These Widow's Shoes


I knew the day was coming…

…and today was it. Saskia asked ‘Where’s Daddy gone?’. She asked it first this morning. We were sat in the garden with my mum-in-law and she just said it, apropos of nothing. I stared at her for ages, tongue tied and baffled about why she was suddenly asking, and unsure whether she was actually asking what it sounded like. I’ve forgotten what happened next – I think my mum in law fielded with something vague and Sas quickly went back to bouncing on her new trampoline. Toddlers can be so unnerving.

This evening she asked again – this time she was more insistent and there was no doubt what she was asking. She looked at the picture of Ben next to the dining table and said “My Daddy”, then “Where’s Daddy gone?…Where’s Daddy gone Mummy?…Daddy lost”.

Well, though I’ve thought and thought about what I should say, I hadn’t come up with something that sounded right, so today I had nothing prepared and blundered through a number of things that came into my head…”He had to go away…He still loves us very much…He’s taking care of you” were all things I said I think. With her three-second attention span she was already thinking about something else by the time I’d garbled these words – she’d noticed some toy or other – and that was the end of it.

However, I suspect that having formed the question in her mind now, and verbalised it, it will be coming up again. I really have to figure out what to say. It’s so hard – I don’t believe in heaven, but already I’ve fallen into the trap of talking as though I do to Saskia. I want to be able to tell her what I believe – that Ben has gone but his love lives on in us and the people who’s lives he touched. But she wouldn’t understand that – it’s far too abstract. Should I say ‘Daddy’s died’? Her only knowledge of death and dying is from insects in the garden – would she be scared or upset by this comparison, or would she actually be matter of fact and simply accept it? Judging from the books I’ve read on explaining death to children, it seems important not to skirt over the basic facts of death – ie that the body stops working. So maybe at this stage I should go for the actual facts and not worry too much about the abstract stuff.

I just don’t know – it’s a really hard thing to do. I guess I’ll just have to feel my way and hope I don’t upset or confuse her.

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Grief is a strange creature

I still find the way the grieving process is working its way out in me to be very strange and unexpected.

Lately I’ve realised that one of my ways of coping with Ben’s death is by throwing myself into doing things ‘in his memory’…staying up late thinking of ways to increase readership of his blog, working on turning the blog into a book, fundraising for the hospice, writing my own blog, posting melanoma awareness info on Facebook, putting up pictures he took, or of him, around the house…and it goes on.

I guess it’s good – positive and pro-active. But it’s also prone to getting obsessive and unhealthy – as I lie here in the middle of the night writing this, unable to sleep because I’ve spent all evening working on and talking about Ben’s blog and my mind is racing.

It reminds me of how I used to be about work, before I gave it up for the much less stressful life of being a full-time parent. It seems that in the absence of a job, I’ve unintentionally turned widowhood into one  – a new life  of campaigning, fundraising, event planning, publishing and blogging.

It wasn’t a plan – it’s just happened this way. Do I want it? To be defined so entirely by what has happened to me? Recently I was given the grim epithet ‘skin cancer widow’ in a local newspaper headline – do I really want to encourage that label and wear it like a Macdonalds badge?

Not especially – but I don’t have a choice, it’s what I am – and for now I think it’s helping me to counteract the sadness and loss by being busy making and doing things for Ben and for his memory. Though it’s not necessarily conducive to relaxation or getting enough sleep!

So anyway, not what I thought grieving would be like – but I suspect this ‘work’ is part of the process for me.


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

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‘Widow’ – A brainstorm

When I think of the word ‘widow’ I think ….

Appearance – black, sombre, dowdy, old, grey, haggered, ghostly

Feeling – grieving, miserable, alone, lost, hurting, bereft, a shadow of former self, missing a part

That’s what everybody thinks of, right? Yet I struggle on a daily basis with the fact that I am absolutely none of these things. I suppose I am grieving, but this doesn’t seem to entail the misery that I would expect. Though I feel relaxed about the fact that I have no compunction to wear black and dress like a dowdy old Victorian , I do feel troubled that I am not feeling miserable or depressed or lonely or lost or a ”shadow of my former self’ etc etc. That’s what people expect, it’s what I expect – or did expect until I found I wasn’t conforming with my literary/media-fuelled stereotype a la the brainstorm above. The truth is I’ve been very happy over the last few months since Ben died (there you see – I flinch at the cold, unfeelingness that that sentence seems to betray)…I love my relationship with Saskia; we have an amazing, frequently hilarious time together; I’ve got lots of wonderful friends with whom I can hang out and talk to about things so I never have to feel alone; I’ve got a great home and enough money; I’ve got time and freedom for myself to do the things I enjoy. Those are all reasons to be happy – and my enjoyment of them is not tarnished by depression or sadness or emptiness or any of the other feelings that I would expect at this time. I would have expected anything but happiness!

So this makes me a cold, unloving cow right? Surely if I’d really loved Ben I’d be a mess now, right? Or missing him more? In talking to my counsellor today I came to realise that there is a common assumption that the degree of pain and ‘messed-up-ness’  a person feels over a lost loved one is directly proportional to how much they loved that person.

Degree of pain felt after loss = Degree of love felt before loss

Is this true? Or is it just an easy assumption, and in fact the degree of pain has absolutely nothing to do with the degree of love and more to do with how the person deals with that loss? I prefer to believe the latter – it sounds more likely, plus it gives me permission to stop beating myself up about being happy (not that it’ll stop that little guilt gremlin bugging me altogether – maybe one day it’ll leave me in peace).

So, back to widowhood. If I think of myself as the widow, rather than my imaginary storybook/Hollywood widow, the brainstorm would go more like this…

Appearance – a bit more wrinkled and pale lately but nothing a bit of summer sun won’t cheer up, same old jeans and predominance of blue/green/turquoise that there’s always been

Feelings – happy, thankful, passionate, sad, thoughtful, confused, free, excited, anxious, peaceful, guilty

Wow – quite a mix! Which I guess goes to show what rubbish stereotypes are. My counsellor gave me today a diagram based on something called the ‘Dual Process Model’ – it divides coping with bereavement into two processes ‘Emotional Pain/Loss & Grief’ and ‘Adjusting/Adapting’ and shows an arrow zig-zagging back and forth between the two – so I guess I fit right in with this model with this collection of feelings. I just seem to be doing quite well at moving towards the Adjusting/Adapting and am not too stuck on the Emotional Pain side. And that’s OK!

Coping with bereavement