These Widow's Shoes


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The mention of his name

I sometimes suspect that people hold back from talking to me about Ben – I guess because they’re worried it’ll cause me pain. The truth is, it doesn’t – I love talking about him. I did when he was alive, and still do now.

Partly it’s that pride and kind of thrill you get talking about someone you love (or loved) – I still have that! And partly it’s because it comes easily to me to talk about feelings – call me an egomaniac but I quite like talking about myself and how I’m feeling.

I can’t account for why it doesn’t pain me – you’d think it would wouldn’t you? I think about that all the time and feel ashamed about it – though I know that’s irrational. I’m getting used to it gradually and accepting that that’s just who I am. The most important thing is the pride and love I still feel.

My wonderful mum in law read some words at the funeral that I think about a lot. They resonate very strongly with us both…

The Mention of His Name

The mention of my child’s name
May bring tears to my eyes
But it never fails to bring
Music to my ears.
If you are really my friend
Let me hear the beautiful music of his name.
It soothes my broken heart
And sings to my soul.

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Spring boards and surf boards

On Sunday afternoon we met up with Lizzie, Liam and the boys down at the creek. As soon as Saskia saw Liam, the first thing she said was ‘My Daddy’s in heaven’ – she’s saying this a LOT at the moment as you may have gathered! Funny though, that she should do this again having greeted him the exact same way a week ago. The need to talk about where her own Daddy is when she meets her friends’ Daddies seems really strong at the moment.

Or even just the mention of Daddies, will set her off, telling whoever’s listening all about her own. Just yesterday, she was telling her friend Emmeline all about how he was poorly and so he had to go to heaven. She got a bit confused at one stage saying it was because he was old, but overall she’s very keen and confident about talking about him, which I’m really proud of.

Having said that, ‘my Daddy’s in heaven’ can be a bit of a conversation killer, especially with adults who are tongue-tied by cultural taboos and anxiety about what’s ok to say and what’s not.  And even if you are quite at ease talking about it, it’s not always appropriate in that moment. I sense both Liam and I were searching around for the next thing to say on Sunday after Saskia’s challenging opening gambit! As it was, I think one of the boys joined us and turned the conversations to pumpkins, or boats maybe, but not wanting to ignore Saskia’s comment, what would have been the right thing to say if we had carried on the conversation? I’ve been thinking about it since and realised that the thing to do isn’t to be stumped by the subject of death, but to steer the talk towards Ben’s life instead, encourage her to talk about what she knows: his name; who his parents, sister, friends were; Pickle, his cat; his love of the sea and surfing…

I do already try to do this whenever opportunities arise. Ben’s things around the house are ideal starting points for me to tell Saskia about things he liked, his character and his experiences in life. In our bathroom there’s a picture of a surfer, and an old surf board that Ben’s school buddy and surfing mentor, Dave, gave to him. Quite a few times Saskia has asked me about them and it’s been a lovely opportunity to talk about how Ben loved surfing, took me surfing, and latterly fantasised about living his surfing ambitions vicariously through her. To be honest, I was never a fan of the photo or the surfboard as additions to our bathroom decor, and put up with them under sufferance. But now they’re there to stay – partly because of the way they bring Ben into the room and generate memories for me, and stories about her Daddy for Saskia, but mostly because Saskia thinks the super buff surfer ripping up the waves is actually Ben, and I couldn’t possibly disillusion her! image


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Fascinating little brain

I didn’t realise until I asked some friends to write down conversations they’d heard Saskia having with their children, quite the extent to which Saskia associates other Daddies being at work with her Daddy being in heaven.

It is really fascinating to see her mind piecing things together. Liv remembers a conversation between Saskia and Bertie at her house last spring. One of the children asked where I was and Liv told them I was at work. There were a couple of exchanges between Sas and Bertie before she said, ‘My Daddy used to go to work, in heaven’. Then as Liv recalls, they went back to the more  pressing business of pretending to spit yoghurt at each other and shouting POO!

Also in the spring, Lizzie remembers Sas and Elliot playing ‘house’  – Saskia was sweeping up and Elliot announced he was off to work (internal groan at these hopelessly stereotyped play choices!). Lizzie overheard Sas musing to herself ‘Maybe that’s where my Daddy’s gone. No, he’s gone to heaven.’

At this time she was obviously getting quite mixed up between her Daddy being gone, and other Daddies being out at work. But by late summer, she’d figured out that they definitely weren’t the same thing, to the extent that she was very emphatic with both Emmeline and Jack, as I wrote in the last post, saying ‘Your Daddy has gone to work, my Daddy has gone to heaven.’

At this point I think I should explain our use of the word ‘heaven’. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you might remember the post where I explained my extensive deliberations about how to talk to Sas about what had happened to Daddy. I’m not a believer in heaven myself, so seriously baulked at the idea of using the word. However,  at that time I didn’t feel comfortable about just saying ‘he’s dead’, and also needed something to say to the glaring question of ‘where is he?’. To me it’s a convenient catch all word that I use to mean the ‘after-life’ (or the what happens after life, which I shall in time tell her is something nobody really knows about for sure, though people have lots of ideas…and here are the best ones…).

In the meantime, since I wrote that post, I have found myself able to use the ‘d’ word after all (though ‘he’s died’/’he died’ rather than ‘he’s dead’ – softer, isn’t it?). Several times, quite a while ago now, Sas would ask where Daddy had gone, and I might say he was in heaven, but I’d also say ‘he died’. Numerous times the conversation would stop there and Sas would move happily onto another topic. But quite recently she wanted to know more, and she asked why he’d died. I explained that he’d been very poorly, and his body wasn’t able to get better, and so he died. Again, as always, she accepted this answer and just carried on playing.

Since then if we’ve talked about people dying (like Ben’s Nan whose burial service Saskia and I went to about a month ago), I’ve tried to emphasise that people only usually die when they get very old, as I don’t want her to worry that someone she knows is going to die just because they’re ill. So far though I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s thinking that anyway.

Right, will leave it there. Am on a roll and loads more to come. But shorter better for you too I’m sure. We’ve all got Sunday night telly to watch!

 

 

 


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Eavesdropping

Disobeying all the right advice about blogging, I haven’t written for ages, but have instead hoarded bagfuls of stuff to write one day when I got round to it. Could this finally be the big blaaah? We’ll see. Where to start?

Well this post is to be about Saskia, my conversations with her about Ben and death, as well as the conversations that my friends and I have overheard her having with her little buddies about the same thing.

Anyone who has watched a child go through the first years of life will attest to how utterly lovely and endearing it is when somewhere between two and three they start having their first proper conversations with their friends. They have all sorts of serious little chats, very earnestly debating this or that.

From time to time, the conversation has been about Daddies. Last month Saskia and her friend Jack were sat in the back of the car chatting…

Jack: My Daddy’s at work.
Saskia: Daddies don’t go to work! They go to heaven.
Jack: My Daddy DOES go to work.
Me: That’s right. Jack’s Daddy works in Canterbury. He’s a manager.

And so I wittered on, commandeering their conversation in my parenty way.

Not long after that we were round at Marylka’s, who overheard Sas say to Emmeline, ‘Where’s your Daddy?’ Emmeline, ‘He’s at work.’ Saskia, ‘Your Daddy goes to work, mine goes to heaven.’

It’s that matter of fact way she says things…like that’s just the way it is. That, plus the funny way her and her friends make confident pronouncements as though they are the absolute authority on a subject that they’ve only just learnt for themselves about 3 seconds previously. On any other subject it’s all just funny. With this it’s tragic and funny – she makes me smile, even though what she’s actually saying is sad beyond her imagining.

……………………………….

Lately Sas has learned that DADS = FUN. Mums are alright, but Dads do really good stuff like charge around pretending to be monsters, and hilAAAARIOUS pantomime style goofing around at the swings. So now I get ‘Mum, be funny like Adam and Dan’ when we go to the park and I either have to feel totally inadequate or like an utter prat. We’re so lucky to have such brilliant Dad friends who always make sure she gets swung around in the air and held upside down by her ankles just as much as their own eager urchins.

However, as I’ve noticed how much she revels in this interaction, I’ve also been watching closely for signs of resentment, or sadness, that her own Daddy isn’t here. After all, with anything else, be it food, toys, a manky old stick or a bit of fluff, if anyone else has got something that she hasn’t, she’s in a wild fury of hot tears at the injustice of it. But so far, this injustice, she seems to be taking very calmly. Last week, Sas and I were at the pub with Lizzie and Janine and their children, enjoying a cheeky Friday afternoon couple of pints. A little later, Lizzie’s husband Liam joined us after finishing work. As he walked in he kneeled down to hug his two boys, and then Saskia came up to him and announced, ‘My Daddy’s in heaven.’ No drama, just that. And Liam accepted her pronouncement with an easygoing ‘That’s right’ and a smile, and carried on with the everyday chat about what the day had held for us all. The things she says are all the more poignant and moving for the unremarkable way that she says them – because it’s just normal for her I guess. I’m sure  it touched Liam – later that evening I noticed he had an extra big hug for Sas when we bumped into him at the chippie.

……………………………………………

Well this is isn’t all the blaaah, but in the spirit of little and often I will post this now and promise the rest soon. Maybe more little people conversations, definitely more about the conversations I’ve had with her. Thanks for reading.


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A NOT HAPPY day

Today Saskia was NOT HAPPY, or so she told me. She also described herself as ‘grumpy’ and ‘sad’, not feelings she’s prone to I’m proud to say. Usually I can shake her out of any grump with tickles, cuddles, offers to play with her, or the big guns, cake or telly. But today she didn’t want ANYTHING!! as she hotly exclaimed on several occasions.

Whether sad and grumpy were just her ways to express her being dog tired, which I knew she was, or her voicing a deeper unhappiness, I don’t know, but in the midst of her whining and whimpering this afternoon, she suddenly came out with ‘I need my Daddy!’, then she just cried ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ over and over again for maybe five minutes. Eventually she stopped as she began to drift off to sleep in my arms.

I was shocked, and really sad for her. This is the first time she’s shown strong emotion about not having her Daddy. My instinct is that she was feeling rotten – exhausted after a run of late and restless sleeps – and was so out of sorts that she felt she didn’t want anything, but she wanted something. Something, or someone, who was missing, but could look after her and make her feel better.

I asked her what had made her think about Daddy and she said it was Pickle, our cat. She knows he was Daddy’s cat, bought especially to cheer him up when he was poorly.

The last few days have been relatively intense in terms of talking about Daddy, and death. On Sunday we visited the burial ground, and Saskia brought a new stone that she’d chosen on the beach in Cornwall to go with the one she’d brought to put by the tree on January 3rd. And yesterday we attended the committal (just the burial part of a funeral) of Ben’s Nan. Although Sas asked questions about what was going on, she didn’t seem upset at all at the time – she was much more concerned with taking her shoes and socks off so she could run barefoot in the grass! Who knows what she’s absorbed, what she’s understood and what she’s taken to heart, but it’s very possible that the events of the last few days were jumbled up with her unhappiness when she cried for Daddy today.

Poor Sas. There will be many more moments like this ahead as her loss gathers meaning in her mind. I still don’t feel I have the right words. I’m just hoping that cuddles and kindness will be enough for now.

I


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Counselling for copers

An article on grief counselling that I wrote recently for the Pilgrims Hospices website

Despite being very keen to encourage my late husband  to take up Pilgrims’ offer of counselling, and being, in theory, very open to the idea of going to it myself, in reality I was a bit slow to take it up; I remember saying  “Oh I’m fine… I’m managing… I don’t think I need it.”

I’d wager that a heck of a lot of people, caregivers and patients, have resisted having counselling, or at least procrastinated about it, using reasons like that. The implication is that counselling is only for the ‘non-copers’, those who are ‘struggling’ or ‘not managing’. If you’re doing a half-decent job of keeping your chin up, cracking on and ‘coping just fine thank you’, then what good can talking to a counsellor do? “I’m FINE!” we cry.

But on my first visit to see the Pilgrims counsellor, I realised I wasn’t ‘just fine’. Though I was coping very well indeed, not all was well. How could it be? My husband was dying and I was stretching myself in a million directions to deal with the changes to our lives. So there I sat crying my eyes out (something I never did at home – not because I was repressing tears, just that they never came when I was there), thinking “wow, where did this come from?!” And the same pattern occurred every time a session was due – I’d think “I’m fine, I shouldn’t waste her time really”, then I’d go and to my surprise, out would come fears and anxieties that I’d pushed away and tried to ignore. I would walk away a little exhausted perhaps, but always with a strong sense of having understood myself a little better, and having removed some of the ‘baggage’ (ie unnecessary and unhelpful thoughts and feelings) that I was carrying around with me.

So how does counselling at Pilgrims work? There’s no fixed timetable, it can work around you, although she did make suggestions about what might be a good time frame and frequency for sessions. The sessions last about 50 minutes and take place in a comfy room with no windows so no one can see you if you start having to reach for the tissues!

I had sessions in the months leading up to my husband’s death, then a few more about a month afterwards, and then a few more about six months afterwards. I may yet have more.  My mind boggles at what a wonderful service this is!

But how does talking to a counsellor differ from talking to friends or family? I’m lucky to have fabulous friends and family who I rely on when I need to talk. However,  a counsellor offered a number of things that they couldn’t…

  • You don’t need to protect a counsellor – They can’t be hurt or upset by what you say, so there’s no need to hold back
  • They will let you speak – Friends or family often want to cheer you up and may be busy telling you why you shouldn’t feel depressed, or guilty, or angry, rather than letting you talk about how you feel.  A counsellor on the other hand, will encourage you talk through these thoughts and feelings.
  • They are skilful listeners – They don’t just passively listen while you do all the work, they listen hard to what you’re saying. They listen ‘between the lines’ and ask the right questions. Together you can get to the heart of thoughts and feelings that may be hard to admit, explain, understand or come to terms with.
  • They are experienced in counselling patients with terminal illness and their carers/family – Because they have talked to so many people in your situation, they can understand what you are going through so much better than many family or friends can. They are also in a position to share other people’s experiences with you (confidentially of course), thereby giving you precious reassurance that you are not alone or abnormal
  • It’s focussed – Unlike the ebb and flow of normal conversations that go off on tangents or where the subject often changes, the conversation is focussed and so can really get to the root of troubles rather than just skipping around on the surface
  • It’s confidential  – You don’t need to worry that what you say will be repeated to other family members, or discussed in the pub by your mates
  • There are no distractions – No phones, no children, no eavesdroppers, no mess to be tidied…

To sum up, if you are a patient or a family member, and are hesitating about using the counselling service at Pilgrims, let me urge you to give it a try. Going to counselling doesn’t mean you’re weak, or mentally unstable – it means you’re sensible enough to make use of a very useful service that’s offered to you at a time when you are under incredible pressure. Use it! I did, and it has helped me no end.

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Death and The Snowman

When I picked up The Snowman DVD box set for Saskia’s stocking this Christmas, I was really just thinking of it as a cosy Christmas classic, feeling sentimental about watching it as a child and imagining how she’d love it. She has absolutely adored it, and this rainiest of Januarys has, in our household, been a snowy one, with regular viewings (I confess often several times in a row when I’ve bowed to her toddler-dictator demands) of both the original 1982 film and the modern sequel The Snowman and the Snow Dog.

But I’d completely forgotten, and perhaps just been so swept away with the gooey Christmas nostalgia that surrounds the film, that it’s as much about death as it is about flying through the air and meeting Santa. Both films end with a young boy knelt sadly beside a mound of snow and a few clothes – all that remains of his melted snowman friend.

Snowman5

In the Snowman and Snowdog sequel, death appears right at the beginning of the story too, when the boy’s dog dies and he and his Mum are seen burying him in the garden.

Snowman3

When I watch this scene I am struck by how resonant it is of our recent trip to Ben’s grave. There’s a tree, a mother and a child, and treasured objects laid on the grave. I’ve been watching to see if Saskia has made this link and I don’t think she has, certainly not as strongly as I have. I don’t want to push it, but I did mention once as we watched that the tree was like Daddy’s special tree. She didn’t really say anything, and usually now when we’re watching, she adds her own commentary for me (in case I’m getting lost in the complexities of the plot) and when we get to this point she let’s me know “the doggy’s died, Mummy” in the same, rather pleased with herself way that she narrates every other scene. No great feelings of poignancy apparent!

What I like, I guess, is that these films deal with death in a way that is matter of fact, and sensitive. I know that both films are sentimental, and that the 1982 film sugar-coated the original Raymond Briggs story by adding the Christmas elements, but I don’t mind that so much. I just appreciate the fact that on some level the stories are teaching Saskia the idea that death is a fact of life – we will all die, just like a snowman will always melt. So far we haven’t come across many stories (either in books or on film) that feature death so this has been an interesting first for us. I would be really interested in recommendations for stories that deal with death sensitively from anyone reading this – it’s a theme I’d like to revisit in a later post I think.

Finally, for your interest, here’s a link to an article in the Independent in which Raymond Briggs talks about the theme of death in his book and how the story was ‘hijacked’ by Christmas.