Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

los muertos

“Life can be really tough for the living.” – Mary Beth, The Book of Life 

It was Halloween yesterday and as I tucked Jackson up in bed late last night I realised that, of the two of us, I was the one that had spent the day scared. In fact these days I spend a lot of my life in fear. I make preemptive decisions about how my little boy is going to respond to new situations and my own angst and insecurity can limit the experiences I’ll expose him to. I conclude that he won’t sit through a film at the cinema, or that he’ll put himself in the corner at a party where he doesn’t know any other kids, or even that he’ll get too nervous to go trick or treating with them afterwards. For one person who never really used to concern himself with self-limitating behaviour, I do a pretty good job of it for two these days.

I suppose, then, I picked a pretty apt day to face my fears. Halloween 2014 – a date I was dreading because it was one that Desreen loved so much – will go down as the day I took Jackson to the pictures for the first time, and I could never have imagined that I would be quite so engaged in the film.

I innocently selected the only kids flick that was showing but it turned out that The Book of Life was in fact about death. Just minutes in and we were watching a little boy standing beside his mother’s grave in Mexico and placing offerings to mark El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). I immediately thought, Why does every fucking animated movie I watch with my son feature the death of a mother? But it was beautiful, lively, stimulating, funny, touching and refreshingly frank. And Jackson was too. ‘Oh God, more boring things!’ he shouted at the top of his voice in front of the other families in the room as yet another ad hit the big screen. I was petrified that he’d want to leave the theatre almost as soon as we arrived, but instead, as he always does, he simply reflected himself rather than my insecurities. He ate popcorn, took the storyline in his stride and had a great time.

Next up we went to a party that we’d been invited to by a neighbour we didn’t know just as we’d been leaving the house to head to the cinema. My anxiety was sky-high as Jackson said he wanted to go home before he’d even made it up the driveway of the house directly opposite from ours. We’d been seen already, though, and so there was no escape without looking crazy. I have to remind myself over and over that my son takes at least an hour to warm up and that it’s my job to make him feel comfortable and confident in any new environment. This time it took less; within half an hour he’d befriended a cat, Darth Vader and a couple of zombies, and within two hours, as I made feeble excuses for us to opt out of trick or treating, he absolutely insisted that we did.

What a brave little boy, I thought as he ran from door to door collecting sweets and chocolate. He’d spent the whole day doing things he’d never done before with people he’d never met and yet all I’d done was think about how scared was of how he’d react.

Life can be tough for the living, though, and loss can make us insecure. What I learned yesterday is that sometimes I create my son’s insecurities in my own head as a way to avoid facing my own.

There were a lot of scary masks out in the streets last night and perhaps seeing them made me realise that I might need to try harder to remove mine. How frightening it is to think that we might both be missing out on the lighter side of life while we skulk in Death’s dark shadow.

La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered

La Muerte, ruler of the Land of the Remembered in The Book of Life

10 comments on “los muertos

    November 1, 2014

    It is called “The Confidence Game” that a teacher, long gone taught me many, many years ago. I suffered and suffer from severe anxiety but I did not want my kids to suffer the same. I didn’t let on ( as much as possible) how very afraid I was so many times. I acted. Both of them, now in college, have very strong egos, especially ” the first born son.” As my mom used to say to me, “it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it” and believe me she was not giving me a compliment at the time! Good Luck. Laurie

  2. Margaret S
    November 1, 2014

    Ben as always your posts are inspirational, so pleased that you coped so well and it is wonderful to see your blogs again.

  3. Carla Girod
    November 1, 2014

    Truly moving and thought provoking. I loved the dichotomy of going to “the book of life” which was about death, and facing your fears about missing out on life at the same time. Stay strong.

  4. Julie Nimmo
    November 2, 2014

    It’s lovely to see you blogging again Ben, and wonderful to read about how Jackson has grown into such a confident little boy. You are an amazing dad for sure 🙂

  5. Rachel
    November 2, 2014

    Ben , I run a group for families that have lost a parent I sorted them all tickets to Cinderella last year at the theatre , 60 people all bereaved , first scene the death of the mother . I felt terrible , the kids loved the play . The parents tease me about it all the time , I feel so lucky to be able to support others but my heart breaks often I read your blog all the time your words are so true and so touching, thank you for writing them.

  6. Michael
    November 2, 2014

    Think I’ll go and see The Book of Life you inspired me as always…

  7. handikwani02
    November 2, 2014

    Glad that the two of you had a day full of fun, as always your blogs reflect deep insights to life expereinces. I so look forward to reading them every week!

  8. Natalie hurst
    November 2, 2014

    Love seeing your blogs again x without sounding silly and knowing how hard it is myself – I am so happy Jackson enjoyed Halloween and wishing you every chance to find the light side of life whenever you can – you deserve every second of lightness x

    November 2, 2014

    Not sure if these emails find their way to you, I have read your blogs and bought your book, my colleague James Erskine suggested I start reading your blogs. I haven’t found the strength to read your book yet, but it sits on my bedside cabinet as a reminder I will one day. The way you seem to articulate your loss and grief, trying to find a way to marry the reality you and your son survived the terrible accident while your wife was cruelly taken from you both is exceptional and resonates within me.

    I too cannot quite accept the injustice in moving forward without my loved ones. And yet we have to, for them some days more than for ourselves, as they would be appalled at our behaviour. Yet if the circumstance were reversed I believe it would be the same. They would be in turmoil and we would be trying to support them somehow from another place (I don’t know it exists but I try to hope).

    I don’t think you will miss out on the lighter side of life , your son will be your strength into this. It occurs to me you are an exceptional father (and mother), blessed with the ability of absorbing the essence of your loved one. Not knowing you or Desreen what comes through your writing is your struggle to make sure your child knows his mother, to me this is so important and the pain it creates in you is nothing compared to the understanding you are giving your child. Thank you for sharing your blog, it is always so uplifting to read. Eanne


  10. RuthiePrice
    November 3, 2014

    As mirrored in many of your comments Ben, it’s nice to see you back in this space after a Summer break and I always get something from reading about your experiences as life unfolds for both you and Jackson, together.

    The mask mirrors with us all I suspect. Especially after encountering such a profound loss. After all, how do you ‘wear’ your ‘real’ face every single minute of every single day when you feel the way you do?
    It’s something I think about often and occasionally I find the courage to take off the mask and be in that space that sometimes we need to be in.. which is sadness or anger or neither of those things. Maybe it’s just ‘grief’ which doesn’t always have an explanation. It’s intangible. So we don’t know what to do with it… we say what we think other people want to hear, what we think we need to hear, what we think we might need rather than being in that other, probably more courageous space.. or from being right in that present moment.

    Fears for me, personally are so much greater these days. Losing a loved one at whatever stage of their lives, leaves a space that none of us really know ‘how’ to fill… but perhaps we don’t need to fill it… fear creeps in to the space… worries, questions, tasks… lots and lots of things..That’s what I find so hard at times too. Especially with having other, living children whom need us to be responsible and present and reassuring in their lives. But, as you say, I never fail to be surprised and reassured myself, at how strong in their responses to life events, children can be.
    Jackson is a brave, young lad and has a knowing with him in life after this experience that has shaped and will continue to shape his whole being in the future. His strength will serve him well. As the post above says, the experience you have and will continue to provide him with, after enduring the loss of his mother undoubtedly will shine through.
    By stopping and standing in the moment and feeling the world through their eyes is refreshing. The humour that children bring in to our adult, clouded world is such an antidote.
    We think at times that as a parent it is our ‘job’ to protect and support our children to ‘help’ them through these difficult times… which it is in many ways too… to learn how to be in this world.. however, I have considered lately that perhaps it’s about them bringing knowing with them from wherever their little souls originated, to help US on our journeys together, by teaching US to be in the moment, to see the joy in the simple things and not to be weighed down by the preconceptions of the world that we have inherited to carry with us.
    This provides comfort and I then realise that it’s about a journey experienced between us, hand in hand. This way of thinking feels like it provides a less pressured way of being and there is less need to ‘be in control’ and to ‘keep my mask on’ and to ‘be strong’.
    Not sure where all this was going… it just came out! I suppose just wanted to say welcome back Ben really, and thank you for sharing your thoughts again. And to say this:
    I watched a TED Talk this morning which made me think of you. I don’t know whether you know Nic Askew’s work but here’s the link anyway –
    It is a worthwhile watch and maybe he’s someone for you to talk to in the future about your experiences? A very interesting man and whose work I have witnessed over many years now. Good to see him where he is now, sharing his thoughts with the world.
    I hope you get something from it. Take good care x

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