Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

parallel starts

One thing I’ve often thought about over the past couple of years is the allure of the so-called ‘fresh start’. This tempting notion offers those whose lives have been so unexpectedly altered and damaged by loss enticing options to be reborn through change. Move away, make a new place home, leave the past behind, try something different, make new friends – these whispers can enter our brains and invite us to see adjustment as a sure means to start afresh.

This subconscious promise that newness will enable us to completely begin again rarely follows through on its word, though. Human beings may find the strength to carry on through difficult times but we would be mere machines if we were able to totally reboot following trauma. ‘Have you tried turning yourself off and then back on again?’ they might say otherwise. And how simple a life that operated mechanically would be.

This week I started a new job and for the first time in as long as I can remember I felt excited. The change of scenery, fresh challenges to face, the chance to meet new people, and the stimulation of having new problems to solve are all things that I feel ready to take on once again. And yet, ever since I accepted the role, my lips have kept speaking words that I know my mind doesn’t really mean: ‘A chance for a new start,’ they utter. It seems that the more time passes the more cliches spill from my mouth.

I was chatting to someone about this very notion just the other day when I quite clearly pictured what new experiences in my post-traumatic life have actually become: parallel starts.

From the point of view of a person who has lost someone so close, it would be madness to think that a new job, a new car, a new wardrobe, a new house or even a new relationship could wipe a mental and emotional slate clean enough to be defined as truly new. And yet many of these things do often indicate to others that the bereaved are in fact starting again (that they are now ‘fine’, even).

It’s not really my business what other people think of me – or what they think of others in a similar position to myself for that matter – but I know I can speak for many other widows and widowers when I say that we often reach for ‘newness’ believing it (at least temporarily) able to fix us. But, invariably, a little time passes by, newness fades and we realise that we didn’t really believe that it would or could take away all the pain in the first place. It was just hope getting us through after all.

What I’ve learned about myself recently is that I’m more comfortable living within the realms of realism than optimism. Picturing myself walking down two of life’s lanes at the same time – one built around the past (which I cannot escape) and one built around the future (which I work towards making positive) gives me a sense of security and wellbeing that hope alone cannot provide. I need to feel more in control; I need to feel more pragmatic.

In my mind this idea of parallel starts allows me to play two roles simultaneously. When this thought first entered my mind I immediately saw myself as both the hare and tortoise from Aesop’s fable.

The hare in me, I realised, often races ahead at great speed desperately trying to appear strong and victorious in the face of grief. But ultimately my need to save face and put on a show for others often makes me fall behind in a race that deep down I know can’t even truly be won.

The tortoise in me, on the other hand, knows that the only hope he has in defeating his superior opponent is that he will at some point defeat himself. But, as I’ve already said, hope alone isn’t enough for me. And if I can be both characters simultaneously, what does it even matter if one sometimes drops behind while another takes the lead? Suddenly I acknowledge that, come what may, it’s more important for me to realise that it’s possible for both to play their part in this endless journey that can be run or crawled but that, either way, will endure and won’t be won.

Although my depiction of this tale differs from the traditional fable itself, there is still a lot I can draw from its protagonists: when it comes to grief there’s little to be gained from speeding ahead when there isn’t even finish line to cross. There may be moments when the bereaved appear strong, determined, unbeatable even, but ultimately pushing things too hard often only leaves us falling back behind. Sometimes we need to run and be cheered on to feel alive once again. But perhaps it’s when we can muster little other than a sluggish crawl that we really need to know that there is still support from the sidelines.

12 comments on “parallel starts

  1. Margaret S
    October 21, 2014

    Good luck in your new job.

  2. Rishi
    October 21, 2014

    Nothing fixes anything, we learn to live with the pieces that are left. It’s something which is almost impossible to grasp from the other side. Wish you luck in your new job.

  3. Bill Wright
    October 21, 2014

    I get this. Good luck with the new job Ben

    • Jay
      October 21, 2014

      How are you Bill?

  4. Jay
    October 21, 2014

    All the best Ben.

  5. nathaliehickson
    October 22, 2014

    Really like your post, well expressed. I think your posts help me tap into my emotions. I have not experienced the loss you & your child have but can relate. I have been thinking of change & moving on but with a child not possible. Life is unpredictable & have to dig deep & ride the waves. I take things moment by moment & seems to help and am grateful for what I do have. Good luck with your new job.

  6. handikwani02
    October 22, 2014

    Nice to have you back Ben, your blog is always refreshing to read. My take on fresh start is not about erasing one’s past because one’s past is part of one’s history. In your case I would not see that happening as you were and will continue to love Desreen. I see fresh start presenting new challenges and having the joy of streching one’s abilties. Perhaps one has to embrace the new opportunities fresh starts may present. Trust you and Jackson had an enjoyable summer time out. All the best in your new job.

  7. Julia
    October 22, 2014

    It is so good to hear from you and encouraging to hear about your job. The way you have opened your heart has helped me so much to understand how my daughter feels who has suffered in the same way as you unfortunately. Your words are a comfort to me. Thank you Ben for helping me.

  8. Miguel
    October 23, 2014

    What I called “life” died with my wife, goals, dreams, purposes, vanished, even words, smells, sounds, gestures, gone. I have the option of trying to hold on to the past and wither away or keeping moving forward, putting one feet in front of the other in the hope that somewhere, somewhen, things will make some kind of existential sense. New as in different from before, yes, never as in replacement of what was. The fact that I can find excitement, pleasure and meaning in the “new” things I experience goes is not incompatible with an unwavering “saudade”.

    (from Wikipedia)” Saudade is a Portuguese or Galician word that has no direct translation in English. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Saudade was once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone or something that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.

  9. philandmandi
    October 25, 2014

    I am just exhausted, all the time. Good luck with your new job, I hope your Jackson and you are well

  10. Meche
    December 24, 2014

    My partner died July 17, 2014 of cmml leukemia. We have a 12 year old son who has moderate to severe autism. I can’t believe things worked out they way they have and never imagined that I’d be raising him alone. We’re getting ready to move across the country to be close to my family and friends. I’ve also heard myself say things like fresh start, new chapter, etc. I’m trying hard to be excited but I’m also worried, very worried that I don’t have what it takes to make a go of things, to be the responsible party, to not have him to turn to and ask, what should we do? I’m also sad to be leaving behind the life we had even as I head toward our new beginning. I can’t imagine the shock you experienced at your wife’s sudden death. I feel shocked and we had years to prepare for the worst. Wishing you and your son love and light.

  11. Lauri
    July 18, 2016

    Thank you for being so open, honest and completely vulnerable. Sharing the grief caused by the death of your spouse is scary mostly because, at least with me, I always doubt how I am grieving. Should I drink myself in a coma to deaden the pain? – and this thought occurs more frequently as time passes. Should I wear black? Should I wear any other color than black so my mourning won’t be noticed? If I keep smiling – so others think I am “ok” and they smile back – will that allow me to keep my sanity in public – rather than see pity in their eyes which would cause a two-day long attempt at getting my balance again ? I get it all and it’s so much deeper. sadder and all-encompassing than I ever could have imagined. BUT our job – now alone – is to cherish all that is good and beautiful every day because we’ve seen the other side of joy and because of our pain life will never feel, taste or look the same again. WE must find a new way to live.

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