These Widow's Shoes


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Saskia in the sunlight

This morning, in the sparkling sunlight, Saskia and I visited Ben’s burial place together.

Morning sunlight over the burial ground

Morning sunlight over the burial ground

We were there for a special reason – something I’d been planning for a few months. Since Saskia and I started having little ‘conversations’ about where Daddy had gone to (see this earlier post for more on this), I have thought about bringing her to the burial ground so that I could begin to tell her a little about why it’s such a special place for her. She’s been several times before of course (at the funeral, and a number of family gatherings), but we’ve never talked to her about why we’re there – she’s always just treated it as a little expedition out in the countryside – flowers to look at, gravel to crunch, mud to squelch in.

I know she’s too young to understand much, but she can understand that the place is special and associated with her Daddy. So, to tie the place to her, we made a stone – a present from her to Daddy.

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Unwrapping her special gift for Daddy

We made it a month or so ago. We chose the stone on Whitstable Beach (a favourite place for Ben, Sas and I), and then Saskia did some beautiful finger painting…

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Fabulous finger painting by Saskia

A little message and some varnish to preserve it…

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Love Saskia x

And so Saskia put it under ‘Daddy’s tree’ – and hopefully there it will stay for a long long time, nestled amongst the grass and roots.

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Saskia putting her painted stone under Daddy’s tree

I talked to her a little about this being ‘Daddy’s tree’ and ‘a special place where we can come to remember and think about Daddy’. I showed her his name on the plaque and his photo that sits nearby, but in truth she was only partly with me. Her lovely toddler mind was distracted by all the flowers on the other graves, and especially a wicker reindeer that someone had placed on a grave nearby (she wanted to ride it!). So our little ‘ceremony’ and ‘conversation’ about Daddy was short and sweet – I decided we needed to change the activity and go for a walk. Which leads me on to something I absolutely love about the Woodland Burial Ground – in the middle is a pond. It has wooden bridges that cross it at either end and is home to hundreds of frogs in the summer. For me when I come alone, it offers a serene and inspiring place to walk and reflect, but for a toddler it offers a myriad opportunities for discovery and fun! First we tried to say hello to some ducks but they wandered off, so we played pooh sticks (though none of our sticks were very keen to come out from under the bridge). After that we had copious amounts of fun throwing stones into one end of the pond and then dropping some more off the bridge at the other, enjoying their satisfying ‘plop!’. And here is my beloved monster enjoying the thrill of balancing on a big rock…

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Joy!

It was such a perfect time. I hadn’t envisaged the fun part – I hadn’t gone further than the stone and the talking about Daddy part in my imaginings of our visit. But it was just right – now Sas will have these vivid, fun-filled memories to go with her memories of Daddy’s tree and her painted stone. I suppose these images are just fragments in her mind at the moment – little shiny pieces that she knows go together but exactly how they fit and what they mean she can’t tell.

After our adventures down by the pond we crunched our way back up the gravel path to Ben’s tree, meeting his mum, step-dad and sister along the way. To my surprise Saskia proceeded to confidently tell her nana, gramps and aunty that this was Daddy’s special tree which would grow bigger and bigger, and this was her stone for Daddy. So it did go in after all – seems she can listen and stomp around exploring graves. Clever girl.

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Where’s my Daddy?

‘Where’s my Daddy?’

Saskia probably asks this once a week at least now, sometimes more, and often repeatedly in succession in her toddlery sort of way. She’s not upset when she asks – just curious, and enjoying asking a question and getting a response.

Since I first wrote about this in September in the post I knew the day was coming… I have done a LOT of thinking and talking about the subject. And finally, in the last few weeks, I feel I’ve cracked it – I’m comfortable with what to say and what it means. Surprisingly, for an atheist (albeit a rather woolly and fence-sitting one), I’ve decided to say that Ben is in heaven. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, but here’s how I came to it.

My starting point

So, I wanted to have an answer that she could relate to with her limited understanding of the world, but also I wanted it to be meaningful for me. I didn’t want to just spout cliches that I didn’t believe myself or wouldn’t make sense to her. My belief is that Ben lives on in our hearts and our memories. He is here insomuch that his impact on our lives still affects who we are and how we live our lives – in that way he lives on. I also take a lot of comfort in the idea of him being reabsorbed back into nature, and when I visit his grave at the beautiful woodland burial ground I imagine his ‘spirit’  around me as the leaves rustle in the trees and the birds sing. ‘Spirit’ to me here is a metaphor for love and goodness and connectedness to nature. This probably sounds very vague and a bit wet, but that’s fine, I’m not out to justify my own beliefs here, just to explain my own answer to the question ‘Where’s Daddy?’. But of course I couldn’t say this to her – I’d lose her straightaway in all that abstract stuff. And anyway, this is just what think, and in her life she’s going to meet lots of people who have very different ideas about where Daddy’s gone, and eventually she’ll want to make up her own mind. So what could I say to her?

‘Heaven’ is a useful word

I first started to seriously consider the option of using the word ‘heaven’ when my friend Janine suggested it on a car journey home from holiday. As someone who works with children and their families she can be quite a wise old bean about bringing up children sometimes – she has a lot of good ideas anyway. So, she suggested that I should tell Sas that Daddy had gone to heaven – cue seriously unconvinced ‘u-huh…’ from me. She explained that when Sas went to school, and even before, she would find herself being asked about her Daddy, and therefore she needed to have a way of saying that her Daddy had died that she was comfortable with and that others would understand. Children in her class might not know the word, but if they told their parents ‘Saskia’s Daddy’s in heaven’, then they would understand and be able to explain to their children as they saw fit. If Saskia has only been told things like  ‘he lives in our hearts and memories’, she could get herself into some confusing and uncomfortable conversations, with people misunderstanding what she was saying. This is the last thing I want. I want her to be able to talk about her Daddy with confidence and pride, to put people at ease when she talks about him, so she doesn’t have to see the discomfort in their face when the taboo subject of death is raised. Janine had made a really important point, but I was still uncomfortable with the word ‘heaven’ as it didn’t seem true to my own beliefs.

The taboo of death

The fact is, if I’m looking for a way of saying that Ben has died that is true and uncomplicated, then just that, ‘he’s died’ is the most obvious thing to say. I talked in a post called Squashed snails and dead flies about how surprisingly often a toddler encounters death in their day to day life, largely due to their physical proximity to nature (little ones are so much closer to the ground, and fall on it, crawl on it and study it with unbounded curiosity on a regular basis). Saskia is no stranger to a dead snail or fly. For a moment there I wondered if the simplicity of life and death in nature would help me answer Saskia’s question. But it can’t. Death in nature is brutal. We sweep the dead snail away and swat the fly. I can’t equate Ben’s death to that. Some might say that death is as simple and cold for humans too, but that’s not how I feel about Ben going, and I don’t want Saskia to feel that either. With humans, the bonds that we create and the love we have mean that something of us lives on. We respect their bodies, we cherish their memories.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that Ben has died – it’s what I usually say – but from the lips of a two year old ‘My’s Daddy’s dead’ has a coldness that would shock people. There would be no coldness in her, she’s an innocent, but I would hate for her to see shock or hurt on people’s faces when she spoke to them. This is why, however simple and true they may be, I have chosen not to focus (for now) on the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’ when I talk to her.

‘Heaven’ as a ‘catch-all’

So, I was back to the ‘heaven’ option, but still couldn’t square it with my own beliefs. I don’t believe that Ben is in a place somewhere out there in the universe, with God, Jesus, angels and lots of immortal souls, watching what’s happening here on earth. That’s  what heaven means right? Well, more chats with more wise friends, Lizzie and Liam, helped me to see things differently. Why not use the word as a catch-all? It doesn’t have to mean the conventional Christian idea of heaven. After all, translate it into other languages and cultures and it would take on a myriad of different meanings. Why not use the word to mean ‘something peaceful after death’. I don’t know for certain what happens after death, but I strongly believe that it’s nothing to fear. For the atheist in me, ‘heaven’ can mean the peace of a deep sleep, free of pain and worry; and for the new age, circle-of-life side of me, it can mean the peace and beauty of the natural world that he has returned to. In time she will learn that for her grandparents it means something different, and for her aunties and cousins and friends something different still. The unifying factor is that heaven is a lovely and peaceful state or place to be. This appeals to me because I want to bring up a child who can form her own beliefs but is also sympathetic and open to other people’s. Using the word heaven so widely will leave the door open for us to talk about different ideas of the afterlife as she gets older.

Heaven sounds right in a sentence

So having gone through all these thought processes, I was almost decided that ‘He’s gone to heaven’ was the right answer for Saskia’s question. I thought I’d try just one more time my idea of him living in our hearts. I pointed to where her heart was and told her Daddy was there. As I said it I knew it wasn’t going to work, and this was confirmed moments later when we said ‘Daddy’s in my tummy’ (she’s a bit obsessed with her tummy, perhaps because it’s the only bit of her insides that she actually has any concept of!). It confirmed once and for all you have to avoid metaphors altogether or choose them very wisely when dealing with two year olds. So I finally went for it and said ‘He’s in heaven’ and you know what, it just sounded right – it sounds like a place. To Saskia, Daddy’s not here, so he must be somewhere – he is, a place called heaven (And what’s that Mummy? Well, she hasn’t asked that yet – that’s a question for another day…).

She’s started to say it herself now, and it sounds ok. She said it to my friend Marylka at the dinner table when somebody’s Daddy was mentioned –  ‘My Daddy’s in heaven now’ she said in a rather matter of fact way. Tears came to Marylka’s eyes, but I just felt so proud of her. I hope she will always be as eloquent and happy to talk about her Daddy as she grows up.


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Gone public

This is just a quick post to let you know that the blog is now accessible online without being necessary to have a personal invite. The URL is sallyedge.wordpress.com

I won’t be doing the big sell on Facebook for now, but I’m happy for anyone who’s interested to read it and for you to pass it on to others if you wish.

It’s still a bit basic, and I haven’t got round to the ‘About Me’ page yet (difficult knowing how to ‘nutshell’ myself), but it’ll do for now.

Thanks for reading. XXX


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Memories of when I fitted into these shorts…

It’s funny the unexpected situations that can bring back memories of Ben. Here I sit in my bedroom, surrounded by clothes as I figure out what to take on holiday. As I’ve hunted to the back of the drawers and wardrobe and tried on my old beach holiday clothes, I’ve realised that a lot of these things haven’t seen the light of day since our honeymoon in Bali in 2008. There’s the surfer girl top that we bought there, that Ben loved so much that when the colours ran in the wash he secretly hunted for hours on the net to find me another, the shorts that I bartered over (i.e. got bullied into buying by a formidable Balinese saleswoman), and the slinky, sequin top that I used to save for our dates. Putting on these clothes after all these years feels like putting on an old self – more naive, younger, slimmer!

It’s sad, but comforting. I said in a post back in May that I’ve struggled to really feel memories from before last year. When I’ve thought of our happy  times – our honeymoon, our wedding, first moving in together, holidays – the memories are there but the emotions aren’t. It’s like the emotional equivalent of a blurred or faded photograph – I’ve been numb to those memories. The memories that I can feel are mostly the many grim ones from last year.

Except in this quiet little moment of looking through old clothes, which has brought back happy memories, and lovely, very welcome feelings, along with them.


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Ooops!

Last night I made a bit of a hash of publishing a new post called ‘My Beloved Monster and Me’ and ended up publishing an old draft of it before I published the actual post, which may mean that those of you who receive notifications by email/RSS have received two versions. Please ignore the first! I’ve also added a great YouTube of Eels singing the song now if you look at the blog itself,

Have a fabulous day ladies and gents!


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My Beloved Monster and Me

My beloved monster and me
We go everywhere together
Wearing a raincoat that has four sleeves
Gets us through all kinds of weather

She will always be the only thing
That comes between me and the awful sting
That comes from living in a world that’s so damn mean

My beloved monster is tough
If she wants she will disrobe you
But if you lay her down for a kiss
Her little heart it could explode

She will always be the only thing
That comes between me and the awful sting
That comes from living in a world that’s so damn
Mean

This was one of Ben and I’s songs. It was played during our wedding ceremony and I also included it in the funeral service. The Eels were one of the few bands that Ben and I agreed on – so we treasured them.

I confess that I never thought too deeply about the lyrics and had always seen it as a love song, influenced (I confess again) by the fact that I first heard it during a pastiche ‘falling in love’ montage in the film ‘Shrek’.

Of course it can be a romantic love song, but suddenly for me it’s not about Ben and I, it’s about Saskia. She is my most beloved monster and since Ben died she has been my talisman. The joy she exudes soothes the ‘awful sting’ so perfectly. And there are other ways in which these words are absolutely about Saskia, but perhaps those of you who know Saskia, or who are parents, can imagine.

Here’s a link to the gorgeous Mr Mark Oliver Everett (the Eels dude) singing the song.


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Sad

The only thing I get sad about is remembering how Ben suffered last year. My love…he went through such pain, and fear, and uncertainty, and frustration, and humiliation, and just, shit…

Those memories make me cry.

Last year I didn’t cry about it – well, sometimes, with Ben, we had a cry together. But it wasn’t the same as this reflective sadness borne out of memory. Then it was raw, ragged, immediate, borne out of togetherness in that moment.

Otherwise crying to myself or with friends was rare. Everything was too practical, visceral and everyday for tears.

Poor Benj. It would be lovely if he could see us now – Sas and I, and his family and friends, all well and surviving and looking after each other – and take pleasure in it. I don’t have any reason to believe that, but I wish it. After all the suffering of that last year he certainly deserved(s) it.