A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
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.