Man down

As I approach the second anniversary of my wife’s death, I anticipate the multitude of emotions that will no doubt, return. There has always been attention paid to grief and its connections to health and illness. My experience and the impact between mental wellbeing and grief was pretty much textbook.

It wasn’t too long ago, I looked at myself in the mirror and acknowledged that my life will never be the same as it once was. I could face the fact that life, in general, doesn’t’ always go to plan. No matter what our story is. My life went in one direction and within a blink of an eye, it faced a different one.

I never planned it, and I never once asked for the direction it went. However, it wasn’t’ just my life that changed direction, it was also a range of other elements, such as my wellbeing.

The concern around my mental health was a common theme in my grieving.
From the beginning, the loss of my wife generated huge vulnerability and mental limitations. It had shaken the foundations of meaning and produced considerable suffering for me. My mind found reality too traumatic to deal with and too painful. My brain spontaneously took the action it needed to protect its host.

I did have days when my head would be overloaded with torturous thoughts and visions. One specific thought I duelled with constantly was how Katherine would have managed if I had been the one to have died. How would she have coped and was I content for me to live in this pain and not her? I also tortured myself during milestone moments with my daughter. I would imagine in my mind just how Katherine would have responded and expressed her happiness observing Margot’s behaviour.

Apparitions would appear during moments when Margot took her first steps, spoke her first words, had her first birthday, went on her first holiday. Even the more obscure and funny moments with my daughter would be bittersweet. It would break my heart into pieces when I’d think about it too much. It really did bring tears to my eyes.

Loneliness was a massive factor in my wellbeing. I always remember when I began to sink emotionally. During the weeks and months after the funeral as most people, apart from family, had started to drift away. The loneliness officially started to kick in. I felt that I was no longer part of the couples’ world and I had no one who understood what I was going through.

At first, I refused to seek help or change course for the deviations I noticed. Instead, I decided to go away with friends for a winter holiday to Spain. My aim was to clear my mind and create some happy memories for me and my daughter. Each day was meant to be filled with fun and laughter in the sun. In reality, I just ended up duelling with my mind more so than ever. I returned home and all of the facades of doing OK came apart and the depression took over. Everything came crashing down on me. I became dependant on alcohol and I cried, a hell of a lot; I was incredibly sad and lonely.

Spain 2018, Daddy & Margot (the brave ones)

After dropping my daughter off at the nursery in the morning, I would drive into work, park my car, sit with my head on the wheel and stir at my knees as my eyes rained onto them. It would take at least ten minutes each day before I could get myself out of the car and go to work.

It was only when I discovered support from the charity sector and from a specialist service that my wellbeing started to change for the better. This didn’t happen overnight, it took dedication and openness to find mindfulness. One key element that really helped me was discovering somebody who had been through what I was going through. Someone who was also a widower and a single parent. I had found someone who had come out the other side and it gave me great hope. Margot was going to be ok. I was going to be ok.

From my support days, I really want to touch upon a broad component of widowhood that I have observed. I had discovered that expressions of grief were sometimes very deeply gendered. I found that some men would grieve in a way that can only be described as a masculine practice. It was almost as if some felt judged and alienated to show raw emotion. All I could think of was the term “man-up” as some adopted a form of toughness. The feeling of crying or even attending a support session resembled some sort of weakness.

I understand we’re all very different and express ourselves in our own way. However, when expressing and releasing grief, I think it’s really important for men to open up. It is equally important to know there’s nothing wrong with tears. It’s ok for a man to cry, in fact, it’s more than ok to cry. I say this in the contest to the perceptions of male grief and the entire ‘Harden up’, ‘Man up’ and ‘Suck it up’ medals of honour.

I can’t emphasise how important all of this was for my journey. Timely support protected me against the risk of poor mental wellbeing. Please don’t have any shame in seeking specialist/professional interventions. Grief cannot simply be suppressed. It will eventually catch with you at some stage in your life.

I recalled a story more recently describing how Prince Harry revealed that he sought counselling after twenty years of bottling up his grief. He had unhealthily suppressed his emotions after losing his mother when he was twelve and came close to a complete breakdown. In an ideal world, I guess if our society was to understand the impact of bereavement better, it would be more geared up to support those in need and to prevent any form of depression from grieving.

The reality of learning to love again

When you think about love, it isn’t exclusive. It’s not exclusive to one thing or one being alone at any given time. Within our short little lives, it is endless and ours to express to whatever and whomever we desire. In terms of experiencing a bereavement of a spouse, widowers can choose to lock it away forever or to eventually give it to someone new. The right is ours alone.

I have read a lot of fascinating stories about how widowers have found love again in short spaces of time. It is very common for young widowers to find sudden love. It was only 2 days ago I was reading a very interesting article on the Huffington Post about how ex-Sky Sports presenter, Simon Thomas found love again within 12 months of his wife’s passing. Another celebrity status widower in the form of Patton Oswalt, again he was engaged within 12 months of losing his wife. Each with their own story on how they heal and embrace their new lives.

Ex Sky Sports presenter and fellow widower – Simon Thomas

Being a single windowed parent in my 30’s I wanted to live my life too. I wanted to live my life the way Katherine would have wanted me to. I was not destined to remain in mourning forever. I did not choose to shut down, wear black and become a miserable and bitter father to my daughter. Instead, I chose to grieve in my way, in my time and to move my life towards my own design – a design that happily included new love and new adventures.

If you have also chosen a similar pathway and you’re equipped to grip the opportunity by the balls. Be prepared to generate a level of shock reaction from others. This will usually come from the people who I like to refer to as ‘observers of grief’. These individuals generally fall into the categories of friends and outsiders. For me, it was mostly a selection of my wife’s friends, 2 even being bridesmaids at our wedding. Exposing just how shallow and selfish some people can be during a time of transition and openness. More than likely they’ll probably want nothing more to do with you or your children again. I have touched upon this topic in my previous post about grief and friendships not mixing.

During my experience, I noticed an array of remarks and comments from various people in the form of “it’s too soon”, “how could he do this to her” and “he’s just not grieving properly”. As if ‘they’ defined a universal grieving time period from their book = ‘The Idiots Guide to Grief’. It is criticism like this that we, the widowers are attuned to.

The reaction of others begged an obvious question from me to them. Since when did ‘learning to love again’ translate into ‘forgetting’ our loved one?

Exactly just how long is ‘long enough’ before we’re allowed to live again in the eyes of the observer. Is it 1 year, 2, 3, 4, maybe 10 or even 20 years until they’re totally satisfied to let us move on in life, to find happiness again? The honest truth is, only we can make this decision and it has nothing to do with anyone else around you. However, no matter what time frame your heart and soul has chosen, you can’t win. It could be in 5 years’ time and the reaction from the observers will always remain the same. I always knew that their reactions would be a selfish one. No matter how you feel just remember that If they had gone through a loss like ours they would never judge a person for wanting to fall in love again.

In broad society, it’s quite common how we accept a stage of our life to be over before we can start the next one. Our thinking is very linear in how we understand our own emotional states. The thought of overlapping grief with love to the observer usually is impossible to grasp. Not being directly linked to the bereavement, how can they? They will feel like you’re being disloyal or minimising the loss of the person. They could even think they’ll fall into this category if they show a level of support towards you.

As widowers we all know we carry our grief with us forever, it cannot simply be removed or forgotten. We are not required to conclude our grieving to begin a new relationship. The love in our hearts isn’t moved to one side to make room for someone new. If and when it happens an addition is built on. The heart becomes greater. We don’t have a capacity or limit to the amount of love we can give in our lives, love is infinite.

Since my wife passed, the love I have for her has never moved, it’s still firmly cemented into my entire being. It will remain that way for the rest of my life and will never go away. Not ever. Not with the passage of time. Not with the introduction of a new person into my life. I am honouring Katherine’s legacies of love and service by continuing to move forward; by modelling the best example that I can for my daughter, by building a family unit and living a life with my new partner, whom I love deeply. By doing all of these things, I am indeed honouring the legacies of love and service that Katherine left for me to carry forward.

I believe that all young widowers can do the same, if and when you choose to do so. There is no time limit when the time is right. When it does happen, and you let it in. Embrace it and carry forward the legacies that were entrusted to you by your late spouse. If you choose it, living your new life can include companionship again… and love. Just choose carefully, choose wisely — and love again abundantly.

Because you can!

Children’s grief: The long and winding road

As adults, it’s never easy dealing with the topic of death. As widowers, It’s occurred to us all. It may have been a sudden, expected, prolonged or accidental loss. Though we know it’s an inevitable part of all our lives, talking about death is something most of us aren’t really good at because the subject is so painful. We simply just aren’t prepared for the aftermath, especially if you’ve also become a single parent in the same making.

My daughter, Margot, was only 8 months old when my wife passed, which meant I had to carry her grief as well as my own. Since I’ve been a widower and single parent my mind has constantly been packed to the rafters about so many issues. I guess it would have been much harder for her to move through if she had been a lot older. If I’m deeply honest, because of her age she hasn’t really been affected emotionally at all yet. The world around her has simply adapted itself to support her needs.

Talking about a bereavement to our children is a damn painful and damn complex position to be in. Where do you begin? The thought of what to say and how to say overwhelmed me for a long time. Part of the experience is finding ways to express what happened so it would be better for her to make sense of what happened, and finally, for her to accept what happened. I’ve had to be proactive in my approach for a while as I wanted to prepare her to deal with situations the best she can.

In terms of carving out the rules from scratch, my main concern was to do what’s right for her needs and to avoid as much pain as possible down this delicate path.

Strangely over the last year or so I’ve found she’s at her happiest state when she sees me happy, it’s like some sort of sixth sense. With this in mind, I always let her know how I’m feeling and spread as much laughter and love around us as possible. This doesn’t mean I tell her any old nonsense. I just don’t hide any of my true emotions from her, if I did she is isn’t going to grow to become the person I want her to be. She doesn’t understand yet, but I’ve always been honest with her from the beginning and I will continue to be. How can I justify myself to be happy to my daughter when sometimes I’m not? It’s really important to show the emotions that I feel. so, she can show them back and understand it’s OK to do so.

My reason for this is that I really don’t want Margot to hide her feelings from me if she is emotional. Overtime when she grows I don’t want her to develop any low confidence, stress or anxiety about this situation. I intend to encourage her to talk and reflect with me about how she feels. Not only in the now, but also how she felt previously in the past, to leave no stone unturned at any point.

Being only 2 years old she won’t understand certain words like death, ever, and never? But she needs to learn them at some point which is why I have recently purchased the children’s book ’Badger’s Parting Gifts’. It’s really supportive in dealing with the end of life and it handles the subject brilliantly. The concept is that Badger is getting old and he begins to prepare for his own big journey to old age and the inevitable death. He gives each of his friends something (positives from his life) to remember him by before he leaves. The illustrations are enchanting, and the moment of Badger’s death is beautifully handled as he runs down the last tunnel, throwing his stick away. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anybody faced with explaining death to a child.


Badger’s Parting Gifts: 35th Anniversary Edition of a picture book to help children deal with death

In terms of explaining things about her Mum, I want to tell her the truth – this is the most important factor! I can’t tell her one-story now and change it when she’s’ 5,6,7,8 years old, just to ease her mind. I really don’t see this as being fair or honest to her. I want her to understand it as she grows so she can deal with the world around her better on a daily basis. I made a conscious effort to tell all my friends and family to never ever use the term “she’s gone to a better place”. She’s not gone to a better place, has she. If Katherine could choose she wouldn’t be there. I never want Margot to think “why is it better than being with me here” and “how can I go there”. For the next few years, I’m happy to use terms like “she’s gone away and can’t come back” and “she’d never have left you and she didn’t want to go”.

I’ve managed to collate this path from my own experience and countless nights of deep thinking. I’ve also gathered a few bits from the free and professional support services available to widowers. I’ve not had to deal with a child who has encountered grief head-on. In a society that is often too afraid to talk to children about death, bereaved kids need to have somewhere safe and non-judgmental to turn. I’m sure the services I’ve used will make a world of difference to bereaved children. I’ve listed the ones I’ve used below:

Cruse Bereavement Care: https://www.cruse.org.uk/get-help/about-grief/childrens-grief

Winston’s Wish: https://www.winstonswish.org/

Child Bereavement UK: https://childbereavementuk.org/

Kindness to strangers

I often take great pleasure in seeing how Katherine lives on in our daughter, Margot. As a 2-year-old, her ego state hasn’t even been developed yet. The sense of happiness and innocence is in free flow throughout her entire being. Nothing really phases her, she simply lives in the moment. The world is a happy and bright space to be in. It’s a beautiful thing to be around.

As adults, isn’t it strange how we see the world in our ego state? The entire pattern of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour is all we can process and understand. We have all these routine variables in life we must strive to accomplish or commit to. From my own perspective, this is just the way we’ve been programmed to see the world from a young age. Even when dealing with the concept and experience of bereavement and its trail of destruction = grief. My point being, that we’re never really shown or taught how to deal with a sudden life-changing event and the endless questions around it. We’re all just cast out into the wide world with big fat ‘figure it out for yourself’ sticker.

The past 12 months I think I’ve figured it out in my own way, I’ve tried to be more ‘Margot’ in my outlook. When I realised I could offer my insights as a widower and as a single parent to help others. I knew I could turn my negative energy into a positive. This is exactly what my wife Katherine did after she passed, she helped others!

Picture the scene if you will. A room, on a ward in Boardgreen Hospital, Liverpool. It’s May 2017 and I’m sitting next to my wife who was being kept on life-support. I’m holding her hand tightly as I’d already been told it’s over. We’d left our house that day a family of 3 and we had to return a family of 2. I was trying to absorb the concept of the unthinkable. A specialist nurse arrives and introduces herself as part of the Organ Donation Team. She opens a private conversation with me about my wishes for Katherine’s organs. This came as quite a shock, as it wasn’t something that we, as a married couple, had ever discussed in life, why would we? Things like this don’t happen to people like us, right?

I recall the Nurse reeling off a list of organs to me. My focus started to blur as the world around me started to collapse all over again, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. With my head in my hands, I replied to each organ in the slowest way you could possibly imagine, “I don’t know”, “I don’t know”, “I don’t know”, even to the important ones. Throughout my life, I’d never even considered my own body as a donor and here I am debating which parts of my wife’s body I’d like to give away. As the conversation continued, I’m not sure how, but in some form, I eventually found some mental courage. In my mind I knew I had to sharpen up, listen and ask the right questions to this specialist Nurse, she was only doing her job in the best way possible.

Having spent the last few days in an ICU ward surrounded by dying patients, I knew the importance of what was being asked of me. I recall the nurse also asking about Katherine’s eyes for a medical research purpose. At that moment and my current state of mind, I expressed great dissatisfaction. I wanted to explode into a ballistic rage. The thought of my wife’s eyes even being considered for lab work increased my blood pressure dramatically, even to this day. Those eyes were mine, they still are. Katherine had the most beautiful and distinguished eyes, they smiled and sparkled like stars from every angle, no matter her mood.

Towards the end of the conversation, the Nurse left the room and then suddenly returned 5 minutes later to inform me of some news she’d discovered. Katherine had already made my mind up, she had apparently made the decision online 3 months before she passed. To my surprise, it wasn’t even a new donor registration, she’d just renewed her 5-year-old membership. I had no idea.

From the initial feeling of shock, I strangely felt proud that she had made this generous and unselfish decision to donate her organs, and I was happy to respect her wishes. The fact that the decision had already been made for me relieved the stress and possible uncertainty this would have caused at what was a very difficult and traumatic time. It wasn’t long after when the Nurses told me that they had found recipients for her organs.

Eventually, during the early hours of the morning, the Transplant Team arrived, and Katherine’s life support would have to be withdrawn. It was time for me to say goodbye and leave. Being given a time allocation to say goodbye to a spouse is probably the heaviest feeling you can carry. I could hear every tick from the clock on the wall as the seconds and minutes flew by.

As the months went on, I received a letter which gave me some bittersweet ‘anonymous’ information about what had happened with Katherine’s organs and the recipients. Without going into a lot of detail she helped a 48-year-old man, a 35-year-old woman (the same age as Katherine) and 9-month old baby (the same age as our daughter). My wife, Katherine, had brought a better life for somebody else, a better quality of life, if not survival for them. As emotional as it all sounds for me, I had to remember why those decisions were made by Katherine. And effectively the whole process I’ve described in this post, apart from the circumstances, it was exactly what she wanted. To give life after death.

I’m at a stage in my life when I feel comfortable to write about these times, I want to remember them and the important details. I know other widowers will read them and take what they need from it. I know I did from the resources I discovered. But mostly I do it for my daughter, Margot. I want her to read them in years from now and understand what we went through together.

I’ve also become an organ donor.

Bacardi & coke and a pint of grief, please

When Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) first introduced me to grief, alcohol was everywhere. For the first 7 months, during the evening’s, once my daughter had gone to sleep I would frequently self-medicate. I became dependant on it to help numb and avoid my pain. If I’m honest, when the silence came so did the darkness. Alcohol was the only thing I knew I could use to beat grief away just so I could avoid or postpone it that little bit longer. Without it I knew as soon as I took my ‘Dad’ hat off, I would crumble. Grief was a new beast I’d never encountered. I just wasn’t ready for it. Alcohol was my weapon, without it I’d simply be punching smoke.

For me, using alcohol to sedate myself was just one phase of my widowhood I had to go through. Especially when dealing with the sudden death of my wife. It was only last weekend when I started to think about just how cohesive alcohol is in all our lives. It’s so deeply integrated that we don’t even notice how acceptable it is. Life is good? Have a drink. Life is shit? Have a drink. Out celebrating, are we? Have a drink? Cooking a nice steak at home tonight? You don’t have to drive – roll out the bottles of red. At a wedding? Oooh, free drinks. Wetting the baby’s head? Have a drink. Big match on the television? Then it’s beer o’clock. At a funeral? You guessed it – drinks! It’s probably safe to say unless you work in a pub or restaurant, your place of work is the safest place to avoid alcohol.

This grief self-care medicine created a massive gap between knowledge and behaviour. At the back of my mind, I always knew it was a risk to become dependent on drinking the pain away, it wasn’t a healthy coping skill. Being a single parent, I had responsibilities. I had to be Mum and Dad. I knew people would be looking at me to see how I was coping. Plus, who has ever made a good decision when drinking? Somehow, I just found a deeper connection between rationalisation and alcohol. It addressed the symptoms of my grief, not the underlying problems. It made a real exploration of the underlying issues more difficult, masking them with a temporary “fix” and delaying me from addressing the feelings I should address. It put me at high risk for developing dependence. It put a strain on my body and more importantly my mind.


Not the magic healing potion I thought!

I’ve always loved craft beers and fine wines, I still do to this day. I’d be one of the biggest hypocrites in the world to say you have to cut it all out of your life. It is really important to highlight that your grief can always put you at risk of developing a problem. I feel nothing but shame when I look back now. Once I could eventually break the cycle I knew I could embrace my grief and make it part of my life. This is what I described in the analogy of grief I shared last week. I can always recall the groundhog day feeling each morning I would wake up after drinking, the grief was still there looking back at me, it never went anywhere. This is when I soon realised that the only way to release my strong emotions is to feel them. This made me discover more self-awareness and it enforced more moderation of certain things into my life.

Companions in the Darkness

The entire premise of this post is to give some direction to those who are currently supporting a young widower. If you have not had the experience that your friend or family member is going through. There is simply no way of “making it better” when someone has this type of life trauma. The awful truth is that such agony can only be endured, not cured. This kind of pain is inconsolable, but this doesn’t mean your impulse to help is futile. I hope that what I share here will also help those recently widowed too. I urge you to read it, save it and share it.

Katherine and I were like two young trees that grew up intertwined. But then one tree died and was removed, leaving the other appearing deformed. This was the only way I could illustrate to my friends on how difficult the sense of loss was to me. Still, it was simply impossible for my friends to understand the depth of the pain caused by grief. My friends and family really felt powerless to change the conditions that generated my pain. When I go back to the beginning I was so lonely. Being the surviving parent, my daughter didn’t need to grieve, why would she, being just 9 months old. I had to carry the weight of what she’d lost on my back too. Most of my days consisted of an endless one to one loop with her. She had no interest in hanging out with me, being a baby, she was just doing what she was supposed to do, and I don’t blame her.

Spain 2018, our first holiday together.

We all experience grief differently, we respond to it in our own way too. Some days I would become snappy, grumpy and the thought of being pitied would cause me to explode. I absolutely despised being pitied by people. I wasn’t always the nicest person to be around at the beginning. That was just how I displayed my distress. If I’m really honest now, having visitors was one of the things I found comfort in. particularly when they sat and quietly listened whilst I reminisced or verbalised something that was occupying my mind at that moment. I probably wasn’t the best company, but I really appreciated the empathy.

Often the best way to help someone grieving is to just be there. Anniversaries being a key time to arrange for yourself or others to be with that person. Such as a wedding anniversary or a birthday. These are times when we experience the extreme sense of emptiness and sadness. Try not to drift away and leave that person alone for too long. I understand everyone needs space and time, but not widowers – if anything, we need company. Especially a grieving single parent. I was always particularly touched by the actions of one of Katherine’s closest friends, Emma. She took the initiative to regularly visit us and she always asked how I was coping emotionally, she became my soundboard for a lot of things, even to this day. Katherine would have been so proud of her!

Last year I stumbled upon this poem titled ‘Hold me close and go away’ written by Emma Cobb in 2002. This is probably the most accurate way of describing how I became ‘difficult’ company for my friends and family at the beginning. I’d like to think it might also help you understand the mindset of someone you’re supporting.

Hold me close and go away,
Please visit me and please don’t stay,
Talk to me but please don’t speak,
I need you NOW – come back next week.

Emotions muddled, needs unknown,
To be with others or on my own?
To scream out loud? To rant and shout?
Or hide away and push you out?

I smile at you – “She’s not that bad”
I shout at you – “She’s going mad”
I speak to you – “What do I say?”
I show my tears – “Quick, walk away”

It’s not catching, the grief I feel,
I can’t pretend that it’s not real,
I carry on as best I know,
But this pain inside just won’t go.

So true friends, please, accept the lot,
I
shout, I cry, I lose the plot,
I don’t know what I need today,
So hold me close and go away.

The offer of assistance is something to really consider, but like me, many will hesitate to take you up on the offer. You should try to be proactive and take care of something that would be of help to your friend–cleaning, gardening, cooking or even just entertaining a child. Let them know you’re willing to watch their children if they need some time alone or help in other ways.

Here are some gentle but powerful do’s and don’ts that will help you reach out to your family or friend. This information was prepared by the charity ‘Care for the Family’. It’s not going to quell the discomfort of grief. Believe me, when I say, this list is better than nothing. It really helped me and my friends after I shared it with them. It’ll at least help provide you with a starting point on how to support them from day to day. Please also use the links I’ve supplied on the ‘Widower Support’ page of my blog.

Always remember you’re not a bad person for not knowing what to do.

Understanding grief, an analogy

Grief is like a ball in a bucket. To begin with, it fills every space, and there is no room for anything else. But over time the bucket grows. It becomes a room, then a floor, then a whole house. The ball never gets any smaller, but your life grows and you have more space to move around your ball.

Over time there are days when you may not see the ball at all. Other days you open a door in your life and it trips you up. Some days it corners you. But as time passes you have more space to move the ball out of the way.

I’ve heard people say that the ball grows smaller and smaller and eventually vanishes. That is not the case. It will always be the same size.

For me, on anniversaries and similar reminders, I seek my ball out. I carry it around with me, and I hold it. These are the days I want and need my ball with me, no matter how much it hurts. And when I put it down again, it’s no longer crammed into a small space but it’s encompassed into my new life, becoming part of it.

Nathan Jenkins

This is the first guest post for my blog by Joannah Thelwell. I thought it would be a good idea for other victims of SADS to use this blog as a channel to share insights into our grief and how we pick up the pieces, as best we can.

Joannah is the mother of 2 boys. She was widowed by Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) back in 2013. Here she shares her story of how fiancé and daddy to her boys, Nathan Jenkins, was taken away from her family at the age of just 41.

I feel like I have shared my story hundreds of times but still, it’s not enough. Even after 5 and a half years, the pain is still very real. Though within that time I have moved on to, what I like to call, my second life. Nathan is still a massive part of it all, especially my children’s lives.

Let me take you back to the 22nd of July 2013. For the family, it was just like any other day, my eldest son Gabriel, then 3, had just finished nursery for the summer holidays. We were at home, relaxing and anticipating what we could all be doing during the weeks ahead. My youngest child Roman was only 11 months old.

Nathan was my long-term partner and fiancé of 15 years. He’d only just arrived home after a long hard day at work. We both sat down for a celebratory drink whilst watching the pending arrival of Prince George on the TV. We then put the boys to bed, ordered a takeaway, ate, chatted and then went to bed. An absolutely normal day in the life. I’ll always remember that this was also the only night in the first 4 and half years of Roman’s life that he didn’t wake up at any point in the night. I thank God for this!

Joannah with
Gabriel and Roman

Nathan and I kissed each other goodnight. I was that tired, my eyes were shut when he kissed me, something I’ll always regret. This is just one of the little details that really matter now. I’m not exactly sure how long we were in bed asleep, but it must have been around 11pm when I was woken by a loud sigh. I turned to see Nathan’s eyes rolling, his body had stopped breathing. I panicked and ran downstairs to grab the phone. I was hysterical. I called 999. With help from the person on the phone, I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman, it was all too much of a blur. I begin to work on Nathan for around 12 minutes or so. I suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis and I was in a terrible flare that night, so my hands were not working very well. I still feel like my CPR attempts were not really helping. My eldest child Gabriel woke up during all this. Paramedics then arrived and started to work on Nathan further.

Nathan was pronounced dead on the 23rd July 2013 at the age of 41. All the while trying to reassure my eldest child that Daddy was feeling unwell and the doctors were helping him.

After the masses of people left, police, paramedics, family, there was just me. I sat staring at the television right through the night until Gabriel woke at 6am to ask where Daddy was. The nightmare began. The coroner could not find any stress to Nathan’s heart and so put it down to Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS), something I had not heard of. The boys now have tests, frequently. Thankfully they are both clear at the moment. There is a small issue with Roman, but the doctors are not concerned for now.

My life, well, it changed beyond comprehension. My boys have been through absolute hell. I was totally lost for the 9 months afterwards, I don’t really remember being in the room, so to speak!! One day, it was like a switch had been turned on in my head. I had to get my life back on track, not just for me, but more importantly for my boys, they needed their Mum. That year Roman celebrated his first birthday, my 40th and Gabriel’s 4th Birthday all within 6 weeks of losing Nathan. All the while, trying to keep it together.

As time went by, I just wanted to help others so I decided to complete my first fundraiser with my best friend. We managed to purchase and install a public defibrillator locally in our area. I have also raised further money to help research purposes of this devastating condition. I really like to help raise awareness of SADS and I’m still continuing to raise more money in support of C-R-Y and the British Heart Foundation. Currently, as part of Whitchurch Ladies RUFC, I’m in training for a mountain trek to the summit of Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons. I intend to raise additional funds for C-R-Y. If anyone would like to donate to the cause, more information can be found here.

My life has moved forward recently, and I am now with my new partner Rich who is such a lovely man. He understands a lot about what happened and lets me grieve. We also talk about Nathan openly, as he lives on in my boys. I understand I will never ever get over losing Nathan, I still love him dearly. I thought we would be together for forever. A life lesson learnt from my traumatic experience is the importance of living for today as tomorrow is never promised.

If you would like to pen a guest post, please contact me directly either via email mark@norainorainbows.net, Facebook or Twitter (see links below). I will only publish posts about the issues and insights surrounding bereavement and grief.

Grief and friendship don’t always mix

Someone once said that being a widower is like living in a country where nobody speaks your language. I hope I can translate one of my bad experiences into something you might understand or have been through. I feel it’s very relevant as no one seems to give it the time it deserves in widowhood.

We all lose friends and gain friends throughout our life. Whether you have been friends for six months or 30 years, you do not know how your friendship will hold up during a crisis. Some friends step up and the bond becomes unbreakable and they’ll be there for the long haul. Despite what you may have thought, some friends will leave you when you need them the most. Perhaps they just don’t know what to say or how to act.

After speaking to other widowers, I’ve realised that we all faced unique and similar circumstances with our friends. It had only been a matter of months after my wife had passed. Some of her friends started to drift away, going back to their own lives, having babies, taking holidays, having parties – life just carried on and I could taste the lack of empathy in the air. Occasionally some would text, but the cards and visits stopped, especially for the important days, even for my daughter. I guess in my mind I knew what Katherine would have expected from them?

The more you ignore me, the closer I get by Morrissey. How can this song not fit this post!

For me, these friendships had officially strained at the seams. Promises of help and support had been made without any intention of delivery. Katherine deserved so much more from them, we deserved better. Frankly, I was sick and tired of the stages. I’ll always recall the additional ‘unofficial’ visits I’d received from my child’s health visitor, she was unbelievable. Sadly, this is where I discovered strangers possessed more compassion than these people.

Some can’t handle the losses of others and so they draw back. It really is one of those ‘life events’ that will show you who the true friends are. You have to just go through every experience that comes your way, face it, feel it, try to learn from it and then continue to carry on the best you know how. Just remember the good people keep coming back!

Many people will want to help you, but very few know how? I’ve already started to document an array of ideas and materials which I can share next week.

Accepting the new you

One thing I’ve learnt as a widower is that much of my experience has common elements with that of other widowers, but we each also have some very unique components in our individual journeys. For those who are supporting a grieving friend or family member, I’ve got some bad news for you. A life-changing chapter of this category will change that person.

When someone experiences bereavement, especially with a version of sudden death to a loved one like I did. Most of your identity and traits will be stripped apart and they become something totally new. The Mark all my family and friends knew had faded like a dead star, I’m no longer that person they all knew. My daughter will never ever know the person her Dad used to be.

When I emerged from the deepest and most painful first few months, crazy was the new normal for me. I quickly realised that I hadn’t a clue who this new person was. The external labels of ‘widower’ and ‘Father’ were all I had left to define me. Most of my friends didn’t know what to say to me anymore. Though I was off work at the time, I was desperately trying to step back into some sort of routine, but I just didn’t feel the same.  I was confused about my purpose. Everything I knew about my life was set in the old ‘pre-grief’ world. If ever a rationale for temporary insanity was needed, it was certainly found each time I looked back at myself in the mirror. Even during the dark days, I would selfishly ponder if I even wanted to continue as this ill-defined broken-person that remained.

When I think about it, I guess we all experience and struggle with it in indifferently. It just looks different on everyone because we all experience and express it in our own way. I found that once I understood and accepted that my wife was dead I could then begin discovering this new person I’d become.  I felt a level of mixed emotions about the one thing the new me had managed to retain, my sense of humour. I guess that actually sounds ironically funny in the form of the old Mark.

Naturally my outlook on how precious life was had magnified dramatically. The importance of money became pathetic, it was just a plaything to enable some ‘fun’ and get the things my daughter and I deserved. A new garden, a new car, holidays, clothes and lots of toys. Whatever I wanted I bought, I just lived in the ‘now’, tomorrow didn’t exist. This was when I really started to feel like I was losing it.

As the months went by, living as this new person was hard, you have to make your own blueprint to adjust.  I knew I had to keep myself mentally engaged, I wanted to choose life and meaning. I had to quickly come to terms with the new me and learn to adapt to what I was now all about. Having a child, I couldn’t afford to stop because I’ve got someone who depends on me. Every day I could hear Katherine’s voice in my mind saying, ‘You can’t just give up, I won’t let you’.

To process what I’d become, I knew I had to embrace my grief first. None of us wants to be sad, alone, delusional, lost, or without purpose. And yet, that is often exactly what we need to experience in order to process our grief.

I don’t have an exact answer for this topic, I just really want to emphasise the importance of change you’ll experience. Everyone will reinvent and discover the new you differently, this is just my story. You should always do it at your own pace. There is no need to rush it. Always allow yourself time and space to do this in a way that supports your situation. And take comfort, at some point, things should get easier to adjust.  An important part of healing and adapting to your new life is discovering the role your loved one will play in your life after a loved one’s death.

My season of grief has left me a little bit wary, a little bit wise, and a little bit crazy, but stronger!

Shock

Katherine’s death was sudden: In a second my life went from everything I’d dreamed of to darkness and chaos.

From the beginning I was so overwhelmed, the feelings of bewilderment, anxiety and self-reproach had their sights locked onto me like a pack of wolves. The capacity for me to cope naturally diminished instantly when dealing with her passing. Little did I know my body had already called in the cavalry; SHOCK! I had no preparation and no time to gradually absorb the reality that my world was about to change. My loss was so disruptive, all my adaptive capacities had been severely assaulted.

For the first 12 months, without me even knowing, the shock had absorbed everything I should have been or should have done. I lost all control of my world and my expectations had experienced a major violation. I had to face the massive gap between the way my world should be and the way the world is now. The only thing I could manage was the day-to-day care of my 9-month-old daughter.

When I look back, I often feel ashamed in the way I did things and acted. I’ll always regret never becoming the grieving widower at the start. Unconsciously, from the beginning when Katherine passed, I became this pillar of strength to everyone and everything. Though I presented myself as the superhero dad, doing everything by the book. Deep down I just wanted to crumble and be dragged down into the pits of emptiness, sadness and pain. These feeling were now squatting deep within my ego, waiting to emerge when the time was right. Almost as if the shock had engaged some sort of masculine centred autopilot which had total control over my being.

The loss of my wife didn’t make sense, it still doesn’t. At the time my understanding of what actually happened was missing. For a period of time, the shock made it very difficult for me to accept that Katherine’s death occurred, and it became inexplicable for a long period of time. I repeatedly went over the series of events in my head numerous times each day, as it had no understandable context.  For logical progression I found myself making the situation more manageable by looking back at the time leading up to her cardiac arrest in search of clues that could have indicated what was to come. Reconstructing every event in my mind in order to find some anticipation of her death. It drove me mad!

My next chapter of shock came in the form of responsibility. I started to hold myself responsible for not perceiving clues and for my actions before and during her cardiac arrest. I felt some levels of inordinate guilt for a period of time.  Of course, I understand now I would need to be a physician and to have given my wife an electrocardiogram (ECG) test to have known anything was wrong with her. Reflecting on this now, I was demoralised and trying to cope with my drastically altered world. I felt a lot of anguish for the first 12 months, I just wanted to say good-bye – I needed a positive close. I wish I could have had one brief moment with her to say how much she meant to me and how much I loved her. Just one more time!

I understand that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Shock is a traumatic stage of losing someone suddenly, you won’t admit or notice it at the time. Friends and family won’t spot it either. Having this awareness now enables me to look back on how I acted and the things I said without negativity. 

Over a period of time, it has been quite an ironic but positive consequence that the shock from a sudden death made me audit and identify my state of mind more than ever. Working professionally within an academic environment I’ve always been a reflective person. I’m not saying I’ve pulled something meaningful out of my tragedy. I mean this in the way that when we experience bereavement, we change and become something new. I’ll share my experience on this topic in my next post.