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tell them

The eighty-five-year-old driver who killed my wife, Desreen, was jailed today for eighteen months for causing her death by dangerous driving. He was also banned from driving for life. I suspect he, his family and friends are feeling really quite dreadful right now, and, for what it’s worth, mine and I aren’t exactly celebrating either.

You see, I’ve had time to think since attending the trial and I’ve realised that you can punish a crime but you can’t transfer pain. Any suffering caused to the defendant as a result of his sentencing could in no way take away mine. I’ve since learned that, having suffered so much myself, I genuinely wish no hurt on any other person and I never wished a prison sentence on the driver, either.

In fact, I wasn’t even going to mention the sentencing on my blog at all. But then I reminded myself that justice for Desreen is best served not by a prison sentence but by trying to prevent similar unnecessary deaths from happening again in future. I keep hearing people say that they know someone who should probably give up driving but that they don’t know how to raise the issue with them. Well maybe I can help with that.

Tell them that the judge who sentenced the driver today said, ‘An elderly driver who knows, or should acknowledge, that he or she is losing his or her faculties is no less a danger than a drunken driver who knows the same.’

Tell them that the judge also explained that the defendant’s ‘lifetime of blameless driving is of no comfort to the Brooks-Dutton family,’ (and I assure you it really isn’t).

Tell them that the detective sergeant in charge of the prosecution said, ‘It is important for motorists to regularly monitor their driver behaviour and that of their elderly relatives to ensure that the roads are safe for all road users.’

Tell them that the once ‘blameless’ elderly driver suffered pedal confusion, which caused his car to be travelling at an average of fifty-four miles per hour in a twenty zone when he struck and killed my wife.

Tell them that the impact of this pedal confusion caused one of her shoes to fly off her feet as his speeding car hit her on the pavement where she was walking blamelessly with our then two-year-old son and me. Tell them that I had to keep looking at that shoe in the street on the night of her death and in photographs over the course of the subsequent trial.

Tell them that this is the last photo ever taken of my wife with our son together. Tell them that the paramedics on the scene later that evening had to cut off the jumper she is pictured wearing in order to be able to perform CPR on the pavement where she lay dying.

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Tell them that what happened was almost even more catastrophic and that the car that killed my wife almost killed our son too. Tell them that the collision investigator found a piece of the pushchair he is pictured in here in the street after the car skimmed it before mowing down his mother.

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Tell them that the day after my wife was killed my son was upset that he couldn’t find his scooter. Tell them that’s because his scooter was found in the wreckage too.

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Tell them that every time I look at my favourite picture of my wife and me together I get upset as I imagine how I lost the hat I am pictured wearing on the night of her death. Tell them that I’ve concluded that I must have inadvertently thrown it into the street as I pulled at my own hair through fear that she was going to die.

Ben & Des

Tell them they won’t be the only people who have to deal with the consequences of any potential injury or fatality that they might cause. Tell them the impact will be felt by more people than they can imagine including their own family and friends.

Tell them that the two-year-old boy who lost his mummy is now four and is still so angry and upset that she can’t come back. Tell them that he has suffered immeasurably from the trauma of that night. Show them this picture and tell them that this is him pictured with his beautiful mummy on his second birthday – the last one they would ever spend together.

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Tell them that at thirty-one years old I was the happiest man alive when I married the love of my life. Tell them that I was utterly bereft when I lost her at thirty-three. Tell them I’m thirty-five now and depressed. Tell them that I put a good face on but that the truth is that things haven’t really got much easier. Tell them from me how hard it is to be a bereaved single parent.

Tell them that once disaster strikes no wishing the tables could be turned will help. Tell them that wanting to switch places with the young person killed will make no difference to those who survive.

Tell them that you understand that they may want to stay mobile but remind them of what’s at risk.

Tell them any of these things you like; print this blog post off, email it on, share it online and let it speak for itself.

Tell me you’ll help prevent this happening again, though.

Just tell me that so that one day I can tell my son that his mother’s death wasn’t completely in vain.

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nervous breakdown

Around this time last year I went on holiday with my best friends and Jackson. It didn’t go too well. I’m not sure why I thought that a week in the sun would make us feel better only three month after my wife had been killed, but then what else do you do? Sit at home and wait in vain for a fairy godmother to come along and make everything better? At the time I just felt like I needed to do something – anything – to try to relieve the pain. Sadly, it had the opposite effect; I came back feeling worse than I did when I left. Anything that could go wrong did and it’s a time in our lives that we now speak about rarely. The Spanish words ‘Gran Canaria’ have become as loaded in our social circle as the Scottish name ‘Macbeth’ is in the theatre.

Back then I felt like the world was against me; things seemed to go wrong every single day. I couldn’t seem to leave the house without either my son or I incurring an injury, be it physical or emotional. And no matter where I was or with whom, there was only ever one response: to curse the heavens, to scoop Jackson under my arm, to storm home in a fit of grief and rage, and to hit the bottle.

One such event that particularly sticks in my mind happened on a day soon after Desreen died when I took Jackson to meet some friends in the park near our house. There were lots of people in the playground: friends, strangers and, just by chance, a number of parents of children from Jackson’s nursery. Looking back I think I was desperate for everyone to see me coping well – not as a bereaved husband but as a father to my son. Just minutes after arriving, Jackson was lying face down in a muddy puddle, soaked to the skin, filthy, freezing and completely distressed. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. I even remember calling a friend to ask if he knew whether a person suffering a nervous breakdown is actually aware of what is happening to them. When I felt so consistently close to the edge, how would I know if I was about to tip over?

I’ve spent much of the last year feeling that way, too. And when I’ve been complacent enough to think that I’ve been tested to my absolute limit, I’ve caught chicken pox, suffered from a virus that I seem unable to shift and the roof of my house has fallen in and wrecked my bedroom ceiling. Put coarsely, it has been pretty fucking shit.

I find it’s helpful to my own mental wellbeing, however, to recognise when things are going okay. As chance would have it, this weekend Jackson and I are with some of the same friends we went on ‘the Spanish holiday’ with this time last year. This afternoon we took our boys out for some fresh air in a country garden. With just one year between them, Jackson and his little mate Albie adore each other; best friends for the next generation with dads who have been best friends for a generation.

They were having such a great time together racing around outside until Jackson suddenly lost his footing, caught his Wellington boot in the mud and, just like that previous time in the park, was left soiled and saturated. After changing him into the spare outfit I was carrying in my bag, and graciously thanking my friend, Lee, for Jackson’s recovery ice cream, he fell again. This time he was safe and dry but his ice cream was history. The tears that came were so intense that his jacket-in-waiting grew nearly as wet as its puddle-sodden predecessor. But you know what? I was totally chilled out. I smiled and, after making sure that my son was okay, I cracked a joke. I even turned to my friends and asked them if they had noticed that I wasn’t on the edge. For the first time in as long as I could remember I was just a dad whose child had fallen in a puddle and a guy whose son had dropped an ice cream on a path. Nothing more, nothing less. And these days I want little more from life than that.

Jackson and Albie shortly after Puddlegate and just seconds before the Ice Cream Saga
Jackson and Albie shortly after Puddlegate and just seconds before the Ice Cream Saga
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don’t ask

I find that some days my grief just grows heavy and intense without any real warning or explanation. These days, however, I try to avoid letting on when l feel this way because people tend to want to ask why. I have learned that it can be hard to simply articulate how I’m feeling without having to go into great depth about exactly what I’m thinking.

‘Why are feeling so bad today?’ someone might ask. If this particular type of grief makes an appearance at the same time as a touch of anger then I really have to bite my tongue. Erm, because my wife’s dead, I find myself wanting to say. I mean why the fuck do you think I feel so bad? I do realise it’s rather hostile to bring something into conversation and then expect the person I’m talking to not to respond, however. This is one of the aspects of grief that can make it such an antisocial emotion. In my experience people tend not to know exactly when to reach out and when to leave well alone. And how can they when the grieving person may not know what they do or do not want until it does or doesn’t happen?

I suppose asking a someone why their grief is more intense than usual is a bit like asking where exactly a person misplaced something that they have just admitted to having lost. Perhaps if they knew the missing item’s location they would be able to do something about its misplacement other than just making a passing comment borne out of frustration, which is usually worst met with a question that so often makes that person want to explode.

If it’s not altogether obvious from the rather irritable tone of this post, I’m afraid to say that today is one of those days. Just don’t ask me why.

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truly privileged

I took on a train journey with my son yesterday. It sounds like a simple, everyday kind of thing to do and it was once. But some things that used to be habitual and unremarkable have sadly become complex, anxiety-inducing, psychological issues. Without realising why until today, over the last few days I’ve actually made myself ill and overwhelmingly emotional just at the thought of getting a train from A to B. I’m 34 years old, I’ve been on more planes and trains than I can even remember, and yet I now find myself reduced to a state of panic at the thought of travelling on public transport. And I’m not even a snob; I don’t even own a car. And what’s really hard is that I can’t pinpoint what makes me grow so worried about journeys like these. I can’t decide if it’s because I’m leaving home behind, whether it’s because that makes me feel more distant from my wife, if I’m concerned that Jackson won’t behave or because I know that when I get back home it’ll be as a sad a place as when I left. But the mental torture and anguish crushes me whatever the case.

One thing I do know, however, is that these days the problem is rarely my son. We get on the train, play and read together, eat cake and get some time without anyone else around, and it’s fun. We chat, we laugh, we pull funny faces, and it’s a pleasure to be together. In fact it’s often very much like it used to be before Desreen died: I’d get on a bus or a train and people would remark about what a good and striking little boy my son was, and I’d beam with pride. But when she died that all changed: he’d shout at people for no immediately apparent reason, he’d get angry if a young woman took the seat next to me on the bus, and he’d throw things from his pushchair if people he didn’t like the look of seemed to like the look of him. It was a stressful and painful time and it often still is.

Yesterday was different though. I took Jackson on quite a long train journey and he was a joy. It wasn’t long until he stood up on his seat and introduced himself to an old man sitting right behind him. ‘This is Thomas!’ he exclaimed, waving his favourite toy train at his new friend. The gentlemen knew Thomas well. And Gordon and Percy and James and Edward. He seemed to know all of the story lines to all of the old episodes voiced by Ringo Starr, but none of the new characters that are regularly introduced to keep me out of pocket. So before too long Jackson had abandoned me in favour of his new pal. He introduced him to Bash, Dash and Belle and handed him a story book that he was invited to read. I was so moved to see Jackson happy in the company of someone he might well have wanted to bite only a few months ago.

It turned out this man had two adult daughters who, as children, shared my son’s passion for Thomas and his locomotive friends. The eldest was about to give birth to his first grandchild. The excitement in his eyes at meeting Jackson reminded me of when I used to see pregnant women on the tube when my wife was expecting. I so badly wanted to say I’m having one too before reminding myself that it’s just not acceptable to talk to a stranger – pregnant or not – on the London Underground. But two northerners sitting on a train together have different rules; we can talk.

When the man arrived at his destination, he said goodbye to Jackson with a broad smile and then turned to me bid me farewell. ‘What a privilege it is to have such a lovely boy’, he said. And with that he was gone.

What a privilege it really is, I thought. It’s bloody hard work, it crushes me that he’ll grow up without his mum and that I’ll grow up without my wife, but it truly is a privilege to be a parent. And it truly is a privilege to be the father of such of wonderful child, who is such an absolute reflection of his truly wonderful mother.

Scan 4

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the boss

My last post received lots of really helpful comments about dealing with my son’s grief-related anger. So useful have they been, in fact, that he’s actually been much better today. And perhaps that’s because some of the advice I took on board has enabled me to be a fairer father to him. Someone suggested I look a what triggers his anger – usually not getting his own way about something seemingly trivial – and it made me think about how I might better respond to a situation as it simmers up rather than when it’s already boiling over. As a result I’ve been an altogether nicer dad today and he’s been an altogether nicer son.

But one comment that followed yesterday’s post stood out to me above all others. A young mum who lost her husband admitted something that many others might find too hard to accept: that her husband’s death hadn’t only taken her child’s father but that it had left her mentally absent as a mother too. I feel the same. My son’s also lost a big part of me. And I find it safe to assume that he’s grieving not just the person he lost when his mummy was killed but also the personality that disappeared from his daddy as a result.

I guess I’d already admitted this I myself when I wrote this poem earlier in the year:

Half the patience,
Half the fuse,
Half the parent,
Half enthused.

Half a man,
Half a boy,
Half the home,
Half the joy.

Half the time,
Twice the toil.
Twice the effort,
Half the spoil.

Half the father,
Half the son,
Half the future,
Half the fun.

Half the memory,
Half the drive.
Half dead,
Half alive.

Glass half empty,
Glass half full,
Sometimes vibrant,
Mostly dull.

Wholly wanting to feel whole again.
Wholly living with a hole within.

I’m less patient, less happy and less fun than I was before. I’m not angry by nature but I’ve realised that I’ve become snappy and quick-tempered since Desreen died. At the very best of times it’s hard not to snap back when someone snaps at you, even if you know that you should probably try to act like the bigger person. It’s harder still when times aren’t good and when you’re constantly on the brink of breaking. But when you actually are the bigger person it’s probably a time to cut some slack. I mean, if I was sat smoking a joint whilst I told my son never to take drugs I’d gladly take to the stage to accept my Hypocrite of the Year award. And yet I expect my son to stop shouting at me when I shout at him. It suddenly doesn’t make sense.

I see many a friend’s child brought into submission by a raised voice or a sternly pointed finger. Not my son though. He serves no one. Most days he tells me that he’s the boss so I’ve given up on trying to be seen to be the one who’s in charge. A chief executive can’t run a company alone though. And more often than not it’s the CEO’s PA who does all the work. So I’ll be delighted if I can help him to implement his vision for a happier, less fractious life. I’m going to try to support his leadership with the gentle art of persuasion rather than positioning myself as a second iron-spooned cook around an already too small broth pot. I’m going to attempt to be the diplomat even when he wishes to be the warmonger. And if Jackson wants to take all the credit at the end for ‘his’ successful peacetime strategy then that’s more than fine by me. He is ‘the boss’ after all.

The boss, apparently
The boss, apparently
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empty reassurance

My son’s behaviour has taken a nosedive. He’s angry. He’s suddenly become all-too-frequently furious and ferocious. Not having the right lid for a pan or the exact piece of Lego he ‘needs’ is an affront that more often than not leaves him incensed and completely enraged. If I were watching a child behave the way he does on Supernanny I’m quite sure I’d have to switch off out of pity for the parents.

I can’t turn my son’s channel over though. I made a promise to myself some time ago that I was going to try to see what most call tantrums as an outlet for his own grief. This is almost impossible but I try. Like most toddlers, Jackson is happy the vast majority of the time, or at least he appears to be. But when he tips over the edge, it’s almost too painful to watch. His ‘tantrums’ are more fierce than I have ever seen on any other child before and they always end up in my son screaming for his mum. No one who is still available to care for him will suffice. Only patience, love and understanding see him through and eventually return him back to the happy child he mostly seems to be. I’ve realised that I will need a lifetime of patience too because his reaction to my wife’s death is never going to go away. Sure, I expect it to change, move, shift and evolve, but why try to convince myself that this all has a happy ending?

I think the reality pill that I took months ago may be tougher for others to swallow. But what would really help me right now is for someone to be able to relate to the situation, to empathise, to try to understand and perhaps to offer me a little advice. Instead all I hear is: ‘It’s his age’; ‘They all go through this’; ‘You just need to be firm with him’; ‘It’s really nothing to worry about’; ‘He’s no different to other kids’. But he is, isn’t he? He’s the only two-year-old I know who’s already lost a parent and, at least in my mind, it goes without saying that his loss has had an impact on his behaviour, on his ability to feel like the world’s a safe place, and on his capacity to trust that those around him who are still here won’t suddenly disappear. And yet I face more platitudes; more serious issues brushed conveniently under an inconvenient carpet of grief.

I guess people are just trying to relate and to be kind. But I’ve never been one to think that a problem will go away by ignoring it. If others could see that I’d left him with a physical ailment unchecked, I’m sure social workers would be at my door. But when the impairment is psychological it’s all too easy to pretend that’s it’s not happening. Or, worse still, that it’s a sign of weakness to get it checked.

Tamtrums and the toddlersaurus
Tamtrums and the toddlersaurus
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birthday beats

Today’s my 34th birthday. This means I’m now what I said I feared most when I gave my wife’s eulogy – older than she ever got chance to be – and from this point on I always will be. But reaching 34 has also made me think about just how lucky I am to be alive given what happened on 10th November 2012. And while I do feel like my whole life has been ripped to tatters by what I’ve lost, today I feel blessed to have what I have.

Perhaps that’s partly because last week I conducted an exercise that I needed to complete for a chapter of my forthcoming book. I went back to the very first post on my blog and starting re-reading all the comments people have left since then. It began as a fairly academic task – just one that I needed to undertake – but it suddenly became so much more. Nine months have now passed since my wife was killed and seven since I started writing, so when I first set up the blog all of my feelings were still so raw. And that was the whole point – documenting grief as it happened. But what that meant was that when people replied to my posts, the pain and confusion I was going through was too intense to really absorb their words. I still wonder whether it is in fact possible to reassure a person that things are going to be okay when they are in such a state of devastation and shock . It just seemed implausible to me at the time, as every fibre of my body ached with the pain of loss and detachment. Yet when I read the comments again this week I took in the words entirely differently. I wept my heart out at the kindness of people who had taken the time to share their stories on behalf of me, my son and other followers. I found great advice there too – stuff that I’d completely skimmed over at the time in a state of anger, frustration, intoxication, isolation or exhaustion. And for once I felt reassured. Perhaps especially from the now adult children who were raised by widowed fathers.

In a sense the blog has enabled me not only to document grief but to record human kindness. And recently I’ve been offered further kindness by various people asking the almost inevitable What do you want for your birthday? question.

But I can honestly say I don’t actually want anything. I’d be quite content if no one ever bought me a gift again, in fact. Because as I read through all the comments and thought about the way people – strangers as well as friends and family – have responded since my wife’s death, I realised that I have already experienced more kindness and generosity in my 34 years than most people experience in a lifetime. Naturally I would give it all back in the blink of an eye to be with Desreen again, but life simply doesn’t work that way. So as I sit here today I find myself thinking more about what I have in life than what I have not and, right now, it’s more than enough. Of course losing Desreen has left a huge void, but I’ve realised that the hole simply can’t be filled with stuff. No amount of material things could ever come close to replacing the loss of the woman I love.

Therefore today is not about me receiving anything, instead it’s about me giving thanks.

Thanks for all the kindness, friendship, love and support I’ve felt every day since Desreen died.

Thanks for all the advice, guidance and reassurance that has been given (if not always received) so graciously.

Thanks to all those who have and continue to help me raise my son to be the happy little boy that he is today.

Thanks to those who find themselves in a similar position to me who offer friendship, counselling, and both light and dark humour from afar.

And thanks for sticking with the blog even if sometimes it might be too painful (or too painfully honest) for you to want to come back.

…but hold on, let’s not get too soppy here. It’s my birthday after all and I’ll laugh if I want to.

For those who have followed the blog since the start, you will know that I really battled over whether to show my heartbreak in front of my son or not. Despite the advice from some who told me I must protect him from my true feelings, I decided to follow my own intuition. This meant trying to guide him to become a man who feels he can open up rather than shut out his emotions. And for once I thought I’d done quite well.

That was until he caught me crying whilst writing this post. He almost wet himself laughing. It was as if I were putting a show on for him and actually trying to make him chuckle.

‘Stop doing that crying like that, Daddy!’ he shouted and then howled a little longer and and a lot louder. There I was pouring my heart out to the world and all he did was laugh.

Then all of a sudden he walked across the room and approached me. I thought maybe he was going to wipe my eyes like he did when he saw me cry once back in December. But instead he lifted his little hand into the air, swung it back and then slapped me.

So just one more word of thanks from me.

Thank God I’m the parent in this relationship, otherwise one of us would be spending my birthday in care and the other would be spending it in prison.

Birthday beats courtesy of my ever affectionate two-year-old son
Birthday beats courtesy of my ever affectionate two-year-old son
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meaning it

I’ve got a bulging folder in my Hotmail account entitled ‘offers of help’. I had this kind of twisted fantasy going around in my head after my wife died whereby I thought I might test a few people down the line.

‘I’m moving house this weekend’, I imagined the email beginning, ‘Please arrive at the following address at 9am on Saturday to help me with the furniture because I haven’t hired a van.’

I liked to think about a removals relay snaking around the streets of East Dulwich as every person I’ve ever met did all the hard work for me. They had offered after all.

But I guess sometimes “let me know if there’s ever anything I can do” is often just something we say to fill the silence or conclude the conversation when someone dies.

Don’t get me wrong, many people have helped me and sometimes I’ve even asked them to. People have fed us, cleaned our home, replaced toys lost in the chaos of that night, helped me plan and execute a funeral, cared for my son, redecorated our home, listened when I’ve needed an ear, backed off when I’ve needed space. The list goes on and on.

But I’ve decided I’ll never offer anyone any help or support again unless I really mean it. Realising it’s not always offered sincerely is just too disappointing and sometimes too infuriating to bear.

For the past three months I’ve been holding out on an offer of help from someone who I suppose owed me very little other than the respect and common decency that I had always shown him. If I’m really honest with myself I always suspected his offer was spoken with little fervour. But as this was more of a debt than a favour I could have been forgiven for believing it would be delivered without hesitation.

Frustratingly that was no to be. And frustration has not been a friend of mine this last few months. It hasn’t taken much for it to turn into anger. And anger is not an emotion that I like to convey in front of my son because it makes him angry too. And when our anger peaks we usually find ourselves quickly sliding down into a trough of sadness and distress. It all sounds rather dramatic but then grief often is.

This drama can be brought on by a broad range of different scenarios too. These could include being sent a chair with three legs shorter than the fourth and then having to deal with a dreadful cast of inadequate customer services representatives for over two months. Or telling a mobile phone company that your wife has just died and that you need to cancel her contract but don’t know her password, only to be told that she will have to call back herself.

But evidently none of these performance related issues by (un)professional strangers who have neither a personal connection nor a reason to care can compare to the frustration borne out of the lack of decency shown by those who do.

I refer to my ex-landlord. A woeful walking example of human indifference.

I moved out of my rented flat in May and bought a home for my son and me just around the corner. It was not an easy decision given that we would be leaving the last home we would ever live in with Desreen. But I was determined to continue with our plans to build ourselves a home and create some security for my son’s future. I served him the correct amount of notice in the appropriate way and even chatted man-to-man about my reasons and about how tough life had been in recent months.

The famous last words were repeated: “If there’s ever anything I can do…”.

‘Just one thing’, I thought, ‘make this process easy’.

He chose to do the opposite. I’ve had to chase him every week for my deposit. I’ve have to withhold my number on my phone for him to answer his. When we have spoken he’s done that really rather embarrassingly “you’re breaking up” thing. He’s blamed a fault on his Blackberry. He’s inadvertently asked for my sympathy because he’s “been really busy”. But he’s usually told me that he’d sort it “tomorrow”.

There have been lots of tomorrows. Each has stressed me out and made me feel more frustrated and angry than the one before. That has made the last couple of months even more difficult than they might already have been. Perhaps something disproportionate to the scale of the issue in normal life, but mindblowingly rage-inducing in mine.

In the end I had to introduce legal intervention to encourage this apparently insincere chap to deliver on his offer.

This is why I’ll never offer assistance to anyone in future unless I really mean it.

‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, but don’t expect me to do it quickly or without drama, lies, excuses, technical issues or legal intervention’ somehow doesn’t have quite the same ring.

And introducing terms and conditions* just doesn’t smack of heartfelt support.

*Just a little small print from me. I write this with a smile on my face now because in resolving the issues I have resolved my own frustrations. But, fucking hell, there are some tossers out there.
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living loss

This is a guest post by Becky Cricther about grief before death

Becky is 35-years-old and mummy to Chloe, aged four, who she lives with in Birmingham. A devoted daughter herself, Becky finds herself grieving her father who, whilst still alive, is suffering encephalitis. This devastating virus attacks the brain. For Becky, the father she loves is still here but the man she knew has already gone.

I asked Becky to write this post because I’ve come to understand that the pain of grief is not only caused by bereavement. It’s possible to feel it from the loss of a personality and not just a person. I’d like to thank Becky for her bravery in addressing this complicated issue of grief before death.

Until Friday 13th July last year my dad was an independent, reliable and active 72-year-old man living alone in Northamptonshire. He often visited our house baring gifts for me and my daughter, Chloe. We visited him lots too. We’d take trips to the seaside, visit farms, go to the theatre and we always had lots of plans for future activities too. We spoke every single day and we’d share banter over text messages about the plots of EastEnders. But sadly he never found out it was Derek sleeping with Kat. Before the storyline concluded, his brain was attacked by a condition called encephalitis.

That day will be imbedded in my mind forever. That day I was at home in Birmingham and he was at home in Northampton. That day I called for an ambulance three times for my dad after speaking to him and realising that something was wrong. That day I thought he was having a stroke. That day I got to my dad’s house before the ambulance, having collected Chloe from nursery, taken her to a party and then driven the 70 minute car journey it takes me to get there.

My dad hadn’t been feeling well for a couple of days. I’d already made him a doctors appointment earlier that week and he’d been sent for blood tests. Now with the paramedics in his house, I was asked if he had packed a bag. “He may need to stay overnight”, they said. He hadn’t, so I packed one for him while he walked himself out of his front door. Little did he or I know that he would never to walk back through his front door again.

They ‘blue-lighted’ him all the way to Northampton General and Chloe and I followed as quickly as we could. I found him in A&E. He was already slipping away from me. His speech was going. One side of his body was weaker but not paralysed. Eventually we left him comfortable and settling into the stroke unit.

When I returned the next day, he was worse and nobody seemed to know what was wrong. I was filled with panic. This was my dad. My hero. He couldn’t leave me.

The doctors were convinced it was an infection in his heart, so I franticly called the hospital where he’d had heart surgery in 2010 to find out which valves were involved, leaving very emotional and tearful messages on many an answering machine.

Days went by trying different antibiotics. Nothing was working and my dad was getting worse. Then came the seizures. Holding someone you love while they are shaking, trying to tell you something with their eyes rolling is worse than any scene from a horror movie. Seven days later they gave my dad antiviral drugs and on the 24th July they mentioned encephalitis to me for the first time.

Encephalitis is a devastating virus that attacks the brain and my dad’s brain had already been under attack for seven days. A CT scan showed he’d lost 70 per cent of the left hand side of his brain. My dad as I knew him had gone.

Over time he made progress. He walked one day. He just got up and walked. He had no idea where he was or where he was going but he just walked. He could no longer read nor write, he had no interest in the television nor the radio. He couldn’t articulate himself. He could talk but he couldn’t make himself make any sense.

During his time in Northampton General, I travelled four, five or six times a week to see him, which was 120 mile round trip. Twice I had ‘the call’ to say, “We think you should come NOW!”

I fought hard for him to be sent to a top rehabilitation centre, which happened in September last year. He was making good progress there, learning to shower and things, but he had no self awareness. His cognition was nonexistent. He needed to be reminded to drink and eat.

Unfortunately he suffered further seizures in November, which have left him severely impaired and he needs others to attend to his every need. He is noncompliant in taking medication, his mobility is poor and frustratingly he knows what he wants to say but just can’t get the words out. He has just been moved to another rehabilitation unit, which again I have fought for. I am hoping this will help him.

Now he is closer to us it is easier to for me to visit him and I will establish a routine of visiting him four times a week. But I’m also conscious that I need keep some kind a social life for Chloe and I need to work!

I’ve felt varying emotions over the last eight months.

I’ve felt anger. How different would he be if they had treated him sooner? Would he have made a good enough recovery to have lived with us with help of carers? Would he have been able to go home?

I’ve felt guilt. Guilt for thinking that if he would just go in his sleep it would be better for him. That I could then grieve for someone who had died rather than for someone who is still alive.

I’ve felt sadness. Sadness for the fact that Chloe has been robbed of her Pops. Someone who treated her like a princess. She was the apple of his eye and was a major male role model in her life.

But most of all I just want my dad back the way he was. I used to call his house number just to hear his voice and his sense of humour on the answer phone, “Leave a message and if I like you I will call you back”. Sadly he never has.

I have had help from the Encephalitis Society and I’ve helped them too. I raised £1,300 for them doing a skydive with a friend, something I had always said I would never do!

Do people understand my sense of grief for a father who is still alive? I’m not sure.

I’ve had the most amazing support from a large number of his friends. They have been loyal and kind and they’ve visited my dad regularly. People who I thought would had ‘stepped up’, however, haven’t. I guess some people haven’t coped very well with it all.

Me? I’ve had no choice.

Becky's daughter Chloe and father Ray pictured together just days before he fell ill
Becky’s daughter Chloe and father Ray pictured together just days before he fell ill
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primal scream

In the weeks following my wife’s death I was consumed by fear for our son’s future. How would he react? How would I tell him what had happened? Could he grow up happily without her? How would I take care of him when I was finding it so hard to look after myself?

I spoke to a number of sources to help find the answers. In hindsight the idea that I would find actual conclusive answers sounds ridiculous to me. But I guess it’s just a force of habit to expect answers to follow questions. When we get ill we go online and there we can find both the symptoms and the remedies. If we need to know how to cook rice we just grab a recipe book from the shelf and learn how. But my questions about grief have rarely had definitive answers. Just suggestions, maybes and potential outcomes. That’s part of what I think makes grief so hard to deal with in our modern quick-fix society. There are simply no shortcuts or absolute solutions. People can only really give your their views or share stories of their own personal experiences. No one can ever really tell you the future with any confidence, though.

A charity called Winston’s Wish, however, did offer me some great advice. They suggested I encourage my son to release any potential anger caused by the loss of his mum in a controlled environment. The last time I spoke of this he was kicking the shutters on a shop in East Dulwich in a state of confusion caused by seeing a young black woman who must have reminded him a little bit of his mum.

Well yesterday a clumsy little stumble over an invisible obstacle on the kitchen floor saw him bang his lip on his desk, which left him crying for Mummy. Daddy simply wouldn’t do.

“I want my mummy to come back to me. Mummy’s gone away and can’t come back. I want her to come back to meeeeee!”

Once he started he couldn’t stop. He’d been storing it up for a little while and it didn’t really stop all day. I was hurt but totally unsurprised. It’ll be seven months tomorrow since we’ve seen her and I’ve felt exactly the same as him all week.

But it wasn’t just his tears that he needed to release, it was his rage too. Fortunately we were in the perfect place. Yesterday was my goddaughter’s second birthday party in the park. The main game at the event was ‘steal the tail from the lion’ (I’ve made that name up because I don’t know what it’s called), which involves the game’s last winner donning a lion hat and a cloth tail and the other players trying to be named victor by stealing back the tail for themselves. Endless fun for kids and adults alike.

It wasn’t long before Jackson himself was dressed like a miniature feline warrior ready to take on the chase. And how could any winning lion resist a loud roar of celebration? Well he didn’t stop at one. He was roaring all day. In the end I had to take him a little deeper into the park to roar with him in an attempt to get what I saw as his grief rage out of his system because I was afraid he was going to bring on a pregnant friend’s labour.

See I believe we all need a release sometimes. I’ve got my blog. I’ve got a voice and a larger vocabulary than him. I’ve got great family and friends and I can articulate myself to them whenever I wish. Sometimes all a child can do is cry, scream, shout or even roar.

So I say keeping roaring, boy. Daddy’s right here for you whether you’re feeling as tame as a house cat or a wild as the king of the jungle.

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My little warrior
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treasured memories

This is a guest post by Sally Fenton

Sally is the founder of Sally-Anne Jewellery. In this post she tells of the grief she felt for the bereavement of her grandmother and how the same person she lost was the one who helped her get through it.

On the 27th September 2011 I got a phone call telling me that my grandmother had died. In that moment a wave of emotions washed over me. I felt sadness, anger, guilt, confusion and complete numbness one after the other and yet all at the same time.

In the weeks after her death I went through the motions, trying to carry on life as normal.  I told myself that other members of my family like my granddad and my mum were suffering much more than me and that I had to stay strong for them. My granddad kept urging me to ‘stick in’ at university. I was at the beginning of my final year at art college and my granny had always been so supportive of my passion for art and design. I was forever drawing her pictures when I was a kid and she would hang them proudly on her kitchen cupboards.

Of course trying to carry on as normal and continue my studies felt like an impossible task at that stage of my grief.

The first stage was the crying. Hysterically crying so hard that my fake eyelashes pinged off, my face puffed up like a big red blob and my head felt like it was about to explode.

The second was guilt. Why didn’t I phone her that day? I should have called her. I should have visited more often. Did I give her a kiss the last time I saw her? Did I tell her that I loved her? I couldn’t remember.

Then came anger. Anger at everyone around me. I saw red at things that normally wouldn’t bother me. The girls at university bitching about the most trivial, stupid things.

“She’s copying me, I use photography in my work”, one said.

‘Well you don’t own the art of photography and neither were you the first person to ever invent it, so shut it!’, I thought to myself.

I wanted to bang their heads together and shout, ‘Well at least you’re fucking alive!’

Work was difficult too. Retail can be tedious at the best of times but I felt immediately irritated at customers who would complain about the tiniest little mark on the bottom of a stupid £4 ornament, like it was the most terrible thing in the world. It took all the strength I had not to smack them in the face for being so utterly ridiculous.

Then there was numbness, feelings of nothingness, where I just sat and stared into space for hours on end. This, mixed with sadness, quiet sobbing and countless sleepless nights.

I could often go through all of these stages in a day, or in an hour, or in five minutes. It was all just so exhausting.

Then one night I was lying in my bed tossing and turning and worrying about how I was going to make it through my final year. I’d lost my passion for my degree, I hadn’t done any work in two months and was really starting to fall behind. I considered dropping out but that thought upset me even more as I knew that if my granny had still been alive she would have been disappointed in me.

That same night I began to understand that my grief wasn’t going to just magically disappear and that I wasn’t going to feel like me again anytime soon. I needed to try to turn my grief into the most positive situation that I possibly could. I realised that I wasn’t very good at talking about my feelings and that I’ve always been much more comfortable expressing it in other ways. So decided to make a collection of jewellery in her memory. People have such sentimental and emotional attachments to their jewellery that I felt it was the perfect way to remember and honour a loved one.

I felt that it was the only way in which I could stay and finish my degree. So I called round the family asking for everyone’s permission. I didn’t want to upset anyone by doing it. Luckily they were all incredibly supportive and said they thought it was a lovely idea.

My mum and I went through all of Granny’s old clothes and jewellery. They still smelt like her and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing. Was I emotionally ready to do this? What if I fucked it up? What if I let her down? What if the rest of the family didn’t like what I’d produced? Would they be even more upset? What if I didn’t like the end result? Would I feel even worse?

But I was determined. Determined to do her justice and capture and treasure her memory so the whole world could see just how much she meant to me. There were days that I felt like giving up, like I’d made a mistake. I spent many a time in the university toilets bawling like a baby, careful to turn them into silent tears if someone else came to use the cubicle next to me. I missed her so much and I so badly wanted to pick up the phone and ask her what I should do. She’d probably tell me to dry my eyes and get on with it. So I did.

I did some research into the traditional Victorian mourning jewellery but quickly decided to rally against that tradition. I wanted my pieces to be positive. I wanted the collection to be a celebration of her life. It should show that I was privileged to have known her in life and not be so obviously about her death.

So I used fabrics from her clothes as a basis for my collection, setting them into silver as if they were the gemstones. Commonly in jewellery the stone is the cherished part – just as I wanted her memory to be.

The thing I found most difficult was talking about it. I had to speak to my tutors and the rest of the class about my work, it was part of the course. I hated that. I fought back the tears but most often couldn’t stop them. It was private but yet I’d chosen to show my feelings in such a public way.

Gradually talking about it became a little easier and the collection fell into place. On the opening night of my degree show I went in to see my tutor and ended up missing the first hour of the opening as I sat in her office crying hysterically whilst trying my best to avoid looking like a big red sweaty panda.

They were tears of relief, sadness, frustration and happiness.

Now I’ve made it my goal to help others through stages of their grief. For me it’s still ongoing but it gets easier as time goes by. I just count myself lucky that she was a part of my life for 21 years and it’s because of her that I’m now doing a job that I love.

Sally’s work focuses on preserving precious memories through jewellery and capturing a sense of a loved one, which can be treasured forever. You can visit her site at http://www.sallyannejewellery.co.uk/

A piece from the Sally-Anne Jewellery Memories collection. Sally creates bespoke pieces incorporating objects that belonged to   loved ones.
A piece from the Sally-Anne Jewellery Memories collection. Sally creates bespoke pieces incorporating objects that belonged to loved ones.
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six months

Next Friday will be the six month anniversary of my wife’s untimely death. It simultaneously means both everything and nothing to me.

Everything because I can’t believe how much our families and friends have been through in that time. Nothing because I suspect that what we’re going through hasn’t even started yet.

Everything because it’s been the longest six months of my life and I’ve never felt so many emotions so intensely. Nothing because, looking back, I can’t believe six months have passed so quickly and so much of it feels like a blur.

Everything because my whole outlook on life has changed. Nothing because I feel so powerless now that I understand that I have no real control over the future.

Everything because it’s 25 time longer than the previous longest period of time (seven days) that I hadn’t seen my wife in eight years. Nothing because I’ve started to understand that time is a measure that holds little value in grief.

And so as we approach the six month anniversary I can imagine that there are people out there who’ll assume that long enough for a person to have begun to heal. In my experience it’s not. Time is simply a medicine dished out by untrained practitioners. But for me it’s a placebo and I’m familiar enough with the taste of real thing to know I’m being taken for a ride. The truth is I feel every ounce of sadness and loss I felt six months ago.

Yet I’d be lying if I said that my feelings nearly six months on were exactly the same. I know this because I’ve been keeping a diary in the form of this blog and when I look back I can compare. I wrote a piece called Imaging It back in January, which aimed to explain how it immediately felt to loose my wife so suddenly. I covered elements of confusion, guilt and physical pain that I no longer feel with the same intensity. If I had the same physical symptoms, for example, I’m sure I would be extremely ill by now. And if you witnessed me as the shell of a man I was back in November I’m sure you could assume that time was indeed healing. Yet it’s not. I guess I’m just on a journey towards slowly learning to survive with an open wound. And I guess there’s little other choice but to survive when there’s a young child there who needs you more than ever before.

As well as the six month anniversary, next week will also mark several milestones for this blog. It will be four months since I published my first post. By next week there will have been 100 posts and the blog will have received half a million views. And it was with all of this in mind that it occurred to me to revisit Imaging It, because it gave a real insight into the grief I felt immediately after my wife was killed. And although I don’t believe time heals, I’m starting to face the reality that it changes.

So I’m going to tell you what it feels like for me some six months on. The most important part of that sentence is not the measure of time but the part that says ‘for me’. I understand how natural it is for human beings to compare themselves to others. I know how it feels to get cross at people for pushing their beliefs on me. I appreciate that one person’s six months might be another’s six years. And above all, I know myself and I know that all I’m doing with the blog, all I’ve ever done with it, is document how I feel at any given moment in time. Perhaps after seven months I’ll change again. Maybe I’ll regress. Who knows if my feelings will be closer to month one than month six? I’m only certain of one thing. I’ll be the only one feeling my exact feelings. You’ll be the only one feeling yours. We’ll share common ground but we all grieve in our own way in our own time.

I mention this only because I’ve felt some upset and discomfort recently for being criticised for my grief.

I’m not angry enough.

I’m too positive.

I’m just out for myself.

Perhaps inevitably, given my current fragile state, I could hear a thousand positive comments and concentrate only on a handful of negatives. But that’s my grief. When my wife first died I was more preoccupied about who hadn’t got in touch than who had. These days I can’t even remember who did and who didn’t.

But the struggle I’m having with my grief is also telling me to grow a thicker skin. It’s telling me that all that matters now is the approval and the well-being of the people I love or respect. It’s telling me that I set out to help people and if there are still people who can find solace or empathy in what I write, then it’s worth carrying on. It’s telling me to be the gauge of what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s telling me to face the reality that you can’t please all of the people all the time. And it’s telling me not to waste my increasingly precious energy trying.

So this is what grief feels like for me six months on.

It feels like sadness.

Sadness because the person I shared my life with is no longer here and never will be again.

Sadness because any precious moment of happiness I feel, however brief, is followed by a crippling sense of foreboding and loss.

Sadness because it tears me to pieces to think of my son not being raised by the mother who adored him so much and who was planning to make his life so special.

Sadness because I fixate not just on my own loss but that of my wife’s family and friends and I feels theirs too.

It feels empty.

Empty because whatever I do, however much I occupy myself, however much I try to honour the memory of my wife, I feel nothing. No pride. No sense of achievement. No progress. Just nothing.

Empty because a part of me died with my wife. She was part of me. We were part of each other. The physical part has gone and with it it has taken so many of the positives emotions that I always held so dear.

It feels endless.

Endless because I know I’ll never be healed.

Endless because I’ll never see her again.

Endless because I’ll never see the old me again.

Endless because there’s no conclusion, just an unknown expanse of time ahead of me to always miss her.

Endless because a huge part of me doesn’t want the pain to stop because it’d feel like I were doing my wife a disservice in death.

Endless because I have the feelings of both myself and my son to worry about for as long as I’m lucky enough to be alive.

Endless because it never leaves my mind for a moment and I find it hard to concentrate on anything else.

Endless because I rarely sleep and so there are now more hours in the day yet I don’t have the energy to fill them with the things I used to love or the things that made me a healthier person.

It feels like disbelief.

Disbelief because when anyone talks about my wife’s grave I shut down.

Disbelief because I don’t think I’ll ever truly be able to get my head round what’s happened.

Disbelief because, well fuck it, I just can’t fucking believe it’s fucking happened.

It feels lonely.

Lonely because my days never come to a natural close with a ‘goodnight’, a kiss or a cuddle from the person who told me it was time to go to bed.

Lonely because however much company I’m in, I still feel alone.

Lonely because intimacy has gone.

Lonely because I’ve lost my wife, my best friend, my co-parent and my partner in fun and mischief all in one go.

It feels disappointing.

Disappointing because people I bump into often assume that they don’t need to mention what happened because it happened six months ago.

Disappointing because some people avoid talking about my wife as if she never existed.

It feels shared.

Shared because I understand now that I feel some comfort when I comfort others.

Shared because I believe that if we pass kindness on it will come back to us.

Shared because so many people out there are looking out for me and my son.

Shared because I’ve let the people who I initially pushed away back in.

Shared because I stopped trying to be a hero and started to accept and truly appreciate help.

It feels hopeful.

Hopeful because I’ve let moments of happiness back into my life and I’ve sad to hell with the consequences and the hangover that they might create.

Hopeful because of my son’s sunny disposition and his beautiful outlook on life.

Hopeful because he tells me, “It’s not raining, Daddy, it’s happy” when all I see are dark clouds ahead.

Hopeful because he can answer for himself at two-and-half when people ask where his mummy’s gone.

Hopeful because when the other kids at nursery discuss the necklaces that they are making for their mummies, my son doesn’t get upset. He just says he’s making his for his daddy.

So today my grief is not the Gollum I spoke about in the original version of this post. But it still feels ugly, isolated, wretched and schizophrenic enough to be Sméagol.

N.B. Please do feel free to share how it feels or felt for you at six months too. In fact, please do share how it feels or felt for you at any point in your grief. I realise that for many people this blog is not just about my story but also about all the stories shared in the comments. And for me that’s just amazing because it feels like we’re all in it together.

Six months on my grief is still ugly, isolated, wretched and schizophrenic enough to be Sméagol
Six months on my grief is still ugly, isolated, wretched and schizophrenic enough to be Sméagol
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mother’s day

A number of people have asked me what I’m planning to do for Mother’s Day this year. It’s an easy one to answer for me. I’m going to buy my mum a card and a present and tell her that I love her.

It’s not so easy for my son though. He’s only two-years-old so the day could easily pass unmarked without him noticing. But I do understand that it will get more difficult to deal with as the years go by and I never want to brush things under the carpet for the sake of an easy life.

Personally, I’m also going to try to approach significant calendar dates positively. There are enough miserable, sad days in the year now for me to accentuate holidays and key events throughout the year with more doom and gloom.

So this Mother’s Day I’m going to buy Desreen flowers from her favourite florist and put them in her own living room rather than in her shared grave yard, because I know she hated sharing. I’m also going to spend time talking to my son about his mummy. We’re going to go shopping and buy something overpriced to make the house look nice too. I know what she liked because she had the foresight to leave me with a folder full of pages torn out of magazines, just in case she ever caught me with money to burn.

I’ve also been sent the following advice from Child Bereavement UK, which might help others whether it’s children who have been left without a mum or parents who have lost a child.

Coping with Mother’s Day 

Over the years the prominence and commercial aspects of Mother’s Day have grown and grown. From at least a month before the actual date it is impossible to avoid shops full of cards and gifts, adverts about special bouquets and lunches, and we are surrounded by reminders of that special role of Mother and the day of celebration.

But for many families, Mother’s day is a poignant reminder of a special mum or precious child that has died, and the anticipation of that day looming can be particularly difficult. So often, people say they just wish they could cancel it from the calendar.

When children are bereaved

For children bereaved of their mum, the day can be very hard. Sometimes people think it will be easier if they carry on as if nothing has happened, but this usually isn’t very helpful. Many children have told us it actually helps to be able to do something to remember their mum on Mother’s Day.

Families have found lots of different ways to mark the day and think about the things that made their mum so special, such as:

  • Visiting a special place where they remember having fun times with their mum
  • Making a Mother’s Day card to take to their mum’s grave or other special place
  • Talking to other people in the family about their mum and maybe even learning some things about her they didn’t know before
  • Looking through photographs or at the special things they keep in a memory box they have made
  • Children may also have other special people in their life that they would like to make a Mother’s Day card for

Some children have told us they can feel really angry on days like this when everyone else looks so happy with their mums. They’ve found joining in a competitive sport, having a good run around outside or hitting a punch bag has used up some energy and helped them with these angry feelings.

When a child has died

When a child has died, Mother’s Day can be a time when that child’s absence can be acutely felt. Where there are other children in the family, who naturally want to celebrate Mother’s day in the usual way, the gap feels even more evident and bereaved mums can feel they have to ‘go through the motions’ for the sake of the other children. When your child has died, shopping for a card and gift for your own mother can be really difficult too.

Some mothers who have lost their only child tell us that although they know they are a mother, the outside world doesn’t necessarily see them in that role any longer and this lack of acknowledgement can make Mother’s Day particularly hard when everyone is celebrating motherhood.

So often, people will avoid mentioning the subject with the best of intentions, but mums tell us having no acknowledgement can sometimes be more hurtful.

Families have found that doing something positive to mark Mother’s Day can help – having some flowers at home beside their child’s picture, lighting a candle to remember them, or doing something special on the day are just some of the things mums have done to acknowledge their baby or child that has died and their role as that child’s mother. 

Alternatively, some mums have found it better to just get away from all the commercialism and reminders of Mother’s Day by going for a walk in the countryside or along the coast. It’s important that whatever you do, you do what feels right for you and helps you through the day.

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rock stars

Last night I learnt why rock stars smash up hotel rooms. It’s because they can.

It works for them on so many levels.

It gets them the attention they need to remain interesting to their fans.

It releases the tension inside of them that they feel from pressures such as being in the public eye, partying too hard, unpredictable work commitments, strained relationships and sleep deprivation.

But most of all they do it because they can afford to. Whether they pick up the bill themselves, drain their own PR budget or have a very accommodating record label, they know they can get away with it.

Well my son is turning into a rock star. His complete lack of inhibition in grief due to his age is affording him the opportunity to approach bereavement the way a musician on the edge might approach a television set in a penthouse suite.

Last night he morphed from Jackson Brooks-Dutton into Keith Moon right before my eyes.

We’d gone through his evening ritual. Warm bath, hot milk, ridiculous stream of consciousness story, little prayer and a kiss for mummy. The picture he likes best is on my phone but sits alongside all sorts of video content that he finds stimulating and hilarious. I should know better, but at the end of another tough day I can rarely resist the opportunity to hear my child laugh.

Only last night it had the opposite effect. He found a brief video of him and his mum dancing to Azealia Banks. At first he seemed to be enjoying the beats of Harlem Shake but his smile quickly turned into a frown. And his frown quickly turned into rage.

I’ve given to keeping our living space pretty rock star proof. He’s at no risk in the bedroom because he can only really take his aggression out on soft furnishings and clothes. But he let rip all the same. The duvet was off the bed, followed by the pillows. Dummies were flying everywhere. Thomas’s steamy mate James got what was coming to him as he was launched from the bed into the wall. The room descended into mini rocker chaos.

I played the role of the accommodating record label executive, sitting back and letting the episode unfold.

‘It’s just grief’, I told myself. And who should stop the little fella if he isn’t doing himself any harm? Adults would pay through their noses for this kind of therapy and while he’s still young, naive and innocent enough not to feel like what he’s doing is wrong, then who am I to tell him?

Emotionally he can pick up the bill for the damage to his suite. Financially it hasn’t cost me a penny.

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my son

This is a very special guest post by my two-year-old son, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton

Toddler, train enthusiast and part time nursery attendee, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton, shares his thoughts on his behaviour since his mother was tragically killed in November 2012 in a open letter to his father. Like every child of his age, his dad believes him to be an exceptionally gifted and extremely advanced pre-schooler. However, it probably goes without saying that this post is entirely made up because, as yet, Jackson doesn’t know if the book he is ‘reading’ is upside down or not. This is an interpretation of his behaviour from his point of view. I feel I must warn you, he swears like a trooper. His daddy did when he was young though too. I blame the parents. 

Dear Daddy,

I feel like I need you to see things from my point of view because you’re giving yourself a very hard time. Good at spelling, aren’t I?

I’m going to keep this brief because I get bored really easily and although I said I don’t like Thomas the Tank Engine anymore when we left the house this morning, I’ve changed my mind and he’s all I can think about right now. Frankly, I also find writing letters a real bore and I don’t understand why this archaic laptop has keys when I prefer to touch type directly onto the screen with sugary yoghurt on my fingers. But I love you, Daddy, so I’ll persevere. Big word for such a little guy, n’est pas? Oh yeah, they make kids’ TV shows that teach you French and Spanish now. Oh and Patois too if you include Rastamouse, man.

Where was I? Oh aye, three things happened last week that I think I ought to explain from my perspective because they seem to be crushing you up and I need you to be in a better state of mind to build my train tracks. I might be able to write well, but those bloody bridges get me every time. 

Incident one:

Daddy, last week you took me ‘on holiday’ to the Canaries when I was really ill. I had a huge fever, you pumped me full of drugs and I think you probably wanted to ‘be on form’. Well let me tell you something, man flu starts young and I had it. You grown-ups think Calpol is the answer to everything but we only take it off you because it tastes like Haribo. If it actually worked that well, then why the fuck don’t you take it when you get ill? Are you with me?

So there we are sharing a sun lounger, recently bereaved of the one person who meant most to us in the whole wide world and you reckon a swimming pool and a scoop of ice cream is going to sort it. Did it make you feel any better? That’s what I thought. 

I’m not trying to make you feel bad for taking me, quite the opposite in fact. I thought you really made an effort and you barely left my side. But that’s my point. I needed you last week, not a holiday. And on reflection I think you did a pretty good job at putting me first, so please don’t beat yourself up. Let’s just move on. We’re both home now and we’re closer than ever, so take a chill pill. 

Incident two:

While we were away I heard you sniff. It’s a filthy habit and had I known you didn’t have a hanky I would have reprimanded you but, more fool me, I thought you were crying. So I ran across the room and asked, “Ooo okay, Daddy?” (God knows why I write so well but can’t even pronounce ‘you’, but you’re one to talk, you had a lisp until you were five). I also offered you a plantain chip to comfort you because I know from previous experience dummies aren’t really your thing. While we’re on the matter that bitch doctor from A&E can kiss my tiny ass if she thinks I’m giving her one of my plantain chips. Bloody nerve of the woman (see previous post). I did this because I want to look after you too, Daddy. We’re both crushed by what’s happened but we really need to support one another. You looked genuinely shocked that a child could be so sensitive, but I love you man and I’ve got your back. That’s how toddlers roll these days. We’re not as dumb as we are small. 

Incident three:

So I had you covered when I thought you were blubbing in the villa but then you got all like ‘Oh God, I mustn’t cry in front of Jackson anymore’ at the airport when I behaved in a completely different way. 

So you thought it was a good idea for us to get a night flight because I’d probably nod off. Well for once you predicted my sleep patterns correctly and for that you must be rewarded. I’ve a plantain chip with your name on it but if you share it with Dr. Bitchface, it’ll be your last. But what you failed to realise is that toddlers don’t react too well to being woken up from a night flight at 1am. What they like even less is when the taxi that is meant to pick them up at 2am fails to arrive. Don’t get me started on that taxi firm, but rest assured we will take them down, Daddy. What a toddler likes even less again is when the next taxi firm turns up with a baby seat and not a child seat. I can’t fit into one of those anymore, so when you told the taxi driver who suggested he just “drive slowly” leaving my life at risk just three months after my mummy was killed by a car, I think you were right to tell the punk to go and fuck himself. 

However, what a toddler likes even less than all of those things put together is to see his father so upset at nearly 4am. That broke me and while you called a friend and asked for help, my verbal vocabulary doesn’t stretch that far yet (which is weird because I type like a demon), so I had to show my feelings.

So yes, I threw my dummies on the floor (I like to have at least three to hand, especially when upset because one alone doesn’t have the same effect). Yes, I removed my shoes and through them out too. Yes, I screamed the place down. But it’s not because you cried, I’m totally down with the tears dude, it’s because I was fucking knackered, you pushed me too hard and every other fucker seemed to have it in for us that night.

But have you noticed I how well I’ve behaved since we’ve been home? And have you realised that we’ve actually both laughed a few times too. Also, have you noticed how I keep asking you for a cuddle because you’re my main man and I need you so much right now?

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how I see it all and say I love you, Daddy. We both know Mummy was the best, but you’re doing alright so don’t be so hard on yourself. We’ll get there.

Love,

J-Bo xx

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valentine’s day

This is a guest post by Cj M Swaby

NLP wellness coach, writer and speaker, 33-year-old Cj M Swaby lost his brother; the singer, musician, husband, son and uncle, Lynden David Hall; to cancer in 2006. He shares his experiences of grief as a loving sibling, an NLP practitioner and a volunteer for Cruse, the national bereavement helpline. 

In 2003 my brother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He would die three years later on 14th February 2006. I got the call at 8:35am on Valentine’s Day.

A few years before my brother was diagnosed with cancer, my grandmother was killed suddenly in December 2000. Both deaths marked me in different ways.

The grief I felt was one of the most powerful and overwhelming emotions I had ever experienced. But I didn’t run from it. While falling apart at the seams, I just about managed to function on a day-to-day basis. Behind closed doors, however, I was struggling to find the strength to deal with a family that was imploding and a relationship that had recently collapsed under the pressure.

I began to question everything.

What was I doing? Who was I spending my time with? What was really important to me? Why was I here on Earth? Why did anything even really matter?

Then I began to question my beliefs around grief. I was tired. I was bored of the pain, bored of the suffering. I just wanted it to stop. I used to write frequently to get the thoughts onto paper and out of my head.

No Más. No Más.

My eyes can cry no more,

Though my heart screams with pain.

Cold and numb,

My body remains.

Tired and exhausted,

My soul has run dry.

Though my heart screams with pain,

My eyes refuse to cry.

I wanted something different. How had it got to this? I began to explore death. I began to challenge my bereavement and in the process dismantled my grief.

So what did I learn?

1. Grieve at your own pace

Grief is not a race.  Allow yourself the time and space to be present to your emotions and the love you still have for them. Explore this. Time is not always a factor. They say that time heals; I would suggest that it’s not so much that time heals, but how you use that time to tackle your bereavement that matters.

2. Your grief is unique

No one has the right to tell you how to grieve or for how long. While I may understand what it is to lose someone you love, I can never truly know what another person is going through when their loved one dies. One of the biggest mistakes that I made when my brother died was to assume that I knew what other members of my family were going through.

The mistake that others made, was to think they knew how I felt. I soon learned to respect and value each person’s experience of grief. Give them the space they need to express it, but also recognise the boundaries. The behaviour of others around me did impact on my ability to deal with my bereavement. The right support network is often important.

3. Give yourself permission

Sometimes it felt as if the emotions were so overwhelming that I would not be able to contain them if I ever let them surface. This was new and scary. I discovered that when I allowed myself to do whatever it was that I needed to do, to get through it, I was able to free myself up.

I used to beat myself up for feeling the wrong way, saying the wrong things, not feeling the way I thought I should feel or getting angry, feeling guilty or being unsure.

I stopped this. I no longer beat myself up and I allowed myself to feel these emotions without self-judgement. I even scheduled regular “lose the plot” sessions. This was dedicated time where I would lock myself in my room, scream, cry, write in my journal, dance, sing, exercise, punch a pillow. Whatever I needed to do in that moment to give myself a release.  My only criteria when giving myself permission was that I did not hurt myself nor others.

Highly irregular right?

No, not really. I was simply having a normal response to an un-normal situation.

4. Your experience lives beyond theory

There are many theories on grief. They can provide an invaluable understanding of the bereavement process, no matter how long it has been since your loved one died.

Some of the more common ones are:

  • The Five Stages Of Grief – Elizabeth Kubler Ross
  • Tasks of Grief – William Worden
  • Dual Process Model – Stroebe & Schut

These can be very useful in helping us to get to grips with the reality of our grief, but I would be mindful that our individual experiences are unique and may not slot neatly into any of these models.

This is okay. They can be useful as a guide but may not provide all the answers. Your grief is a unique and dynamic experience with many different shades. Remember, it lives beyond theory.

5. It can be done

When I was in the initial depths of my grief, I had no intention of transforming my bereavement. My wish was simply to navigate through it day-by-day. Then as I managed to get a handle on it and get a sense that it was actually doable, I realised that I could change my grief if I wanted to.  This is not to say that it was effortless, but that it could be done. Others had done it before me, so why not me too?

Now I occupy a different space, where I encourage an open and honest dialogue on death, and self-empowerment around grief, through my own wellness coaching practice, and as a volunteer on Cruse Bereavement Helpline.

So what do I know? I know that death does not discriminate and we are often very unprepared.

Cruse is looking for volunteers for the bereavement helpline. The national telephone helpline 0844 477 9400 is open for calls from 9.30am to 5pm working days, answered mainly by a team of trained volunteers working in the special helpline area of the central offices in Richmond, Surrey.

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sick child

Never has a common cold felt more intense and I don’t even have one.

Late last week my little boy woke up and radiated temperatures between 38 and 40°C throughout the day. He was attached to me constantly, waking up only to check that he was still in my arms and that I hadn’t gone anywhere.

I did what I could to bring his body heat down, remembering the best piece of knowledge that any parent can ever learn (that you can administer both paracetamol and ibuprofen at the same time), but to little avail. The germs were just too hot and bothered and they weren’t going to chill out until they were reunited with their nasty little friends at A&E.

I think I could have found better places to pass the time in my current state of mind. The words “trauma in six minutes” announced repeatedly over the speakers somehow weren’t helping me relax. The doctors and nurses weren’t of much assistance either.

The nurse rolled her eyes at my distressed two-year-old son’s lack of cooperation, the doctor called him “naughty” and the registrar was openly judgemental about the fact that he was eating plantain chips. I bit my tongue but if by any small chance you are reading this, he’s half Jamaican, it’s a type of fruit common to the West Indies, and we couldn’t get him to eat anything else that day so get back to your fucking ivory tower and be grateful that you’re well enough to stomach your quinoa and three bean salad.

Where was I? Yeah, so my son has been unwell, it’s normal, he’s a toddler, it happens to them all bla bla bla, but it feels less normal when you’re both grieving. Every emotion that I’ve been holding inside, invisible to the naked eye, is being projected publicly by my child.

My internal but incessant tears are running down his face. My hidden frustration and bad temper are convulsing in his little limbs on the bed. My desire to be completely antisocial and to physically lash out at people who deserve to be treated better is there in his tiny fists.

But the hardest thing of all is realising that I’m constantly torturing myself with the thought that I’m a bad dad (I’m not fishing by the way, so don’t feel the need to offer me any reassurance).

When I can’t get his medicine down his throat my mind tells me that his mum could.

When I spot that his t-shirt is on back-to-front I feel like giving him the phone to dial ChildLine – I even feel like scripting him so he doesn’t leave anything out.

And when the only thing he’ll eat is Cheerios and I know that he’d get more nutrition from a bowl of Mars bars, I feel like getting that registrar round to give me a good talking to. We’re probably not on speaking terms if she’s just read this though.

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keeping busy

These last few weeks have been pretty busy. Lots of well wishers have warned me not to overstretch myself and friends and family have have shown their concern when they’ve seen my diary looking so full.

But this is one of the strange things about grief. You can’t tell someone how to play theirs out and you can’t be certain if the choices they make now will ultimately be right or wrong. Only time will provide those answers.

So four weeks to the day since I started this blog, have I taken too much on?

The truth is I rarely sit on my arse and do nothing. In my twenties I liked nothing more than to avoid bed at all costs. I’ve spent my entire adult life working hard and keeping busy, so to think that I might change so dramatically in just a matter of weeks is probably quite unlikely. Two hours after my wife was killed I was reciting a to do list to a friend, thus work-shy I am not.

So, whilst not ready to return to my job, I suspected I needed to find something positive to occupy my mind. Running started to fill a void but it didn’t take me long to realise that this hobby was simply busying my other anatomical extreme. And so that’s how this blog came to be. A normally active, stimulated and hectic mind was given extended leave from school but quickly rushed back to ask for extra homework like the classroom geek.

But I’ve done the work at my own pace. I’ve spread the writing out, I’ve spoken to media only on the days that suit me and I’ve put my son first every time. The words pour into me during my broken sleep and out of me before he even wakes up.

I’ve also worked in PR for 13 years, which means two things: 1) that working with media doesn’t present a hugely time-consuming challenge for me and 2) every single working day for over a decade has been busier than any day during the last four weeks.

Over the weeks I’ve felt extremes from anger to euphoria, despair to pride, disbelief to dignity. But I believe the important thing is that I’ve felt more than just loss. I’m self aware enough to understand that taking care of myself means challenging my mind rather than simply sitting round doing nothing at all.

So, if busying myself when I ‘should be getting some rest’ does some good for others then great, I’ll chill out another time.

If I regret what I’m doing right now in the future, then I’ll console myself with the fact that death made me live for the present.

If the rare highs lead to crashing lows, I’ll already know that I was fully expecting them to come my way.

And if I break down on the bus again whilst out running some errands, then at least I can take solace in the fact I can still multitask.

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woman trouble

It’s hard to imagine a two-year-old boy already experiencing problems with the opposite sex, but we are having some serious woman trouble.

My son, who has always been fiercely loyal to his mum, has taken a dislike to girls. To be slightly more specific he’s on a mission to alienate and attack any woman in her early to mid-thirties who comes within a ten metre radius of me.

Once again this presents me with questions that he is as yet unable to answer. Has he lost trust for the fairer sex because his mummy has gone away and can’t come back? Is he wearing his metaphorical ‘Team Desreen’ onesie to detract any significant female influence infiltrating our home? Have I forgotten to teach him that it’s not right for a boy to raise his hand or bare his teeth to a girl? Or am I simply overanalysing his every move?

For the record, I don’t think I am. On Saturday we met a lovely couple through some old friends. The husband was a really nice guy who immediately started playing with my son. They took to each other straightaway. The wife was equally warm. A mother herself, she knew the right buttons to press. Only my son didn’t want his touched. When a “Go away!” wouldn’t suffice he decided that the only way to show her how he felt was to crawl under the table and attack her foot. Naturally I pulled him away before he drew blood, but he looked enraged, just like five days earlier when he’d gone for her mate.

I ought to explain that my son is really rather a nice chap. He’s always had a bit of a temper and he doesn’t tend to leave company unsure of how he feels, but this battle of the sexes is something new. In fact, it’s been a notable shift. He used to pour affection on his mother and blame me for anything that went wrong. “No Daddy!” he’d say if one of his trains broke, blaming me even if I wasn’t in the room. I’d be the one that would receive a whack when something on his plate didn’t meet with his approval, even if his mum there was holding the spoon.

But that’s all changed now. I can do little wrong. He suddenly worships me and he’ll sing my name rather than shout. His maternal grandma’s out of luck though. While I’m becoming mum she’s becoming dad.

It’s her birthday tomorrow too so I’m off to town to buy her some boots. Those angry toddler teeth can play hell with an unprotected female ankle.

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happy days

I used to love that conversation about Falling Down, you know that one where you’d ask what it would take to make you explode with anger like the character played by Michael Douglas in the film? He lost it in Whammy Burger when the fast food restaurant wouldn’t serve him breakfast after 11:30, letting rip at the injustice of not being able to get an omelette just because the clock dictated it was time for lunch. Imagining what would make me so mad used to really make me laugh.

Well I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently and it doesn’t make me chuckle anymore, it makes me worry. I’ve been nervous about when it’s going to come. I’ve read the books and I’ve spoken to the experts and they all tell me that anger will come in grief, that it’s to be expected and that it’s normal.

But it hadn’t hit me. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I asked myself? Why am I not smashing the place up? Why, when I have such a good excuse, have I broken more plates on a Greek holiday than I have in my own home over the last ten weeks?

I was panicking that it might get me on the London Underground, but then I saw a man getting cross about the overcrowding and I laughed. ‘You don’t know you’re born, mate’, I thought. I worried that a waiter would get it if he served me a latte instead of a cappuccino in the local cafe. Most of all I was worried it would hit me like a wave and then wash away the people I loved most in its tide.

But nothing.

That was until Sunday. I opened up the papers hopeful that the message I’ve been trying to spread would have been treated compassionately and could be of genuine help to others. Turns out I got the wrong paper. They opted for sensational rather than sensitive.

And so came the anger, and f*ck me, was it strong?

It’s eaten me up. It’s taken my sleep. It’s brought me down. It’s made me introverted. It’s made me push away the people that I love. I’ve been unreasonable, snappy, impatient and it’s taken my eye off the ball. The positive things achieved this week with the help of others were wasted on me, overshadowed by the anger.

I’ve regretted that I didn’t listen to my instincts when they told me to say no.

I felt sorry that I’d made myself and others feel worse than we already did.

And I felt so damn angry at folk who don’t even care – gluttonous people who order tragedy for dessert when they don’t get their fill on a more than adequate main.

But I’ve used that anger to get what I want. I used that anger to get the truth and I used that anger to (finally) get an apology.

The first try came earlier in the week. It was the weakest of attempts. ‘I’m very sorry you feel that way’, is not an apology for something you’ve done, it’s an expression of regret for the feelings of another.

But I pushed and I got the letter today and it’s more explicit in its acknowledgement of offence. It allows me to move on. It’s brought the anger out in me so I suppose the grief checklist just got another tick.

Gladly, the dark humour in me got a laugh too.

Turns out the guy who called to apologise for how I feel (so actually got away with not apologising over the phone) was the same person who approved the odious headline that made me so mad. Again, this same chap wrote (or at least signed) the letter I received today, which pointed out that the copy contradicts the headline.

While the whole saga has caused me a great deal of distress, I just had to laugh that the person pointing out that the copy contradicts the headline is the same guy who approved it.

So, the title of this post is devoted to that same man. It completely contradicts the copy, but then who gives a shit if it sucks a few more people in?