Early this year I received an invitation from the BBC to be involved in the creation of a short documentary around the topic of grief. Well, male grief to be more specific with my own flavour. The creation of this miniseries was to bring together a number of people who had been affected by mental health issues and bereavement.
After 6 hours of filming in my home in Southport and down in London. I was expecting a little more than 9 minutes of footage to be included in the final edit. I’m guessing the whole Covid-19 lockdown played a big part, or maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. It really did make me think twice about ever doing something like this again. Especially considering the amount of time, effort and personal information Marco and I had initially put in.
Anyhow, that’s enough grumbles from me. I hope this finds the right people out there, even if it just 9 mins of empathy.
This is a guest article I recently wrote for Metro – describing exactly how I felt about finding love again as a young, widowed Dad. This is the first piece I’ve worked on since finishing this blog – I think it’s as worthy as all my previous posts – thus the share.
A few days ago, a fellow widower asked me “I need to
address a few things, I’ve shelved so many feelings of my wife’s death because
I just don’t know how to deal with them,” “what did you do Mark?” I was so
unrehearsed for this query, I realised I hadn’t even asked myself this
question. I was even more off guard with it being off the back of our laid-back
chat about Football. So, my reply went “Wow, that’s some question. I’ll
tell you what, read my blog next week and I’ll try my best.”
I’ve thought long and hard about his query every day
since he asked. With him being at such an early stage of his grief, I wanted to
give him the one tool that helped me the most. I had previously done and
strained so many different types of therapeutic practices around my own grief.
After some deliberation with my past and present efforts; I now feel poised to
give my best and probably my most obvious response.
Now, before I share this, let me start by just stating that my grief has been so overwhelming for me since day one. Whatever support or therapy I’ve received, I have never expected to just wake up one morning to realise that all my grief had just vanished into thin air. It will never do you any favours as it certainly doesn’t’ work like that. Instead, the reality is, it will continue to be a drain on you, but on different levels, as time goes by. Always remember, self-therapy will just soften your emotions and teach you to understand them.
Even as I pace through my third cycle since Katherine’s
passing. I have found that early grief had always made me feel confident about
my emotions at one stage and then desperately insecure with them in the next. Confidence
may not be something that everyone associates with bereavement, but it’s
something I have certainly felt more of as time has gone by. Maybe this is just
how my therapeutic practice has helped me embrace my past and my future.
So, if I could share some insight into my best emotional therapy. It would be this. I found and used a tool that we all have at our disposal. A very important tool that can potentially help any of us cope in any situation: writing.
Writing down my thoughts while grieving boosted my entire
immune system and increased my emotional and mental health. This was even
before I started sharing them on my blog. During the beginning, when I first
started to document my thoughts. I noticed straight away that it triggered my
strong emotions. I would even go as far as linking its release to the same
sensation as crying or like the moments when I have felt extremely upset. It
gave me a self-therapeutic benefit for just “letting off steam”.
Especially when I didn’t want to speak to anyone about them.
I always had to remember that most of the people around
me found it uncomfortable to discuss. Especially when it came down to the
nitty-gritty details of Katherine’s death. My friends would talk to me about
“getting through it” and “moving forward” and “healing.” They would shy away
from talking about her actually passing, not out of cold-heartedness, but out
of natural fear. I guess most people just don’t want to say the wrong thing;
death is just downright scary overall. This made me understand why there is so
much coverage of celebrity grief and movies about loss: they seem to create a
public space where everyone can safely talk and feel something about another’s loss.
As the weeks and months went by, my writing was now the
instrument of self-exploration, self-expression, and self-discovery that
provided me with a safe space to simply be the grieving single parent widower I
felt like. I didn’t need to attempt to talk to others as It was catering for
all the things that were left unsaid, my unshared emotions, and those tricky
questions for which I had no closure.
Of course, all my written efforts had to happen mostly in
my head. Maybe this is one reason I wrote about my loss in real-time, so to
speak. Writing seemed to help me puzzle through my bewildering change. It
sparked my strength to let go of Katherine’s funeral and to help me bridge the
stark boundary between my inner sorrow and my outer functioning.
I like to view everything that I’ve written on my blog as
an internal psychological exploration of my grief. I have always felt that I
wasn’t just writing about the loss of my wife and my daughters Mother. I was
also mapping the intimate contours of this mysterious transformation I was
experiencing. I even decided to share it with a lot of other people to, like
yourself, reading this post now.
I’m no expert and I am not saying that writing is a
substitute for professional therapy, it’s simply not! It has just provided me with a pathway to
explore and discover my journey and all the courage and strength I’ve gained to
build myself back up again. This was
what I ultimately wanted, a more resonant description than any of the stages of
grief could offer. One of the most beautiful things about it was the fact that
no one could even judge me too.
While writing, I noticed that it became more of a ‘state of mind’ to address and reflect on what is actually going on, logically. Writing down my thoughts and feelings after I lost Katherine allowed me to express myself freely and safely. I had discovered a very rare and safe place to reflect on the meaning of life and death, which relieved me from my shackling thoughts and released a heavy burden in my chest.
With this massive release, it has been a lot easier to
not only make it through the day but the weeks and the months. Easier, in the
sense that I have full acceptance in the way everything in my life is now. Most
of the ‘head banging’ questions have gained some much-needed closure too.
I guess if I hadn’t documented my grief I could have
possibly been left slightly paralysed, muted and unable to comprehend my loss.
Yet, I am now able to speak — to breathe, to sleep, to eat, to go for walks in
the sun, to find myself laughing with my family and friends — to fall in love
again — to even marry again.
So, maybe you’re thinking of writing about your grief? I’d say go for it, or even just give it a try?
Here are some concepts I used. Maybe they might help you
if you don’t know where to start:
• Always write down thoughts and feelings about yourself and the one you’ve lost (Carry a pen and paper with you or use your phone).
• Try to sort and list any conflicting emotions.
• Develop an understanding of things that have been suppressed inside.
• Make room for other thoughts and feelings.
• Try to be honest and think deeply about what you would want your loved one to know and acknowledge.
• Always express your regret as a way to bring closure
• Respect any change of thought and feeling you have about death and yourself.
• Reflect and understand yourself in a new light.
• Simply just be yourself. Remember your words will remain private and confidential and wouldn’t be published for public consumption. Unless you want it.
Last week I went back to the future. I had one of those spontaneous moments when we bump into someone we haven’t seen for a while. For me, it was an old work colleague. I hadn’t seen this fellow for a very long time. We managed to avoid most of the pointless small talk, it was one of those good and meaningful catch ups. With the added highlight that he had recently become a stay at home Dad. Despite my single parent widower status being the only variance in circumstance, we exchanged our parental knowledge.
Regardless of us no longer working collaboratively, we gradually discovered just how much we still had in common. We found alignment in our views and all the parental pearls of wisdom we had gained. Later that day, I started to have mixed emotions around the whole conversation. As nice as it was, it was hard to swallow the fact that we were still different in a big way, he had a wife and his child had a mother.
I knew I had to remember the positive outcome of the conversation. We were just two young men, each doing a job as a parent without making a fuss, but should we be making a fuss? I started to think about how Dads could have a positive side effect on how we see men in general. In truth, the stereotypical view of Dad’s in our society has come a very long way from when I was a child. Yet I accept our society’s view hasn’t fully changed. I know I could easily start a debate if I asked a majority of parents if they thought a Dad’s job was to earn money, and a Mum’s job is to look after the home and family.
By stepping up to the mark, have I defined a more positive view on what we think is typical of the average man. On reflection, Yes, I have. Should I be writing about it? Absolutely!
I can walk around with a happy face on most of the time, but in reality, I do live in a crazy world. I have learnt to become the master juggler of nursery drop-offs, pickups, running a clean and happy home, giving out buckets of unconditional love, making meals and working full time. Somewhere in the midst of all that chaos, I do actually find some ‘me’ time too. Is it tough? Of course.
I can honestly say that I don’t like it at all, I absolutely love it!
The past highlights of the nightime feeding, teething, learning to eat, immunisations, first steps, first words, birthday parties, playgroup activities, potty training, family holidays… to name a few, where massive challenges. However, it is these moments that make me feel happy too. Happy to have achieved a milestone for my child. Having been through all these moments alone I always sign each one off with “Marky boy, take a bow son”, I always feel proud. I never doubt that in my mind that, if Katherine was alive, she would be proud too.
I don’t like writing this, but I feel I should point it out. Sadly, there will always be families out there with both parents at a disadvantage. Some children might miss something from a family with both parents. Maybe it is out of the parents’ control and they have to work around the clock, or they work nights? Could it be one of the parents isn’t actually interested? Maybe love isn’t expressed openly in a family? My point being, in some cases many single-parent families are doing a much better job raising children than families with both parents.
I want my little girl, Margot, to grow up knowing that raising children isn’t a man or a woman’s job but it’s the job of a parent. Social class or status means nothing in terms of life and happiness. I want her to understand that men and women can be whatever they want. I’ve absorbed both the Mum and Dad roles into a hybrid version of myself. What I have turned into has extended beyond all those traits considered to be the stereotype of masculinity.
Does this fit your situation, or can you relate to what I am describing? Then you should know it’s going to be ok for your child or children. You’re going to be ok. I used to ponder how I was going to get through it all. I’m here and it’s all working out, in it’s own strange and adapted way. We should all feel proud to be a Dad. Even within the hardest years.
For me, there is no better description of how it feels to be a parent than in the words of the author, Elizabeth Stone. Having a child is like consenting to have your heart walk around outside of your body! And this is why we put our heart and soul into our role. Especially with being a widowed single parent Dad challenging traditional stereotypes of masculinity and fundamentally redefining what it means to be a man.
Over the weekend, I took my little girl out to the local amusement park, Pleasureland in Southport. This is what I like to class as ‘quality’ time together. We generated lots of fun and laughter. It had generously refilled my love, happiness and content levels to the brim. I also, subconsciously had my writing cap and the day got me thinking. Without sounding morbid. As widowed single parents, how sad are we, and how sad have we been? And why is it people like me, that like to let you know.
I know that the real factor behind this thought was that I now have a long-term outlet for my grief, my blog. I have the ability to reach out to fellow widowers. My intention was never to discover the answers. My aim is to communicate the themes of loss and grief for men. I want to provoke some thought into my experience. To support people just like me and give some insight into the answers I originally fought for.
By the end of the day, it became apparent that my initial feelings had led me to see just how far I’ve come in 2 years. I’ve realised that I’m now at a point now where I was balancing the demands of my full-time job and the demands of my child. She was only adapting to this new world. A world where she doesn’t even know her Mum or the events that have occurred. Yet, she is the happiest little girl that any parent could ask for.
Despite what has happened in our past, I have always put my family first. This made me feel good. Good in the sense that I have confronted the reality of my new life. As an adult, I reached out for support when I’ve needed it. As a blogger, I’ve also strived to communicate as effectively as I can to everyone around me. Now I can start to see the outputs of my decisions and actions. The positives in my life are really starting to shine through.
I gradually started to reflect on exactly what were my actions and how did I employ them? By the end of the day, I thought to myself, “I need to get the main points out of my head and onto paper”.
Intervention when I needed it
I’ve managed to get through the heavy and hard stages of grief. I’ve managed to accept them as they’ve come. I’ve waded through each one in my own time until I was ready to move onto the next wave. I’ve allowed myself the time I needed to also heal some of my wounds. I’d sought counselling when I needed it. My process of learning to cope without my wife was and is a tough, complex and complicated path. Being able to accept the counselling I needed has also helped me become a better Dad to Margot. I’ve developed a warmer, more nurturing and sensitive side for her to enjoy.
I also joined various support groups for those who have survived the death of a spouse. One was with the national charity, Widowed & Young (WAY). I was always aware of WAY, I just never got around to explore the organisation at the beginning. However, this is where my self-assurance in widowhood really started to grow. They offer a vast support network tailored for young widowed men and women. When I discovered how members sought to understand and help others, the feeling of isolation seemed like a thing of the past. Peer support from someone who suffers from their own pain of bereavement is probably the most selfless and noble ability I’ve witnessed.
Since the beginning, I desired the ability to communicate with others in my position. It was here all along, physically and virtually. My only regret is that I never became involved earlier.
Accepting help from my friends and family
When help was offered to me, I always accepted it. For me, there are few things in life more tragic than losing a wife and the mother of my child. My family, friends, neighbours and extended family members all offered help to me. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t been willing to accept it graciously and allow others the opportunity to serve my family.
I kept traditions alive
No matter how big or small, I maintained our family traditions. Though traditions are predictable in certain points of time. Amongst the chaos, for me, they brought real stability in my home. Decorating the Christmas tree early was a thing; I chose not to ignore the tradition as much as I didn’t mentally feel like doing it. I even ensured I took my daughter away holiday once a year, even if it has to be modest to be affordable. Whatever the traditions are, hang onto them as a family.
I organised my home
Getting yourself organised as best you can be tricky whilst grieving, for obvious reasons. Some of the family routines had been Katherine’s domain, but now it had fallen upon me to take them all on. The more I made routine tasks more “automated,” the easier the transition became for me. When I eventually managed to schedule my weekday evenings for things like laundry, shopping, and cleaning, the more single parent life became manageable.
I discovered that when I could get these tasks completed in the week, it took a huge amount of stress off the weekends. More importantly, I work full time. This enabled me to experience more fun and quality time with my daughter.
Healthy body = Healthy Mind
The hardest and most important balance of them all is monitoring your health. Like me, many newly widowed fathers will neglect their own physical, mental or emotional health while going through grief. Before my wife passed I was an active runner. Each week I would run 3-4 times a week. When she left us, exercise seemed like the most impossible element to maintain in my life. I rightly focused on my own daughter and not me. I drove myself into the ground. I didn’t exercise. I didn’t eat right and when the night came so did the drink.
If and when you can. Try to include as much exercise as you can. Even if it just playing in the garden or going for a walk with your child. At one stage, during the early days. I bought a treadmill and placed it in an empty part of my house. I would purposely set my morning alarm an hour before my daughter would wake, I’d run 3 miles before breakfast. For me running was more like meditation. It would allow me to ponder my thoughts and let me focus on the day ahead.
If you are a recently widowed father. You can find lots of support, help and advice. You will no doubt need to follow your heart when you feel you’re ready to accept it. At first, it will be difficult to see any horizon. By taking the process slowly and naturally will allow you to move through this most difficult of situations and transitions in a more positive way than you might see presently. I have listed a few of the services I’ve used within the ‘Widower Support’ page of my blog.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.