Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

board games

I used to play snakes and ladders with my family when I was a child. Being the youngest of three boys, it was one of the few games that levelled us all out. Winning tactics couldn’t really be deployed and experience mattered little in determining the final result.

I remember it being an addictive yet frustrating game – one the would often put the finish line right in sight only to leave many a hopeful player crashing back down to the beginning again. It could be both thrilling and disappointing, fortuitous and cruel; a simple roll of a dice would determine whether a player was victorious or vanquished.

As reductive as this may sound, it recently occurred to me that it’s a game that, perhaps more than most, teaches its players about real life.

In recent weeks, a number of people, who have only very recently lost their partners, have made contact with me. The intensity of their pain has been both palpable and unimaginable (after all, even having ‘been there’ myself, sharing only the experience of bereavement could never bring an outsider close to the depth and breadth of personal emotion a bereft individual will feel). When someone does get in touch, though, I find it impossible not to reflect on what it felt like for me in those early days, weeks and months. Perhaps I hope I can provide a little empathy, or maybe there’s something altogether more selfish – if only subconsciously – at play. Maybe it allows me to reflect on my own progress; maybe it allows me to keep check of whether I’m climbing a ladder or stumbling down a snake.

When my wife died in November 2012, I found myself desperate for answers:

How would I survive without her?

How would I look after my son when I could barely look after myself?

How would I get through the pain?

When would it stop?

Would it stop?

How on earth were the other poor widowed souls, who were contacting me to say things would get better, actually managing to make positive steps forward?

I suppose back then it wasn’t just a matter of when would it stop, but how could it stop?

I’ve since realised that things aren’t as black and white as they once seemed. Life, for example, can end as abruptly as it begins, but living – the bit in between the start and the finish – is far less determinable. And I think grief can be much the same. Just like the aches that are left in the wake of a serious physical injury, the mental pain of grief tends to lessen rather than entirely stop. Scars are left, the intensity ebbs and flows, and sudden memories of traumas past can have different effects on the body and mind.

Some days a memory of the person lost can be welcome and comforting.

Perhaps I don’t feel so bad anymore. 

Maybe I’m doing pretty well after all.

Perhaps I’ve been climbing a ladder without even realising I’d mounted the first step.

But then other days the memories can drag us back down.

How can the person I love be gone?

How is it possible that they now exist in memory alone? 

How can I suddenly feel so bad again when I thought I was doing so well?

How discombobulating that a such an acute crash could suddenly follow what had felt like such a steady and relieving sense of ascension.

And yet in snakes and ladders, a player must roll the dice and make a move to be in the game. Progress starts at the beginning of the journey and yet regression is just a slight and unpredictable step away.

One particular person who made contact with me this week stuck out in my mind. Having only just lost her partner, she effectively said that she would do anything to feel not great but just okay. The game of snakes and ladders came into my mind for the first time since I was a child at this very point.

But if I was winning, how could ‘doing okay’ possibly be okay?

Doesn’t progress need to be constant to indeed count as progression?

I think not. I think that gameplay teaches us that setbacks are as vital as success and that the longer the ladder, the deeper the fall. And maybe the pain of loss, however broad and deep it may be, can be summed up by a board game basic enough for a child to play.

You rise and you fall. You win and you lose. You’re never so experienced that you won’t experience setbacks again. You’ll never truly be able to predict your path from your first move. And yet each move is a crucial step towards something that can probably best be described not as winning but as hope.

Loss: how simple a concept to grasp and yet how difficult a construct to grapple.

My forthcoming paperback, featuring new chapters charting mine and my son’s continuing journey, is available to pre-order now by clicking on the book’s cover image below.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 12.19.48

11 comments on “board games

  1. Sarah Pointer
    March 6, 2015

    Hard for us to grapple with. Harder when we see our children trying to do it. Heartbreaking in fact. My daughter came back from a play date yesterday and the mum remarked how confident and chatty she was. Great, I thought. Got her home and the tears began because going to other people’s houses where children call for their daddy as he steps through the door reminds her she hasn’t got one and I want nothing more for her not to know how that feels. I would give anything to make things ok for her. But I can’t and that kills me as much as the loss itself. Two years down the line and we are still trying to climb the ladder.

  2. Barbi Colson
    March 6, 2015

    Your post made me feel better – I lost my husband in September & mostly Im ok, Im too busy to be anything else, this last week I’ve had several dreams that it was all a mistake & he had come home, he’d just been away, I felt wretched, but seeing your post made me realise that its how it is. Ive just come back from a drive to see a beach hut, Im buying in Hayling Island, its not somewhere I’ve been with Mel, the dog adores the sea, as do I. Sat on the shingle and enjoyed the sea & sun, feel better able to deal with things now. thanks

    Lots of Love barbi

  3. Emily
    March 6, 2015

    It’s been five years since my husband past away suddenly, leaving me to take care of our seven wk old son. Similiarily, I have grappled with the ups and downs of dealing with his death. I can relate to your blog and find that I’ve found a new normal. I will probably never be able to be the person I once was, but that’s okay now. I would say the hardest part of all this is having to answer my son’s questions about why his father is in heaven. Those days are the hardest.

  4. dot schwarz
    March 6, 2015

    zioe died by suicide in 2000 my youngest daughter. I can pass a day now without thinking of her. Whe the grioef does return it is not much different form the mental agony of the first two years. Grief becomes occasioanl instead of all the time.

  5. handikwani02
    March 6, 2015

    Hi Ben,
    Trust you and Jackson are keeping well and to say thank you for that analogy of the Snakes and Ladders game which was my mum’s favourite game which we used to play on end. I had never looked at life’s experiences in that way. Like you say ‘set backs’ are needed sometimes. My setbacks became the spring board of who I have become sometimes it does take a big fall to climb up again just like it is in the game. Thank you once again.

  6. victoriawhyte
    March 7, 2015

    When my 15 year old daughter Leah was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer in April 2013 people told me that I was now on a roller coaster journey and this was certainly true.
    However, once she had her bone marrow transplant in August 2013 I realised that the roller coaster analogy no longer worked, we had suddenly found ourselves in a nasty game of snakes and ladders.
    Undergoing the rigours of transplantation was like climbing a very steep ladder but once we reached the top I could see the finishing line – we were almost there – her cancer was cured – we were on a high. A few weeks later the dice rolled again and we landed on a snake – graft versus host disease.
    Heavy doses of drugs brought the GvHD under control – we went up a ladder. Soon we would have a date for going home. Then there was the snake of medication side effects, followed by the very big snake of haemorrhagic cystitis caused by polyoma virus that landed by daughter back in the transplant unit.
    Three weeks later an improvement in symptoms and a date for going home brought another trip up a ladder. Snakes were never very far away though, the dice rolled again and Leah developed a blood clot and once again found herself in the transplant unit.
    However, a really big ladder was just around the corner because a week later she got home.
    Six weeks later the dice rolled again and produced the biggest snake of all – pneumonitis/idiopathic pneumonia syndrome.
    On the 16th January ’14 her Heavenly Father took her home, where no snakes can harm her.
    Now I have to walk this awful grief journey.

  7. jcmindset
    March 14, 2015

    Heartbreaking. Thanks for having the strength to share such hard stories

  8. Kyle Ingham
    March 31, 2015

    Hi Ben,

    My name is Kyle and a run a blog called, which helps men learn essential “gentlemanly” skills.

    I stumbled across your website, and I would love to do a video interview with you. I think my readers would love to hear your story–I thought it was very moving. Also, it would be a great opportunity to promote your new book.

    I will be in London April 11-17. If you’re available during that time, perhaps we could meet up for a quick interview–it wouldn’t take more than an hour at most.

    Please let me know if you’d be up for it.


    • Life as a Widower
      April 14, 2015

      Hi Kyle,

      Sorry it’s taken a while to get back to you, I’ve been away. I’m afraid I’m really stuck for time at the moment because I’m travelling a lot with work. I don’t really have any time until May, which I understand will be too late for you.

      Sorry I can’t make it work this time round.



  9. Chandra Sly
    May 7, 2015

    Hi Ben,

    I lost my husband almost 3 months ago and I have two girls (3 y and 6 months) I just wanted to say that you sound like you are a great father and that I hope you are doing better each day. I know now that it feels like your leg got cut off and that you will always miss it despite the fact that you may walk one day.
    Take the nice things people say and forget the bad. I am sure your wife would have been so proud.

  10. James
    May 29, 2015

    Hi Ben, I have followed your blog from the beginning, although I have just realised that it has been 4 months since my last “visit”, (does this mean I am doing better?). Having lost my wife 4 1/2 yrs ago, and with yesterday being her birthday, I guess I was drawn back to see what you were up to, and this was a very applicable post – it is amazing, and confusing, what time does. I like your snakes and ladders analogy – I tried to find words for this phenomena at the 4 year mark, as I think it almost becomes less and less clear exactly what is happening, except that you are, as inexorably as time itself, moving – sometimes without knowing how or why.

    Keep strong, and hope you and your son are doing well.


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