Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

1315 days

I did a radio interview about the murder of Jo Cox MP last night. I was invited on air to talk about how to break the news of the death of a parent to a child.

You tend to get a call from a researcher or producer in advance of any live broadcast so that the presenter can be properly briefed on both the subject and the spokesperson. This is exactly what happened yesterday, and since then I haven’t really being able to stop thinking about one of the questions I was asked: ‘How did cope after your wife died?’

‘God, that’s a big question,’ I began. ‘I don’t even know how to answer that. How am I even coping now?’ I asked, rhetorically – a question that I’ve been asking myself over and over today.

Earlier this evening I saw Jo Cox’s sister give a heartfelt statement to a crowd in her local constituency with her family rallied around. I was struck not only by her incredible words but also the strength of her tone and overall posture. She articulated herself with the fortitude of someone not in immediate pain but rather in recovery. Or at least that’s what most people would think.

I could never do that, I imagined people saying as they watched her on TV.

She’s so strong, I could hear the Gogglebox crowd saying as they wiped away their tears.

I witnessed a woman who was admirable in her composure but I also recognised the shock she was both suffering from and surviving off. You see, shock is the body’s way of stopping your mind from falling apart. Without it, such sudden tragedy would make anyone break down. When people say that they would never be able to cope if they suffered a terrible loss, it’s not so much because they can’t imagine losing someone but more because they can’t fathom the body’s natural (and yet somehow completely unnatural) response. A reaction that emboldens us to carry ourselves way beyond our own expectations.

I was very moved by the family’s words but I was perhaps more struck by those of the BBC news presenter who spoke immediately afterwards.

‘There’s a sense of things getting back to normal today,’ she explained.

Although this sentence is a much abridged version of what she went on to say, I quickly drifted off as my mind connected her comment to the question posed to me by someone else from the BBC earlier the same day: ‘How did you cope after your wife died?’
Both comments, to me at least, implied impermanence and that confused me.

‘How did I cope?’ I replied, ‘I still am coping.’

And the idea that things were ‘getting back to normal’ so soon could only be true to those who were distantly (and perhaps blissfully) removed from the gravity of the situation of that poor, grief-stricken family.

Later that evening the radio presenter asked me which calendar days were the hardest for me since my wife died. Perhaps with Father’s Day looming he assumed I’d say days like that. But again, these are the answers or insights that people probably expect only when they have no close contact to such an life-changing loss.

The truth is I find myself entirely prepared for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays and Christmas, largely because I know exactly when they are coming and – in my experience – the anticipation is always worse than the reality.

Grief, however, tends not to befriend predictability. People often get in touch to offer their support on special anniversaries, but how could they ever anticipate that ‘day 1315’ could be so much worse than any ‘significant’ calendar date. Well that was yesterday and it was. And that’s perhaps because kids wait not for ‘happy holidays’ to really open up about how they feel about their loss, but rather for a quiet and intimate time like my son and I had together at home last night.

I suppose incomprehension and hope are what make people imagine loss as something transitory. And yet it’s beginning to understand its permanence – whether as an adult or a child – that truly causes the pain.

19 comments on “1315 days

  1. Laura
    June 18, 2016

    Such an important post. I remember people saying – “he’s now been dead longer than you knew him”…or asking “when will you get over this.” And while I know that these comments and questions are not asked with any malice, they do prove to me that the only way to truly truly understand is to have experienced. Empathy is an important skill and something we all appreciate someone showing when we are going through difficult or incomprehensible times – but it is not the same thing as knowing based on experience. And another thing – grief is such a personal thing and the way one expresses their grief should not be up for interpretation. If someone does not cry when giving a speech about her dead sister – it means nothing about how she feels about her sister, nor does it mean anything about the reestablishment of normality. We all develop a new normal after losing someone we love but a speech without tears a day after someone’s tragic and preventable death does not mean normal.

    Thanks Ben. I swear sometimes I feel like you are reading my mind.

    • alinorell2014
      June 20, 2016

      Absolutely Laura. I got up and read a speech at my daughter’s funeral, which many people thought was superhuman of me. Of course, I was in the place that Ben describes so well. Personally I am so thankful that there are forums like this online where those of us experiencing grief, or any other trauma, can speak to and support each other. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  2. Peter Burke
    June 18, 2016

    Totally xx I did not want the pain to demonise after Julie died, I needed to hurt, we shared everything and were inseparable so it seemed only fair that I should suffer such profound a sense of grief after she died. After a couple of years I grew tired, became seriously ill and began to wonder if I was being fair to her, after all, we wanted what was best for each other and I certainly would not want her to suffer if I had gone. Neither of us were the jealous types and I would have wanted, even been grateful for someone kind to come along and care for her, but that’s ok for me to say, but I can’t and don’t want to move on, not yet. Coping with losing the one you love is a life long project, maybe, just maybe if someone kind comes along I may think about accepting a little support in helping me cope. So, you are right, 😕 Things don’t return to some kind of normality. Thinking of you and your son. xx

    • Katie
      June 20, 2016

      This really strikes a chord with me. I want to do justice to Kev, our children and our relationship together by not ‘wasting my life’ what ever that means. However, most of the time I feel like I am just putting pressure on myself to be happy when I’m truly not.

      I want to feel joy and perhaps to share my life again one day but it is so so hard.

      Thank you. I don’t feel so alone knowing others feel this way.

  3. David Kelly
    June 18, 2016

    There’s the misplaced view held by many that a bereavement is something we get over. That some how the pain that you feel is switched off and stops after a defined period of time. That once you get past that stage you get back to ‘normal’.
    But what is ‘normal’ about a young child’s parent dying?
    Normality doesn’t return to them, instead it’s learning to adjust to & become accustomed to living with that missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of family & friends. That piece will always be missing.
    This is one aspect that my son & I are finding so difficult at the moment. I know it’s only been 4 weeks since his mum / my wife died and I try to get him to focus on just getting through today instead of thinking too far ahead. However when he comes out with the statement that ‘Mommy will never see me grow up & get my job, or get married or see her grandchildren’ and his pain at this is so apparent, you realise in his own way he’s processing the permanence of such a horrible situation.

  4. Ama
    June 19, 2016

    Your words are always carefully articulated in such a way that shows how much you write deeply from the heart. I always read but have never comented. But I couldn’t help but appreciate this very post. Before I got to know grief, I used to wonder how people are able to survive loss, how could anyone cope, it was unimaginable to me. Then it happened to me, 15months ago, I was 20 weeks pregnant. People tell me, you are a strong woman, dont know what they mean by that, for i am so weak to the core, I am broken to shreds. I have never figured out how i cope. How do I cope?. I don’t know how I get by every second, I still ask myself, is this possible? Yet i am still here? Maybe I’m coping with the help of my sweet son. I tell myself that it’s like walking under a heavy rain without umbrella, without a shade on your path to wait for the rain to stop, you keep walking on that path, and all you can do is wipe off the water from your face so you can continue to see the path you are walking on, that’s the only choice you have. As for the dates, like you,i start early to tell myself ,that way I don’t think too much about it, i tell myself, it will come and go just like yesterday, last month or any other day. But people tend to make it more significant by remembering to call or text that particular date, even when you try to shield yourself from it. The truth is, that so called gesture makes it hurt more. Thank you for helping some of us put into words the feelings brought upon by the magnitude and the uniqueness of the loss each of us have had to endure.

  5. sarah pointer
    June 19, 2016

    Great post Ben. Something I have found myself doing alot in the last year is list making. If I sort out this cupboard, repair that thing, start eating better, start walking more and sort out my finances then I can start living. I can then sit and think about how much I miss my husband, get my head around our loss, let him go and begin again. So, I tick off the list and then…make a new one. What we have all been through on here is too big. The hardest thing you come to realise is that there is no end to it. So what do you do? You wrap yourself and your children in as much love as possible and do whatever the fuck makes you happy xx

  6. Suze
    June 19, 2016

    Ben from the other side of the world I thought about you as I was thinking about the children and partner of Jo Cox – your blog has given depth to my reading of that ‘news story’. I wish it hadn’t had to be. 31 years yesterday since the death of my first love – her sister rang me to lightly touch base on that anniversary – it’s a long long time and the world and our lives have changed immeasurably – there’s a sadness in that, that she never got to see what happened. I didn’t cry yesterday but I did cry about her being dead a couple of months ago, not on any anniversary, just on something that reminded me.

  7. Carolyn
    June 19, 2016

    I’ve just listened to your interview on radio 4. Spoken from the heart and hitting the nail on the head. Even a new normal isn’t right, the loss hangs around waiting to surface at any moment. You never get over it, you carry their heart with you all the time. You spoke for so many

  8. widowart
    June 19, 2016

    I have just been listening to your interview on BBC 4 and everything you said stuck such a chord with me. You are so right about how that level of shock affects you. I lost my husband in an accident almost a year ago. This is such a difficult and lonely road that we are following.

  9. Raluca Harding
    June 19, 2016

    Beautifully written and so true. A few months ago, my three year old lost his granddad – the man who looked after him two days a week. It was a sudden death and breaking the news to him, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.The question ‘Where is Pops?’ was something I din’t have an answer to. My heart aches for everyone who has to break this kind of news to a innocent child…

  10. Emma
    June 19, 2016

    Exactly. The anniversaries and special days tend not to bring the same depth of grief that you anticipate. It’s the “normal” days that are the worst. The days when the rest of the world is just carrying on with their lives, and yours is unrecognisable. Thank you for writing this. X

    • newparkparents
      June 19, 2016

      I will remember this comment when supporting my friends. Thank you for putting it so beautifully.

  11. EllenL
    June 19, 2016

    Beautifully written. I too find that the anniversaries are much more manageable than 3pm on a random Tuesday for instance. I don’t think people can ever appreciate that unless they’ve been through grief themselves.

  12. John Strain
    June 19, 2016

    Thank you for all your comments and thoughts so clearly articulated. I find that I just have to keep going somehow and do things and not just sit in a heap which is what I would like to do. It is 22 weeks and 2 days since my wife died and I find that just when I think that I may be coping better, the waves overwhelm me again. I think that sometimes, but not all the times, you appear strong to friends and relatives when in fact you are absolutely nothing of the sort. Family are a wonderful help and of course they are also grieving.

  13. Actually Mummy
    June 19, 2016

    It’s hope. People want for you to be feeling ok, happy. They want to know that whatever happened to you, it’s over, and they don’t need to worry about it any more. It’s the same with the grief of an awful medical diagnosis. The first thing people want to do is tell you that it could be worse, or hear that once you’re in treatment you won’t have to worry any more. It compartmentalises it for them, so that they don’t have to think too hard about it. It’s hope, and it’s not understanding, because once someone understands, their response and their questions are completely different.

  14. Jay
    June 19, 2016

    Just another day

    25 February 2013 at 00:29

    It’s the second anniversay of the day my world changed beyond recognition.

    I was asked if I would be doing anything special and my reply was ‘it’s just another day’. Another day to follow the 730 that have passed. I’m not going to feel any different because of a date. It’ll be the same routine of waking up with the thought of him on my mind, remembering him countless times during the day, and going to sleep thinking of him.

    It’s impossible to explain how much I miss him.

    My life hasn’t stopped.
    It’s just completely different to what I had anticipated, dreamed about and hoped for.

    “He was a dream, then a reality, and now a memory”.

    No child should be ‘a memory’ for their parents.

    This is what I wrote in 2013, and it is still the same. To me birthdays and anniversaries are ‘just another day’.

  15. alinorell2014
    June 20, 2016

    Thank you Ben. I’m fairly new to blogging but I lost my daughter almost two years ago and also find that writing about it helps in some way. I really admire the way you write and share your feelings and hope that it helps many other people. Good on you for being ‘out there’, I am sure your wife would be very proud, and you are setting an amazing example for your son. Sending love to you.

  16. victoriawhyte
    June 21, 2016

    Your words are so simple, yet so profound and you speak for so many of us.

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