A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
After the immediate shock of my wife’s death had abated a little, I started making calls to childhood bereavement charities to find out how to handle my son and his unfathomable infant grief. I needed to understand how to talk to him about his mother’s death and what to expect from the future. I needed to know he was going to be alright.
Grief can make you question the future in a way that probably wouldn’t happen in a life without bereavement.
Am I going to be okay?
Imagine asking your doctor that open ended question without any specific timescale or diagnosed ailment.
Can you just tell me that my son is going to be alright?
Picture yourself putting that to a stranger – someone who has never met your child and knows nothing more about them than what you’ve just hurriedly explained in the last thirty seconds over the phone.
Desperate times lead to desperate questions and when reality as you know it is shattered, it’s easy to lose your grip. But when the fog clears, the only true answer to any question about the future is: I don’t know. I, like many other people in my position, learned that the hard way.
You can work towards a better future, though. In fact, leaving the future to complete chance is only likely to make things harder. I suppose we all, to some extent, get what we work towards. There will be those who think that is a material point, but I mean it emotionally, too.
While none of us works towards emotional crises, it is becoming more widely accepted that happiness, calmness of mind and mental fitness are thing we need to invest time in ourselves. After all, few of us build up a six pack while watching Netflix on the sofa. Mental and physical wellbeing are not simply gifts bestowed upon us.
When I look back at myself asking strangers if my child would be alright, I suppose what I needed to hear was: He stands a better chance of having a happy life if you help him; teach him how to manoeuvre his emotions; don’t belittle his feelings; and give him the time, space and understanding he needs when he needs it most.
I decided early on that we were equals in our loss. What I needed, he needed. Maybe at a different time and pace, but I had no more right to understanding, empathy, help and support than he did. I wouldn’t let him suffer the same ‘conspiracy of silence’ that generations of children before him did when they lived through the death of a parent.
The problem with this way of thinking is that when the bereaved child in question is only two years old, they are really quite hard to help. Talking-therapy, for example, isn’t much use when you’re barely able to string a sentence together. The truth is it takes time.
A child will, however, tell you when they need help. They are unlikely to break down and say the words – like I once did in the reception of my doctor’s surgery – but if you are open to the signs, then the child can be heard.
My son and I have always been pretty open with one another, but sometimes it still hurts to hear questions about his mum. As parents we often want to fix things, and yet we can’t do that when things are beyond broken. When there’s no remedy there can only be space: space to be heard, acknowledged and to express yourself fully.
I was looking for help with this on his behalf for some time when I got a message from a friend of mine called Kim. She explained that she’d given up her job – one that was pretty similar to mine – and that she had trained to do some stuff that I didn’t really understand. She was embarking on a career to help the next generation by teaching meditation to kids.
‘What would your thoughts be about me teaching Jackson?’ she asked.
I’ve liked Kim since the moment I first met her at some festival or other one summer’s day a decade or so ago. She’s funny, lively, great to hang out with and a really good listener. But I also knew that her dad had died when she was young, because she told me when she and I worked together when Desreen was killed. She’d had a difficult time too.
I really had no idea where it would lead but I accepted her offer knowing that, if nothing else, Jackson would enjoy her company and benefit from the empathy another bereaved child (albeit a grown up one) could offer. The two of them hit it off immediately.
They’ve been hanging out now for some time and each week Kim will coherently debrief me on the sessions, while Jackson will tell his own story – not through words but through his own behaviour. He has gradually opened up more and has been more able to express how he feels. He’ll ask questions and talk about his mum but not really dwell on the pain. The anger and frustration that I often used to see boil up in him has softened to a simmer that appears to be increasingly under his own control. He seems more in comfortable with his emotional self and more sociable around people he doesn’t really know. I would go so far as to say he’s doing great. And it’s a pleasure to witness.
Now, of course he has his moments, but don’t we all?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my reservations at first, but these days my mind is wide open to anything I think might help. I was confused about how a young child could be taught meditation or mindfulness, assuming it would involve sitting on a cushion in silence and trying to concentrate on something other than Star Wars or Lego.
But it turns out meditation is not necessarily anything like that and that learning mindful tools and techniques can be simple and fun for kids.
Kim teaches Jackson meditation through Star Wars to keep him engaged. Each holding a lightsaber, Kim encourages Jackson to inhale and exhale deeply by pretending to be Darth Vader. Suddenly he’s meditating without even knowing it, growing more aware of how calming the simple act of breathing fully can be.
He learns visualisations through play. Kim will invite Jackson to think about what makes him angry, worried or sad, and then ask him to screw his emotions up into a pair of ‘angry socks’. Rolling them up into a ball, he will throw that emotion away, learning to get past some of his challenging feelings knowing that, for the most part, he’s still okay. That he’s still safe and loved.
He tell his own stories through a game they’ve made up called ‘books of emotion’. He’ll choose his own books from his shelf and then explain how each makes him feel – sometimes what he says is sad and other times he makes Kim laugh.
What I love most, though, is that these sessions aren’t designed to be about his mum or his grief. They are simply a forum for him to express himself without judgment. It’s his time to process his thoughts and feelings with someone he can’t upset. It’s about taking a moment to acknowledge how he feels and that, I’ve learned, is all meditation really is.
It’s helping my son a lot, too, which is making us both a whole lot happier. And what more could a parent possibly want?