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flight mode

I’m pretty sure that the one thing most single parents would like more than anything else is a little more time to themselves. I don’t mean at the cost of seeing their kids, but rather some sort of space between all the work, jobs and activities it takes to manage and fund more than one person’s life at a time.

I spend quite a lot of hours in the sky at the moment and I’ve noticed that the only time I really get to myself, ironically, is through my job. Just a couple of hours to do nothing but sit, sleeping, talking or thinking.

Invariably, reflection prioritises itself. I’m not exactly sure why it is, but my mind usually decides it needs a mental work out when my body is forced into an otherwise fairly unproductive ‘flight mode’.

Perhaps it’s partly to do with the intimacy and familiarity of the situation. When I look around there are constant reminders of the life I once lived: the happy, flirtatious couple just starting out together; the cute baby that everyone is willing not to cry; the apparent nausea of a passenger, which always reminds me of how my anxious wife would get physically sick before the plane had even moved. With so many thoughts floating round my head, I’m moved to tears – if only momentarily and always behind sunglasses – almost every time I fly.

Making my way back from a business trip today, it occurred to me that I’ve been working in the PR industry now for half my life. I started out at eighteen on work experience with a rather inspiring set of people in Liverpool and, eighteen years on, I work for one of the best and most successful agencies in the world. Balancing what’s expected of me professionally with what I expect from myself parentally is far from easy, but increasingly I think it’s something I owe to myself and my son.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I decided I was done with my career. I left a good job, rejected offers for even better ones and turned to an innate passion for a writing – a skill I never even knew I had before life (or rather death) unearthed it from within.

I had never been more productive. So many people would tell me that they simply wouldn’t be able to function on any level through grief, but I’m not convinced anyone knows what they are capable of until (or perhaps unless) the most terrible things happen. And it’s the many talented and creative people that I get the opportunity to work with whose stories fascinate me. People who seem endlessly – even if non-traditionally – brilliant in both their personal and private lives who inspire me to better myself in mine.

The lesson the outside world keeps teaching me is the power of confidence and self belief. It’s something I think many British people struggle with – even to suggest it can be seen as conceited or arrogant – but I think maybe we have it all wrong.

Twenty-five years ago I decided to start learning Spanish – a ridiculous waste of a time for a child who was largely afraid to open his mouth in public, even in his mother tongue. The fear of getting anything wrong made it too crushing to even try. Two and a half decades on and I’ve realised that fear serves no other purpose than to keep us safe (at the positive end of the spectrum) or to limit the lives we could live (at the other).

Fear, I’m beginning to believe, only really gets one chance to shine brighter than self belief, though. Its fire may eat us up inside for years, but the thrill of even the tiniest momentary success at something we really know we should do or say has the power to ravage it right back.

It seems to me that the most memorable and talented people I meet have one fear-fighting thing in common: they are less scared of failing than they are of not trying. They know their lives have the potential to be more fulfilling if they care more about what’s right for themselves than they do about what others might think of how they perform in the process. How much more satisfying it must be to thrive doing something you know makes you feel good rather than suffocate from the fear of something you think might.

Anthony Hopkins once said: ‘My philosophy is: It’s none of my business what people say of me and think of me. I am what I am and I do what I do.’

So why care? And why stop living just because others around you may have never started?

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male pride

A few weeks ago when I was staying away from home with friends, I asked them if they ever get any genuine sense of satisfaction from their own personal achievements or professional endeavours. ‘Do you ever really feel proud of yourselves?’ I enquired. Both – one male, one female – replied, ‘Yes.’

I’m not sure I know how that feels. Over the last week I’ve acknowledged some things about myself that have taken me a long time to figure out. Initially I blamed my own lack of fulfillment on my wife’s death. I suppose I bought into the idea that a part of me died with her because I noticed that a number of my personality traits did disappear upon her death. But then I gave it a lot more thought and what I came up with surprised me: I’ve slowly realised that I used to push out my chest, put on a face and feign confidence; I used to be quite self-congratulatory as a way of masking my own insecurities. Doubtless some people would have thought me genuinely cocksure, self-satisfied and perhaps even a little abrasive, but it was mostly just an act and an attempt to try to fit in and get ahead.

What I’ve realised in the last week or so is that my wife’s death has indeed taken with it those elements of a confident personality I once adopted, but it has also revealed the sort person I really was inside: vulnerable, insecure, and naturally shy. What complicates – or perhaps complements, depending on how your viewpoint – these traits is that these days I don’t really care about getting ahead. I no longer feel the need to act a certain way to try to fit in. Maybe my vulnerability has become a strength of sorts, allowing me to self-counsel through grief via this blog and my book. My innate insecurity has perhaps prepared me for the psychological challenges of being hit with such force by the bereavement I’ve suffered – questioning everything constantly my whole life has meant that a preoccupied mind isn’t new to me. My shyness, however, has morphed into something entirely different. I no longer attach any real worth to people’s opinion of me, which makes introversion seem almost redundant, which, in turn, makes genuine (if rather tragic) extraversion possible. I suppose it’s rather empowering really.

Pride, however, is a different matter altogether. Self-help books might preach the importance of learning to feel good about who you are. I suspect they would extol the virtues of self-respect, self-worth and self-belief. Each characteristic is, of course, excellent in theory, but I’ve found that it’s not easy to feel good about yourself when you can’t shake the feeling of being quite so frequently low. Pride in one’s self, therefore, remains somewhat out of reach and too great a psychological leap to make so soon. And yet I keep hearing a voice in my head telling me to be kinder to myself. I’m slowly coming to terms with the idea that self-deprecation and failure to recognise any sense of emotional progress made – whether my son’s or my own – doesn’t honour my wife’s death. That same voice has suddenly made me realise that it’s okay to feel okay once in a while, that it’s alright to feel like we’re doing alright sometimes, and that the shame I feel in my momentary flickers of happiness is only a symptom of my grief. It’s not something that I have to embrace in order to believe that my son and I are feeling our loss as deeply as I perhaps think we should.

The only piece of advice I have – and probably ever will – pass on to anyone who has been bereaved of someone they love is to just be: to feel what you feel, to be honest with yourself, and not to try to act how others might expect you to. Well this week I’ve decided to take my own advice and see how it feels to occasionally just be okay – to appreciate the times when Jackson and I are doing well and try to enjoy the moments while they last.

I don’t think I need to feel proud of myself to be the person I want to be right now or in the future. I just need to keep focussing on how proud I am of my son and how proud my wife would have been to see our little baby turning into such a wonderful young child. And that’s quite enough pride for me for now. I know how the saying goes and I’ve grown too accustomed to too many other things that make me feel good being so quickly followed by a fall.

I've realised that it's okay to feel okay once in a while
I’ve realised that it’s okay to feel okay once in a while
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judgement day

A few days ago a fellow widower asked me what my views were on whether he should still wear his wedding ring. I thought about his question for a long time. Not because I didn’t feel like I had my own immediate answer but rather because I wondered what might have fuelled his indecision. Did he think that there might be a right and wrong answer to what I see as an entirely personal choice? Was he concerned about the timing of his ultimate conclusion? Was he worried about what his late wife might have thought? Or was he more anxious about what other people might actually think? 

Grief can have a habit of making you question everything. I have found that it can make me confident one minute and then desperately insecure the next. Confidence may not be something that everyone associates with bereavement but it’s something I have certainly felt over the months since I lost my wife. It’s not so much a confidence driven by self-worth than a boldness driven by not really giving a shit about the value others see in me. Petty insecurities about things like my appearance (or keeping up with appearances) have become really quite redundant; I just don’t care that much any more. Instead my self-doubt tends to revolve around my position as a grieving husband and a striving father – little else matters to me. And so, on the face of it, I can understand why the gentleman in question would be concerned about what he should do about his wedding band. Perhaps he simply wants to retain a physical connection with his late wife. The problem is, it would seem, what others might think.

Since my wife was killed in November 2012 I’ve learned that people think all sorts of things but few people think exactly alike. And that’s what makes pleasing everyone so altogether impossible. In the aftermath of my wife’s death I was desperate to find empathy and support from other young widowers but initially struggled to find others willing to open up. I started this blog, pushed it really hard and then finally found others who were searching for the same thing. We helped one another immediately, we continue to do so constantly and I think that reaching out to the people I eventually found was probably the most significant step I could have taken in helping myself through the pain of grief. Yet insecurity still beckoned. Will people think I’m being dictatorial about grief? I asked myself. Will I be seen as an attention seeker? Will people just want me to shut the fuck up? It wasn’t long before the anguish that made me start writing this blog changed shape and focus and morphed into something that made me wonder whether I should stop.

Things progressed quickly: TV appearances, articles in newspapers and magazines, a book. What followed was more division of opinion and more insecurity on my part about what was right and wrong. But I quickly made a promise to myself: I would be the judge of what I deemed to be the appropriate way forward for my son and me – everyone else was entitled to retain their opinions in private but, ultimately, no one else could know what life was truly like behind our closed doors.

This was a turning point for us both; with other people’s opinions cast aside, we could face the pressure of facing our own lives without the pressure of facing other people’s views of them. When I stopped worrying about grieving the way other people perhaps thought I should and faced it in a manner that felt appropriate for me, I stopped ‘being strong’. When I realised that maintaining my career at the cost of having a happy child went against everything that was really important to me in life, I gave up work to be with my son. When it occurred to me that I could build a legacy for my wife on behalf of our little boy by capturing the special moments of her life for him to cherish forever, I wrote a book. I appreciated that when all of these things collided – my vulnerability, my lack of work, my shift of focus – I might find things even more difficult than they already were and to some degree I did; I grew depressed. But I faced this and of course I continue to, knowing that it’s not something that can simply be brushed aside with a good night out, a trip to the seaside or a sharp talking to. It will take time, energy, effort, patience and self-respect – none of the things that people who are quick to judge tend to invest in those they pass judgement upon.

In the last seven days I’ve finished editing a book that will, by the very nature of these things, be judged when it is released. I have also decided to embark on a career in freelance PR and copywriting, albeit part time and built around the occasional days that my son attends nursery. Doubtless there will be those who have their views on my transition from boardroom to spare bedroom as I attempt to build a future as a sole trader. These days, though, I base my decisions on just a couple of factors: would my late wife support me and is this the right thing to do for my son and myself? What else really matters? Can I let the views of someone I don’t even know – a troll, perhaps – hold me back? Can I grow concerned about how those I think I know really view the decisions I make? Is there ever any pleasing everyone? And in pleasing everyone else, would I risk leaving my son and myself displeased and dissatisfied in my own sense of conviction?

I think a lot about that guy pondering over his wedding ring and I wonder why he or any of us really worry about what anyone else thinks. It’s a damn hard place to get to but now I’m there I realise that the only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing and say nothing at all. And what would be the point in that? If I’d done nothing I would never have found any of the people who have helped make these last fifteen months more bearable that they otherwise might have been. If I’d said nothing I would have hidden the grief that I now know I needed to show and share. And if I had spent the whole time worrying and hiding from those people whose only mission is to criticise almost anything that anyone does, I would almost certainly never have left my front door. And had I locked myself away inside my house those same people who criticised my motives for putting myself out there in the first place would have asked, What sort of example is that waste of space setting for his son?