand? HIs dad was often away so he thinks that he is coming back or when we go home (we moved away for a year only in January) papa will be there. But now it has been too long and he started to ask a lot for his papa.They are such sensitive antennae, little children, they feel exactly when one is not right. He sees me cry and comments on it with a sad face, because he feels that I am sad. It breaks my heart every day, that I cannot be the mum I would so much love to be to him; a happy, funny mum with lots of energy and ideas.. how to do this???? I cannot hide my emotions from him, because they knock me over all the time.
    I am looking forward to reading your book, it will be the first thing I read since I have not been able to read ever since it happened and I will definitively keep reading your blog. It is inspiring and very very human. I wish you many small moments of light and happiness with a smiley face. Your son looks a treasure!

    • Life as a Widower
      June 2, 2014

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in saying you cannot be the mum you would so love to be. I can’t be that father, either. But we’ve suffered such a huge loss, so how could we be? I think that grief is hard enough without putting more pressure on ourselves. I’d rather my son knew that I was devastated at the loss of his mum than have him think that I was able to carry on as before. I want him to feel okay in expressing his emotions in later life, though, and if I don’t express mine as his role model, what chance will he have? Life can’t be what it once was so all we can hope for is that it gets easier to deal with and still offers happy times.

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