These Widow's Shoes


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Saying goodbye slowly

Yesterday I wrote about my feelings about all of Ben’s things around the house and how it has been a challenge deciding what to do with everything. Slowly some things have found new homes and lives, some have met their fate at the hands of the binmen, and many are still part of the furniture of our daily lives.

I’ve wanted to share the different directions these things have gone in for some time, so finally here goes…

Up-cycled into beautiful new things

I’m starting with my favourite. Months ago Ben’s Mum and I came up with a list of beautiful things that we’d like to make with some of Ben’s shirts that we’ve kept, from a patchwork quilt for Saskia, to a little pouch for leaving teeth for the Tooth Fairy. We haven’t made much progress yet – it’s about finding the right moment and that might not be for a while – but I will share pics one day! In the meantime, here’s a picture of one of three incredibly cute animal hoods that my brilliantly talented and kind friend Marylka made for Saskia out of some of Ben’s hoodies.

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Given as gifts

It’s taking a while to feel ok about giving Ben’s things away to friends and family. There has been, and remains, quite a lot of uncertainty in my mind about whether I want to keep certain things for myself, or for Saskia, or am happy for someone else to have them. I am aware of my selfishness in this – Ben’s possessions are all of course legally my possessions now, but it wouldn’t be right for me to hoard everything away from others, especially his closest family and friends. Fortunately no one has put pressure on me to give them anything, so I have plenty of time to mull over what to keep and what to part with. A couple of times lately I have suddenly realised that this or that would be the perfect gift for this person or that. At Christmas I decided that Ben’s two skate boards, with their attractive retro artwork, should go to the two young ladies in his life – his sister and his daughter. So Saskia’s was stored for her, and Katherine found hers with a bow on under the Christmas tree.  His X-Box was packaged up for my nephew and niece’s Christmas present – a big surprise for them!

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It feels lovely to give these gifts knowing how treasured they’ll be, but it also feels very important that the timing is right and that I’m ready to say goodbye to these little bits of Ben.

Keepsakes box

In our case, it’s a bag and a couple of boxes at the moment. I’m on the look out for a lovely chest to put everything in. We’ve got all sorts of treasures – from the obvious things such as Ben’s wedding ring, and watch, to a toy car and a pair of football boots with the mud still on them. There are also things that Ben specifically asked me to give to Saskia on certain birthdays. They’re all packaged up and ready.

Re-appropriated by the little one

There are so many of Ben’s bits and pieces around the house and Saskia, with a wonderful lack of reverence, is very happy to make them hers in her own barmy way. About a year ago she found Ben’s old work lanyard and decided it was a lead for her cuddly dog. Ben’s picture and that dog were dragged around the house together for a good month or so. Ben would have totally loved the absurdity and thoroughly approved of the furry new owner of his badge of office.

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I also loved the moment when she grabbed a couple of Ben’s hats (he loved hats – he had LOADS) and stuck them on our heads. A perfect moment for a selfie I thought…

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There to stay

Some items haven’t been moved since Ben left. There’s a Tilly hat hooked over the top of a bookcase just as he put it in our kind of dining room/family room. I like it. It sits there quietly, not bothering anyone, being an unnoticed partaker in all the hubbub and noise that goes on in that room every day.

Given to charity

Not everything can stay – there’s too much. And though, as I said in my last post, even the most mundane objects seem to have gained new importance, it would be madness to keep every little thing. But it’s so hard to actually throw things away – I even took ages to throw away things like a pair of holey socks or a half-used can of deodorant at the start – it felt like throwing him away somehow.

But, Faversham is blessed with a multitude of charity shops, among them them Pilgrims Hospices and Cancer Research UK,  and so I’ve taken a lot of Ben’s clothes there. Knowing that they’ve been converted into cash for the charities and are hopefully keeping someone somewhere warm, helps to assuage somewhat that horrible sense of betrayal.

The toughest one

And some things have just gone into the bin.  I feel like I’m confessing something terrible to say it!  Maybe I sound a bit mad with all this angsting – I just can’t help it. Recently I really struggled with getting rid of a shelf of old VHS tapes from the lounge. Ben and I had talked about throwing them out and obviously they’re never going to be used again, but there they were, up on the shelf, as Ben had arranged them, like a CV of his TV viewing life – or rather his VHS-watching teenage years, when he was into Alan Partridge and South Park, and watched surfing films, dreaming of holidays to come and the prowess he was going to achieve. I couldn’t get them down from the shelf. In the end I took a picture of them in situ, just as Ben had put them when we moved into the house. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll do with the picture – post it here for one, but probably I’ll also put it amongst the treasures I’m keeping for Saskia.

I kept a few of the tapes for posterity and the rest, well, they have gone to the big video rental shop in the sky.

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And so that’s it really. There’s still lots of Ben around the place and I like that, but slowly, very slowly, the house is moving on as Sas and I do. Old things have to make way for new ones. It’s hard though.

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Stuff

We gather so much stuff in our lives – us, people, Ben and I. Ben was a gatherer extraordinaire. He loved to acquire, collect and treasure things.

But when we’re gone, our stuff remains….Ben’s things became my things. To Ben each object had its value and its story. They even all had an intended future – some to be treasured forever, some to serve their purpose then be thrown away, and some perhaps already earmarked for Ebay or the charity shop. Since Ben died all of these things have become loaded with new value – even the most banal of objects seems too precious to just throw away.

Saying farewell to any of these fragments of Ben’s life is like saying goodbye to him. It can feel like betrayal – as though I want to erase these imprints of his presence here.

But it’s also freeing sometimes. The ‘stuff’ has often weighed me down. Say, for example, the drawer of socks – they couldn’t stay, life goes on and Saskia and I could make good use of that drawer, and yet it took a while to clear it out and take them down to the Pilgrims Hospice shop. Or the several boxes of hoarded miscellany – old bookmarks, silly pens, key rings. None of it useful or meaningful to me, left to gather dust in the dark by Ben, and yet obviously all with its history – gifts from family and friends, stuff he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of. What to do with all that?

These dilemmas still go on, as I have ‘sorting’ moods here and there, in this room or in that. But I’ve become more relaxed over these two and a bit years about it all. I’ve learned that it’s ok not to know what to do with something – if I can’t figure out what to do with it, it’s ok to just leave it where it is, or put it in the loft for a while, because sooner or later the right ‘new home’ will come to me. I’ve had enough of these sudden dawnings now to believe that I needn’t see Ben’s things around the house as something to get stressed or guilty about. Instead, whatever they are, I try to give them new lives, one way or another, so that they’re not ‘dead’ objects anymore, but ones with life and purpose, owned by someone who can re-use and re-treasure them.

I want to share the different ways that I’ve done this but will do so in my next post. I hope it might be of use to anyone starting out on a grieving journey and is overwhelmed, as I have been, with all of the stuff, the fragments left behind.


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‘When Dinosaurs Die’ and other tales: Eight children’s books about death and bereavement

Although we don’t like to think about it, the truth is most children will experience the death of someone close to them. According to Childhood Bereavement UK, 92% of children will have experienced a ‘significant’ bereavement before the age of 16. So having a book or two to hand isn’t just a good idea for families like ours, it’s a good idea for any family.

As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ve been on a bit of a spending spree lately – curious to find out more about the books that are available and to find one that fits with the conversations that Saskia and I (and her young friends and their parents) have been having lately about Ben. And I’ve discovered some amazing books – some heart-breaking, some bizarre, some practical, some metaphorical.

Though none is a perfect fit for where Saskia is right now, and our own unique situation, I envisage that all will work as useful resources at some stage, even if it’s just a page here or a bit of dialogue there. So here’s a bit more about the ones I’ve got so far…

1. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

This is a non-fiction book with page headings such as ‘What Does Alive Mean?’ and ‘Why Does Someone Die?’, and is all told in cartoon-strip style by a host of unusual looking dinosaurs (not like any I learned about at school). It deals with everything from reasons for death, to feelings about it, different ideas about what happens after life, and ways of saying goodbye. Its target audience is obviously older than Saskia as a three year old, and there are parts that are too sophisticated that I would skip over, but in general its pragmatism is a really good fit for the very literal kind of questions that Saskia, and her friends, tend to ask. Also, with its non-fiction format, it isn’t as emotionally charged as some of the story books – which can be saving grace sometimes.

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2. Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute? by Elke and Alex Barber, illustrated by Anna Jarvis

This is one of the heart-breakers, as you can probably gather from the title. It’s a richly-illustrated picture book, with real life dialogue between Elke and her three-year old son Alex after the sudden death of his father from a heart attack. The latter half of  the book will be particularly valuable to us, as Alex asks Elke questions such as ‘Mummy, will you have to die?’ and ‘Who will look after me when you die Mummy?’ and she gives wonderfully vivid, easy to understand explanations, using pictures and nature to show what she means. I can definitely see myself turning to this as a reference book for inspiration on how to answer these tricky questions.

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3. What Happened to Daddy’s Body? by Elke and Alex Barber, illustrated by Anna Jarvis

This is the Barber’s second book, and is again based on real conversations between Elke and Alex, this time about his Daddy’s cremation and the spreading of his ashes. There’s also a part where Alex asks about burial and Elke gives an explanation that I think I should memorise it’s so good! Amidst Jarvis’ gorgeous illustration of autumn woodland, Elke’s words compare the dead leaves that turn into soil and feed the ground to what happens to a buried body – ‘Wow’ says Alex. ‘That’s really cool.’

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4. The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb
This book will delight you then with the turn of a page completely take your breath away. The dancing rhythm of the words and childish simplicity of the pictures belie the rich and poignant subtext of loss, memory and regeneration that suddenly come into the story. Though the impact of this subtext is powerful to adults, for very young children it is so subtle that most would be unaware of it. At three, Saskia loves the book simply for its music, humour and imagination. As she gets older, its beautiful and positive messages will no doubt begin to sink in and move her as they do me.

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5. Missing Mummy: A book about bereavement by Rebecca Cobb

In this book, the illustrator of The Paper Dolls, Rebbecca Cobb, is both illustrator and writer. Told in first person by a young child (helpfully the gender is not explicit so we say she’s a girl) whose Mummy has died, the story deftly tells of her confused feelings about her Mummy’s death and then of how, through talks with her Daddy, she comes to understand more of what has happened and what her feelings mean. This book has worked out well for us and for a few weeks Saskia chose it every night as one of her bedtime reading books. The reason I like it is that it has a very light touch, the minimal text only glancing over the different emotions and themes. This makes it easier to weave our own story into it, and skip over less relevant parts and draw out and explore more relevant ones. Don’t get me wrong though – its lack of detail doesn’t mean lack of depth  – it’s simple text and pictures cut right to the heart.

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 6. Water Bugs and Dragon Flies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney

First published in 1982, this is the oldest of  the books I have. It’s an allegorical tale about a colony of water bugs who wonder what happens to their friends when they disappear above the water, never to return. They promise to come back to tell if it happens to them, but when one of them finds himself climbing up the lily stalk and transformed into a dragonfly, he realises that he cannot go back below the water any more. Instead, he flies away on the breeze, knowing that his friends will discover the truth for themselves one day. It’s a lovely way of painting the afterlife, and one that can be adapted to any creed. The big drawback, however, is that the small and delicate water colour illustrations are not like the large and engaging pictures that modern children are used to in their books. It’s certainly not a book that will catch Saskia’s eye, but then it’s an easy story to remember and retell so can stand alone without the book itself.

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7. Always and Forever by Debi Gliori and Alan Durant

Always and Forever is about a group of woodland animals whose friend, Fox, gets ill and dies. After a long period when they lock themselves away with their sadness, a visit from another friend, Squirrel, helps them to start celebrating their friend’s life rather than just commiserating his loss. It ends with them talking about how Fox will live on in their hearts and memories forever. This would be a lovely book for children who are suffering grief and seeing their families go through it, helping them to see ways back to happiness, and to know that it is ok to feel happy.

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8. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch

This is a bizarre one and takes some getting used to. The two characters are Duck and yes…Death – no scythe or black hood, but he is a skeleton in a dress, and therefore not at all the kind of character most Brits would be comfortable with in a children’s book. I say Brits because Erlbruch is German – I don’t know much about German culture but perhaps it’s a more common sight in their children’s literature. I’m fascinated by its unconventionality, and my slightly appalled gut reaction to it. I also feel an affinity with its message that death is always with us, a part of life that we should not fear. I read it to Saskia once – she quite liked it, and asked for a second reading. It certainly didn’t spook her. But I think it’s too old for her in general – the colours are too washed out and spartan, the themes too abstract to appeal to her at this age. Maybe when she’s older – although she might be as weirded out as I am by it by then!

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So that’s the lot – a collection that I hope will be useful to us both going forward – and maybe to friends and family too as they face the little darlings’ tough questions. If you’ve read any of these books, or any others, and have any comments to add, I’d love to hear them.


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Reading with Sas about death

Not long after Ben died I started searching around online for books for children about death and bereavement. I found a few books that I ordered but nothing was quite right. For a long time I didn’t bother with any more, but recently, after conversations with friends who are keen to know what’s out there for them and their children (as they’re kind of in this with me – they need to answer their two or three year old’s questions about where Saskia’s Daddy is), I decided to do a bit more research and get hold of some more.

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I now have quite a stash (rundown of these to follow in my next post). Of course, as curious as I am to see what Saskia makes of them, it’s not right to inundate her. With reading, as with our conversations, I want to draw on the books in response to what she says and what’s going on in our lives, rather than force the topic on her. I actually see them more as a resource than anything – books to introduce when the need arises and pages to refer to for ideas about how to explain a certain thing. After all, unlike most books for children of her age, there’s inevitably a lot of sadness in them – why dwell on this if she’s ok and happy?

This is a bit of dilemma for me with one particular aspect of the books: the fact that most of them are told from the point of view of characters (some are animals, some are young children) who are grieving: suffering sadness, guilt, fear, anger. Saskia is happy – her very young age when Ben died (only 16 months) and the fact that he didn’t disappear suddenly, but slipped gradually from her life due to his illness – means that she hasn’t as yet suffered the typical feelings associated with grief.

So to an extent I’m concerned that these stories might give her the impression that she should be feeling sad, that this is the normal or right way for a child to feel. On the other I think, well if she ever did begin to feel feelings of grief, at least through reading the books we would have opened up doors for talking about it.

As usual, I’m probably over thinking and common sense is all that’s needed. I certainly won’t force the books down her throat, but I won’t hide them away either. They’ll be on the book shelf with all the others, and if she wants to read one then great, and I guess we can talk about the feelings that the characters are going through and chat about what she feels or doesn’t feel. It’s me that goes through all the angst about this after all – she tends to just proclaim ‘Next! or ‘Again!’ without a slither of apparent emotion!

I’ll write more in my next post about the books we’ve got and which ones I recommend.


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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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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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Saskia in the sunlight

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

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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.