A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
Hangovers are a funny old business. In that moment when I’m about to down something that looks radioactive and tastes like it might kill me, I rarely think ahead to how bad I’ll feel the next day. And it doesn’t matter how many times I suffer, I never seem to learn from my mistakes.
There’s an anticipatory element of grief that puts me in mind of this same failure to absorb lessons from the past: there’s the dread of significant calendar dates that loom on the horizon, there’s the fear of doing things for the first time without the wife I’ve lost, there’s the anxiety I feel about stepping out of the safe environment I’ve built for my son and myself in our home, and there’s the issue of putting things off that I worry are going to make me feel worse than I already do. And yet when the dates, situations or milestones come around they somehow never seem to be as bad as I anticipated.
Perhaps it’s like the process of hangover in reverse: rather than using my energy to have fun, it is all taken up by feeling so bad; and instead of waking up feeling terrible the next day, I tend to find that the pain isn’t nearly as agonising as I expected. But still I never learn.
In November 2012, just after my wife was killed, I visited an undertaker with my father-in-law. He talked us through all of the options for an event that we never imagined we’d have to plan – a funeral for the woman I married just fourteen months before. Unchangeable decisions needed to be made quickly at a time when it was hard to commit to the simplest of things, like choosing between coffee and tea.
‘The headstone can wait,’ he told us. ‘The ground needs to settle for at least six months before we can do anything.’
One less thing to worry about, I thought. I was wrong. Sure, the stone could not be fixed immediately after the funeral, but I hadn’t realised quite how long it takes to have one made. Having misunderstood the timeframes mentioned, I waited seven or eight months after Desreen’s death before making any calls. ‘You’re looking at about a year for that kind of thing,’ was generally what I was told. It had to be perfect because I knew exactly how I wanted it to look, but I felt so dejected by the idea that it would take so long for me to do my wife justice.
I finally found a stonemason (click on this link to find an artist in your area) who I trusted to see the job through and he told me he could make it sooner than many others had suggested. And as impossible as it should be for me to say this, the end result is really quite beautiful. I suspect, if living people were this way inclined, Desreen would even have chosen it herself.
When I saw it for the first time this week, having dreaded the moment for months on end, I felt my shoulders drop with relief. For so long I’d imagined that somehow this eventual visit to the cemetery would floor me, that Desreen’s death would somehow feel more real and that it would be the point at which I broke. But instead I felt a great sense of alleviation. No longer would I have to watch the varnish on her cross-shaped wooden grave marker weather away more each time I visited. Never again would I have to see the rust that grew on the metal nameplate, which told visitors nothing of her short-lived existence. For the first time in that churchyard, her grave reminded of her beautiful life and not just her untimely death.
As I walked away I reminded myself that, as inevitable as it may be, dread really serves little purpose. I questioned whether reminding myself of this in future might help me to overcome my own anxieties as they arise. I wondered whether the feelings I’d just felt might finally make me learn from my experiences of the past. And yet something told me that I’d still got a very long way to go. I’ve been telling my mates I don’t do shots since I was eighteen years old, but somehow, sixteen years on, I always mange to wake up with a mouth that tastes like Jägermeister the morning after the night before.