These Widow's Shoes


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Squashed snails and dead flies

Being a novice parent I had mistakenly assumed that my first conversation about death with Saskia would be about Ben. Yesterday I discovered that in fact her first lessons on death would be in the garden: the squashed snail I’d accidentally trodden on (Oops! Luckily she didn’t realise that I was the culprit), the fly that wasn’t buzzing but looking distinctly like a raisin (“Don’t eat it Saskia!”) with its legs in the air, and even the dead flowers that she’s helped me to prune – all required explanations about dying and death.

Now it seems so obvious that this would be how she first encountered death (in a context that she can comprehend at least). So far we haven’t gone further than me saying that an animal or flower has died, with her listening, processing and sometimes repeating the words, but I guess it means the ‘conversation’ has begun, and so has Saskia’s journey of understanding.

Nature seems an obvious place to start. As adults we tend to talk about death in abstract ways – of the spirit, of memories, of peace – but Saskia’s world is concrete, it concerns the here and now, what she can see, feel, do, say. At the moment she cannot frame questions – but I would guess that as soon as she can, in 6 months or so maybe, she’ll want to know where Daddy is. We won’t be able to talk about the abstract concepts that we use with older children or adults to talk about death, so nature seems a good place to start. Maybe not squashed snails (a bit brutal!), but just ordinary life and death, growing old or getting sick, as it happens in the garden every day.


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Saskia and Daddy #1

I’m hoping to write quite a lot about Saskia in this blog – to explore and document her journey as toddler/young girl, as well as mine as her parent, as she grows in understanding of what happened to her Daddy and what this means to her.

I am sometimes asked how she has coped with what has happened – the answer has always been that she seems absolutely fine. She was just fourteen months old when Ben died – too young to have any understanding of illness or death. The trips to the hospital every day were just more curious adventures in a life where curious adventure is routine. Daddy was in bed and couldn’t play with her – but this had already been the norm for a while and she was used to it.

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Innocence and Experience

On the morning Ben died I asked my mum-in-law (who had been looking after Sas while I stayed at the hospice) to arrange for one of my friends to pick her up and take her for the day. I assumed she wouldn’t bring her into the hospice and I was shocked when I saw Saskia coming into the room where Ben was. I panicked for a moment – “she shouldn’t see Ben like this” – but something my mum-in-law said (I really don’t remember what it was now – maybe just ‘It’ll be ok’) made me stand aside and let Sas in. She seemed oblivious to the anguish around her – she still got lots of smiles and cuddles, and she just thought Daddy was asleep I guess. She was only there for a little while before my friend arrived to take her back to hers for the day, but I’m glad now that she was there with us. It didn’t mean anything to her at the time but I suspect it will be deeply important to her in future as she comes to terms with it. I feel the same about the fact that she came to the funeral too, even playing a part when she ran up to the front during my speech and then sat in my arms as I finished it.

Life since January has been packed with wonderful times for Saskia. She has seen friends or family practically every day and gone to animal parks, swimming pools, parties and play dates, been camping, been on a trip to America. She has an amazing life, and she enjoys every minute – she seems to be a happy soul by nature.

Of course I’ve watched closely to see how she has reacted to Daddy no longer being here. On the night of 3rd January (the day Ben died), we both spent the first night back at our house for a few weeks. For months previously the bedtime ritual had included a trip into our bedroom to say goodnight to Daddy, but this night I walked straight past the room and into her room. I think she looked expectantly towards our door but otherwise didn’t say anything. I got her dressed, we read some books and then I went to put her down to sleep in her cot. Suddenly she was pointing towards her door (which faces our bedroom door) agitatedly saying ‘Daddy, Daddy’. I had no idea what to do so I think I just said goodnight and left the room – she must have been sleepy as she was soon fast asleep.

I came downstairs and relayed the situation to my parents and in-laws who were spending the evening with me. I think it was my mum-in-law who recalled an interview on Radio 4 that she’d heard just a short while before in which a young woman talked of her father who had died when she was too young to remember. Despite this she felt she had known him all her life and he had played a major part in it, to the extent that she asked herself what he would do when she had to make important decisions. The young woman felt this was because she had grown up around people who talked about him constantly. This story made such a lot of sense and has stayed with me since, inspiring me to keep Ben alive in our household by talking about him as much as I can. From that night onwards the evening ritual included a trip into our bedroom to look at the photos of Ben from our wedding and say goodnight to him. More recently we have photos in her room¬† so now we look at those.¬† She has accepted this change so easily (she’s still so innocent I suppose), which is a blessing, but also very sad.

There was just one incident when I wondered if she’d begun to understand. She’d sat down to watch a new DVD – ‘The Hungry Caterpillar and Other Stories’. A story about a little girl who wanted the moon and asked her father to get it for her had just started when I wondered off into the kitchen. A little while later Saskia came running to me, really upset, shouting ‘Daddy gone!’. For a moment I froze on the spot, my heart in my mouth, then I went back to the TV with her and cuddled her while watching the father come back from the sky with the moon for his daughter. Sas was too young to talk about her feelings (still is) so I had no idea whether it was just the story that had frightened her or something more. It certainly cut through me – I needed that cuddle as much as she did.

These days it’s hard to know exactly what ‘Daddy’ means to Sas. She knows who her Daddy is – the one in the pictures, that maybe (I hope) she still has memories of. And she knows other people’s daddies, and daddies in stories. When she plays ‘families’ with her toys, there’s usually a daddy there too. I am so curious to know what is in her head. I guess soon enough she’ll be able to tell me, and that’s when the real challenges of trying to explain where Daddy has gone will start. I think about this a lot and play out the conversation in my mind as I imagine it might happen. But I know she’ll probably come from left field, when I’m least expecting it, and I’ll be lost for words and make a hash of it. There will be much more to write on this theme…


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Widow’s decorum

Last night I succumbed to ‘widow’s decorum’ – well, not quite, but it certainly got its neatly-trimmed claws into me.

My friend put up a Facebook comment about the show Luther and I immediately typed a reply: ‘I’ve lusted after Idris Elba since Stringer Bell in The Wire – PHWOARRR!’ – but then I stopped. “I can’t send this!” I thought, “It will sound like I’m being disrespectful to my dead husband!”. My finger was paused over the send button for ages, going back and forth in my mind between ‘no one would really think that’ and ‘but what if they did?!’. In the end I added an extra bit in brackets, excusing my brazen comment with the reassurance to readers (who were probably non-existent as it was midnight by this point), that this would be ok with Ben as ‘celebrity lusting’ was accepted in our relationship – Idris Elba was my latest, his had been Jennifer Connelly for some years, though Joss Stone had also starred at some point.

While I really rather liked this incidental little reminiscence about us, I was annoyed that I’d felt the need to excuse myself. If Ben was here he wouldn’t have minded – he would have probably added some sparkly little witticism of his own about Ms Connelly – but because he’s died, I feel I have to act differently, with dignified respect at all times.

I am a terrible worrier about what people think. Ben was the king of not giving a crap. I really should be more like him on this one I think. Sod widow’s decorum.


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A long time grieving

In many ways my grieving process began a long time before Ben died. I suppose it probably began when he first got the terminal prognosis back in February 2012, almost a year earlier.

Throughout Ben’s last year (well, ten and a half months if being exact), I blocked my mind off from the possibility of Ben dying. I accepted the facts begrudgingly, but never dwelt on them. I think there was a naivety in there somewhere – not having experienced death close up, to someone young or someone I cared deeply about, it seemed impossible to imagine it really happening.

Despite my sanguine approach to it all, the reality was that Ben was changing. The mental and physical affects of the prognosis, disease and treatments were gradually stripping away his old self. He wrote about this in an extremely moving blog post called ‘Dark Days‘: six months after his ‘it’s terminal’ appointment, he described how his battle with melanoma had cost him his independence, his identity, his energy and mobility, his confidence and his relationships, not least with our then one year old daughter.

I remember my counsellor describing this as Ben ‘grieving’ for his own life. I thought it was an odd way to look at it – but now I see what she meant, and it has made me realise that I too had much to grieve during that time.

I didn’t lose Ben all at once on 3rd January. I had been losing him for a long time before that. Happily the real essence of Ben – his love, kindness, intelligence and humour – never left him and so I still had my husband and we could still love each other even to the end. But I had lost so much of the Ben I’d had before.

I lost my co-parent. Right from the beginning when Ben was suffering with back pain, he was unable to cope with the physical demands of nappy changing, lifting, getting down on the floor to play. I encouraged him to do other things, like the bedtime stories, but he was reluctant – looking back I see how painful it was for him to share such tender moments with Sas. In the earlier days he did spend some bedtimes with us, just sitting in the room if he didn’t feel up to reading. He often got tearful. Looking back it seems he gradually withdrew from all the parenting – partly because he physically couldn’t manage, but perhaps also to protect himself from the hurt. So so sad. Not to say he had no involvement with her – there were still happy moments together the three of us, and when Saskia was crying at night there was someone there for moral support and a second opinion – but these occasions became few and far between.

So whereas in Saskia’s first six months we shared the parenting – it was an exciting new adventure we were embarking on together – after that I effectively became a single parent. Much of the time I just got on with it and accepted that that was just the way things were for the time being, but sometimes it was hard. The worst was weekends, when my friends (mostly other mums) were spending family time with their husbands. I felt I couldn’t intrude on their time together so hung back from suggesting get togethers and so found it was just Sas and I all weekend – lovely for a while but I soon got lonely without adult conversation.

I’m not looking for sympathy about this – Ben was having a MUCH harder, and lonelier time. This is just to explain how I had to get used to the life of a single parent long before I actually became one.

I also lost Ben my companion in fun – we used to love cycling, surfing, trips to the pub, getting pissed together, visiting friends, having sex, hanging out with our baby girl. It all stopped over that year. We still made each other laugh and had great conversations, but by the last few months most of our time together was either in the evenings (as I was out and about with Saskia during the daytime) watching TV together, or during long trips to London for hospital appointments. All our ‘quality time’ was overshadowed by the gloom of Ben’s illness and the limitations it was placing on our relationship.

Ben was (and will always be) my rock, but he didn’t have the strength to hold me up as well as himself. Fortunately I had amazing support from my family and friends, but it was hard not to be able to share everything with him as we had always done before.

So as Ben had been suffering the loss of his former self, I was suffering that loss too – not in the same way, or to the same extent – but still I was losing the husband I’d had.

A few days ago was the six month anniversary of his death. I’ve often wondered at how well I’ve coped, but I think much of that is to do with the fact that I had to deal with some of the loss long before Ben went. As time goes by I miss him more – I feel maybe I developed a tough skin through last year which has stayed on until now. I’ve been strong and capable, because I had to be, and I haven’t felt sorry for myself much. Right now I really miss him though – I can’t sleep and I’m lonely here in bed and loads of stuff in the house is broken and he’s not here to fix them and I want a hug. Tears…

One thing I have learnt is that grieving is a complicated thing (Is it a process? I’m not sure). For me it has taken unexpected guises – often I have not recognised it as grieving at all.

The Ben I lost

The Ben I lost