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dream girl 

She walked ahead along an unfamiliar bridge over the Thames.

A building at its mouth bellowed thick black and grey smoke as a fire blazed inside.

The sun shone in its blue sky around us but right ahead was nothing but the choking colours and textures of storm and suffocation.

A distressed young couple inside tried to escape through an open window but were stopped by a caretaker whose final job would be to close shutters.

Care was taken away rather than administered; they would surely die through his implausible action.

She turned to me astonished at what she had just seen.

To my surprise she wore glasses, which was rare and endearing.

She seemed to have no knowledge of the many stories her face could tell through even the slightest change of expression.

So slim in that moment, she was almost nothing to hold.

A white vest top and long red skirt.

It was her but not her style.

This time her death wouldn’t be a surprise.

She was ill and we knew our time together would run out.

She walked ahead and then down some steps that must have been constructed centuries before.

I held her and wept, begging her to stay and seek help.

And then she was gone.

It was the first time I had seen her in as long as I could remember.

And eternally the last.

Until next time, perhaps.

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dreading things

Hangovers are a funny old business. In that moment when I’m about to down something that looks radioactive and tastes like it might kill me, I rarely think ahead to how bad I’ll feel the next day. And it doesn’t matter how many times I suffer, I never seem to learn from my mistakes.

There’s an anticipatory element of grief that puts me in mind of this same failure to absorb lessons from the past: there’s the dread of significant calendar dates that loom on the horizon, there’s the fear of doing things for the first time without the wife I’ve lost, there’s the anxiety I feel about stepping out of the safe environment I’ve built for my son and myself in our home, and there’s the issue of putting things off that I worry are going to make me feel worse than I already do. And yet when the dates, situations or milestones come around they somehow never seem to be as bad as I anticipated.

Perhaps it’s like the process of hangover in reverse: rather than using my energy to have fun, it is all taken up by feeling so bad; and instead of waking up feeling terrible the next day, I tend to find that the pain isn’t nearly as agonising as I expected. But still I never learn.

In November 2012, just after my wife was killed, I visited an undertaker with my father-in-law. He talked us through all of the options for an event that we never imagined we’d have to plan  a funeral for the woman I married just fourteen months before. Unchangeable decisions needed to be made quickly at a time when it was hard to commit to the simplest of things, like choosing between coffee and tea.

‘The headstone can wait,’ he told us. ‘The ground needs to settle for at least six months before we can do anything.’

One less thing to worry about, I thought. I was wrong. Sure, the stone could not be fixed immediately after the funeral, but I hadn’t realised quite how long it takes to have one made. Having misunderstood the timeframes mentioned, I waited seven or eight months after Desreen’s death before making any calls. ‘You’re looking at about a year for that kind of thing,’ was generally what I was told. It had to be perfect because I knew exactly how I wanted it to look, but I felt so dejected by the idea that it would take so long for me to do my wife justice.

I finally found a stonemason (click on this link to find an artist in your area) who I trusted to see the job through and he told me he could make it sooner than many others had suggested. And as impossible as it should be for me to say this, the end result is really quite beautiful. I suspect, if living people were this way inclined, Desreen would even have chosen it herself.

When I saw it for the first time this week, having dreaded the moment for months on end, I felt my shoulders drop with relief. For so long I’d imagined that somehow this eventual visit to the cemetery would floor me, that Desreen’s death would somehow feel more real and that it would be the point at which I broke. But instead I felt a great sense of alleviation. No longer would I have to watch the varnish on her cross-shaped wooden grave marker weather away more each time I visited. Never again would I have to see the rust that grew on the metal nameplate, which told visitors nothing of her short-lived existence. For the first time in that churchyard, her grave reminded of her beautiful life and not just her untimely death. 

As I walked away I reminded myself that, as inevitable as it may be, dread really serves little purpose. I questioned whether reminding myself of this in future might help me to overcome my own anxieties as they arise. I wondered whether the feelings I’d just felt might finally make me learn from my experiences of the past. And yet something told me that I’d still got a very long way to go. I’ve been telling my mates I don’t do shots since I was eighteen years old, but somehow, sixteen years on, I always mange to wake up with a mouth that tastes like Jägermeister the morning after the night before.

The cemetery where Desreen is buried
The cemetery where Desreen is buried
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smiley faces

I’ve felt a great degree of tension about how to best raise my son since my wife was killed. Immediately after her death I did my very best to act happy in front of Jackson during the day and then later retreat to my room to grieve honestly and alone. He was only two years old at the time but he was never daft; Jackson was aware of the change in me from the night his mum disappeared.

For months afterwards our relationship was challenging. When I felt at my lowest he was often at his most buoyant; when I felt okay his mood and behaviour clashed with mine and brought me back down. I think we both found it hard to deal with the fact that we weren’t always able to provide each other with a substantial enough dose of happiness to take away the pain of such intense grief. But I made a decision to be honest about my feelings with my son. I kept hearing stories about how children who had lost their mothers at an early age weren’t allowed to talk about them again in case they upset their fathers. I realised that I wanted to raise a child who understands that it’s okay to express his feelings, and that for me to hide mine would probably only end up demonising his.

Thankfully I am able to say that things have softened a little, lately. I suppose that through the struggles I’ve experienced in coming to terms with losing Desreen, the time I’ve taken off work, and my constant analysis of Jackson’s behaviour, I have probably become a better parent. I’m more patient, attentive and happy to admit when I’m the one in the wrong. It took me some time to realise that when he got the worst of me, I got the worst of him. Just today I noticed how much he retreated when I told him off for something that wasn’t really his fault (let’s just say he could have given me a little more warning before he did what he needed to do). I’m having a bad weekend because of a good night out on Friday – an all-too-frequent emotional response that hits me every time I try to enjoy myself, leaving me wondering whether I’d be better off boarding up my front door and living life as a hermit. When I saw Jackson’s reaction to my stern words – his back turned, his eyes refusing to meet mine, and his lips pouting deliberately and comedicaly – I knew it was time for me to apologise and when I did we were quickly friends again.

When Desreen was alive she often used to get asked what was wrong because she had a habit of contorting her face in such a manner that gave the impression that she was cross. I knew there was nothing the matter with her at all, but when people quizzed her about her mood it was then that she would get mad. ‘This is just my face!’ she would exclaim in a tone that only served to justify the enquirer’s concerns. Well I’ve thought of that face all weekend because of something that Jackson keeps saying to me.

‘What’s wrong, Jack-Jack?’ I’ve asked him several times as he has appeared to retreat from me. ‘Daddy’s not got a smiley face,’ he keeps replying, sadly.

And he’s right, Daddy’s not got a smiley face. But what’s a man supposed to do? I suppose I could ‘put on a brave face’. I guess I could ‘be strong’. Lying about how I feel is an option, too. I think there’s tension in all of the decisions we make about raising our children alone, just as there is evidently tension in my face. Perhaps in so conscientiously trying to build a happy life for my son and myself, Jackson notices more than most when his daddy seems sad. Maybe other kids say this to their parents all the time, too. It could be that I think too much and that if life hadn’t dealt me this hand I would dismiss his remarks as ‘funny’ or ‘cute’. But I suppose if I can take anything positive from his rather heartbreaking observation it would be that he’s not asking me why I am smiling. Thankfully he’s still familiar enough with that facial expression for it not to be his source of surprise, shock or even sorrow.

DSC_0289

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distant friends

I got a call from a friend on Friday who was phoning to let me know that an ex-colleague of ours had died. The last time I ever heard from her was when she wrote me a letter after my wife was killed in November 2012. By then her health had been suffering for a while but she still she took the time to get in touch and offer her condolences. She was a genuinely lovely woman: kind, warm, welcoming and really quite exceptionally good fun. Try as I might, I simply can’t summon a memory of her with anything other than a smile on her face; I just remember laughing every time we spoke. She had a memorable manner and it’s lovely to be able to recall a person who always seemed so upbeat.

I, on the other hand, have felt really low since finding out about her death. We didn’t know each other especially well, but over the years I’ve learned that you don’t always need to be very close to a loss to feel its impact. I think that sometimes the effect it has on a person has a lot more to do with their own state of mind at the time. Last night I realised that it was the empathy I feel for her husband and children that pains me most. Perhaps at a time like this, when someone we know dies, we should be grateful for what we have and keep those we love close, but I don’t think it’s always as easy as that. I’ve noticed that my mood has changed dramatically since Friday. I’ve been more reflective, introspective, irritable and short-tempered than I have been in some time. I’ve not been good company for my son at all. I haven’t wanted to play and I’ve been snappy at his slightest display of protest, which has made me every toddler’s idea of a complete waste of space.

In being touched by this slightly distant loss, it occurred to me that this is how I behaved for months (if not the best part of a year) after my wife, Desreen, died. Since finding out about this distant friend’s death, I haven’t just felt sad for the people I know must be suffering right now, but I’ve also felt bad for my son. Over the weekend I got a concentrated snapshot of what I must have been like to live with for so long after Desreen’s death. It made me feel so terrible to consciously witness what our little boy must have gone through in my company for all of that time.

I think it’s this sort of observation about how grief can be that makes it so complicated, perhaps especially socially. Over the years I have heard people imply that some don’t deserve to grieve a person’s death unless they knew them well in life, but it’s not always that straightforward. Sometimes a loss can awaken feelings that we thought we had put to bed; sometimes a death can breathe life into dormant feelings we didn’t even know we had buried somewhere deep down. Personally, I also find that many of the clichés that get rattled off at a time like this only serve to make me feel worse. No amount of ‘counting my lucky stars’ or attempting to ‘live every day as if it’s my last’ could stop from feeling the feelings I’m feeling right now. And that, I believe, is because human beings do not really control grief. Perhaps we can manage it, but so far I’ve found neither a switch to turn grief on or off, nor a dial to allow me to turn it up or down depending on how well I knew the person who has gone. There are too many personal factors involved for anyone else to be able to dictate how another individual should or shouldn’t feel when someone dies.

Today I’m just telling myself that I have to just go through every experience that comes my way, face it, feel it, try to learn from it and then continue to carry on the best I know how. I haven’t chosen to act like a miserable bugger since hearing that an old friend died last week and I would much rather not be grouchy around my son, but I tend to find it difficult to snap out of feelings that have completely taken over my mind. I think that if I had found a way to do that I might have stopped writing this blog the day after I started.

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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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smiling eyes

My publisher got in touch last week to ask me who they should credit for a head shot I provided some time ago when I was first invited to write my forthcoming book. I really couldn’t remember which photo I’d shared so I asked for it to be sent back to me. When I received it I saw a picture of myself from a year or two ago looking happy, healthy and young. It was tempting to just send the photographer’s name for the credit and have done with it. Yet something about it felt wrong. The book I’m writing has sprung from a blog called Life as a Widower. The picture was from my happy-go-lucky life as a husband, father and all round contented 32-year-old. I just couldn’t imagine the cheerful eyes in the picture looking back at the reader from the inside sleeve of a book about the death of my wife.

So last week the original shot’s photographer, Dolly Clew, offered to re-shoot my portrait. She totally understood my thinking and agreed that it was probably the right thing to do. Having only met her once for about ten minutes, I was really touched that she offered to help. I’d only been in her flat for about 15 minutes before she had my life story and I made myself laugh thinking about the poor counsellor who I saw for a couple of sessions soon after Desreen died – she can’t have known what to do with a man who was quite so ready to open up. But I’ve worked on a number of photo shoots for clients in the past and I know that they usually work best when the subject they’re shooting doesn’t feel too uncomfortable or self conscious and when there’s a bit of a rapport established.

Dolly usually shoots cage fighters. In fact, the first time we met, in a sterile and boxy office room in the West End, I asked her if she specialised in portraiture and she laughed. It turned out I had a little less testosterone and was wearing a touch more clothing than most of the guys she usually photographs. I even surprised myself with my own knowledge of mixed martial arts when I started talking about someone I suspected we both might know. I say ‘know’ but I really mean a friend of a friend’s brother who actually is a cage fighter. ‘Small world’, we agreed, both quite shocked – and there was the ice broken and the rapport established.

On Monday, however, I felt less comfortable than the time before: fidgety because I didn’t know how to stand, awkward because I didn’t know what to do with my face. Last time round we got the shot we needed for a company website in about five minutes. This time it took much longer. Dolly showed me some of the pictures she’d taken and I could see the problem immediately.

‘I look so unhappy’, I told her.

She pointed out that I needed to try to smile with my eyes and not just my mouth. She suggested that I think of something that could make me feel genuinely happy because that would shine through.

I’ve never really trusted people who don’t smile with their eyes. I have this thing about looking round a room after I’ve heard someone laugh to see if I can spot who the laughter came from once the sound has already faded. If everyone looks stony-faced I suspect someone was faking it. Jackson’s amazing at putting it on. I’ve got a video of him laughing at my friend and his son chatting on holiday but the fake chuckle dissolves from his face as quickly as it appeared. He just returns to eating his bowl of spaghetti with a scowl. Before Desreen died, his ability to fake it used to really make me laugh but now it worries me that I might never really know how he feels.

‘Are you okay, Jackson?’ I’ll ask.

‘Me?’ he asks back, even if there’s no one else in the room and as though I’m usually given to asking myself such a question. ‘Oh, I’m happy, Daddy’, he’ll say leaving me still wondering about how he really feels.

In the end I got my eyes to smile by thinking about my son. That morning he invited me to ‘play trains’ and I’d willingly joined in. Stupidly I touched James instead of Hank. Even more stupidly I took James on a little detour through a tunnel (one of the kitchen chairs) without His Royal Highness voicing the command.

‘NO DADDY!’ shouted Prince Jackson, ‘Be Hank. And don’t use that hand, use this one. And don’t go in the tunnel. And follow me. Not that way!’

‘Right that’s it’, I asserted, ‘I’m going on strike. You’re like some middle eastern dictator and I’m not taking any commands from you anymore. And don’t come near me either because this area around me is a picket line.’

He just looked at me like I was an idiot and turned his attention to dancing to the Arctic Monkeys new single, which was playing on the radio.

He’d given me a lot of new material to help make my eyes smile that day. And, during the shoot on Monday afternoon, I realised that he always does.

Benjamin Brooks-Dutton Head Shot Colour

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birthday beats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So just one more word of thanks from me.

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

Birthday beats courtesy of my ever affectionate two-year-old son
Birthday beats courtesy of my ever affectionate two-year-old son
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love reigns

Lost that bitter winter’s night,
Searching balmy summer days for you,
Beams of light from a sunset sky
Illuminate you in his radiant face.
Hope whispers tender words of warmth,
‘The light’s her kiss upon his cheek.’
Cold comfort makes me shiver,
‘Hope’s signs are not enough.’
Crashing thunder resounds your loss;
Silent lightening strikes my soul.
The winds of change blow fiercely,
Our landscape shattered beyond control.
This storm’s path cannot be stopped,
There’s nothing we can do.
There’s just one tempest we can power,
And so our love rains down on you.
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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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meaning it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the time my grandma passed away this week she had come to terms with her death. She had been suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung, which made breathing increasingly difficult. But in her last weeks she was well cared for and made as comfortable as possible in the incredible hospice where my mum has worked as a nurse for over 20 years.

Her whole family gathered around. Her children and grandchildren all visited with their respective partners, and her great-grandchildren with miniature works of art depicting the lovely lady they’d come to see.

We all had our chance to say ‘goodbye’. This is something I’d never experienced before but that, personally, I would choose every time over the alternative. Perhaps because I got to spend some really special time with her before she went. Perhaps also because I saw her comfortable, perky, laughing and pulling her charming, slighting gap-toothed smile, which she always asserted with such force that her nose would visibly move too. She told me she would never get the space in between her two front teeth fixed because it would remove all the personality from her face. She certainly made the right choice. She was personality personified.

There are thousands of wonderful things I could say about the woman who allowed me my first taste of gin and sneaked me a cheeky puff on a cigarette when I was much too young to know what to do with it, but I won’t turn this into a eulogy. Instead I wanted to share an observation about grief. That’s what this blog is about after all.

I knew my grandma was dying. I’ve had weeks to process this and to come to terms with how I thought I felt. But here’s the weird thing. I don’t feel how I thought I felt. I’d forgotten to heed my own words and I’d started to marginalise my own grief possibly because of my grandma’s age (87) and because she’d ‘had a good life’.

The fact is she had. She raised a wonderful family and I’ve never met a single person who didn’t fall for her amazing sense of fun, her warmness and her outstanding dress sense (there was never a time I saw her out of pearls and heals). But still, another woman we all loved did die and that means we all the have the right to feel the way we feel and grieve the way we grieve, regardless of the length or quality of her time on Earth.

Having thought I’d known how I’d feel – that the worst possible thing that could happen to my life had already happened and that nothing could ever break my heart so badly again – I suddenly saw things from a different angle. I put myself in my son’s little shoes.

The word ‘grandma’ conjures up an image for people but sometimes that picture doesn’t do these women justice. For Jackson, his grandmothers are now the key living maternal figures in his life. Desreen’s mum, Bev, is raising him every bit as much as I am. She’s completely indispensable to the two of us. We both need her and we both need my mum too. So this made me think about that day in the (hopefully distant) future that Jackson has to tell his friends that his grandma (my mum) or his nanny (Dessie’s mum) has gone. Sure enough someone will inevitably offer him a platitude about their ‘innings’, but that won’t be a day when Jackson feels like he’s lost a grandmother. It’ll be a day when he really understands what it’s like to lose the closest thing he’s had to a living mum since he just turned two.

And that’s why I don’t believe in making assumptions about how bereaved people, young or old, should feel or cope with loss.

And that in turn is why I’ll continue to write what I write and support those who support others through grief.

Dessie and Grandma, Christmas 2011
Dessie and Grandma, Christmas 2011
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grief encounter

My mind is racing this morning as it has been all through the night. My head is so full of thoughts that I can barely decide how to commit them to the keyboard I’m typing on.

Last night I attended an event that I’m positive I’ll never forget. Four friends joined me at a comedy night organised by Grief Encounter, an incredible charity that helps bereaved children through the confusion and pain of grief. I imagine there are those who might feel that there’s a tension in such an organisation trying to make people laugh. But not me. I understood just how powerful a proposition it was as soon as I took to the stage.

Naturally I wasn’t there to tell jokes. I was invited there to introduce a film that I made with the wonderful and inspiring people behind the charity. The film would briefly interrupt the humour to challenge the audience to think about how grief can affect any child who has lost (or one day may lose) a parent or sibling. And the result was palpable. The room, so full of laughter all evening, fell absolutely silent. The contrast of light and shade made the message feel stronger and more powerful than it might if the whole night had been serious. The laughter turned to tears and the tears turned into a colossal sum of money raised to support kids through what is likely to be the most difficult time of their lives.

But the reason my mind is racing is because in amongst the acts, I met a family whose life has been turned upside down over and over again by a cruel tragedy that befell them some ten years ago. I was sitting next to the parents and brother of the murdered Soham school girl, Holly Wells. Her father Kevin and I chatted and we found common ground in our approach to accepting that our grief will be with us for life, but still trying to plan a positive future for ourselves and our families.

As he put it so eloquently earlier this year, “Time doesn’t heal, someone got that wrong. It anaesthetises. Grief does not diminish, but you can manage the intensity and learn to live with it. Murder has the capacity to destroy more lives than the one taken. I recognised that from the start, so I tried to take control, to make plans and to exert positive thought.”

A rather inspiring attitude from a man who could so easily have gone under facing the gravity of the situation that struck his family.

Yet it wasn’t until later this morning that I could finally put my finger on what exactly was racing around my head. I realised that I was thinking about Holly’s brother, Oliver. Now 22, he was just 12 when his ten-year-old sister and her friend Jessica Chapman were murdered by their school care taker.

How does a 12-year-old boy get his head around that?

Isn’t a part of him destroyed too as his childhood is taken in the blink of an eye?

How does he learn to trust such an apparently devastatingly cruel world once more?

And that’s why I was there last night. To help make people think about how grief affects our children. To encourage people not to take the ‘they’ll be fine’ or the ‘they’re too young to understand’ approach. And to explain that there are services out there that can support bereaved children and help them to alleviate the pain caused by the death of someone close.

As I entered the building I was already convinced. I think the audience left convinced too. And when I walked out the building late last night I was more convinced than ever.

Bereaved children need to be shown compassion and offered support. Please take the time to watch this film and perhaps even contribute to the charity if you can. This wasn’t an easy film to make, it may not be an easy film to watch, but the message is so important. Thanks for taking the time.

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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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engaging memories

I’m sitting in the spot in Regent’s Park where Desreen and I got engaged four years ago this week. It’s a day much like that one. Warm but overcast. Close. The creatures are behaving much the same as they did that day too. Spring has sprung and the park’s geese are overzealously backing the dogs back off their offspring. I’m smiling as they try to defend their territory, wondering what the hell I was thinking bringing Desreen, the world’s greatest hater of all creatures great and small, to this spot for that special moment.

Only two things are of notable difference.  There are no overconfident Camden squirrels attempting to steal my lunch. And I’m alone.

Still, something has drawn me here today. I’ve known I had to come all week. I’d decided to pop the question here because I wanted to keep our memories close. I’ve never thought that the best times are always the ones from home. Now I’m so grateful that I made that decision because I can come back to this spot whenever I wish.

It’s the first time though. We never came back as a couple. I guess we were too busy making new memories to always concentrate on the past. In grief there are those who will tell you to do the same. To move on and concentrate on the future. But today I need to look back. I need to connect with my wife again. Although somehow sitting here lamenting over a bottle fizzy water isn’t having quite the same effect as beaming over a glass fizzy wine. Yet the sparkle’s still there.

Perhaps there comes a moment of realisation that memories are all you really ever have of a person who you’ve loved and lost. So I guess I have to take comfort in the fact that we were always so adept at making those.

Desreen on 20th June 2009, the day we got engaged
Desreen on 20th June 2009, the day we got engaged
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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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hay griever

Sometimes reactions speak louder than words. Well this last week I’ve tried to verbalise what’s wrong but it’s been my eyes rather than my mouth that have done all the talking. I’ve barely stopped crying for six days. I’ve been constantly lachrymose. I’ve thanked the heavens for the good weather because it’s allowed me to wear sunglasses without looking too pretentious. I’ve been grateful of the allergy season because I’ve been able to pretend that the constant trickle from my left eye has been caused by hay fever. But the truth is I’ve simply been incessantly sad. Even when I’ve been happy. In fact perhaps especially when I’ve been happy.

And I’ve had plenty of reasons to smile. A wedding, an engagement, a christening, a trip to Thomas Land, a birthday party, time with friends, sunshine. Each has lifted my spirits, yet my overriding feeling has been of sadness. It just hasn’t left me.

But the tears haven’t felt like the result of an emotion, more like an ailment. Something constant and persistent that needs no trigger to begin. And the fact that I haven’t really broken down, sobbed dramatically or felt any real intensity of feeling possibly tells me everything I need to know. Maybe I’m coming to terms with what’s happened. Perhaps this is how acceptance feels.

I haven’t really felt the heavy burden of witnessing a tragedy. I’ve not felt the upset of instinctively turning to my wife to talk to her only to remember she’s no longer there. The stabbing pains of grief have (perhaps just temporarily) wounded me with less shock and surprise. But the huge range of associated emotions have channeled themselves into just one.

Melancholy.

A sad, gloomy and contradictory state that somehow manages to overwhelm me even when I have a smile on my face.

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losing zoë

This is a guest post by Walter and Dorothy Schwarz

This story is exceptionally close to my heart. It’s about the suicide of a girl who I never met, which in itself is tragic as she’s the sister of a guy who has since become one of my best friends. That guy is Zac Schwarz. He was there with me the moment I witnessed my wife die seven months ago next week. His wife Laura was there too. She had also lost her dad in a car crash some years before. “How can this be happening again?”, I heard her cry. I sometimes wonder how so much tragedy has found its way to such a small group of friends. But on the other hand I’ve come to understand that people who have felt the full force of grief can be spectacular at helping one another through it.

Zac’s mum, Dorothy, wrote to me soon after Desreen died and sent me a book that would help inspire me to start writing about my grief. Here she and her husband reflect on the death of their daughter, Zoë Schwarz.  Zoë was a beautiful, intelligent, vivacious and charismatic young woman. And she suffered from manic depression. At the age of 27, after five months of deep despair, Zoë threw herself under an express train. Could her suicide have been avoided? Would her family have acted differently if they’d known that one in five people with this illness kill themselves? Walter and Dorothy Schwarz reflect on the death of their daughter.

This is a quite a long guest post but I urge you to read it because the message is so important and as a piece of writing it is quite simply outstanding. Most of you won’t have known Zoë, but you probably will know that Stephen Fry this week revealed that he attempted suicide in 2012. It may make it more real for you to know that such a familiar and charismatic personality has the same condition as my friend’s sister.

One in five people with manic depression eventually commits suicide. When Zoë did, we were not aware of that statistic, though we ought to have been. She had been ill for five months – first manic, then depressed. Her psychiatrist probably knew about the suicide rate, and he, too, might have acted more aggressively to prevent it.

It is true that at 27, our youngest daughter was an adult and she chose to die. “I love you all but I can’t live like this,” she wrote, sitting in her car at a railway station in Essex, before throwing herself under an express train. But if she had lived, we believe that she could have found a way of coping with her treatable but incurable illness, as others have done with the help of antidepressants and therapy. 

Two and a half years later, our grief has grown scar tissue but remains infected with guilt and shame. Something waiting to happen was not prevented. Why? Perhaps the story of Zoë’s death could help others.

Bipolar affective disorder, as the ancient illness is now called, has been associated down the ages with originality and charisma, often with genius: Byron, Coleridge, Melville, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Strindberg, Spike Milligan, Louis Althusser, Otto Klemperer, Stephen Fry, Vivien Leigh, Kurt Cobain, Francis Ford Coppola…

The illness is now regarded as a genetic neurobiological brain disease that affects one in 100 people to some degree. Its victims swing inexorably, according to the manic depression website, between “increased energy, restlessness, racing thoughts, rapid talking, excessive or euphoric feelings, extreme irritability and distractability” and “a persistent, sad, anxious, or empty mood, feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, worthlessness”. Our mistake with Zoë was our refusal to see her eccentric behaviour as a symptom of mental illness – not just the familiar neuroticism of middle-class professional families. We had plenty of excuses because parents are required, above all else, to believe in their offspring. And Zoë had emerged triumphantly “cured” from an earlier bipolar episode when she was 18.

It had begun following a bout of glandular fever, just before her first term at Bristol University. She ascribed her altered mental states to a chemical imbalance. At Bristol she was wild, bizarre, promiscuous and aggressive: she was sent down. The depression which followed ended in her taking an overdose. We saved her – that time.

With a minimum of drugs and two years of counselling, she considered that she was “cured”. She went back to college, achieved an MSc with distinction, and told us: “I’ve been to the bottom. I’m strong.” We believed her. We blotted out the nightmare episode.

Throughout her 20s, Zoë’s behaviour was mercurial – too many boyfriends, too much pot – but it always seemed on this side of acceptable. She did a pioneering job with United Response, a major charity, where her intelligence, charm and energy brought in more customers and money than anyone expected. “A sparkly, beautiful, vivacious woman with a keen sense of humour and a rare ability to engage with everyone she met,” her boss wrote after Zoë’s death. She was charismatic, compassionate, full of laughter and love. True, she also had a famously filthy temper.

Even when, as we know in retrospect, she was becoming manic again – her plans for her future became irrational and her outbursts of temper became physically violent – she willed us to believe in her. She brainwashed us. “Zoë is Zoë,” we said, and so did her two brothers and two sisters and her many friends. If we questioned her, let alone criticised, she would march out and slam the door. The glass panel in our kitchen door still has a crack.

So, brainwashed, we didn’t think of manic depression when she punched her elder sister in a quarrel (Zoë was very strong) and, in another quarrel, bit through her younger brother’s sweater and into his chest. Or when she almost killed her mother and best friend by crashing into a barrier on a motorway at 85mph in heavy rain. Zoë is Zoë.

She began smoking pot as more than a recreational drug, and we later found from her diaries that she was taking cocaine as well, even while trying to build up a business of her own. A desperate attempt, we now believe, at self-medication. When her life began to disintegrate, she refused the offer of a job and went to Morocco for an indefinite stay.

“Over the top” was how we all described her emails – deliriously happy in Morocco with a lover she planned to marry. “To the best parents, best brothers and sisters in the world,” she wrote, inviting us for a holiday, which she lovingly planned in meticulous detail.

Almost as soon as we arrived at Essaouira, she turned against us. In high mania, anyone who potentially brings you down is an enemy – and who is more back-to-earth than mum and dad? She acted crazy, haranguing the entire hotel with an exalted spirituality mingled with obscene abuse, until the hotel manager gave us a choice – the police or the hospital. The local psychiatrist asked the obvious question: has she been like this before? Of course. Of course. No more denial.

We had to sign a section committing our daughter to the secure mental hospital in Marrakesh. There, they treated her (we checked it out) in exactly the same way they would have done anywhere else, with the same drugs to bring her “down”. With help from the British consul, we got her home after only 12 days in hospital.

Ten days later, the depression we now expected set in, worsening by the week until Zoë became a hollow, silent woman. Again, the drugs to bring her “up” were routine, the ones they use everywhere. A hospital not far from our home has a state-of-the-art mental-health unit and the specialist in charge visited Zoë at home once a week. She liked him. 

As the weeks passed, her depression refused to lift. She sat around all day. The drugs were changed twice without effect. We believed, as many friends and relatives told us, that she would “come out of it in her own time, when she’s ready”. We cannot now forgive ourselves for reacting, during some of that time, like normal parents when their unsmiling child is surly and irritable.

After her death, we found cardboard boxes of her diaries, cards, letters, memorabilia and photos. A bedroom full of clues. In the final depression, she wrote little. One page in tiny writing: ” …a terrifying place… very difficult to describe, which makes it harder for others to understand. The stigma is hard, too. It’s hard to imagine being out of it… you feel you’ve gone mad even when you’re lucid. Don’t know what to do with myself. What to think? Where to start? Cannot envisage improvement in the future. Everything is quite frightening.”

Once or twice she tried desperately to break free, applied for a job, bought clothes, went for an interview. But it was hopeless: she had lost all her spark and confidence. Nothing could shake her despair. The psychiatrist had advised us to leave her alone but we wish that we had hugged her more often, even when she exasperated us. Asked how she was, she answered in monosyllables: “The same.” Many times we preached to her a gospel of hope which seemed only to accentuate her hopelessness.

There was talk of admitting Zoë into the ward but she hated the idea and would surely have walked out unless she had been sectioned, and nobody wanted that. There was talk of electro-shock treatment, which we discouraged, haunted by memories of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In August, the psychiatrist took his annual three-week holiday. He assured us that Zoë would be well looked after. But in his absence she hardly spoke to anyone and was under the supervision of a junior psychiatrist her own age. When the specialist returned, on August 21 2000, he called a conference for the next day to start the “new strategy”. Zoë was to be admitted as an inpatient on August 23.

On August 22 at 11am, Zoë told her mother that she was going to visit a friend. We had repaired her old car, which she had neglected, to give her some independence. Her real destination was a station on the line from Colchester.

Zoë had told her mother a month earlier that suicide was “not an option”. Once again, we were conniving with her – once more in denial. You cannot accept – it makes no sense – that a young woman who is clever, beautiful, talented, loved and witty should be in such pain and despair that she would end her own life. Because of patient confidentiality, we were not told what she said to the specialist but she apparently gave him the same assurance.

We decided that if Zoë was not home by 8pm we would call the police. At 7.45 the police arrived. Her suicide note was on the dashboard. “To my family and friends. No one is to blame for my death. I love you all but I can’t live like this. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I used to work and see friends a lot, but now I can do neither because I can’t function or communicate. I’ve been in hell for four months and I can’t bear the pain any more. Zoë. 

In her depression she had only read one book, which we had given her: Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, the inspiring story of the author’s struggle with manic depression until she became, with the aid of the drug lithium, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.

Zoë gave us back the book and said crossly: “There you are, you never get over it.” She had given us a clue to her coming suicide which we hadn’t recognised. Afterwards, her best friend said: “It was her pride which killed her.” Her siblings and friends were all forging ahead in careers and loves. Zoë knew that, in time, she could have lived an acceptable life. But she rejected the prospect of living under the shadow of lonely horror. She did not want a life with lithium.

Zoë Schwarz: "I'm living behind a glass wall"
Zoë Schwarz: “I’m living behind a glass wall”

She struggled throughout her last depression and repeated: “I’m living behind a glass wall.” She contemplated a future on medication. In her last diary entry, she wrote: ” …if I don’t get better, I will most probably have to accept a more humble job and more humble living arrangements than I would like. But make the most of things: I can work my way up… have to accept that at 27 I am not ‘set up’ job/house/relationship-wise. My friends will not reject me if I don’t reject me. The challenge is to be happy and true to my nature, through deep self-esteem because I don’t have any strength at the moment and may not have for a long time, if ever.”

Neither she nor any of us could give her that strength. So she took the wrong decision. Looking back on her own life and career, Jamison writes that she would rather have had manic depression than not, because the highs were worth the lows. Zoë, too, must have owed something of her joie de vivre, compassion and dynamism to her highs. She lit up a room when she entered.

Two days after her death, 40 friends and relations came to sit round a bonfire on the lawn. They told tearful stories that we had never heard before, of how Zoë had helped, inspired and empowered timid people, especially the young. What if she herself had had better care and attention, if she had not felt so alone?

Her death deeply shocked the staff at the mental health centre and they held an inquiry. We were not allowed to see the report but told its highlights informally: it called for a better anti-suicide strategy; parents who were also the carers must be given more support and told more of what passed between patient and doctor, in spite of patient confidentiality. We hope it also recommended that psychiatrists should not go on holiday, leaving at-risk patients without equivalent care, and that more attention should be paid to an outpatient’s ability to plan suicide while pretending that suicide is not an option. 

For ourselves, we conclude that parents, siblings and friends of bipolars need, before the crisis overwhelms everyone, to see it coming and find a way to persuade the patient to seek treatment instead of smoking pot from breakfast to bedtime. Zoë had tried to cope on her own, too proud to confide in her closest friends and family.

And then, when the crisis happens, family and friends should not kid themselves that “she’ll come out of it when she chooses”. Zoë had tried but failed to overcome her despair and that left her, she thought, no choice. Could anyone have convinced her otherwise? We will never know. If only, while she was such a bundle of morosity and self-absorption, we had kissed her more often. 

Samaritans helpline: 08457 90 90 90

Through sharing this story I am hoping we can raise some money for The Zoë Sarojini Education Trust, which was founded in 2010 by Zoë’s family and close friends in her memory to celebrate her love of life and generosity of spirit. The trust’s purpose is to help African children, particularly girls, living in poverty to go to school. It enables donors, singly or in small groups, to fund the education of individual youngsters. You can learn more about the trust at http://www.zoetrust.org.

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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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treasured memories

This is a guest post by Sally Fenton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sun was shining on us today. I woke up feeling okay and decided it was time to get out and play. Being ill for a fortnight has not only made me feel like shit, it’s also made me feel like a terrible father. Little energy and being in pain has made me poor company for a toddler. So today was all about making sure my son had fun.

Seeing his face when he discovered the joy of not just a bouncy castle but also a bouncy slide made up for two miserable weeks in two seconds. Yet just moments after a smile stretched across my face I felt a tear well up in my eye. Sadness that my eyes could see his pleasure whilst my wife’s remained closed.

My son’s smile was there to stay though and as I watched him play I thought about how innocence breeds contentment. Unlike me, he’s living in the moment so when he’s having a nice time, why would he do anything other than laugh and smile? What could possibly make a person cry when there was sunshine, swings, slides, scooters and soft scoop ice cream?

Well from my adult point of view there are a few answers.

Understanding: knowing that we’re definitely not going to see Desreen again; comprehension of the concept of death; grasping the words ever and never. 

Preoccupation: never being able to escape our loss; going over that night in my head; thinking about where she is now; worrying about where we’ll be in the future.

Isolation: feeling lonely all the time; never feeling truly fulfilled in company or alone; detachment from every social scenario I find myself in.

Guilt: feeling constant regret that my son is missing out on his mother and that his mother is missing out on her son; feeling ashamed when I suddenly realise that I don’t want to be sad forever.

Perhaps it’s that conflict of emotions that makes grief so powerful. You can have fun building a castle but you know that the sand is going to get in your eyes. You can feel your heart melt when your child offers you a bit of his ice cream but you know it’s going to hurt your teeth. And you can soak in the sun and urge yourself to stop thinking about the rain clouds in the distance, but you know you’re bound to get soaked if you dare to leave home without an umbrella.

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six months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not angry enough.

I’m too positive.

I’m just out for myself.

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

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

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

It feels like sadness.

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

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

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

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

It feels empty.

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

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

It feels endless.

Endless because I know I’ll never be healed.

Endless because I’ll never see her again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It feels like disbelief.

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

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

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

It feels lonely.

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

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

Lonely because intimacy has gone.

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

It feels disappointing.

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

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

It feels shared.

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

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

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

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

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

It feels hopeful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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