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only human

Jackson’s first school year flew by despite it being so hard at the start. Waving him off on his first day felt like another small bereavement – or at the very least evocative of moments of our major loss. Whichever comparison I draw, I was certainly left feeling bereft for some time afterwards.

Fast-forward to ten months later and I feel completely differently about it. We’ve found our rhythm and I now have a confident child who can just about read and write, and who has gone from loving playing quietly with trains in the corner to wanting to fight constantly with his newfound superhero powers. He’s brilliant company: funny, inquisitive, honest and incredibly open. It makes me proud to see how far he has come.

Raising kids is never a complete task, though. One minute you might think you’ve made it and the next there’s a whole new challenge. Last week that challenge was his school sports day. He’s only five, so how competitive could it possibly be? I wondered. Well it transpires that while the day itself might not be, my son is. This took me by surprise because I have never been that bothered about winning or losing – but according to his maternal grandmother, Jackson’s mother was.

The tears and tantrums started almost immediately. Two boys in his class beat him in the first race, and as a result his sports day had dramatically ended before it had even barely begun.

The over-analysis kicked in straightaway: It’s because there are so many mums here, I concluded. He’s not upset about the race at all, it’s just his excuse to cry about how he really feels. He can’t enjoy himself like the other kids because of what he’s been through. Look at how my torture never stops, I thought as I acknowledged everything going through my head, so why would his?

Once he had calmed down we talked briefly.

‘Jackson,’ I began, ‘you can’t win a race if you focus all your attention on looking around to see where everyone else is in it. You need to keep your eye on the finishline and your energy in your legs. If you win, then great, if you don’t then you’ll get another go anyway. This is just the start.’

He came first in his final race and he was overjoyed. I was happy for him too, but I was also distracted by what had been going through my head when he was upset.

Before we got to the park, I had gone to his school to help walk Jackson and his classmates there from the playground. They were all paired up hand-in-hand with their little pals. I could see adoration in the eyes of the little girl he was buddied-up with.

‘Jackson’s in the blue team,’ she told me pointing at the colour of his shirt, which she clearly admired, ‘his top is very smart.’

‘Oh, yes,’ he pretended to agree, ‘I’m a real smarty-pants.’

She howled laughing as he sang a song about being a smarty-pants repeatedly.

He’s funny, I thought – kind and confident too. His classmates seems to really like him. It was the first time I’d really seen a window into his own little world – one that I miss out of every day while we’re apart.

Within just a few minutes, however, I’d already abandoned these positive thoughts for insecurity. As a result I felt a little sad with myself when he won that race. We might all want to be superheroes sometimes, I now realise, but we’re only ever human – and with our species comes a full spectrum of feelings and emotions.

That, I believe, is what makes life so hard at times and also such a joy at others. And it’s what makes parenting so challenging and so fulfilling, too – you just never know when you’re going to win or when you’re going to lose. But both winning and losing play important roles in making us who we are in life. And that’s the lesson that I really want to teach my son.

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children’s grief

As human beings, we’re not really programmed to think clearly about death – especially not our own. Our brains can’t really deal with it. At almost the same moment our subconscious minds begin to consider death, our conscious minds push the thoughts away. This makes empathy for those who have lost someone they love really quite difficult to muster.

Take the recent attacks in Paris, for example. We may grieve collectively for a short time (unless of course we have been directly affected by the terror) but we are quite quickly able to see the light and seize the day once again. A ‘carpe diem’ spirit often kicks in, telling us how important it is to make the most of the time we still have.

This, of course, is entirely natural and healthy. I often think about how excruciating life would be if we were able to feel true empathy every time we encountered another person’s pain. In the Sue Monk Kidd novel The Secret Life of Bees, the character May Boatwright is indeed supersensitive to the agony of others and eventually this kills her. And how many of us could have carry on in this world if our emotions weren’t designed to allow us to put distance between ourselves and the suffering of others?

Sometimes, however, we really must take a moment to consider what it would be like to walk in another person’s shoes. Treading blindly in ours alone makes it impossible for society to come together and address issues that may one day impact us all.

When my wife was killed my son had just turned two. For the three years that followed I often worried about how he would fit in at school. What would the other children say when they found out his mum had died? How would the teachers handle his loss? What would it be like to be the ‘odd one out’? How would anyone know how to handle him? Would I ever have to have that awkward conversation with a parent about how my child had upset theirs by talking about the most inevitable part of life: death?

I was fortunate enough to be able to begin to find answers to these questions through a number of child bereavement services that I found (and those that found me) soon after my wife’s death. When no one else had the answers – often because no one I knew had ever even considered the questions before – these all-too-invisible charities did.

Organisations including Grief Encounter, Winston’s Wish and Child Bereavement UK are often hushed by the taboo of death and their lack of government funding. Surely we don’t have to engage in conversation about child bereavement because kids so rarely lose a parent, right?

Wrong. One in 29 children the in the UK under 16 years old will in fact suffer the death of a parent. To put that into context, that’s one child in every average-sized classroom in the country.

Bereavement is devastating at any age, but for a child it is beyond tragic and truly unimaginable. The emotions experienced by a child are deeply confusing and the affects can be life-altering and long-lasting. In fact, a Scandinavian study of seven million people revealed that people who lose a parent during childhood are 50 per cent more likely to die young.

Today marks the beginning of the UK’s first annual Children’s Grief Awareness Week. Leading bereavement charity, Grief Encounter, in association with Childhood Bereavement Network and Highmark Caring Place, has launched the initiative, which runs from 19th – 25th November 2015.

The awareness week has been designed to highlight the vulnerability of bereaved children and young people in our society, and to engage more people in difficult but vital conversation.

From my own experience, free, professional support makes the world of difference to bereaved children. In a society that is often too afraid to talk to children about death, bereaved kids need to have somewhere safe and non-judgmental to turn.

As a patron of Grief Encounter, I support a charity that continues to support my son and me in this way. Together our emphasis is on supporting parents and carers, supporting grieving children. My hope is that the days of shying away from bereavement and brushing a child’s grief under an imaginary and overly convenient ‘carpet of resilience’ are gradually slipping away from us.

By increasing awareness of the issues bereaved children and their carers face, we can demonstrate that family, friends, schools and the Government all have a part to play in supporting them as they grow. Crucially, we must also highlight that specialist services should be available for all grieving children and their families regardless of location and circumstance.

To find out more about how you can get involved with Children’s Grief Awareness Week visit:

www.griefencounter.org.uk
www.childrensgriefawarenessweek.com

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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.

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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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painful motivation

I ran the London Marathon yesterday. Years ago, a friend asked if I’d ever fancied doing it before and I said no. That was partly because I thought I’d end up losing too much weight when there was already very little of me to spare, but mostly because I didn’t have the desire or motivation to take on such a big challenge. I was fortunate enough to be one of those people who hadn’t suffered enough to have a cause close to their heart.

That was until 10 November 2012 when my thirty-three-year-old wife was struck and killed by a car in front of me and our then two-year-old son. In that moment, I tragically lost my best friend. And in the months that followed, I inadvertently gained a sense of purpose: I would aim to help other people, like me, whose lives had been shattered by loss.

In the first instance, the people I wanted to somehow support were adults. As a father of such a young boy, I barely knew how to raise a happy child, let alone advise anyone on how to care for a grieving one – I had nothing to offer bereaved kids. I could, however, open up my world to grown-ups to help them see that they were not alone in their pain; I could articulate my grief in the hope that the empathy offered might somehow be received.

But it didn’t take me long to figure out that as a husband who had lost his wife and a parent whose child had lost his mum, it was impossible to separate or isolate our states of bereavement. I realised that age mattered very little when it came to what we both craved. Man or boy, adult or child, perhaps what the bereaved need most is deep understanding, support, empathy and to be met without judgement from others. Age separates us immediately, intelligence and comprehension develops with time, but we all have feelings that can be hurt from the moment we are born.

How do you sufficiently attend to the feelings of another when you are hurting so badly yourself, though? Sometimes, I believe, you need support.

That’s why I turned to others for help with my son. I could strive to be the best father in the world but no man can ever hope to have all the answers. I made a decision to seek out the advice of experts, embrace their help, learn from their practices and pass it all on to the adults that I can reach through what I write. That decision, I believe, has changed my life and, I pray, will make my son’s happier.

Yesterday, I contemplated all of this as I stood in a park full of people waiting anxiously to embrace the task of running just over twenty-six miles across England’s capital. I felt both a buoying sense of awe and a heavy sense of woe as I considered the many heartbreaking motivations that inspired so many thousands of runners to take on such a gruelling test of human endurance.

Surely it’s the hardship that so many of us have lived through that will make completing this race possible, I told myself as I stood with my friend on the start line.

Twenty-three miles later I heard him say, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’ Another runner heard him and agreed, ‘I’ve never been in more pain,’ he added.

I have, I thought. And it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, either. The hardest thing I’ve ever done is told my two-year-old son that he’ll never see his mummy again. He’s three-and-a-half this week and, despite having now reiterated that same message countless times, I still really don’t know if he understands the gravity of the situation quite yet.

But because of the help I receive from people who have been there before, I’m confident that I’m doing the very best I can for him. And because of all of the support so many people have offered through the sponsorship of mine and my friend’s run, I feel confident that other broken-hearted parents will be able to do their very best for their bereaved children, too.

There’s still time to contribute if you can. Just go to www.justgiving.com/lifeasawidower or text DESB79 £2 (or any other figure you can afford to type after pound sign) to 70070 to support Grief Encounter, a charity that offers support to bereaved children. And for those who have already given, Jackson and I would like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You’ve made a huge difference to our lives in more ways than I imagine I could ever explain.

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my mummy

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If you would like to sponsor any other amount please just change the £2 to whatever you like or visit www.justgiving.com/lifeasawidower to do it online. Thanks so much.

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beyond pain

I don’t think I had ever cried over the death of a person I didn’t know until last night. As I was leaving work I heard the news that Peaches Geldof had been found dead at her home in Kent. I immediately thought of her mother, whom she had lost at such a young age; she must have suffered so terribly from her loss. Then I remembered that she had two young children of her own; history seemed to be repeating itself in the most devastating way. Then I turned my mind to her husband for a moment. He mustn’t know what’s hit him, I thought.

How on earth will he know what to do? How will he cope with the children? How will he explain their loss to them? Tears ran down my face as I remembered the confusion, shock and despair that I felt when I was told that my own wife was dead.

I couldn’t get the story out of my head, so I went online to try to find out exactly what had happened. That was when I first read this: ‘I remember the day my mother died, and it’s still hard to talk about it. I just blocked it out. I went to school the next day because my father’s mentality was “keep calm and carry on”. I didn’t grieve. I didn’t cry at her funeral. I couldn’t express anything because I was just numb to it all. I didn’t start grieving for my mother properly until I was maybe sixteen.’

Peaches was speaking about her mother’s death, which happened when she was eleven.

Some people may be astonished to learn that parents get more support when a child is born than children receive when a parent dies. Although a midwife will almost certainly have visited Peaches after the birth of both of her children, it’s unlikely that her husband, Thomas Cohen, will get any immediate medical or psychological intervention to help ensure that he is physically and mentally able to care for them alone following the loss of his wife. And from what Peaches said about the death of her mother, Paula Yates, almost fourteen years ago, things were no different for her father, Bob Geldof, back then. The unguided expectation was, and mostly still is, to simply ‘keep calm and carry on’ unassisted.

And yet Bob Geldof gave a statement last night saying: ‘We are beyond pain. Peaches has died. We are beyond pain. She was the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and the most bonkers of all of us. Writing “was” destroys me afresh. What a beautiful child. How is this possible that we will not see her again? How is that bearable?’

They are ‘beyond pain’ and still it’s unlikely that any immediate support will be made available for the family – nothing to help them understand how to best deal with the potentially catastrophic consequences of losing a parent as a child.

Many things will be written over the next few days and much will be said. There will be space devoted to how Peaches dressed, what parties she attended and what company she kept. Tributes will flood in from famous friends and celebrity commentators. Photographers and reporters will stand outside her home in the cold and rain trying to get the latest updates about the cause of her death. And all the while a family will be inside trying to figure out how to even begin to cope with their loss.

Friends and family will drop in with cards, words of comfort and home-cooked food. Neighbours will offer support and send messages of condolence. Flowers will arrive and funeral arrangements will be made. But it’s unlikely that anyone will come specifically to talk about the kids.

Perhaps it’s time for someone to ask the question, Why are parents offered post-natal but not ‘post-fatal’ care? I just can’t help but think that some of the space that will inevitably be dedicated to what clothes this young woman wore could go to better use.

Together we could choose to shine a light on an issue that has so affected the life of a young mother on behalf of the sons her death leaves behind. Or we could simply decide to learn no lessons from the past, keep calm and carry on. I for one know what I’m going to do.

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Peaches Geldof pictured with sons Astala and Phaedra
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expiry dates

Something hasn’t been right with me this week. I’ve felt a heavy sense of foreboding envelop me out of nowhere, and it has taken me ages to figure out why. After spending a lot of time alone thinking, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m anxious about a couple of things coming to an end – things that have helped me to manage my grief over the course of the last year.

A week from now I will have completed the London Marathon. When I originally signed up for the race, I did so for just one reason: to raise money for a child bereavement charity that I believe in. Once I began training, however, I noticed that I was getting so much more from it than that.

I realised I’d given myself a forward-looking focus that could help ease my mind’s preoccupation with the past. I noticed that by taking back control of my body through fitness, I felt more in control of my mind and, in turn, my life. And, for the first time in ages, I felt a sense of achievement through reaching my training goals.

Five weeks from now I will have released a book that I’ve been working on for over a year. When I originally started writing it, I did so for three reasons: to help others suffering the agony of loss to find empathy and feel less alone, to assist those attempting to help bereaved loved-ones better understand what they might be going through, and to enable me to explain things properly to my son when he is old enough to understand. Once I began writing, however, I noticed that I was getting so much more from it than that.

It gave me back a relationship with my wife. Through the words I wrote about her life, I was able to divert some of my mind’s focus away from her death. It brought back great memories. Sometimes, after hours of writing at my desk, I would walk away with a smile on my face, feeling like I’d just spent the day with Desreen. In fact it often made me feel happier. In contemplating everything – both bad and good – that Jackson and I went through on a daily basis in such acute detail, I really noticed that, despite the pain, we still had pleasure in our lives.

Six weeks from now I imagine I’ll be wondering what happens next. Two of the biggest challenges I have ever taken on will, to different degrees, be over. I’m sure there will be those who think that this will give me a good opportunity to slow down, but I can’t help wonder exactly what purpose that will serve.

Earlier this week, a friend mentioned that someone had told him they thought I should probably stop publishing this blog. I rolled my eyes at the second-hand comment but chose not to pursue the line of conversation. I did think about it for some time afterwards, though.

I think it’s probably safe to assume that the person who made the remark believes that it’s time for me to ‘move on’. Once, this very suggestion would have made me angry, but these days I tend to find myself at least trying to see things from the other point view. And, having given it a lot of thought, I really do understand where they’re coming from; I appreciate how hard it is to understand how another person’s grief operates. But that doesn’t make that person right. It probably just means that they are failing to empathise with the reality of loss.

I imagine they quite innocently believe that if I keep picking at the metophorical scab, the wound will never heal. It’s a logical conclusion to draw if you treat the mind as no different to the rest of the body. But unlike a graze, a cut or a broken bone, the mind thinks, reflects and remembers. It doesn’t simply heal and there’s no medicine to completely numb the pain.

And so I’m left wondering what this person thinks might be the benefit of me abandoning the blog. That I’ll stop thinking the thoughts in my head if I no longer type them out on a screen? That my mind will erase its concerns if I stop sharing them with the world? That I’ll no longer suffer the anguish if I don’t raise it again in public? That I won’t need to worry about the impact of my wife’s death on my son’s mental well-being if I get on with it alone? That I’ll stop loving my wife if I stop writing about her? That I’ll meet someone else if I appear to make myself more available to others? That I’ll live my life more like they think they would if they were in my shoes?

In my recent attempts to see grief from both sides, I imagine that this person still sympathises with my loss but is entirely unable to empathise with it. And that brings me to the point of this post: grief is very complicated, terribly difficult to comprehend, entirely personal and all too easily marginalised by people who don’t understand.

Now try to imagine going through it as a child. Take a second to think about how heartbreaking it would be if you lost the person you loved most and the people around you failed to acknowledge the impact it had on your life. Close your eyes and consider how you would feel if you were assumed ‘resilient’ enough to get on with your life without questioning such a significant death.

My grief may be approaching its expiry date for some, but at least I’ve had the chance to speak my mind. Many children aren’t given that same opportunity. And that’s why I’m running the London Marathon for Grief Encounter next week.

Please take five minutes to watch the charity’s new tenth anniversary film below and click this link to donate it you can. Thank you so much to everyone who has already given. I’m truly overwhelmed by the generosity so many people continue to show.

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lonely business

I’m growing accustomed to – if entirely frustrated with – the crashing lows I suffer as a result of experiencing more upbeat times. Sometimes I’m actually tempted not to bother trying to seek any pleasure or respite from grief, but having a little boy to raise makes me realise that I really must. He deserves a happy life and I understand that I have a fundamental role to play in helping build that with him. Others can assist, too, but I have to be willing to let them. And that’s why I decided to start accepting some of the invitations to get away with Jackson, which I frequently receive from the people I love.

Over the last few days we’ve holidayed with friends and family and it has been great. I’ve been able to catch up with my best mates, my brother and my sister-in-law, and Jackson has bonded with other kids: his little pal, Albie, and his cousins, Reuben and Willow. My son’s once overwhelmingly evident distress at being away from home seemed to have gone; his discomfort in the hands of other kids’ mums little more than a bad memory. He has been playful, cheerful and contented, and I, for the most part, have, too. And yet the buoyancy I feel from this kind of pleasure one day usually leaves me drowning in grief the next. My body feels heavier, my mind conflicted and my mood dark.

I think that the infinite nature of death dawns on me most when I’m in company. Spending time with other couples seems to accentuate my status as a widower. I enjoy our time together but ultimately they go back to their lives with their partners and I return to my home without mine. Being in the company of other parents and their children can also hurt. I love watching my nieces and nephews and my friends’ kids develop and grow, but it often stings me, too: the times when they reach out for their mums and they are there, the moments when their dads can’t seem to offer the solace they need. Their progressive stages from infant years to almost adult age make the realisation that I will experience all of the phases of my son’s childhood and adolescence without his mum all the more acute. Parenting alone can be a very lonely business at times.

A few weeks ago a friend and I were speaking about the birth of his second daughter. I asked how tired he was from having a toddler and a baby to take care of. He seemed to take it in his stride: ‘The days are long but the years are short,’ he mused. This sentiment really touched me. It made me realise how precious the time I have with my son really is. But in practice this week made me feel differently again. Spending time with children years older than Jackson reminded me just how much of his childhood there is still to come. As a father I am delighted and quite unphased by this thought, and I already want the clock to slow down because I feel as though my son is growing up so fast. And yet I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that I am more than just a dad. And when I take another look at myself as a bereaved husband, I realise that the time that appears to be going by so quickly also all too often appears to stand completely still.

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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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special friendship

I took my little boy out for a walk this afternoon and ended up in the local library in an attempt to warm up after discovering that it was freezing outside. I invited him to choose a book for me to read to him, but instead he decided he was going to introduce himself to some of the other kids. Moments of interaction like this really pull at my heartstrings because there was a time last year when there was no way he would have even contemplated playing with anyone else in the room apart from me.

No sooner had he tried to befriend a little girl he had never met before than he had quickly ditched her in favour of someone altogether more familiar – his best friend Annalise walked into the room and completely stole his attention. Annalise is the eldest daughter of my wife’s best friend, Marianne. Jackson has known this little girl from the moment he was born and has attended the same nursery as her since he was ten months old.

As Jackson and Annalise set about disrupting all the parents and children who sat reading quietly in the children’s room, I spoke to Marianne about how I had been observing his behaviour and how moved I was to see that he seemed increasingly comfortable with the idea of making new friends. Marianne has another little girl, Lucia, who was born just a week before Desreen was killed. As she showed off her newly walking legs, which kept her mummy on her toes, I sat back and watched Jackson and Annalise play.

They really are something to behold: Annalise is the gentle boss and Jackson the slightly aggressive second-in-command; they are like sister and brother in how they play; while Jackson refuses to allow anyone to show much affection towards him, he could neither enter nor leave a room where he knew Annalise resided without giving or receiving a kiss or an embrace. They quite simply love each other.

Over the last few months this has become the subject of much amusement amongst our friends and families. Were they both girls we would all be saying that the beautiful relationship was inevitable, that they were the next generation’s once inseparable Des and Maz. The fact that they are not somehow makes their bond even more special and entertaining to observe – like their mums’ friendship was so strong that it was destined to be passed down to their kids no matter their sex.

Their unique affection for one another has always made me laugh. I often send both Marianne and her husband, my friend Olly, text messages to let them know what they did to amuse when I picked Jackson up from nursery that day. Today, however, I felt differently. When we said goodbye one another, almost having to prize Jackson and Annalise and their locked lips apart, I felt tears fill my eyes. I thought about how Desreen should be there with her friend to witness this special friendship unfold. But it wasn’t just that thought that made me feel emotional.

I’ve spent this week intermittently proof reading the book I wrote in the year that immediately followed Desreen’s death. It has brought back lots of memories that I had all but forgotten. It has reminded me just how much I worried about my son’s wellbeing and how I looked to other adults for solutions to all of the problems he went through as a result of his grief and the confusion surrounding the abrupt disappearance of his mum.

Then all of a sudden I was in a room with his best friend: a little girl who is yet to turn four years old. I pictured how she would greet him at the nursery door every single day with a hug when he seemed too upset, distressed, confused or angry to want to enter the room with the other kids. I realised just how much she cared and just how little credit I had given to this little girl he would have so struggled to get through the last hideous fourteen months without. Just as I couldn’t imagine having gone through this ordeal without my closest friends, it occurred to me how much he too has needed his. I just know that few things would have made Desreen happier than seeing her best friend’s little girl taking such good care of her best little boy.

Best friends: Jackson and Annalise even share their ice creams
Best friends: Jackson and Annalise even share their ice creams
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first thoughts

As much as I try to understand what is going on inside my son’s little head, I’ve come to realise that it’s impossible to really know what a toddler is thinking. I don’t suppose it’s possible to really know what anyone is thinking, but at least with an adult you can ask them and get something like a straight answer. By way of an experiment I just asked Jackson what was on his mind and no sooner had he replied ‘Nothing!’ than he changed his answer to ‘Dinosaur!’

By contrast, when I woke up this morning I was thinking about it being a new year. This, I realised, means that I will never again be able to say that the last time I saw my wife was last year. I was thinking Desreen rather than dinosaur. I really miss her.

Jackson woke up soon after I did and, although I knew he would have no idea what I was talking about, I wished him a happy new year. ‘Merry Christmas, Daddy!’ he replied much to my amusement.

406352_10151111546685380_1477505009_n.jpgHe noticed that I was looking at this picture of Desreen and me from our wedding day on my phone. ‘That’s my daddy! I love you, Dad!’ he began. ‘And that’s my mummy! She’s got roses in her hair. She’s gone away in the sky. We miss Mummy.’

It turned out that our first thoughts of 2014 were roughly the same. It hurts me terribly that my little boy already has to face his life without her. And yet, after hearing what is on his mind today, I’m so grateful that a three-year-old boy, who lost his mummy when he’d only just turned two, seems as aware of her now as he was before she died nearly fourteen months ago. 

Wishing you all the best for 2014.

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conflicted year

This time last year my wife had been dead for just seven weeks. Although a number of friends had invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with them, I decided that I wanted to stay at home. My plan was to put my son to bed and then turn in early myself to try to avoid all of the celebrations unfolding on the television, on the streets and through social media channels. I took a sleeping pill and some Valium and hoped to be asleep by 9p.m.

At the time I hadn’t yet started writing or blogging and so I had no real outlet for the thoughts that were overwhelming my mind. The grief was so intense that it was able to fight against the chemicals in my bloodstream and win, leaving me wide awake. I logged into Facebook and noticed a pretty common theme amongst friends’ posts: ‘Good riddance to a bad year’. I was ready to join in but then it occurred to me that I’d had a fantastic year until tragedy struck on 10 November. I wrote:

2012. Almost half of our son’s life. Our first (and only) wedding anniversary. Tickets to the athletics at the Olympics that very same special day. The year Jackson discovered he loved a little plastic train called Thomas more than most human beings. The pride I felt in witnessing my wife start her own fashion business with an old friend. The humanist wedding of the year. A new job and a big promotion. Unforgettable holidays with some of our best friends. Countless great times with all of them. Beautiful babies born who don’t yet know how lucky they are to have inherited such top friends.

And then tragedy and loss that has touched so many lives. But it would be a disservice to my wife to say 2012 was a completely shit year. In October Desreen asked me to buy Jackson a commemorative London 2012 five pound coin as a memento of an amazing year that he wouldn’t remember but that we could explain that he was a part of. It just struck me that we can follow that same gesture of remembrance into 2013 and beyond for his sake. So, yes, it was the year his mum died, but it was also a year when she had the opportunity to show him how much she loved him every day. And it was the year she always put him first. So for those who continue to be part of his life, let’s focus on the good times we all shared this year. I know he’ll come to cherish the memories as much as we do.

Love to you all for 2013. Here’s to remembering the good times and planning new ones. 

I knew when I hit ‘post’ some time before midnight that I needed to find a new way to try to manage the sheer enormity of my grief. I had shared a number of posts on my own Facebook page since my wife had died – details of her funeral; a copy of her eulogy; messages of thanks to those who came to the service, contributed to the flowers and sent their condolences; pictures of our son etc. – but for some reason I felt like it was time to stop. I launched the blog six days later.

This New Year’s Eve I don’t feel the same depth of grief that kept me awake and completely consumed me last year. Instead I find myself wondering how I feel. Unravelling the many emotions I feel simultaneously is something I have to do a lot these days, and it’s hard. Life was much easier when I just felt one thing at a time: happy or sad, serious or playful, tired or energetic, sober or drunk. Over the last thirteen months, however, my feelings have been constantly and entirely conflicted. Predominantly devastated and partially happy is probably the most concise way of summing up how I’ve felt since my life as a widower began just over a year ago. The devastation, I’m quite sure, needs no explaining; the happiness, on the other hand, might.

These days the happiness I feel comes when my son makes me smile, it comes when I see him smile too. It comes when I notice that he’s making progress. And it comes in the moments when I believe, however briefly, that he’ll have a happy life ahead. A year ago any such glimmers of this sort of happiness only served to increase my devastation. I suppose I felt bad about ever feeling good. And it’s that sort of conflict that often leaves me having to think about how I feel.

Looking at the Facebook message I posted this time last year, I find it incredible that I was able to sum up an entire twelve months in just two hundred and eighty words. Perhaps that’s because my happy life was measured in events and milestones rather than the deeply felt emotions that have engulfed me since my life became sad. Perhaps it’s also because I was still in shock when I wrote those words.

In contrast it has taken me a hundred and five thousand words to articulate the grief I’ve felt over the course of the last year, which I’ve captured in a book that I’ve written during that time. Maybe the urge I’ve felt to so dramatically increase this year’s word count has been a symptom of the shock I suffered gradually wearing off. Maybe shock can make a person’s language more clipped and somehow rather positive. Maybe it’s more natural to be concise when writing about happiness than it is about devastation. And maybe it’s the fact that I’ve felt so many conflicting emotions collide – in a way that I would never have believed possible – that I’ve thought it worthwhile to continue to share my family’s story in the hope that it can touch the lives of others.

Whatever the case, I end 2013 feeling sad that the year I have observed, contemplated, examined, scrutinised and documented more than any other of my life has also been the most painful. Reflecting on the past twelve months, however, also makes me realise that, through the pain, I’ve done absolutely everything I can to preserve my wife’s memory for my son. Hopefully one day I can feel something like satisfied about that, but for now that’s too great an expectation.

As I look towards 2014, I’m grateful that I’m now able to see that tomorrow is just another day like any other. I’m putting myself under none of the extra pressures that often come with a new year. After all, why make things harder than they already are just because there’s a new calendar hanging on the wall?

Today I realise that I’m already doing everything I feel I physically can to carry on with life as I now know it. The only other thing I can do tomorrow is to continue to hope for happier and more optimistic times ahead. And I’ll do that for all of us.

Happiness comes when my son makes me smile, it comes when I see him smile too.
Happiness comes when my son makes me smile, it comes when I see him smile too.
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nativity play

One of the things I really struggle with as a widowed dad raising a toddler alone is that I find myself constantly questioning what my son’s behaviour would be like if his mum were still alive. Take this evening, which was his nursery’s Christmas play, as an example. When we arrived he went straight to one of the carers to have a hat placed on his head to assume his role as a star in the nativity. He seemed a little coy as he walked into the church hall filled with other children and parents, so I offered to come to the front of the room with him and join in with the play. He took my hand but I could sense that he wasn’t keen to participate. First he removed his star, then off came the bobble he’d be given to tie his hair back, and then came the temper, which suggested to me that it was game over. I knew there was no way he was going to take part; I know exactly when my son has passed his point of no return.

It doesn’t really trouble me if Jackson goes through life without attempting to play to a crowd, because I know that his mum and I were both exactly the same as children. I am troubled, however, by the questions that rush into my head when I see him in a situation that seems to be making him uncomfortable. While other smiling parents and grandparents watched tonight’s festivities unfold, I wondered if it was the fact that all the other kids’ mums were there that was making him irritable. I wondered if the situation was bringing back memories of this time last year, when we attended a similar service just five weeks after his mummy was killed. I wondered if perhaps I was pushing our son too hard by surrounding him with so many happy families at Christmas time. And then I wondered if was just overthinking everything; perhaps the fact that he’d spotted a huge pile of cakes on his way into the building meant that he couldn’t focus his mind on anything other than eating them. Perhaps grief didn’t come into it all for him; maybe it’s just my plaguing grief that makes me question everything.

Once I had Jackson settled and filled with more sugar than a child of his age can handle without going crazy, I turned my thoughts from what was going on in his head to what was going on in mine. I took a moment to consider how I felt about being there.

I felt happy to see all of the other kids having fun. I felt proud of my friends’ three-year-old daughter – Jackson’s best friend – for narrating the whole nativity play from memory to a stunned audience. I felt pleased for the other parents that they were able to enjoy the moment. I felt sad for Jackson that his mummy wasn’t there with him. I felt sad for my wife that she wasn’t there with him too. I felt sad for myself as well. I felt a bit out of place. I felt a bit like I wasn’t really there. I felt like I was in the scene in A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present and taken to witness various joyous festive celebrations – but tonight my outlook felt bleak and weary like Ebenezer’s. I felt like I was looking back at the ghost of my own happy Christmas past. I felt gloomy about the spirit with which I’ll approach our Christmases yet to come.

As I stood at the sidelines holding my dejected child in my arms, I noticed one of the other dads beam at his son, who was singing to the audience, as the boy’s mum wiped a tear of pride from her eye. In that single moment I witnessed everything I expected early parenthood to be. And while others returned home with the warmth of Christmas in their hearts, I could focus on little else than the torturous questions tormenting my mind.

Perhaps Jackson wouldn’t have wanted to join in even if his mum had been there too. Perhaps all he wanted was to get his hands on the buffet. Perhaps he just doesn’t like getting up in front of a crowd. Perhaps I wouldn’t have given any of these things a second thought if grief had never come our way. But it has and I can tell you that it’s bloody hard work.

Catching a fallen star
Catching a fallen star
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mindful happiness

Since starting this blog almost a year ago, I’ve been pretty outspoken about my distaste for many of the clichés and platitudes so often offered as comfort to the bereaved. And the worst, in my view, are those that do little other than marginalise a person’s grief and that, when translated into direct English, can often be read as Shut the fuck up and get on with your life.

Those who have been there, however, will be painfully aware of the fact that pulling your metaphorical socks up doesn’t make any difference to how you really feel inside. And I think that’s because grief is something that can’t be entirely controlled – managed, maybe, but not controlled. Telling someone who’s stricken with grief that they ought to pull themself together and stop dwelling on their loss doesn’t tend to have much of an effect at all. It’s is a bit like suggesting that someone should try harder to stop bleeding when they’ve just been stabbed. Like grief, the blood flow is just a natural physical response to the injury and telling the victim to buck their ideas up isn’t going do much to help close the wound. And, let’s be clear, grief is a natural response to loss; grief is not a lifestyle decision we choose. Of course we can make choices about how we ‘wear’ our grief – we can put a brave face on for others, we can dress in black if we so desire, we can act positive, we can slip into a deep state of mourning, or we can bury our pain deep inside – but ultimately grief is something that will eventually (if not constantly) be felt and endured.

One thing I’ve always found particularly hard to swallow is the idea of ‘living life for today’, as if single days as units of time aren’t painful unless they are grouped together into a week, a month or a year. It has actually crossed my mind that living solely for today might make my life little more than a rather sad existence. And that’s because today and many other todays that have come before it have been too upsetting for me to feel comfortable about living exclusively in them with little thought for the future.

I have, however, been learning about mindfulness, which can loosely be defined as techniques that help clear your head of information overload to allow you to focus on the present. I decided I wanted to study and practice this for just one reason – to try to truly enjoy the time I spend with my son. Recently I’ve been getting tired very quickly and easily, and I’ve suffered from mood swings and impatience with people when in company. I often torture myself with thoughts about how my wife might have cared for our son alone if I had been the one who was killed instead. Knowing her as well as I did, it’s hard not to imagine that she would have done more to build a happy, fun and stimulating life for Jackson than I have been able. And I’ve frequently found myself feeling guilty and increasingly low about the fact that I could be present in our little boy’s company but all too often not completely there.

But over the past couple of weeks I’ve felt different; I’ve found myself having fun. Not the sort of fun that I used to think was fun – hanging out with friends and acting like a big kid myself – but actually being with a little one. We go out scooting, we play with trains, we ‘do Play-Dohs’, we paint pictures, we sing songs, we read, we pretend to be various different animals, we kick a football and we cook together. We argue, we fall out and we both have tantrums too, but most of all we get on with being each other’s best mate. And just yesterday it occurred to me that I am suddenly enjoying my time with my son because I’m successfully peeling away at the distractions in my head and concentrating on the one thing (or rather the one person) that truly brings happiness back into my life: my son.

I’ve really no idea whether this is happening because I’m suddenly more mindful of mindfulness, or whether my grief is cutting me some slack. I don’t know whether this is a temporary thing, or whether I’ve somehow turned a corner. But I have learned that I shouldn’t take contentment in grief for granted, because these days my feelings can change so quickly. The good thing about growing more conscious of enjoying the good moments when they come, though, is that it doesn’t really matter if the happiness is fleeting or not. What matters is that we feel it at all.

If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, I recommend ‘Get Some Headspace’ by Andy Puddicombe.

It's hard not to have fun in the company of this little guy
It’s hard not to have fun in the company of this little guy
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happy christmas

Having lost my wife late last year it probably goes without saying that 2013 has been an unhappy year for me, save the joy our little boy has continuously brought. But earlier this week it occurred to me that maybe I have been trying, perhaps subconsciously, to channel my unhappiness into something positive for my son’s future. Jackson was only two years old when his mummy was killed, and the thought of him growing up without being given the opportunity of understanding the kind of woman she was breaks my heart. So I’ve written a book dedicated to him, which I’ve just finished, and I’ve published nearly 200 posts on this blog to help him learn more about the life and loss of his beloved mother when the time is right. This particular post is a letter to Jackson, which I will give him as a gift for Christmas this year. 

Dear Jackson,

One day you may ask yourself what your mummy (would have) wanted for you in life; it occurred to me just the other day that I would ask the same question if I had been left in your position at such a young age. And although she won’t be here to tell you for herself as you grow, fortunately I already know the answer. Your mummy and I chatted all the time and our favourite subject was always you: how mischievous you’d been, how clever you seemed, how loving and unbelievably cute you were, how attached you were to her, how cross you often seemed to be with me, how since you’d come along I was no longer allowed to touch her (according to you). But mostly we talked about what a great life you were going to have; what a great life we had planned for you. And although the life we had planned for you has changed immeasurably from what we had in mind, I still want it to be great.

I’ve thought a lot about what gift I can give you this Christmas, and I could think of none better than sharing my insight into what your mummy wanted for you.

Most of all she wanted you to be happy. Happy was an easy word to use when she was still alive, but I’ve since learned that it’s impossible to be happy all the time. A wise man recently made a huge impact on me through his own words about happiness. He pointed out that what we all too often mean when we say we want to be ‘happy’ is that we are hoping to be constantly thrilled by the temporary rush or pleasure of new experiences. This feeling is something that we can get hooked on and, if we do, it’s as though we need to feed our addiction all the time. But constantly struggling to fuel the thrill makes ‘happiness’ progressively harder to achieve. And the excitement that we get from this sort of happiness is usually just fleeting anyway.

After this incredibly difficult year, I now believe that if a constant state of happiness, as a kind of default setting, is the only thing we set out to achieve in life, then perhaps we’re destined to fail. And that’s because lots of things crop up in life that can bring us down: bad luck, challenging relationships, work (or the lack of it), money problems, set backs, knock backs, rejection, psychological issues, ill health, bereavement. I don’t aim to paint a sombre picture of life for you – the one person who has been able to consistently keep my gloominess at bay – but instead I want to explain what your mummy would have taught you about what happiness really meant to her. And about what I hope to continue to make it mean for you now that she’s gone.

It means being yourself. It means being honest about your own feelings. It means making yourself understood. It means speaking your mind. It means making yourself heard.

It means making other people happy. It means setting expectations for yourself and not trying to live up to the expectations of others. It means not comparing who you are or what you have to others either.

It means taking your health seriously. It means trying to keep fit. It means looking after yourself. It means looking after others as well.

It means slowing the pace sometimes to try to savour the joys that life has to offer. It means taking time out for yourself sometimes. It means finding ways to focus on drawing pleasure from the present moment and not fixating on what’s happened in the past or what may come of the future.  It means taking time to reflect and to acknowledge what’s going on inside your own head. It means asking for help or support if what you find there makes you feel unhappy, anxious or low. It means not constantly striving for perfection. It means trying to find joy and beauty in imperfections too.

It means looking out for others. It means nurturing relationships and keeping your favourite people close. It means keeping the company of people who make you feel good about yourself. It means making the people you love feel good too. It means making the happiness of the people you care about one of your goals too.

It means having hobbies and interests. It means aiming to reach your potential. It means opening your eyes to what the world has to offer. It means setting goals, trying to achieve them, but picking yourself up and dusting yourself off if you don’t. It means enjoying your achievements but not allowing yourself to grow too self satisfied. It means trying to focus on the positive things about yourself rather than obsessing about what you see as your own shortcomings. It means doing your best to come to terms with the unchangeable.

It means being kind. It means saying thank you to others. It means giving freely without the expectation of receiving.

It means trying to be optimistic and sharing your optimism with others. It means being playful. It means having fun. It means laughing. It means singing. It means dancing.

It means trying not to hate. It means learning to forgive. It means not allowing bitterness to take over your life.

It means loving. It means being loved.

God willing you will always have people in your life who will be able to tell you how much your mummy loved you. God willing I’ll be around to tell you every day. And God willing you will experience many of the things that brought happiness into your mummy’s life everyday for the rest of yours.

Love,

Daddy (inspired by the words, life and actions of Mummy) xx

Happy Christmas, Jackson xx
Happy Christmas, Jackson xx
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christmas angel

This week I decided to give Christmas a go. This time last year my wife had only been buried a week, and yet somehow I felt more determined to try I put on a festive show for my son, family and friends than I do this year. Shock I suppose; confusion probably; a complete inability to absorb the gravity of the situation, definitely.

This Christmas it feels like it’s sinking in. These days when I’m moved to tears it often occurs to me that the thoughts running through my head are new. It’ll dawn on me for the first time that I’ll never again cuddle up to Desreen on the sofa while watching TV on a Saturday night in December. I’ll hear Jackson say something really grown up and funny on the way to nursery and it’ll hit me that she’s no longer there to call and tell. I’ll picture this coming Christmas Day and imagine the pleasure that my son will get from opening his presents and eating too much sugar, but it’ll suddenly break my heart that Desreen’s not going to be around to surprise and to spoil too. I’ll never see her smile, hear her voice or feel her warmth again.

I guess the lows that I’m experiencing right now are driven by the fact that my brain is gradually processing the reality that she’s gone forever. Perhaps I’ve spent most of the last 13 months focusing on the fact that my son has lost his mum. Right now, though, I feel like a man who’s lost his wife at Christmas. My son’s having a good spell and I’m suffering; we do have a tendency to ebb and flow and prop each other up when the other’s mood is low.

He’s a remarkable child. Not because he can kick a football, sing in tune or recite poetry (he’s three by the way), but because he seems so emotionally attuned. On Wednesday this week I gave in, admitted defeat and headed out to buy a Christmas tree. I could almost hear the decorations my wife and I bought from Liberty telling me that they needed to come down from the attic to be displayed to the world: ‘Nobody puts Liberty baubles in the corner’, they taunted.

Later, when I returned home with a Norwegian spruce over my shoulder, I asked Jackson if he would like to give me a hand decorating it. Perhaps he knew that only half of my heart was in it because he decided that I should instead play a supportive role to his lead.

‘Daddy’s not strong enough to put lights on the Christmas tree’, he told his granddad. ‘I’m strong though’, he went on.

What an observant little man, I thought, having spent the week feeling so weak. And I’d have imagined it impossible to be more moved by him that day until we unpacked the decorations together a short time later.

‘What’s that, Daddy?’ he enquired pointing at something he’d watched me carefully unwrap.

‘It’s the angel for the top of the tree’, I replied, ‘Mummy bought it before you were born.’

‘Can I kiss it?’ he asked.

‘Of course you can, darling. Let’s both do it’, I offered.

As I watched him kiss her angel, my heart melted at his continued display of his love for his mummy. I just looked on and hoped that somehow she felt that love from her little angel too.

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Desreen’s Christmas tree angel
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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.

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first anniversary

This is a guest post by Sarah Pointer

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of my wife’s death but this time last year life was still perfect. Desreen and I rushed home from work to surprise our son, Jackson, with a selection of new trains that I’d bought him from Hamley’s that day. The three of us were so happy. Little did we know that tragedy would strike the next day.

But for somebody else not too far away, it had already happened. Sarah Pointer, 37, lost her husband a year ago today. Since discovering my blog in February this year we’ve contacted each other every 9th and 10th of the month just to say ‘I’m thinking of you today’. We’ve never met but we chat over Facebook regularly and see how each other are coping through our grief. In Sarah’s guest post today she shares her story and explains how she’s feeling a year on. I’ll do very much the same tomorrow – something that I find myself saying a lot since Sarah introduced herself to me earlier in the year. Sarah, I’ve said it many times before but I want you I know that I’m thinking about you today.

On the 9th of November 2012, I was out doing some early Christmas shopping. I returned home to a note that the police had put through my door, which asked me to call them urgently. I felt panicked when I rang them, thinking I must have done something wrong. As I waited for them to arrive I rang my husband, Mark. No answer. When I opened the door a couple of minutes later, two policeman were standing there holding Mark’s phone. It was ringing in front of me. I realised then that my life, as I knew and loved it, was over. Mark had been killed in an accident at a builder’s yard. He was 44, we had been together 16 years and we have two children, aged 5 and 7.

The next few weeks passed in an awful haze. I don’t remember much of that time. I do remember shutting my eyes and letting people talk at me. I was like a child – if I couldn’t see them then this was not happening to me. The next few months were probably even worse because I no longer had the adrenaline pumping through my veins from the shock of such a sudden loss. There were times when I honestly didn’t know how I was going to get myself and my children through. Quite frankly, I wanted the world to end because mine already had. I felt completely broken, cut adrift and alone. I would scream for him; I just couldn’t understand where he was. I blamed myself for being too happy; I was in utter desperate pain. My brain worked overtime worrying about so many different things and replaying the loss over and over. I would do anything not to shut my eyes at night. I began to question everything: my existence, what was the point of me anymore.

Of course the children’s needs stopped me from going completely mad, because as a parent your instincts are primarily to protect your young. I had no idea how I was going to raise them alone, though. Only love and kindness from my parents, friends and neighbours carried me through this period.

I used to ‘Google’ the stages of grief and wonder how far up the cycle I had progressed. I wanted grief to be controllable and above all I wanted the pain to stop. I needed to know that there wasn’t worse still to come. I couldn’t bear to read that grief is something you carry your whole life; I certainly wanted to be feeling something like acceptance a year on. I imagined myself writing a letter to Mark and letting it sail out to sea along with my sorrow come this Christmas. And that is why today is so significant for me. Not because it is the first anniversary of his death – everyday is a day without him – but because I was racing ahead of myself to reach this point. As though by ticking off the so-called major milestones it would be time to start over.

There is no doubt I have come along way in a year: I no longer wake each day feeling like I am wearing a lead coat; I’m back at work; I can hold conversations that are not about my loss; and, perhaps most importantly, I have had moments of pleasure, which I would never have thought possible a year ago. But I am not ‘over it’. My husband’s death still takes my breath away time and time again. It still stabs me in the heart when I least expect it. Sometimes it takes all my effort and composure to walk into my office or up the school path. Sometimes I still cannot believe he has even gone.

I am not the same person anymore and nor will I ever be. I have a very small social comfort zone now and will avoid situations where I see a Mark-shaped whole. I know I am alienating myself from others but for now life’s about self-preservation and staying strong for the kids.

Have I reached acceptance? Not in a way I thought. Acceptance has come to mean a few things to me after a year of grieving. I now realise that grief is not something you can control or rush. Thoughts, memories and worries have had to come along and punch me a number of times before they hit home and it is bloody hard work. I’ll live with grief forever but I’ll learn to control it. Sometimes I have to hold the pain inside just to be able to function. It’s knowing the awful days do pass. It’s knowing I’m still me under the layers of sorrow. It’s knowing I can unburden myself of the heavy load now and again and enjoy myself.

Grief feels like waiting for something to happen; acceptance to me is knowing nothing will. No one else is coming home each Friday night. No one but I can make myself feel better. There are no cure-all miracles around the corner. Fulfilment has to come from being a tight triangle with my two little ones, and I do feel complete again thanks to them. Acceptance is knowing that all I have is in my hands and I will make our life good again.

In all honesty exhaustion has probably now taken its toll and recently the fight has left me. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that, although I will never let go of what happened to my family, I will try to let go of my expectations of how my life should have turned out. I will try to stop questioning the universe and just let my children’s and my life unfold.

But most of all, I want to look back and think that, despite our loss, we did alright. We had fun. And we rocked.

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‘I imagined myself writing a letter to Mark and letting it sail out to sea along with my sorrow come this Christmas’
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things break

This is a guest post by Willis Goodmoore

Willis Goodmoore, 51, is a widowed father from the United States. His husband Sheldon passed away two years ago in November 2011. They have two children, Tyler (10) and Noah (8). In his guest post, Willis talks about memories continue long after ‘things’ are gone. 

I spent some time this weekend clearing the kids’ playroom of toys they’ve outgrown. It made me think of how I feel about “things.”

I’ve never dreamt of a fancy car. I don’t crave a big home or wear expensive clothes. Things are generally not important to me. It’s the experience attached to things that is important to me.

You may have seen the beautiful SoulPancake video about Zach Sobiech – the promising young musician who recently died. In the video, he gets the opportunity to drive the sports car of his dreams. I liked what his dad had to say about the experience, “it wasn’t the car, it was the experience the car created and the joy that Zach received from driving it.”

As I pillaged the kids’ playroom I came across all sorts of toys with sentimental connections. Among them were “Leon,” the yellow plush lion that Noah clutched and cried for until he was three, and “Starry,” a colorful rattling star that was Tyler’s first favorite. Family and friends helped us collect spares – just in case the originals went missing.

Needless to say, Starry and Leon were spared the donation bin!

I thought about how my own attachment to things is not that different from the kids.

Yesterday, a stranger at the neighborhood pool admired our beach blanket – asking where we got it. And, after an afternoon of much-needed solitude in the crowd, (thanks to my book and music), I found great comfort in telling him the story of how the blanket was a sample my husband’s company made that was never produced. I nearly teared up as I shared with this total stranger that Sheldon brought it home to us, and it travels with us to the park, the beach, the pool…. It’s not the blanket. It’s the experiences the blanket represents.

The challenge is: things get lost. Things wear out. Things break. I struggle with this every day as the treasured wallet Sheldon gave me falls apart – the seams dissolving. Yet, I carry it every day – bank cards and IDs clattering to the floor after every transaction.

Similarly, the letter “e” has disappeared from the beautiful bulletin board he created for the entrance of the kids’ school. Now, guests are “w lcomed” to school.

T-shirts from favorite vacations fray. Favorite coffee mugs chip. It’s the nature of things.

I realize that my attachment to these things is no different than the kids’ early attachment to Leon and Starry. It’s about comfort. The wallet, the blanket, the bulletin board, and all the t-shirts and coffee mugs provide comfort. They are comforting reminders that he was here, of our life together, of our experiences together as a family.

The children have outgrown their need for Leon’s and Starry’s constant companionship. And, perhaps, someday I will replace this tattered old wallet. Perhaps, I will really know somewhere deep inside that the experiences and the memories live on long after the “things” are gone.

bulletin board
Sheldon’s bulletin board
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remembering daddy

This is a guest post by Tanya Leary 

Tanya is mum to two daughters aged ten months and two years and is the writer behind Mumaleary’s Blog. Here she shares her story of losing her father 26 years ago today when he was just 37 and she just seven.

Remembering Daddy

I remember the night my daddy died very clearly. It is possible that my memories of the event are not 100 per cent accurate but it doesn’t matter to me, the results are the same. He died of a massive heart attack, having come home from work complaining that he didn’t feel well.

Our neighbours looked after my sister and me, and in the early hours of the morning our mum came home with a bag of possessions but without her husband. That was 3rd November 1987. That night my mum lost her husband, my grandparents lost their eldest son and my sister and I lost our daddy. Life was never the same again.

I know that it is weird for a grown woman to use the word daddy but I was never old enough call him dad when he was alive. I was only seven.

I have few memories of my daddy and some of the ones I do have are mere snapshots, possibly even imagined memories from the photos I have seen. But I do recall snuggling in his lap while he watched American football. I remember him ‘tidying up’ my ice cream in Parkgate and I remember him teaching me to ride my bike. I missed him dreadfully after he died and I still miss him today.

When I was 16 I had my hair cut short for the first time and I cried myself to sleep, worried that he wouldn’t recognise me when I got to heaven. When I went to uni I worried about my mum being on her own and at every family gatherings there is still a Daddy-shaped hole.

My mum took my sister and I to see a grief counsellor after Daddy died. I can remember a relaxation tape we used to listen to, which helped us to sleep. But mainly I remember us all clinging to one another; all girls together. We are a tight unit and it was pretty tough for people to break into that. I am certain that I would not feel the fierce need to protect my mum and sister if my dad was still here. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, just a different thing.

When I was at school I recall my French teacher asking people to recite phrases like I am sad my dog has died and I am sad my fish has died. When she arrived at my desk and it was my turn to speak, she asked me to say I am sad, my dad has died.  It probably goes without saying that I never really took to the language!
When I went to uni a guy knocked on my door and said, ‘Hi, my dad’s dead too. We should be friends!’ I can think of better opening lines but we did become friends.

Hearing other friends complain about their dads during teenage angsty periods was tough, but telling people to be grateful for what they’ve got it life doesn’t always work. It’s a bit like telling someone to clear their plate because people are starving in Africa. 

I have experienced two significant periods of depression in my life. Who’s to say whether or not these would have happened if my dad hadn’t passed away? But sometimes I think it’s a pointless question to ask because each of us has to play the hand we are dealt. I found a fantastic councillor who made me realise that there is no deadline for grief. It is not silly for me to miss my dad just because he died so long ago or because I have lived nearly 80 per cent of my life without him. It is ok for me to feel sad my daughters, my family and myself because we have to experience life without him. Equally it is ok to not be sad, to forget a specific date and enjoy what you still have.

I am now 32 and a mother of two gorgeous, beautiful, happy, healthy girls. I have a very happy life and I miss my daddy; the two feelings are not mutually exclusive.

I wish that my daddy had seen me graduate, I wish he’d met my husband, given me away at our wedding and made a brilliant speech. I wish he’d held my daughters, I wish he was around to celebrate my mother’s birthday and to share in her joy of being a grandma. But it was not to be. Instead, I have some beautiful memories and many more perfect imaginings of how life might have been if he’d been here. I suppose these musings are pointless but sometimes I still feel I need them and they offer me comfort.

Sometimes I imagined that my daddy had left us and that Mum had told us he’d died to protect us from the fact he’d walked out. Grief can do strange things to your head.

It is strange what the senses recall too. Even after all this time the smell of Brut aftershave and Vosene shampoo remind me of my daddy. The songs Silence is Golden and Walk of Life always make me think of him and my mum together too. I can’t see a wind surfer without thinking My dad liked that. I remember the day he shaved off only half of his moustache just to see if Mum would notice and I remember him taking my sister and I to his office to show us off.

I can’t ever imagine a day that I won’t miss him.

I love you, Daddy.

Tanya xxx

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postfatal depression

After recently spending an enlightening weekend at a residential camp led by the child bereavement charity Grief Encounter, which was primarily devoted to children who had lost a parent, I began to experience a new kind of sadness for my son. The evening after we returned home, I looked at him playing with his trains on our kitchen floor and felt an emotional blow to my stomach. He’d only just turned two when his mummy was killed and he’ll be three next week. It suddenly occurred to me that not only has he lost his mum but also missed out on having a happy dad for a third of his life to date. Wondering how that might continue to affect my child into later life made me sad and concerned.

The next day I realised that, perhaps understandably, I worry about my son more like a mother than a father usually might. I worry about him constantly: about whether his bad temper is led mostly by grief or by age, about whether or not he’s brushed his teeth adequately, about whether the dummies he’s back on might leave them crooked, about whether or not he had enough breakfast before he went out, about whether the Disney princess outfits he keeps putting on just before I pick him up from nursery are a cry for help – I could go on all day. But the thing I find myself worrying about right now is my impact on him. I’ve learned that children are rarely given the credit they deserve when it comes to emotional intelligence, but Jackson often stops what he’s doing to ask me if I’m happy or sad. And this inevitably makes me worry that he sees his father as an unhappy man.

I started this blog primarily because I wanted to initiate a conversation about male grief. Things have evolved since that point, but in the beginning I was growing increasingly concerned that bereaved men were expected, perhaps mostly by themselves, to ‘man up’ and to hide their grief behind a stiff upper lip. I wondered what message I’d been sending to my own child by acting that way myself immediately after the death of his mum. I want him to feel that he could be open about his emotions and I hope to give him the best chance to grow into a man unconcerned by social pressures to conform.

I often jokingly refer to the time out I spend with my son as ‘maternity leave’. It started as ‘paternity leave’ but the more time passed by, and the more cake I ate and chardonnay I drank with caring young mums, the less traditionally paternal it felt. And as I sat worrying about the things that I once took for granted as my wife’s primary concerns (yeah, I said it), I started to wonder what postnatal depression must feel like for new mums. Pondering whether it was possible to be simultaneously happy and sad in the company of your own child, I checked out the symptoms and then self diagnosed a kind of postfatal depression. Since my wife died I’ve suffered nearly all of the same sorts of things around three in ten new mothers do following childbirth:

  • A persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
  • Loss of interest in the world around you and no longer enjoying things that used to give pleasure
  • Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time (fatigue)
  • Disturbed sleep, such as not being able to fall asleep during the night (insomnia) and then being sleepy during the day
  • Difficulties with concentration and making decisions
  • Low self-confidence
  • Poor appetite or an increase in appetite (‘comfort eating’)
  • Feeling very agitated or alternatively very apathetic (can’t be bothered)
  • Feelings of guilt

Perhaps many of us suffer some kind of depression when someone we love dies. But it’s a big word with many connotations and it may well often go undiagnosed, untreated or even completely ignored.

As for the my ‘maternity leave’ with Jackson, I think it may be time the two of us to embark on some manly endeavours. I’m not really that worried about my two-year-old son occasionally wearing a frock, but if I eat any more cake I fear I may find myself going up a dress size. And that would be an absolute disaster for my autumn/winter wardrobe, darling!

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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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what if

What if we’d never left home that day,
What if we’d travelled a different way.
What if we’d gone by taxi not train,
What if we’d only had starter not main.
What if I’d worn pink and you’d worn blue,
Would I have been taken instead of you?
 
What if you and I had fought that day,
What if we’d both had cross words to say.
What if we’d spoken in anger not love,
What if I’d prayed harder to God above.
What if His attention were on me and you,
Would a different three now just be two?
 
What if you’d drunk red and I’d drunk white,
What if we’d played different music that night.
What if I’d been ill the day before,
What if we’d never walked out that door.
What if the street had a different name,
Would things have worked out just the same?
 
What if our horoscopes had said ‘take care’,
What if they’d told us ‘don’t go there’.
What if we’d both known something was wrong,
What if we’d both known all along.
What if we’d known we had just eight years,
Would four have been laughter and four have been tears?
 
What if the skies were yellow not blue,
What if you were me and I were you.
What if a butterfly hadn’t fluttered its wings,
What if ‘what ifs’ could change these things.
What if ‘what ifs’ could make things right,
Would ‘what ifs’ have been there that night?
 
What if you and I had one more day,
What if I could do anything to make you stay.
What if our son could hold your hand,
What if we could help him understand.
What if the three of us could be back together,
Would I ever leave your sides? Not I. Not ever.
 
 
What if our son could hold your hand? What if we could help him understand?
What if our son could hold your hand? What if we could help him understand?
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the truth

It would be so easy for me just to share stories of the progress my son and I are making and to set out to inspire. But that is not why I started writing this blog. All I’m really interested in is the truth. I’d be cheating those suffering the pain of grief and belittling the bereaved if everything I shared was positive, upbeat and promising.

Many of my days, however, are happy. Not whole days but moments within them and these days I rarely feel a prolonged sense of despair. I find pleasure in my son, my friends and my families. We talk, we laugh and we talk some more. I try to look towards a positive future not because some self help guide tells me to and not because I read overly directional features about how you should deal with grief, but because that’s the person I’ve discovered I am.

But I don’t think it’s possible to be positive all the time. At least not without chemical intervention or the patience to train your brain to teach your mouth to pull a Stepford Wife perma-smile, which probably just hides the reality of what’s behind the eyes.

Sometimes we all get low. Sometimes that happens when we think we are at our highest points. Sometimes it happens because we’ve gone too high and because what goes up usually does come down. A bit like planes I suppose.

And that’s where Desreen was last night. On a plane. She was on her way to see Jackson at his grandma’s house on a plane.

“She’s not Jackson. Remember I told you she loves you but she can’t ever come back?”

“She IS, Daddy! She’s coming.”

I thought we’d got there. I thought he understood. For once my optimism got the better of me. He’s only two but I suppose I thought that because he could repeat my words he’d grasped what they meant.

Perhaps he has. Perhaps what he said was just a childish fantasy or the delightful drivel toddlers speak when they tell you that they had a Tyrannosaurus rex over for a tea party in his underpants last morning. But perhaps I’ve had it all wrong and he does expect to see her again.

God only knows how he’d behave if she showed up now. He couldn’t even look at her for the first two hours after we once went away without him for two days. I suspect he’d get over it quicker this time.

But sadly the truth is it’s never going to happen. And I don’t know what makes me sadder; the crushing reality of the situation or his empty optimism about what the future might hold.

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park life

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how sad I felt seeing my son so happy in the park. About how his first joyous experience of a bouncy castle made me feel so acutely aware of his loss. The melancholy set in as I thought about how much his mummy, who loved nothing more than to see him happy, was missing out.

But today we returned to the same spot and he was even happier than the time before. The sun was shining, the weather was hot and there were happy families everywhere. And today, I’m pleased to say, we were one of them. Diminished but somehow managing to smile, to laugh and to show how much we love one another.

Who knows how we’ll feel the next time we go? Perhaps the rain will fall and another storm of grief will set into our souls. But then that’ll be another day. And I guess I’m starting to learn to appreciate what we have today rather than worrying too much about what we may or may not have tomorrow.

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breathtaking boy

I always hate the idea of train travel with my son. It’s the not knowing how he’s going to behave that bothers me. I pray he’ll sleep for the whole three hour journey from London to the northwest of England, where my family lives, but it rarely works out that way. I guess I’m just one of those parents who dreads their child screaming the carriage down and disrupting other people’s peace, rather than one of those who simply thinks, ‘Well I’ve always had to listen to other kids doing it, so fuck ’em!’

Since my wife died I’ve been delaying the journey home. The Christmas trip was so unpleasant and my nerves were so frayed that part of me wondered whether I was putting it off indefinitely.

But today’s travels made me realise that there’s little point in trying to predict the behaviour of a toddler.

If I’d have had my way these past few months, some kindly chemist would have created Baby Nytol – a sleep-inducing, fluorescent pink, sweet and sugary tincture akin to Calpol – which I could use to sedate my son at will. But if they had, I’d have used it too freely and I’d have missed something wonderful today as a result.

I’d have missed the progress that my son has made recently.

I’d have missed him simply sitting next to me, happy enough in my company not to make any demands.

I’d have missed him just lying on my lap singing quietly and giggling at his own jokes.

I’d have missed him squeal with joy when he saw a field of cows through the window.

And I’d have missed him reaching for my phone to show the table of chatty women sitting next to us a picture that he loves.

“That’s my mummy!” he shrieked adoringly at them out of nowhere.

‘And that’s my boy!’ I thought, my breath taken away by the pride he confidently showed in the parent he’s not seen for seven and a half months. The parent he’s starting to understand that he’ll never see again.

"That's my mummy!" The picture that Jackson loves on my phone.
“That’s my mummy!” As proud of his mummy as she was of her son.
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like this

I’ve been gradually falling into a low mood for several weeks. The word depressed in its clinical sense is wrong, because I am not ill. But in its way of describing a lowered state it perfectly articulates how I’ve been slowly sliding into a sunken place.

My disposition is taking the pleasure out of almost everything. I’m indifferent to things that used to entertain me. My taste buds don’t really distinguish fine food from fast. Exercise neither aches nor rewards. I don’t care if it’s rain or shine. I’m not sleeping but I’m not especially tired. I want to arrange to see friends but I’m irritated when my phone rings. I can barely be bothered to write.

But I have two things that are keeping me focused. One, naturally, is my son. His well-being and ability to draw enjoyment from life means everything to me. He breaks my sadness and puts a smile back ony face.

The other is my unbroken determination to explain how grief can feel. To try to make others understand. To try to help those who already do understand feel like they are not alone.

If I stopped when I fell to my lowest point I wouldn’t be doing the process justice. I’d be rose-tinting something that is often so very grey.

A few days ago I read a comment on Facebook about a TV appearance I made in January. The chap behind the comment saw me on BBC Breakfast and said, ” Strikes me, if you keep dwelling on something, you will never get over it.”

Perhaps he wasn’t aware that my wife had only died two months before the interview. Perhaps he’s been lucky enough to never have to experience the pain of grief. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that grief is a lifetime’s journey, not something that just goes away or that can be placed neatly in a drawer.

His comment didn’t make me cross, though. Instead it fuelled my fire.

It made me want to continue to explain how, when you have been bereaved, you can’t just ‘pull yourself together’.

It made me think that perhaps we should pull ourselves together collectively to try to better understand the complexity of grief.

Perhaps then the bereaved might stand a better chance of being pulled back together with themselves one day.

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father’s day

It’s Father’s Day in the UK today. For those of us who are lucky enough to actually have a father, it’s probably a time to send a card, pick up the phone or make a visit to show we care. For those who haven’t it might either be a time for reflection or a time to avoid the TV, restaurants, pubs, card shops or any other outlets that inadvertently make us feel worse than we already do by treating us all as if we’re the same.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a father and a father-in-law and I am a father too, so I’m hoping today will be a happy and grateful day for me.

However positive I try to be, though, it’s been hard not think about how strange it will be to receive neither a card containing handwriting that looks suspiciously more like my wife’s than my son’s. Nor a gift that I know he can’t yet afford because he has no access to any savings until he’s 18. So I thought, ‘Sod it! I’ll buy myself something from his account.’ Thanks for my new chair, Jackson! Your taste is impeccable.

Seriously though, today is not about material things for me. It’s not about him behaving any more lovingly towards me than he already does. It’s not about cards, gifts, grand gestures or breakfast in bed. For me it’s about being the one who’s lucky enough to be able to spend another day with my son. For me today’s a day when I will thank my lucky stars that my beautiful wife made me a dad to such a wonderful child.

And it’s for that wonderful child’s future that a friend and I wrote a song as a way of capturing memories of days gone by. We wanted to create something that would one day help him to understand the immediate impact of his mum’s death and what it was like coming to terms with her loss as a father and as a man. I thought I’d share that song today for all the other dads out their who are raising children without their wives or partners by their sides.

Dry Eyes is performed by my good pal Paul Hand. Just click on the ‘play’ icon below to take a listen. You can also read a Father’s Day feature that I wrote in today’s issue of the Sunday People and online here

Me and my lovely little boy
Me and my lovely little boy
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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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toddler grief

In January this year I wrote a feature for The Guardian about my experience of telling my son his mummy was dead. I guess at the time I hoped his pain would be short lived. I tend not to be one for rose-tinted glasses though. Give me clear vision any day of the week. So I’ve been expecting the bad times to get worse.

It was seven months yesterday since my wife was killed. Time for other people to begin to return to their lives and for my son to start to feel the void in our home. Time for him to mature a little. Time for him to get to that age where children start to compare themselves to others. Time for awkward moments when they start to point out things that are strangely absent from a person whether it be hair, a limb or a parent. The time that has passed since my son last saw his mum, proportionate to our ages, is also as long and she and I were together.

‘It’s just a relief he’s the age he was when it happened.’

‘Take some comfort in the fact he won’t remember.’

‘It’s probably a good thing that he hasn’t asked for her for a while.’

All things I suspect adults say to comfort themselves rather than the children involved. Ostrich-like denial of what seems to be the truth for my son. His grief has just come to life. His behaviour tells me more than his voice is able to articulate. But if I look hard enough I can see the reality rather than try to live an all-too-convenient lie. The boy’s got it bad right now.

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inverted commas

Five months ago this week I set up this blog with just one intention. I wanted to help other young widowers find someone who could relate to the hell they were going through in losing their wives. Over the course of time the reach and purpose of the blog have both evolved and I now understand that it is read by men and women alike, young and old, but today I have found myself reflecting on my original intent.

The day I wrote my first post I hoped to find a few guys who could empathise with my situation and I with theirs. It didn’t take too long. Within a fortnight I’d be invited to write for a few newspapers and appear on a couple of TV shows and then suddenly a couple of guys came forward. They’d be searching, with no luck, for the same thing as me. There was relief on both sides when we found one another remotely. Emails were exchanged, virtual friendships were made and many a sleepless midnight conversation was had with subjects ranging from court cases to potty training, anniversaries to animated movies (I find we widowers talk about Finding Nemo and Bambi a lot).

The relationships that have slowly built have been developed from the emotional safety of our own homes. Perhaps it’s one thing for two men to open up to one another at all, but for two to expose their feelings face-to-face is another entirely. But that’s what happened today. I met my first young widower ‘friend’. I use inverted commas not because I didn’t like him, but because until today he was categorised that way by a fairly popular social networking site called Facebook. A resource that is often criticised but that I feel has saved me from going under in what has been the most difficult time of my life. It’s a place that has allowed me to both share my feelings with people I know without having to repeat myself over and over and to acquaint myself with new people who have helped me feel more normal than I otherwise might.

But this morning my ‘friend’ became a friend. We met in person, talked like two guys do and shared stories about our wives and our sons, who were born just two and a half weeks apart. Just two guys drinking coffee and talking about nappies, theme parks, Mickey Mouse, films, relationships, death and anger. The very epitome of light and shade.

It was lovely. Kind of like meeting an old friend but one who didn’t have to ask the world’s silliest question, ‘What you been up to?’, because he kind of already knew. He’d be up to the same things. Being a widower, a dad, a mum, a cleaner, a cook, an employee and a guy who desperately misses his wife.

But it was also tough. Not because I felt like I was taking on more grief, but because a wave of incredibly powerful sadness came over me. And it wasn’t for me. As I looked at him I thought, ‘I just can’t believe this guy’s wife’s dead already. Just look at the age of him.’

I was staring at a guy who was so much like me, just like I wanted to when I started this blog five months ago, and it hurt like hell. Of course I appreciate there are lots of other people just like me out there, but they felt somewhat distant and remote until today. Then suddenly seeing another young widowed dad looking right back at me made the whole thing feel so much more real. And that made me really really fucking sad.

Plenty more widowed dads in the sea
Plenty more widowed dads in the sea
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butterfly sanctuary

This is a guest post written by Emilie Adams

Emilie, 44, is from France and lives in London with her family. She was happily married to Rob until 24th March last year when he was tragically killed in a scooter accident off the M25. They had been together for 23 years and had three sons, Thomas (now 14), William (12) and Hector (six). Their previously perfect life, like many of this blog’s followers, was turned upside down in a split second on that Saturday evening. However, Emilie hopes to inspire some fellow grievers to carry on living with a smile on their face from time to time, as that’s what helps her get through the day. 

The last 14 months have all been about grieving, coping and readjusting. After we marked the first anniversary of Rob’s death two months ago, now seems like a good time to reflect and take stock. Of course there have been moments of despair and extreme sadness but I do not want to focus on those here. Overall, faced with the excruciating loss of a wonderful husband and father, I would say that we have ‘coped’ as well as we could have and this gives me hope for the future.

Rob was a fun, energetic and positive guy who lived life to the full. Spurred on by his appetite for fun, I felt after his death that I owed it to him and the children to continue living in the same spirit we were always accustomed to. I could not give up on life just because he was no longer there and I could not mope around all day. With this in mind and Rob’s driving force behind us, we have in the last year managed to maintain our same family routine, gone on exciting trips away, continued rugby training throughout the toughest of winters, given and attended parties and made jokes the way we always did when he was around. I also deliberately find little things to look forward to and brighten up my day (my midmorning latte, my lunchtime yoga class or a chat with my girlfriends) and thrive on previously unattainable and insignificant achievements (changing the ink cartridge on my printer or checking the pressure on the car tyres). Bust most important of all, I have discovered that the two major forces in my life now are my children and my positive nature, and that amazingly both have shone through in the last year.

I also decided a few months after Rob’s death that I needed to keep a written account of our story, for the children and for myself, to make sure that we do not forget what has happened to us. Writing has been strangely cathartic and has helped me focus on the positive.

This is an extract of my ‘work’ that I wanted to share on Life as a Widower:

I’m sitting in the car with Hector one day on the way back from school just a few weeks after Rob’s death when he bursts into tears out of the blue and confesses that he would have liked to show his butterfly to Daddy. They had been hatching butterflies at school for a few weeks and after much hype and excitement by all the children, today was ‘releasing’ day. We had released balloons into the sky for Rob after his memorial service and some people have suggested that Hector drew a parallel between the butterflies and the balloons and that the comparison was just too much to bear. It is a possibility, although I query whether five year olds are sufficiently clued up on metaphors. But either way, on realising how affected Hector is by the whole experience, I am driven back to the depth of my own grief as a mum and as a wife and for a few minutes it is unbearable.

Hector calls his butterfly Calypso, after his friend’s dog, and once I’ve pulled myself together manage to make up this story that Calypso has gone to Sark (where Rob has been buried) to see Daddy. Being spring, and Calypso being the most common of all brown and orange butterflies, we see ‘him’ everywhere and he becomes a hugely positive influence in our lives. My mother in law also confirms regular ‘sightings’ in Sark and this is all the proof we need to substantiate our story. In this case we have managed to turn a very sad event into something really positive and Hector is delighted every time he sees Calypso. I love it too. He has become a messenger between us and Rob, he follows us in our travels and goes back to him to report on how we are doing. The symbolism has become so embedded in our lives that, where we would not previously have noticed them, we now see butterflies everywhere. Real butterflies during the spring and summer of course but also butterfly prints on clothing, cushions, bed linen, school bags, pencil cases, jewellery, in books, films, TV, newspapers, on sandwich wrappers, and the icing on the cake, I kid you not, I even spot a nail file in the shape of a butterfly! You name it, we’ve seen it, our butterfly is everywhere.

At first I am amazed, I see at least one a day and it is almost like a sign from Rob. I am not a religious person but perhaps I do have a spiritual side deep down after all so I hang on to this thought very preciously. I even burst into tears of joy in a one to one school meeting with one of William’s teachers because she’s displaying a pencil case with a butterfly on it and I am imagining it is Rob’s way of saying he is with me in the meeting (how do you explain that to a French teacher without sounding completely barmy?)

However, as the months go by, I see not only my ‘butterfly of the day’ but several butterflies every day and all my friends get in on the act to fuel the crazy fantasy. I am given a butterfly scarf, a butterfly Christmas bauble, a butterfly candle and countless butterfly birthday cards, most of the time deliberately but also at times purely accidentally. Butterflies are surprisingly omnipresent. In the early days, I feel compelled to buy anything butterfly related for me and for others: mugs, fancy bracelets, I am drawn to the items like a bee to honey. However, if it is Rob sending us ‘signs’ (rather than unbeknown to me just the ‘year of the butterfly’ on the London fashion scene), I need to ask him to slow down. There’s only so many ‘signs’ I can deal with before my house becomes a weird butterfly sanctuary! Also, as I am pondering very pragmatically whether it could be him, I really can’t get to grips with the nail file incarnation! Darling if you’re listening, I think of you all the bloody time, there’s really no need to go to all that length to try and grab more attention!

Two months ago on my way to work on the tube, and just a few days after I wrote this piece about the butterflies, I stumble across an article in the paper: ‘UK butterflies suffer a catastrophic year in 2012’. My first thought is: ‘What, that can’t be right!?! Rob what have you done, have you been interfering with nature?’ Propelled by the sense of urgency emanating from the title and anticipating another ‘sign’, I do not waste any time reading the article. Apparently most species have been declining this year because 2012 was one of the wettest years on record. Phew, nothing to do with Rob then (not according to that study anyway). The High Brown Fritillary, the Heath Fritillary, Black Hairstreak, White-Letter Hairstreak, Green Hairstreak, Common Blue, Large Skippers (I could never have named so many species of butterflies a year ago, bereavement is obviously good for your general knowledge. I must register for next year’s school quiz!) have all been declining significantly and could now be critically endangered. My friend Mark who has also spotted the article and is aware of butterfly mania in the Adams’ household, emails me on the subject. His poetic contribution fills me with hope: ‘As Rob was a big lad he’ll be producing loads of butterflies and should singlehandedly be able to reverse the trend for 2013’…and he thinks we’ll be good for 2014 as well!

I like the idea of Rob’s dead body producing butterflies to save the eco system of Great Britain. I hang on to this thought and spend the rest of the day with a big smile on my face.

Rob would have been 44 years old tomorrow. This post is dedicated to him on his birthday.
Rob would have been 44 years old tomorrow. This post is dedicated to him on his birthday.

 

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school years

My wife always measured people’s age in school years. I was “the year above” her even in my thirties despite the fact that we were born just eight weeks apart. I hadn’t realised that this hilariously juvenile take on time could run into a person’s sixties until I heard my dad refer to himself as “the year above” my mum just a few weeks ago (Dad, if you’re reading this please don’t let me hear you say that again).

Today I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide how to spend my wedding anniversary and birthday this year, which fall just six days apart in August. I had no idea why the dates were plaguing me so soon until I got into bed this evening. This year I’ll be 34. No big deal, no real milestone and it hardly makes me old. But it does make me something. It makes me ‘two years above’. It makes me older than my wife ever got to be. And to be completely honest it also makes me scared.

I’m worried that I’ll be grey and wrinkled and still pine after a fresh-faced girl of 33 like some sugar daddy type. I dread the thought of looking at a picture of the beautiful young woman I married, then glancing in the mirror and seeing an old man who used to only be ‘the year above’ her.

But I guess the thing that truly fills me with horror is the idea of not getting to see a reflection of the aged me. So I tell myself that the school years I need to focus on now are not mine and my wife’s but my son’s. I just hope I’m still around to fill his ears with embarrassing comments just like my dad for many ‘years above’ and beyond.

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tank engines

This is a guest post by writer, journalist and blogger, Emma Beddington

…but first an introduction from me

I don’t usually interfere with guest posts by weaving in my own story, but today I’m going to make an exception. I wrote to Emma Beddington a few weeks ago when I discovered a story she had written for The Guardian, which revealed how Thomas the Tank Engine had helped her son come to terms with the loss of his grandmother, Emma’s mum. I could hardly believe what I was reading and how moved I was by a story built around a little train that I spend so much of my life wishing would really ‘bust his buffers’ or ‘flatten his funnel’ and just naff off.

You see, Thomas lives with me every bit as my child does. His is usually the first name from my son’s mouth in the morning and the last in the evening. The day after my wife was killed, my son cried and asked not where his mummy was but rather, “Where’s is (sic) my Thomas gone?”

The fact is it was more unusual for him to not have his little toy train by his side all day than it was one of his two working parents. Sadly we lost not only his mummy in the carnage of the crash, but also Thomas. Thank God at least one of them could be replaced.

The Saturday that would come to follow my wife’s last evening with us, the three of us were due to go to Thomas Land and indulge Jackson in his love for the locomotive inhabitants of Sodor. Against my better judgement, I decided that the two of us should still go, that we’d never get the chance to go again on that day. I was exhausted, an emotional wreck, dying inside. The taxi driver who picked us up at the station apparently recognised me from the papers and chatted to me like I was a guy who’d just won the lottery. The only way I could stop his painfully jovial banter was to tell him I’d become a widower just a week ago. As I did, Jackson fell asleep leaving me to manoeuvre a sleeping toddler from the car and into a theme park that had become Christmas Thomas Land that same day. Fake snow, festive tunes, happy families and, perhaps worst of all, a child who wasn’t even awake to enjoy it. It was amongst the lowest and toughest moments of my whole life.

The next morning, however, my son woke up, turned to me and exclaimed in a spritely voice, “Thomas Land!” He’d had a good time, he had good memories and he had a daddy who could feel just a sliver of happiness that he’d gone ahead with the last day out that his mummy would ever have the opportunity to plan. And like Emma will go on to say about her own son, I don’t think I could have got through this dreadful situation without Jackson’s steamy little chum.

…now back to Emma, who I would like to thank for sharing her story.

Confusion and delay: bereavement the Thomas the Tank Engine way

After Emma Beddington’s mother died, at a railway station, her son’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine became a way to talk obliquely about danger and loss

When my mother died ten years ago, my son Theo was 18 months old. Precociously verbal, cheery, fond of earth moving equipment and the colour pink, and in no way equipped to understand death. So, at least, I told myself, rather shiftily. What would be the point of saying those words to him? “Granny’s dead”. It would be about as meaningful as telling him that competitive pressures and poor regulatory controls had led to a catastrophic boom in sub-prime lending.

Of course, it suited me not to tell him. Things were bewilderingly terrible back then. My magnificent mother – the lynchpin of my world, the person I most wanted to share every stupid detail of my life with, the person I most admired – had been killed in a freak accident at an Italian railway station. My family had been catapulted into a dark, new world of lawyers and coroners, funerals and obituaries. My stepfather was in hospital; my seventeen-year-old sister had moved in with us. I was six months pregnant.

I was coping, if you could call it that, by dealing with practical realities of my mother’s death without engaging with the emotional truth of it and this denial (for it was denial of a sort) informed how I dealt with Theo. Something in me revolted absolutely at the thought of having that conversation with my sunny, delightful son, whose eyes lit up when he saw pictures of my mother. “Granny!” he would say in delighted recognition. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – do it.

It was cowardly and self-serving and wrong. It might be desperately hard to explain death to a toddler, but sometimes as a parent, it’s your job. Children aren’t stupid and they don’t exist in a carefree U-rated infant vacuum: Theo knew something bad was going on, but I failed to tell him what. When things go wrong, in the absence of honesty, children founder, lose their place in the world. Some blame themselves, some act out, some withdraw.

In my case, I was very fortunate. Theo found his own way, where I failed, and his way was Thomas the Tank Engine.

For a TV show aimed at pre-schoolers, there’s an awful lot of catastrophe in Thomas. The Rev Awdry’s world (as filtered through the HIT studios animated doom generator) is one of derailments, fires, collisions, billowing gusts of smoke, showers of coal, all rendered in eery stop motion, disaster edging jerkily closer in every frame. It’s dark.

For a year or so after my mother died, Theo couldn’t get enough of Thomas. He was drawn, again and again, to watch those five minute tales of doom and disaster: Percy showered with coal, the troublesome trucks tumbling down ravines, the glowering giant boulder that pursues the engines along the tracks, crashing, finally, into the engine shed with an impressive mini-conflagration. It was these grisly episodes that Theo insisted on watching again and again, terrified but compelled by the shocking moment of impact, the reaction shots of dismayed engines, the curls of crudely rendered smoke. Sometimes he would cry with fear, but with a restraining hand preventing me from turning off the tape: he needed to watch to the bitter end. The Fat Controller‘s ringing, admonitory “confusion and delay” set the rhythm of our early mornings, and our evenings.

As I walked him to nursery in the mornings, Theo would demand I tell him “a Thomas story”. He was a demanding listener, driving and guiding the narrative, from mishap to accident to disaster. Every time I tried to tie up a neat resolution (‘then the truck was mended and everyone went to the party!’), Theo would raise an imperious hand and correct me: “no, but then he ‘SPLODED!” It would be up to me to find a way to resolve things all over again.

There was something about Thomas, about the imminence of disaster and its resolution (or not) that spoke to Theo at that bewildering time. It confirmed what he had, inchoately seen and learned in his own life: accidents happen. But in Thomas’s world, and in the stories I invented, when accidents happen, they are fixed. The paint is cleaned, the track cleared, the trucks repaired. There’s no disaster too great for the officious Fat Controller to clear up, nothing that cannot, somehow be fixed. That simple resolution, seen over and over again, gave him the precious reassurance I had failed to provide.

I hate Thomas. I think he’s horribly reactionary, sexist, cruel, a colossal bore. I would gladly never see his leering face again or hear his tedious boasting about his buffers. Even so, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, because Thomas did what I couldn’t: found a way to talk to a toddler about death.

Confusion and delay: bereavement the Thomas the Tank Engine way
Confusion and delay: bereavement the Thomas the Tank Engine way
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the apprentice

New feelings have taken hold of me this weekend. Untold pain from running up steep hills in the biting cold at a 10K race in Greenwich Park on Saturday morning. An overwhelming urge to laugh and make people laugh on Saturday afternoon. And something quite like happiness today.

Running with new friends and then drinking with old ones on Saturday meant that I spent most of the day away from my son. I missed him terribly and thought about him the whole time. So when I woke up on Sunday and heard him rise soon after me, I rushed to greet him.

He made me laugh immediately. Standing in the hall sporting a new, if accidental, asymmetric off-the-shoulder pyjama look and sodden from an over active night bladder, he was only interested in putting his arm back in his sleeve.

“You’re soaking, Jackson. Let’s get you bathed and changed.”

“No dank you, Daddy.”

Happy as a pig in shit (or perhaps a kid in piss).

Breakfast, second breakfast, train time and then we hit the park where we went to feed the squirrels. I haven’t seen my son so contented, confident or cooperative in weeks. He indulged himself in fun and play for an hour and emitted joy that soothed my soul. For the first time in months I allowed myself to live in the moment and we just had fun. Simple as that.

This playtime paved way for a little friend’s birthday party. Unable to avoid analysing his behaviour whilst in the company of other kids and parents (fuck it, I mean mums) I was worried for a few minutes. While the other children sang songs and passed the parcel, my son’s eyes darted round the room and weighed up his two-parent peers. He looked cross. He seemed confused. My heart sunk.

But then he was suddenly back in the room. The boy he had always been showed up and made me wonder whether he hasn’t actually really changed that much. He didn’t respond that well to the organised fun at the party, but then he never did. He shirked it at his last birthday party when his mum was still alive in favour of some quiet time sitting on a window ledge entertaining himself with his trains. Today he chose to pass on pass the parcel and instead pass his time dancing to the stop-start house beats that accompanied the classic party standard. But that’s him. A true individual, slightly antisocial at times, knows his own mind. Two going on 42. Loving, sensitive, mostly happy, a touch grumpy, won’t be cajoled into doing anything that doesn’t appeal at any particular moment in time. In short, quite like his mum.

I suppose I was in a slightly better mood than I have been for quite a while today. But allowing myself to see my child for what he is rather than torturing myself about how he might feel helped me to chill out and enjoy my day too. Of course he’s sad, of course he’s tortured and of course he’s confused. But I realised this week that his pain comes in waves that appear to last for five or ten minutes before he moves on. But then his pain transfers to me and I cling onto it for hours.

So right now I find myself thinking that if I spend the rest of my day pouring over his five or ten sore minutes he’ll only get to live with a miserable and sullen dad. And he deserves better than that. So while I can’t just switch off those feelings or the sensation of being stabbed in the heart when observing his anguish, perhaps I can try to be more like a child. After all I feel like I’m starting my whole life from scratch anyway, so why not?

It’s said that young children are better than adults at dealing with immediate grief because they are more able to live in the moment. Perhaps they have something to teach us.

My little apprentice is slowly becoming the master.

JBBD Portrait 3 02.04.13

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parental guidance

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

In Jackson’s second post, he shares with us what he really (maybe) means when he throws himself on the floor in tears at soft play and claims that he’s only upset because he wants some raisins. As ever, his writing comes with a ‘parental guidance’ warning. His first guest post can be viewed by clicking here.

I’ve just been to one of my favourite places, Peckham Pulse soft play, with a little mate and three olds. It’s off the hook this place. Ball pool, big slide, shaky bridge, bare tunnels, the lot. There’s usually some fella in the corner who thinks he’s the shizzle too, dishing out all these rules that none of us listen to but it must have been his day off today so we let rip and proper had it.

Anyway, I’m gonna rewind a bit otherwise you lot just ain’t gonna get it. I’ve been having some serious woman trouble lately. Like, I’m handsome and that and I’ve got all these girls putting their names down already, but it ain’t that kind of trouble. I just don’t like them much right now, especially when they go anywhere near my dad. I’m like, ‘Back off bitch! Mummy would slap you down if you came anywhere near her man.’ I’m kind of just doing her work for her now that she’s gone.

And here’s the thing. This is why I need to get some of this shit off my chest today. I think I know she’s gone. I haven’t seen her for ages and I keep repeating back what my daddy says to me about how she didn’t want to leave me but that she can’t ever come back, but something keeps confusing me. I keep thinking she’s still here, that I’ve just seen her in the street or in the park or wherever.

As I was saying a minute ago, at the moment most chicks that I see get a big fat ‘whatever’ from me, which often manifests itself as a filthy look, a massive raspberry or a repartee that sounds elegant and articulate in my head but that usually comes out more like, ‘Ubbubbubbaabah, THOMAS, PERCY, HENRY, RAAAAAR!’ But then I see a lady who looks a bit like my mum and I’m charm personified. I’m thrown.

So I’m down the Pulse today and this woman goes to give me a hand over an obstacle that was just too high for me. She had black skin, just like Mummy’s. She wore her hair the same way as Mummy did around July of last year. I think she was French and maybe a bit taller than my mum but it’s always hard to know from down here. She was daft and funny too, not scared to make a fool of herself to make kids laugh. The only real striking difference was that this lady seemed a lot more comfortable showing her legs. Weird, because I always thought my mum’s were lovely.

So there we are playing and I’m holding her hand, happy in unfamiliar female company for the first time in months and I felt like what I’ve been missing so much was back. But I only felt like that for a minute. I might be small but I’m not stupid. I know my mum when I see her but grief can really fuck with your head. It was like happiness one minute then crushing sadness the next. I’ve got stuff to play with everywhere, free run of the place and yet there I am floored, in tears, confused.

“What’s wrong, Jackson?” asked Daddy, although he obviously already knew, I could tell by the look on his face. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No Daddy!” I shouted, lying face down on the floor in tears.

He gave me some space for a minute or two and then came back and asked me again.

Now give me an online forum like this, a MacBook Pro and the time to think my thoughts through and I can really hold my own. But ask me on the spot and I fall to pieces.

“Want some raisins, Daddy”, I replied mid-sob.

He didn’t buy that response any more than I meant it. Like he’s dumb enough to think that fucking dried grapes are going to make me feel better when I’ve barely eaten a piece of fruit since I was born.

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new words

Many widows and widowers speak of the uncomfortable ‘widowy’ moments they’ve experienced since losing their spouse.

Like when they realised a friend had crossed the road to avoid them just because they didn’t know how to handle that difficult conversation. Or when a previously chummy neighbour, who would usually be happy to lend you their lawnmower, suddenly wouldn’t sweeten your grief with their metaphorical sugar.

After losing our spouses we can become ostracised, sidelined, social outcasts even.

And we’ve done nothing wrong.

And we’re already in so much pain.

Yet people can cause us even more agony because they don’t know how to approach us, how to deal with our suffering, how to compose themselves around us.

And these people probably do care, but just don’t know how to show it in such difficult times.

So it creates a nightmare within a nightmare for the people who wish, more than anything, that they could just wake up from this devastatingly terrible dream.

Well two days ago something happened that made me feel immensely proud. I saw this phenomenon un-happen. I’m quite aware that’s not a word, but should one have to be approved by a council before people start using it? Perhaps, but either way I love made-up words, m’kay?

So the reason I saw this situation ‘un-happen’ is because I’d played out what I believed would happen in my head so many time but it didn’t happen that way after all.

On Wednesday this week I decided to go into work for the first time since my wife died. It’s been three months. I’ve been calling this time ‘paternity leave’ because ‘beleavement’ hasn’t been approved by the word council yet.

Every single part of me had been dreading this moment. Not because I’ve suddenly become lazy or work-shy, but because I was scared to walk into a room full of 70-odd people who wouldn’t know how to handle me. A room full of people who are mostly under 35 and who possibly shouldn’t know how to deal with the grief of a 33-year-old man who has already lost his wife.

In my head I saw people pretending they hadn’t seen me walk in. I played out this scenario of groups of people dashing into fictitious meetings to avoid the stinky widower. I imagined that’s what I’d become, that I was no longer their colleague, their friend. That I was no longer Ben.

I was nervous in the lift on the way up to the office. I felt like I had to take something to take the edge away. I nearly turned back because I’d seen what I thought was going to happen so many times before.

But it didn’t. It un-happened.

Everyone was incredible. They treated me just like they did before but with hugs and handshakes. They didn’t ask how I was because they already knew. They were actually pleased to see me. No road-crossing, no ‘widowy’ moments, just a room full of lawnmowers and sugar.

So I said I was proud, but why?

Well five weeks and five days ago I took it upon myself to open up about my feelings and to dish up my grief on a plate. That plate became tapas within a couple of days and those tapas were a banquet within a week. Nearly a month and half later this blog has had 300,000 views. If I can’t see a number in my head represented by actual people in a football stadium, then I’ve never been able to imagine what that number looks like.

So I’ve not been able to envisage the amount of people reading, who they are or why they’re bothering. I’m just a grieving guy who spends his entire day worrying about his son and not moving very far from where he lives, so it’s been impossible to appreciate what people do with the words I write. I decided early on that it didn’t matter though. As long as the words did some good for someone, anyone, then I didn’t even need to know.

But two days ago that someone, that anyone, was me. Everyone at work had been reading the blog. They knew what was in my head. They’d read the guidelines for how to approach someone like me. They knew that I wanted to be treated like a whole person rather than a piece of broken jigsaw. All of a sudden it was worth opening up, telling the world how I feel and leaving nothing out.

So that’s why I felt proud. Yes, I’d apparently made the potentially difficult situation easier on myself, but it wasn’t that. It was because I know these people and because I know now that they can do it again. I know that the next time any of them hear a terrible piece of news that will change the lives of the people around them forever, they’ll know what to do. They’ll know how to prevent there being a nightmare within a nightmare and whoever’s terrible dream it is will be made easier by one of these incredible people that I have the honour of knowing.

And so I’ll carry on. And we can all make an impact together if we keep reading, commenting, sharing, talking, opening up and softening that stiff upper lip.

Possibly the natural place to sign off but I met a lovely guy yesterday who really got me thinking. Like my son, his children lost their mother much too soon and we chatted for ages about how we could help make life better for our kids.

We posed a question too. What do you call a father who has suddenly and tragically become both mum and dad to their child or children?

A mad?

A dam?

Perhaps we should ask the word council for approval.

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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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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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guest posts

Monday 3rd February will mark four weeks since lifeasawidower.com launched. In that short space of time the blog has already seen a quarter of a million views, connected many widowers who felt lost or alone, challenged all kinds of people to open up about their feelings of loss and instigated countless conversations about grief.

An entirely inevitable subject, which I believe has long been too taboo to mention, is making people talk.

I’ve been pretty vocal on the matter. I’ve written 30-odd posts in less than a month. I’ve penned features for the national press. I’ve spoken openly on TV and radio shows throughout the weeks. I’ve shared the experiences that my son and I are going through in an attempt to help people in similar situations find empathy and understanding during the most confusing and isolating of times.

But what do I know?

I’ve only been grieving the loss of my wife for 11 weeks. My grief is raw, my experiences new and my feelings change constantly throughout every single day. I can’t offer advice or counsel to the people who visit my blog because I have neither the answers nor the expertise. I’m not even blessed with the gift of hindsight as yet. All I have are stories of the here and now.

Which is why I’ve decided to launch guest posts from this week. I’m opening up the blog as a channel for people who know much more than me to share their stories about how they’ve dealt with loss.

Regardless of the authors’ qualifications, experience or status, each post will offer a personal insight into bereavement.

They may offer advice from people who are qualified to dish it out.

They may offer wisdom from people kind enough to share.

But most of all I hope they offer hope.

Keep reading…

N.B. If you would like to pen a guest post, please contact me directly either via email, Facebook or Twitter. All details can be found on the home page. Thank you. 

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feeling proud

I am immensely proud of my wife, perhaps more so now than ever before.

When I wrote her eulogy, Being Desreen, I asked people to help me and Jackson in the future simply by being more like her. I suggested a number of ways they could do this as a kind of shopping list of her wonderful character traits, hobbies and habits.

I just can’t tell you how many people have been in touch to tell me that they are working their way through the list or adopting some of the ideas as New Year’s resolutions. An old friend of my brother’s (and I guy I rarely see) even asked my permission to print the list out and put it up on the wall in his home so he and his family could always remember Desreen after her death and remind themselves to appreciate everything they have in life.

I designed this blog primarily to help blokes who have lost their wives face their grief and understand what they can do to help their kids. I smiled when I literally ran into a friend on Oxford Street today (I’m training for a half marathon) who told me that she was effectively becoming Desreen, because I knew that one day I’d be able to tell my son exactly what she was like. Even if anything happens to me or I lose my marbles, he’ll still have the words. So my advice is write it all down now for your kids while you still can. It might be difficult and you don’t need to do it in one go, but they will ask questions one day and I’m sure they will cherish the answers.