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,
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.

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!