MMMBop

So here we are, two years since Katherine left us. Two years since I said goodbye to my love, my best friend, wife and mother to my daughter. Two years since I became a new person. Two years since my heart was broken. Two years since I experienced the loneliness, the depression, the shock and the MMMBop.

It was only seven days ago I had to carry the weight of our fourth wedding anniversary. Today is another hurdle to get over. It also marks the end of the second cycle and the beginning of the third. Margot and I have been through the first of everything important without Katherine and we’ve already begun to encounter them all over again – birthdays, Christmas time, family holiday’s, Mother’s and Father’s Day, numerous anniversaries. We’re still here, getting stronger and I’m still writing about it. I think I’ll be doing this for a long time. It is by far the best tool I have discovered to express my feelings. Not only for me but for others and to help my daughter in the future.

When I look back at the last two years. It doesn’t get any less painful to have lost Katherine, but it does slowly get easier to get through each day. Because of all the incredible support Margot and I received from our loved ones. After surviving the first year, people often asked me “how are you so positive?” or even “how did you get yourself out of bed every day?”!

Well for me, it came in three parts. Let me break my experience down for you.

Part one

In simple terms, I had no choice. I’m both Mum and Dad to my little baby girl. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself and it wasn’t going to get me anywhere in the process. I had to eventually let the grief take hold of me. This is the most important and hardest part to discover. By embracing it all, it has made me more logical today.

I’ve always said that everybody deals with grief very differently, a partner’s grief is different to a parent’s grief or a child’s grief or a friend’s grief and everybody copes in different ways. My philosophy on this still remains the same two years on. I cannot change what has happened, no matter how much I want to, so I need to try and make the best of my situation. If I can swing my legs out of my bed in the morning and I’m feeling well, and my daughter is healthy and happy, then anything else that happens that day is just a big fat juicy bonus. The important factor is, you let it take you. Don’t repress it.

Part two

This came from the experience I gained from dealing with the first anniversary. This is what really helped me mentally and emotionally get to where I am now . Back then, I made a conscious decision not to be around our family home. Or even the UK for that matter. By that point, the memories of sadness in our family home had hugely top trumped all the happy ones we created. The darkness was too much for me to handle. Instead, I had devised a masterplan. I chose not to challenge the inevitable pain in the battleground of our home. I had to face it head-on in a more positive environment. To essentially balance this beast of sadness with a little influx of happiness.

I chose to endure the first anniversary within the realm of fantasy, magic and make-believe! This came in the form of Orlando, Florida, USA.

For Katherine, Orlando was the happiest place on earth. It held so many joyful memories for us and for her childhood memories. We had got engaged at Disney’s Magic Kingdom back in October 2013. We also spent our honeymoon here at this exact point in time back in May 2015. Another reason why I wanted to rekindle my fondness of the time we had together.

Magic Kingdom, Orlando (2013)

On the flipside of all of this, my brothers 40th birthday was approaching the week before Katherine’s first anniversary. I’d realised that I hadn’t bought him anything for this monumental birthday. It also occurred to me that in the forty years of our brotherhood, we had never actually been on holiday together. Just the two of us.

I’m very close to my older brother Karl. He’s the only brother I have and the funniest person I’ve ever known. If anyone could attempt to lift my spirit to cloud #9 during this spell- it was him. Katherine adored him, and he adored her. The perfect brother and sister in laws. This opportunity was so right in every way. Not only to take my best man from our wedding but to also have my best and closest friend by my side each step of the way.

A deep downside for any victim of Sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS) is the fact that the heart of the victim is inspected to discover the cause prior to the diagnosis of SADS. I hadn’t received Katherine’s heart back till after the funeral. This meant that all of her original ashes had already been buried at this point in time. When I eventually received her heart back from the pathologist, I managed to have it privately cremated and presented to me in a small but beautiful box made of pure English Oak.

I remember one evening sitting in my kitchen, just stirring at it for a long time. Realising how perfect it was in size and weight to travel. Here, the perfect opportunity had presented itself to me. I could spread the ashes of her beautiful and kind heart within the domain of her favourite Disney resort. Two had suddenly become three for the trip.

Words could not describe how amazing the two-week adventure turned out to be. I experienced vast amounts of high and lows from both theme park rides and the triggered memories of my wife. My brother and I had also been given the chance to connect back to our own childhood. It was simply ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’.

Two of the biggest kids to be found at Disney Hollywood Studios (2018)

I’ll always remember one specific moment in Orlando when I gained a slice of mental ‘closure’. It was midday at Universal Studios, we’d just finished our lunch in a restaurant by the entrance to the park. As we began to leave, my brother Karl expressed the need to use the restroom. He went back in, as I proceeded to wait outside. In true Orlando fashion, it was the most stunning day. No matter how I felt on the inside, my outside was being drenched by the most beautiful rays of happiness. I casually leaned against a wall and watched the world go by in its droves.

Even Wookie’s need love too, Hollywood Studios, Orlando (2018)

For just a short moment it went bizarrely quiet, my senses started to sharpen, it really made me take more notice of my surroundings. I thought of Katherine and just how much she would approve of my actions. I pondered just how much she would love everything Karl and I were doing. At that exact moment, a song pierced through the air into my ears from afar, the melody was catchy and uplifting. I didn’t have a clue who the artist was nor the title of the song. If anything was spiritually possible, these unknown lyrics had just given this moment a voice. It made me cry and smile at the same time. It was exactly the kind of words she would say to me. It was a really bizarre but happy experience that gave me so much strength.

Near the end of the trip and thanks to Google, I eventually discovered the details of the song (Anywhere by Passenger, released in 2016). Since then I’ve added the song to my funeral wishes in my will. One day, my daughter Margot will appreciate reading this explanation for my choice.

Passenger | Anywhere

Part 3

So, going all the way back to the original question here ‘how are you so positive?’ I’m trying to make the best of the situation I find myself in. I can’t change it but I’m sure as hell not going to let it ruin me or my daughter. It’s now two years and our lives still need living too. Since I became a widower I’m definitely more of a ‘cup half full’ sort of person. I always look for the positives in everything now, I reflect a lot more and I’m very grateful. Grateful that I had Katherine in my life, grateful for her legacy – our daughter.

For me, everything I do and describe in my words will explain how much I loved her. Sadly this is also why the pain of my grief is so deep. I guess we’re all in the same boat as survivors of bereavement. To have felt love like this means that unfortunately, as widowers, we’re going to feel such hurt when we have lost that person. Which leads me to the famous quote by Rose Tremain; “Life is not a dress rehearsal”; one chance is all we get.

Some may wonder why I have used the song title ‘MMMBop’ as the main title of this post. The reason being, it carries a weight to the meaning of Katherine’s passing and to what I’m saying now.

‘MMMBop’ as a word, represents how time and life goes by in an instant. If you have ever listened to the lyrics in the song. I am hoping most will have figured this it out. You have to hold onto the things you’ve got. Live for the day and let that special person know how much you love them. Enjoy each moment together and every once in a while, take a step back and disengage from your ego, just stop and take a look around. Everything moves so fast in life. If you have never noticed the meaning in the song I can only suggest you give it another whirl and listen carefully.

This year, I’ll be in the UK for the second anniversary, in my new family home remembering Katherine. I’ll be giving thanks for having so much support in my life. Giving thanks for all those who have supported Margot to develop into the most gorgeous and humorous little girl.

Margot continues to give my life meaning and I find the strength to put one foot in front of the other. I’ve put all my energy into loving and caring for her, I’m so grateful that I’m still able to. I’m very humble to have so many opportunities still present in my life. I look forward to taking them all, day by day, month by month and year by year.

I’m sure those who knew and loved Katherine will give some of your time to her legacy, Margot. I’m sure you’ll all raise a glass of prosecco, make chili con carne for tea, eat some chocolate and break into a smile over a memory or even shed a tear.

Just remember, life never goes to plan, if it did I certainly wouldn’t be here writing this post. You probably wouldn’t be reading it too. 🌈

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.

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.

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!