Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

young minds

It’s funny how children tend to want to grow up quickly and be older than they actually are. Sometimes I think it’s as though their self worth is defined by the number of years and months that have passed since they first saw the light of day.

‘Well I’m six anyway,’ I’ll hear my son lord over his friend of five and three-quarters, apparently making him the instant victor of whatever little quarrel the two of them have got themselves into this time around.

Adults, on the other hand, often crave the simpler times they remember from when they were young.

‘Oh, to be that age again,’ you’ll here them say just after they’ve wished they still had a full head of hair, coloured by its own now expired natural pigmentation.

‘You don’t want to be an adult,’ they might add, ‘it’s much easier being a child.’

I’m not so sure, though.

Today marks the beginning of Children’s Grief Awareness Week and so this morning I contemplated what it would be like if my son and I could in fact trade places for a while.

It’s really quite easy for me to understand what he would experience as the tenant of my mind.

He would no doubt be saddened to find out that the smiles he sees on the selfies that we share in a world of idealised social media are sometimes forced and insincere.

He would be shocked to know that it is possible to read an entire children’s book out loud to him at night without taking in a single word, the whole time thinking, I wish someone else could do this tonight. 

He would struggle to understand why his frequent reassurances that I am ‘the best daddy in the world’ still weren’t enough to make me feel confident in my own ability as a parent.

He would know that, far from adulthood being the ideal to strive towards, shifting from playing grown-up to having to actually become a man (or perhaps more specifically a single parent) has left me dealing with incredibly intense growing pains over the last four years.

Perhaps it’s easier being a kid after all, he might think. I’m still not completely convinced, though.

Sure, the emotions we feel and how we handle them is different in childhood, but that’s not to say the experience is in any way ‘easier’ – it’s just in context of our young minds. And there lies the challenge: how does an immature and relatively inexperienced mind begin to process life-changing situations when even the mature mind struggles? The answer, I believe, is slowly, often with difficulty, and ideally with age-appropriate support.

Four years ago, right after my wife was killed, I learned two important lessons about how to help bereaved children: be honest with them and listen. A child empowered by the truth, I believe, is a child safeguarded against the more painful impact of ‘protective’ lies. In the long run the truth always hurts less. And a child that understands that their feelings will be acknowledged and heard is a child that will ‘speak out’ more freely, be it through conversation, behaviour or body language.

It is of course less easy for me to get inside my son’s mind than for me to imagine him in mine, which is why I have to continually pay attention to all the little signs.

Just the other day, for instance, he was playing table football with a seven or eight-year-old boy at after-school club last week.

‘Where’s your mum?’ the boy asked as Jackson made his way towards me.

‘She’s dead,’ he replied. ‘See you tomorrow.’

Pride, I find, is a bit like love: you can’t force it, but when it shows itself it can be overwhelming. Jackson has returned home from school with certificates for this and that, but I was more blown away by his five-word response to that child than almost anything else I’ve heard him say before. And that’s because I had just seen a six-year-old boy handle one of the most difficult situations imaginable all by himself and without any real discomfort. The boy who just can’t wait to be a man is already able to hold himself  better than many adults put in a similar scenario.

Job done then, you might say. Far from it, though. You see, children, like adults, continue to have a relationship with the deceased. What’s often not the same for young kids, though, is that they will have to fill in gaps that their memories don’t offer up freely. They have to make believe.

‘Daddy,’ Jackson whispered to me in bed the other night, ‘sometimes when I’m racing after the other children in the playground at school I stop for a moment and talk to mummy. I tell her I’m okay and that I miss her and then I carry on an catch them up.’

How fortunate I am to know that he will open up to me about his feelings, and how grateful I am that he realises that I don’t just expect him to have moved on and to be okay any more than I expect it of myself.

Dear Mummy,

I hope you are okay. I’m sorry about the car accident. You are a good mum.

Love, 

Jackson 

P.S. I am keeping Daddy safe

I found my son writing these words in a letter to his mum at the weekend, just a couple of days after the fourth anniversary of her death. As it read it, it struck me how private grief can actually be (all of these thoughts are circulating around in his head, just like they are so often in mine). But just because it’s a personal experience doesn’t mean it has to be a lonely one. And that’s why I believe it’s so important to make time to listen to bereaved children and to support the services that support them in return.

The truth is it’s not easy being an adult or child at the best of times, but when bereavement kicks in, our lives can be turned completely upside down. And that’s when we all need to know that there are people out there who can listen, help and support us with whatever thoughts are going through our heads – big or small.

To find out more about Children’s Grief Awareness Week visit http://www.childrensgriefawarenessweek.com

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A drawing of Desreen that accompanied the letter Jackson wrote to her last week

15 comments on “young minds

  1. smc68300
    November 17, 2016

    Dinner with friends last night …
    Jack: James Brown was one of my Dad’s favourite singers. [Looks sad] It’s a bummer that he died.
    Me: [Engages sympathetic head tilt] It’s really a bummer that he died, Jack.
    Jack: I meant James Brown
    Whole table: [Dissolves in giggles]
    Me: [Almost bursts with pride]

    • Life as a Widower
      November 17, 2016

      That’s so funny

    • Dave Varley
      November 17, 2016

      After an article that moved me to tears, a reply that made me laugh out loud! A perfect example of how up and down grief can be.

  2. rossobo
    November 17, 2016

    My just 6 year old daughter is also this matter of fact. And will just come out with it, I’m not sure it always sinks in to the child she remarks to, and if a parents is near by you get “really, did he? Almost unbelieving. For instance a school friend who’d come to play recently asked my daughter “why is your dad always at work?” ” my dad died” my daughter replied and carried on playing, just how it is for her. (Her dad would have always been at work/or away for work when this girl has visited after school anyhow). Doesn’t make it any less sad, but you know you have done your job in getting the message through so they understand, now you just have to deal with it ongoing.

  3. Shelley
    November 17, 2016

    Thanks for explaining stuff so well, Ben.Its all so hard to explain…hard to listen too.Jackson is AMAZING

  4. Wendalynn Donnan
    November 17, 2016

    Reblogged this on Progressive Rubber Boots and commented:
    So many feelings here.

  5. sharrongordon
    November 17, 2016

    Jackson is a little legend,He always makes me laugh and smile x

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

  6. Sarah
    November 17, 2016

    I’m writing from a major arts organisation in London. We would like to invite you to take part in a panel discussion next Thursday 24 November, which will look at the language of leaving, the impact on those left behind, digital legacy, and end of life care.
    I would be grateful if you could reply to me with a personal email address so I can go into more detail about the event.
    I look forward to hearing from you.
    With thanks
    Sarah

  7. encounters
    November 18, 2016

    I marvel at the way you Jackson have journeyed and dealt with your grief. Jackson is developing into a strong person who in life will not allow hurt and loss deprive him to live his life.
    I guess when as adults we wish to be like children it is because life sometimes is so overwhelming and becomes too much that we just wear the ‘brave’ sign yet inside we wish we were not experiencing what is going on in our lives.
    Like always a brilliant post Ben, thank you. Three big hugs and kisses to Jackson he is just adorable.

  8. Ama
    November 19, 2016

    I could not hold back the tears after reading this, as parents we want to protect our babies from any atom of hurt, pain , sadness, harm or difficulty, however, the reality of life can limit this ultimate desire, . I believe it’s the same desire they have for us their parents no matter how small their brain is. I commend your outstanding parenting skills, my son is 18months old and everyday I contemplate what my response would be the day he would ask “where’s daddy” . It hurts that i would use the word “dead” to tell him where he is, “killed” to tell him what happened. I thought about not telling him anything but reading how Jackson handled the question has made me decide it’s best to be honest with him no matter the difficulty. I love how he said “you are a good mum” I will take care of daddy” . Thank you Ben , God bless you both.

  9. dot schwarz
    November 21, 2016

    that was worth reading thanks for sharing

  10. Debbie
    March 27, 2017

    Have felt very isolated with my feelings, until reading your blog. It’s 19 months since i lost my husband to cancer. He was just 43. We have four children varying ages, the youngest 5 when he died after a year fighting this epidemic that is cancer. I feel i have been on auto pilot till now, making sure everyone else is ok. I lost my dad and the children lost their beloved Grandad to the same cancer 7 months after Matthew. I feel we have been robbed of the grief for him as we were still reeling from losing Matt. Life feels pretty grim and hopeless, the reality of crushing loneliness kicking in. Reading your words made me see my feelings are ok and it’s not just me going mad. Good luck to everyone on your journey through grief.

    • Hugo
      March 27, 2017

      the reality of crushing loneliness kicking in.
      Debbie, How well do I know that !

  11. Hugo
    March 27, 2017

    This blog and people here are my life line. Following it for almost a year. Soon it will be a 12 months since my 38yrs old wife passed away leaving me with then 4.5 yrs old daughter. I feel so ashamed to take comfort from reading that other people suffer as I do. I am tired of it all , but continuing this journey.
    Tomorrow again my little chatter box will be giving me instructions “Daddy did you do this, did you remember that, hurry up daddy”… time is definitely flying … not necessarily healing… .

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