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tell them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben & Des

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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something yellow

I keep being asked how I feel about Father’s Day and what I have planned. The honest truth is that, because I’m lucky enough to already spend so much time with my son, I haven’t really given it that much thought. We’ll just spend the day together doing the things he loves knowing that when he has a smile on his face I have happiness in my heart.

I intend to plan my day around him rather than me. That means making pancakes for breakfast because, apparently, no other morning meal option is round or ‘panky’ enough for his tastes. It means playing with Lego because it would appear that Thomas the Tank Engine’s crown is slowly slipping. It means chasing pigeons around the park because they are ‘silly old birds’. And no doubt it will also mean acting out a euphemistic rigmarole akin to avoiding the name Macbeth in the theatre as we try to order ice cream using only the words ‘something yellow’. Perhaps, I imagine him thinking, if I actually say what I want I won’t get it. And I’ll be reminded, once again, of how much Jackson is like his mum – the only adult I ever knew who would use a longwinded series of riddles, guessing games and hand gestures to indicate that she wanted something as simple as a cuppa.

If I’m really lucky, though, as I was on Tuesday night early this week, the last words I’ll hear on Father’s Day will be, ‘Thank you, Daddy, I had a really nice time with you today.’ And while he sleeps, I’m sure I’ll think about how much I miss his mum. Yet, even if there’s a tear in my eye, I’m pretty sure there will also be a smile on my face. That’s because, just like every other day of the year, Father’s Day will be a time for me to reflect upon how lucky I am to get to spend every day with our little boy – a day to be thankful to my wife for creating such a wonderful child. A child who clearly carries his mummy in his heart.

‘Is Mummy having a nice time in the sky?’ he asked me earlier this week, ‘I hope she doesn’t get wet.’

How proud I am to have fathered a child sensitive enough to worry about his mummy being caught out in the rain. I can picture the hand gestures she’d be giving if her newly-styled hair had got soaked out there, though. But this time I can’t imagine they would politely suggest it was time for a nice cup of tea.

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beautiful ladybirds

Earlier this week I met with a child psychologist to discuss my son; naturally I’m concerned about how he has and will respond to losing his mother at such a young age. Jackson was at the scene when Desreen was killed and he was clearly affected: he grew scared of sirens overnight; he became confused and cross; and his temper, at times, was out of control, to a point where I was frightened that he might hurt himself if it couldn’t be stopped. And back then he wasn’t even three years old.

This week he turned three-and-a-half and it was on his ‘half birthday’ that I found myself discussing his well-being in the company of an expert who I noticed used the words dead and death a lot. The conversation made me realise that, while I’m satisfied that I took the age-appropriate steps to explain my wife’s disappearance to our son, I had somewhat shied away from consistently explaining that she had actually died.

‘Jackson, Mummy’s gone away and she can’t ever come back. She didn’t want to go. She would never have left you out of choice because she loved you more than anyone or anything in the world. But Daddy’s still here and I’m going to look after you now. And I know how to look after you because Mummy taught me.’

Those were the exact words I used to explain Desreen’s sudden departure from our world. I’d taken advice from child bereavement charities including Winston’s Wish, Grief Encounter and Child Bereavement UK, and so I understood that, at the time, Jackson was too young to understand the meaning of dead or killed. But recently I’ve noticed that some of my son’s friends, especially those who are six to twelve months older than him, are more aware of death. I suppose I have spent the last few months enjoying watching him live through a stage of blissful naivety. But all the while I’ve been very conscious of the fact that he won’t dwell there forever; I’ve been constantly reminding myself that I need to continue to help him understand the realities of life.

As I sat chatting with the psychologist, I asked how she would explain death to such a young child.

‘I’d be very concrete about it,’ she said. ‘Don’t make things opaque.’

She told me how she would describe the difference between a person who is alive and a person who has died: essentially that one functions while the other doesn’t. She also advised me on how to use insects to – one alive and one dead – to demonstrate the point.

The next morning, on Good Friday, I was cleaning the house when I found a dead ladybird on the floor. I scooped it up and went to find my son downstairs.

‘Jackson, can you see how this ladybird can’t move?’ I asked. He prodded it roughly with his finger. ‘Well that’s because it has died, and when we die we can’t move and we can’t use our arms or legs.’

‘Yes we can!’ he said with a big smile across his face.

‘No we can’t, Jackson.’

‘Oh!’ he considered, looking a little confused.

‘Mummy died, too, Jackson. And that’s why she can’t move her body, either,’ I went on.

‘Yes she can!’ he giggled. ‘She can fly with a blanket on her back.’ It must be so confusing for a child to be told that his mummy is in the sky but that she can’t actually fly.

‘She can’t, Jack-Jack. Mummy can’t move her body anymore because she’s dead, too. Like this ladybird.’

‘Oh!’ he said again, this time stroking the bug’s back gently. ‘It’s beautiful, Daddy.’

‘Just like Mummy,’ I replied.

Within seconds he was playing with trains and laughing about something silly. I, on the other hand, had more grave things on my mind. It doesn’t matter how clear I am with him, I always worry about exactly how much of the information I pass on is processed by his infant mind.

‘Daddy!’ he whispered to me on Easter Sunday afternoon. ‘This bug is dead.’

I examined a centipede on the doormat he was pointing towards and showed Jackson that it was in fact still alive.

‘Can you see how his legs are still moving?’

‘Oh, yes,’ he replied. ‘When you die you can’t move your legs, Daddy.’ He froze and did his statue impression – something new and hysterical that he’s picked up from a party game, which sees him standing on one leg, wobbling, open-jawed and with eyes that look suspiciously full of motion for something that is supposed to be made of stone.

‘That’s right,’ I confirmed. ‘And can you remember who else has died?’

‘The ladybird and Mummy,’ he said before reprising his animate state and running round in circles to demonstrate how the living are still able to move.

Easter, I thought. How interesting that this is one of the only times of year when adults will comfortably talk to children about death. And yet what have we got to hide when it’s such an inevitable part of life?

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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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cover story

Last week I felt the sudden pang of an emotion that I haven’t experienced in a very long time: excitement. It took me entirely by surprise not least because it arose from such a painful place. During the twelve months since I launched this blog I have also been writing a book. While my blog posts tend to capture momentary or episodic observations about grief – and serve as extracts from a rather public diary – my book captures an entire year of live grief, documented as it happened, and set against a backdrop of the happy, fun and loving life that my little family enjoyed before its very linchpin was killed.

In some ways getting our story down on paper is the most emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever done; in others the most emotionally rewarding. Nothing else I could have done in response to my wife’s death would have forced me to chronicle the incredible pain of losing her the way that writing the book has. And yet, equally, nothing else would have enabled me to so enthusiastically detail the wonderful, joyful and often hilarious times we spent together over the course of the eight years since we first met.

In recording our lives, which I’ve done much for the future benefit of my son, I’ve cried many tears of both hurt and happiness. I was living through the hurt as I wrote, but I was also able to return to my old, happy life in the only way I now can – by recalling and capturing memories through words. And I would lose myself in these words, spendings days with my wife’s character – something that could never fail to put a smile on my face even through the often overwhelming grief.

As the book’s narrative focuses on the first year since losing Desreen, I finished writing it in November. I’ve since felt myself come crashing down to earth emotionally as my subconscious mind adapts to the fact that she really is gone; that for the past year her presence has been entirely mental rather than physical. Saying that I’ve been down since completing the book would be a huge understatement, so to feel this sudden emotional pull of excitement last week really shocked me.

‘Would you like to reveal the cover next week?’ my publisher asked. For the first time since embarking on this project it actually felt like I’d written a book. And while I had no ambitions to do so before tragedy struck my family, the personal nature of it all couldn’t fail to move me. When I look back at this book in future I don’t think that I will see it as something that I achieved, but rather something that my wife and child made happen. That, I believe, is why I felt such a strong physical response last week. I knew that it meant I could finally share something that I’ve lived with for over a year, which has touched me so deeply.

Ours is the story of a man and child who lost the woman we love and what happened in the year that followed. In it I describe the often conflicting emotions that come from facing grief head on and show the strange, surprising and cruel ways in which it can take hold. I express what it means to become the sole parent to a child who has lost his mother but cannot yet understand the meaning of death. But through the shock and sadness of our lives after the Desreen’s death shine moments of hope and, I’m told, humour. So much of what I’ve learned comes from watching our son, Jackson, struggle, survive and live – as children do – from moment to moment, where hurt can turn to happiness and anger can turn to joy.

The book’s title itself is a direct quote from Jackson; a moment of sheer pleasure, which suddenly broke my once seemingly unmovable grief. The story behind the book’s cover is much the same.

The cover to my book, which I shot in the garden where my wife used to play as a child

Taken on my iPhone just days before his christening (ten months after Desreen died), I captured a stunning moment with Jackson in his maternal grandparents’ back garden where Desreen played as a child. My mood was heavy that week not least because my wife’s absence in her own family home felt so acute. My father-in-law took charge of Jackson for a little while and introduced him to the concept of gardening. No sooner did my son have a hose pipe in his hand than I was soaked. I hadn’t seen him have so much fun in ages and it was in that moment that I realised that it is possible to be happy and heartbroken at the same time; that grief is nothing if not conflicted.

When I look at this picture I smile at the unadulterated joy on my son’s face. I feel a sense of Desreen’s own childhood touching our little boy’s. I imagine her spiritual presence in the sunshine that beams down upon him as he plays. I actually see her physical presence in his appearance; Jackson looks so much like his mummy. The image also helps me, once again, to understand how children can lighten the heaviness of the adult world by sharing the happiness of theirs. And that’s something that my son has done for me every single day since my wife died.

It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy is available to pre-order in hardback and ebook from today (see also www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1444754777).

The cover to my book, which I shot in the garden where my wife used to play as a child
I shot the book’s cover image in the garden where my wife used to play as a child
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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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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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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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grief expectations

In the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations the lead character, Pip, is introduced as a downtrodden orphan living with his abusive sister and her somewhat kinder husband. One day, when visiting the cemetery where his parents and siblings are buried, he encounters a shackled escaped convict who scares Pip into stealing food and a file to remove the chains. Cutting a very long story short, Pip goes on to live an unexpectedly enriched young life after he is promised a large sum of money, which he will receive some years later once he has become a gentlemen. First, however, he must leave his home in Kent for London where he will eventually achieve that status.

He puts this secret sponsorship down to a woman whom he thinks cares. She doesn’t – quite the opposite in fact. After being jilted at the altar, Miss Havisham makes it her life’s mission to reap revenge on men through her adopted daughter and ball-breaker-in-training, Estella. But still assuming Miss Havisham is behind his good fortune, Pip also concludes that she is preparing him to marry Estella and that, one day, he will also inherit her fortune.

Years later, however, the convict he helped, Magwitch, reveals himself to Pip as his benefactor, which rallies against all of his own expectations for his future. An unexpectedly privileged young life turns messy, complicated and dark as he becomes an man. Pip expects to secure his fortune at the end of his education but he also has expectations beyond it – he also assumes he’ll marry and then inherit an estate. Pip, perhaps, also feels some sense of shame and guilt for not living up to the expectations that he possibly should have placed of himself – not in becoming rich or successful – but in trying to be decent and do the right thing by those who have helped him along the way.

In summary, nothing is going Pip’s way. Then something changes, apparently for the better, and he begins to expect everything to go his way. It doesn’t and, naturally, that’s really rather disappointing for him.

Last Sunday I set out my grief expectations for the following week and in doing so I expected it to be tough. I’ve been writing a book about life (both before and since my wife was killed) since March this year. I’ve also been feeling really ill for the last couple of weeks, which has left me with little energy and no real enthusiasm to do anything. This week I needed to write around 10,000 words and then to start to edit what I’d written earlier on in the year. The writing actually worried me less than the editing because with that I knew I would need to revisit the toughest times that I have ever faced: my wife’s death, her funeral, telling my two-year-old son that she had died and the eventual aftermath of each. I expected this week’s grief to be debilitating and unbearable.

And so last Sunday, unlike Pip, I expected the worst. In editing the book this week I also found a line that reads:  At this point I took it upon myself to start expecting the worst and plan accordingly. That way disappointment was less likely to be the ultimate outcome. It seems that I have been approaching my recent life rather cynically. However, it turns out that I’ve had the closest thing to a great week that I’ve had in ages. Of course it hasn’t been without its low points but, on average, there have been more highs.

On Monday I decided that, once and for all, it was time to sort myself out because I’ve been feeling physically shit for far too long. This meant going on a similar detox to one that Des and I did over summer last year. Last time round it was like three weeks of food hell – we had to drink half of our meals and the majority of the ingredients were raw. By the end, however, we felt incredible. We were bouncing with energy and we both felt as positive as we could ever remember. This time round I’m doing it alone for a month but I’ve toned it down – I’m eating all the same ingredients, and I’m off the booze, but I’m cooking everything the way I like it. After just six days I already feel like a different person to the one I was last week. Taking some pressure off my system has helped take some pressure off my mind.

But it’s not just the detox that’s made me feel more positive. In feeling so utterly crap I was only able to see the downside to the writing. I was dreading something, which, when I took a step back, I realised I’d almost already finished. I suppose you could say that, unlike me, my metaphorical literary glass was more full than it was empty. But it wasn’t a sense of achievement that made me feel better either – it was the content of the book. It is, of course, often painful to read. If you’re reading this post then you already know that my wife was killed tragically in November, that I was widowed at 33 and that my son had already lost his mummy by the time he was two. And yet I was uplifted when I re-read the chapters because Desreen was right there. I’ve missed her so much and yet this week we have been reunited through words and amazing memories. I’d expected so many tears that I was willing to break one of the rules of this month’s healthy living plan by guzzling some Valium to keep me from plummeting back into grief’s abyss. But it turned out that I didn’t need to at all because this week I’ve actually smiled more than I’ve cried.

Desreen was hilarious; she did and said things that no one else would even think. She was mischievous and unpredictable. She was caring, loving, loyal, a brilliant girlfriend, a fantastic wife and the most amazing mum. I’m devastated to be writing about her death but I’m also so very proud to be writing about her life. And that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that I’m proud of anything I’ve done since she died.

So this has been a good week and, once again, it goes to show that you can place great expectations on grief, but, in my experience, it rarely behaves the way you might predict.

I'm devastated to be writing about my wife's death but I'm also proud to be writing about her life.
I’m devastated to be writing about my wife’s death but I’m also proud to be writing about her life.
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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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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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primal scream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My little warrior
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day off

Some mornings I wake up and wonder, ‘Should I have a day off from grief today?’. A whole day when I don’t analyse my loss, write about it or read anything about other people’s. In fact, as I sat in my favourite seat on the bus (OCD?) this morning, I thought just that.

I told myself to put on some music and catch up on the news after a whole weekend of blocking out all of the other terrible shit that’s going on out there to spend some extremely special and rewarding time with my son and our friends. But clearly it didn’t last long because here I go again…

But the fact I feel compelled to write this post highlights a point about my experience of grief. There are no days off. There’s no break. Sure, you can divert yourself or physically relocate to an environment that I might once have called ‘a holiday’, but attempting to totally escape it is a bit like going for a swim in the sea and trying to keep your hair completely dry. You get splashed. The current pulls at you even in the shallows and all of a sudden you’re on your arse panicked despite the fact that if you stood up, the water would only be up to your knees. Worst of all, however, is when you’ve built up your strength, you’re adamant that you’ll beat the elements and then a wave crashes into you and leaves you soaking and choking.

I’m really only sharing this thought because it’s the Tuesday after a bank holiday weekend and I’d been planning on writing a piece about what a consistently lovely weekend I’d had since Saturday. I got cocky. To soon was I victorious. I thought I was safe and dry. But then a little emotional tsunami struck.

“I want to go to the sky and see Mummy. I want to kiss Mummy.”

Drenched.

There’s more and there’s more to it too, but for now I’m simply hoping to establish a point about a potential situation that fills me with dread.

‘You need I get over it. You should move on.’

A magical switch that can turn off grief, which perhaps only those who have never experienced it are told about.

The fact is grief is a natural reaction to loss and is a natural process necessary for a person to come to terms with that loss. Perhaps you could imagine it as Mother Nature writing a non-pharmaceutical prescription for your soul. Despite it not being a drug it still behaves like a medicine and if you don’t see out the full course you’re unlikely to get better. And as with any natural remedies that aren’t dished out by doctors, there will always be naysayers and those who think that they know better when in fact they know nothing at all.

Sadly there appear to only be two ways to really understand grief. Listen or learn. In my experience truly learning comes with too high a price. Listening, however, is always free.

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dear mummy

dear mummy

Dear Mummy,

This shot was just days before we had to say goodbye. Daddy couldn’t wait to show you but sadly he never got the chance.

It’s been nearly six months now but I want you to know that I talk about you every day, I love you and I still don’t eat bananas or any other fruits. Yacky ‘nanas make great phones though and if I could call one person for a chat it would be you.

Love you forever, Mummy.

Your little Bo x

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progress review

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

In Jackson’s third post, he shares news of his latest nursery progress review – the first since his mummy died in November 2012. You can read his previous guest posts by clicking here and here. As usual he’s potty mouthed, not potty trained.

Dear Daddy,

I had my review at nursery yesterday. I got lots of feedback, which I’d like to take you through because I think some of it applies to you too. Mummy taught us both the importance of open and honest critique whether it’s in the home or the workplace. In fact, Daddy, Mummy also demonstrated how it’s possible to let anyone who we come into contact with know how they are getting on in their roles – that no one is too big nor too clever to be subject to an impromptu appraisal. That’s why I told that man in the off licence I didn’t like him the other day. Well I didn’t, Daddy! It’s his job to be nice to you, not mine to be nice to him. Mummy would have put him back in his crate too. Remember how she would always make you sweat with her complete lack of subtlety in dealing with frustrating bar, restaurant and shop staff, but then flash her beautiful big smile, politely thank them for pretending to see things from her unbending point of view and then leave with a handful of free sweets left on the cash desk for paying customers having not bought anything? I really miss that now, Daddy. Shopping just isn’t as much fun anymore.

So I’ve had my first progress review since Mummy died – the first since I moved to the big boys’ room too – and I’m sure you’ve been eager to know how I’m doing. Only deep down I think you already know. Thing is, Daddy, I’m not all that different to you and Mummy.

I could go on all day about what I get up to, who I play with, how my communication skills are coming on (like hello, have you seen my blog posts?), my social, personal and physical development, but we all know you should only really focus on ‘things to work on’ in a review. Everything else is just vanity and if you don’t know it all by now then there’s something really wrong.

Naturally you’re concerned about how I’ve responded to Mummy dying four months ago. You want to know if I’ve regressed, if I have difficulty in responding positively to the female staff, if I act differently at nursery to how I act at home. Well, Daddy, you can analyse things until the cows come home but I think we should measure my feedback against two criteria a) was I already like this before we lost Mummy and b) am I just really similar to the two of you?

So here are a few things that stuck out for me.

1. I sometimes get cross and want time alone

Don’t even go there, dude! This is you and Mummy all over so I don’t even want to hear you ask me if I’m okay. Just give me some space, yeah?

Mummy used to disappear into the bathroom for hours to get a break from everything and everyone. You sometimes disappear into your own head or retreat to your laptop when you’re sick of all the tea and small talk. BTW, that computer thing of yours is so boring when it’s not playing the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse! What do you see in it?

Nanny also told me that when Mummy was small she hated it when there were too many guests in the house and that she would often take herself off to her room. I know for a fact that you still do that same thing yourself now. You pretend to be on the phone and escape to your room when there are too many people round at ours. You might play the Mr Social role well but I know big gatherings make your teeth itch. So before you start on the whole ‘you need to try to be more sociable’ shit, take a long hard look in the mirror, boy. Sure, we’re all friendly and outgoing when we need to be, but what’s wrong with a little privacy and space now and again? You guys turned out okay and I’m not acting any differently to you. So review that one, Daddy!

2. I don’t like being told what to do

So this one’s simple. Just stop telling me what to do! I mean, if you even bring this up with me I’m gonna open a can of whoopass on you. It was Mummy’s least favourite thing in the whole wide world too. She hated rules. Well I’ll correct myself, she hated other people’s rules. She loved making them. Remember the family newsletters she’d create for you, me and Nanny that outlined her latest thoughts on how we could make things run more smoothly around the house? They were fun. I’ve never seen such a pretty dictator as Mummy before. They do all tend to have quite a good eye for style though. Name me one who didn’t put a lot of effort into defining their silhouette.

3. I don’t always allow people to look after me

Do you not think I’m old enough to look after myself or something? Well actually, of course you don’t, I’m two. But you haven’t got a leg to stand on with this one, Daddy. You’re the worst at it. I’ve seen you carrying a suitcase and three big bags whilst pushing my buggy uphill and still refuse help. I know it drives you crazy when people treat you like you’re ill at the moment. You hate it when people try to do the jobs you’re perfectly capable of doing yourself. You don’t want people to encroach on your independence any more than I do. So quit smothering me!

4. I’ll be more likely to participate in cooperative play from the age of three

Well that gives me another seven months to enjoy telling others to get out of my frickin’ space then. Just over half a year before someone starts saying there’s something wrong with me if I won’t participate in group activities. It looks like a long time on paper, but the four months since Mummy died have passed so quickly and I’ll be three before you know it.

Maybe this is one for you too though, Daddy. You’re 33 and I don’t see you participating in cooperative play right now. Perhaps you also need a little more time. That’s fine though, stay and hang out with me. I might not want to play with others yet, but you’re not others. You’re my peoples. You’re my brethren. You and I can just chill, fam. Let’s just put each other first and the rest will sort itself out, blud.

Oh yeah, and one last thing. Good review but no pay rise. They’re putting them off until after the audit. Same shit, different room, Daddy!

Love,

J-Bo x

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grief cycle

On 22nd December 2012, my son drew this picture on an envelope with a ballpoint pen.

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“What’s that, darling?” I asked.

“It Mummy”, he replied.

‘Then it’s a keeper’, I thought to myself.

One day soon we’ll put it in a frame and he’ll always know how she never left his mind in the weeks after she was killed.

It’ll be four months tomorrow since his mummy, my wife, was taken from us so suddenly. Two months ago I imagined that the passing of four months would have changed me more than it has. That time would bring peace and that my mind would sometimes distract itself from the denial, the loneliness, the reflection, the suffering and the shear disbelief that I would never see my wife again. I probably thought that I’d be working my way through a sequence of grief and that I’d be able to pinpoint where I was on the journey from denial to acceptance. But I can’t. And I can’t be expected too either, because that’s just not how grief is.

So when I woke up this morning I saw this picture in my head.

‘Yes’, I thought, ‘it depicts my son’s mummy if he says it does, but it also shows what was going on in his head at the time’.

And it’s what’s going on in mine right now as well.

Two and a half months after he committed his thoughts to paper, I’ve just realised that he’d handed me the most perceptive model of the grief cycle that I have seen to date. A random series of lines and circles with a total lack of structure and uniformity. Strokes that jump from here to there and then back again. A little open space that suddenly reaches a spaghetti junction that has never been mapped. A portrait that shows both beauty and pain. A course that, today more than any other time in the last four months, leaves me here unable to absorb our loss or accept that the person who should be lying next to me now will never lie next to me again.

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want mummy

For such a small chap, it seems strange to me that my son has become the elephant in the room. People seem comfortable checking how I am, but it’s often with much more marked pain that they inquire about him. The question that people (particularly mothers of small children) often want to ask but usually daren’t is, ‘Does he ask for her?’

Unlike most of my posts to date, this one will probably only work chronologically.

The night

Imagining it from a two-year-old boy’s point of view, the simple fact is this. When we left our house the day that Desreen died, my son was with both of his parents. When he returned home that night there was just Daddy. At some point during the evening Mummy had left without saying goodbye.

Once I’d been told she was dead and I’d given my statement, I had to wake my son up from sleeping in a strange bed to put him the kind of car he’d probably dreamed about getting in one day because it ‘says’, “Nee nor!” Except he didn’t look happy. He looked confused and exhausted. He’s a chatty little fellow usually but he simply sat in the car seat that the police had to drive across town to collect, with his head tilted towards mine, holding my hand while I told him that I loved him and that we’d be okay. I was high on shock at the time, so what the hell did I know about how we’d be?

When the night turned into morning

As if it’s not confusing enough for a two-year-old child to be driven home one parent down after midnight, our living room was full of people by 3am. Desreen’s best friends came over and we all sat and stared at one another not knowing what to do or say. I offered people drinks – water, tea or Hennessy was all I had. I opted for the Cognac because I thought that was what people did in times like this. Putting the kettle on just seemed too cliched, somehow. My son ate yoghurt and played with his trains, but he did both crossly. Eventually I took him to bed hoping that we’d both wake up relieved that we’d just eaten a bit too much cheese at our friends’ house that day.

When the morning turned into days

My son’s three favourite things in the world went missing during the chaos. His mother, his scooter and his Thomas the Tank Engine. While I set about recovering the two things that could be replaced, some other things showed up. Grown-ups. Lots of them. The house was packed. Grandparents, uncles, godparents, friends, neighbours. Everyone calling her ‘Desreen’ and not ‘mummy’. So he joined in. That was that. In a matter of days he’d gone from calling her ‘mummy’ to ‘Desreen’. It was like a dagger through my heart because I thought he was forgetting her.

When the days turned to weeks

Then something happened that brought me back to my senses. I put on a DVD, something like Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, a show he hadn’t watched in weeks whatever it was, and he knew all the characters’ names. So I realised that he couldn’t have forgotten the one person he idolised most, he was just copying the big people.

When the weeks turned into about a month

The single most painful thing I’ve felt as a bereaved husband so far was not for myself, it was for my wife. My son hadn’t asked for Desreen once in my company. I felt like she was being cheated. Like all the time and love she’d invested in him had disappeared in an instant. Sure, he’d stood at the front door and shouted her name when he thought she was coming in, but he hadn’t yet asked, ‘Where’s Mummy?’

When he finally did, he probably couldn’t have chosen a worse time. I was begging for it to happen. It wasn’t going to make me feel pain, it was going to bring relief. But he did it in front of a three men and the unprepared male doesn’t tend to be too great at this kind of thing. “Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy? Where’s Mummy gone? Where’s Mummy gone? Want Mummy. Want Mummy. Want Muuuuuummmmmmyyyyyy!”

He’d be storing it up and now he was using it all in one go, and the men present unanimously did that thing where you think if you can tense your shoulders hard enough, you won’t be in the room anymore. A kind of cross between an ostrich with its head in the sand and the nose wiggle from the US comedy Bewitched that made the characters disappear. The weight lifted off my shoulders and was transferred straight onto theirs. For me it meant I could finally tell him what had happened (see previous post here), but for them it meant they were sitting in the middle of the one situation that they’d dreaded the most and that they didn’t know how to deal with.

When the answers turn to questions

The impossible thing about grieving toddlers is that you can tell them what’s happened one day but they’ve forgotten the next. Actually, that’s probably inaccurate – it’s unlikely that they ever really understood in the first place. ‘Death’, ‘never’ and ‘ever’ are still alien concepts to them.

My son does this thing that I’ve always loved. When I take him to bed and cuddle up, I can ask him anything and he will agree with a silent nod. It’s probably the only time he’s quiet because he talks, sings and giggles all day and often does the same in his sleep. It’s definitely the only time he’s not contrary because he says, “No!” and “Not!”, to almost everything anyone says.

“Jackson, do you want some milk?” Silent nod. “Jackson, do you want a dummy? Silent nod. “Jackson, could you do a better job at fixing the economy that the current coalition government?” Silent nod. No end of fun for me.

However, it means that when I ask him if he understands what’s happened to Mummy at the one time of day when we really get to talk as man and boy undisturbed, he silent nods. I go to sleep at something like peace thinking he’s starting to take it in, but the next day I really can’t be sure if he’s going to ask where she’s gone again.

When the questions turn to statements

I may find myself amending this post in a day or a week depending on what my son does or says next, but it’s now two months since Desreen’s death and I don’t think he expects her to come back. He wants her to come back but I sense that the anticipation has gone. It’s impossible to know though and so I’ll repeat what I’ve said before – you simply have to go on your parental intuition and your understanding of your own child when that child is a still toddler as yet unable to fully express how they feel.

But to me there’s a big difference between, ‘Want Mummy’ and ‘Where’s Mummy?’. I can deliver on the question and, as far as I’m concerned, he can make the statement every day for the rest of his life without causing me any more pain than I already feel, because I do too.

I have since written an extended and updated version of these events for The Guardian. Click here to view.