I don’t update my blog regularly anymore, mostly because we are too busy living life for me to stop and write about my feelings about being a young(ish) widow. Sometimes though, something happens that makes me want to ‘put pen to paper’ and the arrival of Children’s Grief Awareness Week UK has done just that.
About eight months after Dunc died suddenly in April 2013, aged just thirty-nine, I bumped into an acquaintance who innocently asked me, “So, do you think the boys are over the worst of it then?” I remember trying to formulate a brief answer that hid my amazement and bewilderment at her complete lack of understanding. I knew that she meant well. Ultimately, she was trying to make conversation as we caught up in passing and to convey her genuine concern for us as a family. Even by that stage though, I was all too aware that the untimely death of the boys’ wonderful daddy was not something akin to a broken arm or a bad dose of the flu. It wasn’t something that they would overcome in eight months, but something that will continue to affect them for the rest of their lives.
Two and a half years after Dunc’s death, we are functioning pretty well as a family. We do all the things that other families do and sometimes we might even do a bit more, because I am so acutely aware of the importance of living for every day. Dunc’s condition was a hereditary one. This affords me the awareness and the opportunity to have the boys’ hearts monitored carefully and it acts as a daily reminder to leave the washing pile until after their bedtime and to sweat the small stuff a whole lot less than I might otherwise have done. (Homework, for example, is an unwelcome inconvenience that interrupts our adventures and one that we squeeze in between bike rides and muddy walks).
Sam, Tom and I have a lot of fun together and we make lots of new memories, now that the initial shock and exhaustion that comes with a sudden death have passed. However, Dunc should be there with us making those new memories: when we are running down hills, splashing in waves and proudly watching our little Alien 2 in the Nativity. There is nothing I can do as a mum to change the fact that there are now three of us, not four.
The boys constantly ask me to find them a new daddy. Sam, aged seven, has written me an advert that reads like a combination of a shopping list and a rather fairytale-influenced lonely hearts ad. Only, behind it, is a desperate wish for a new father figure who can fill the void that is all too real in the boys’ lives. I have tried to explain that the process of falling in love is a complex and lengthy process, often aided by the opportunity to leave the house after dark without two small children as minders. However, when falling in love to them currently means holding the hand of a pretty girl in the dinner queue, I can understand their frustration. It regularly leads to me being told that I have six weeks to find them a new daddy or there will be consequences – no pressure then! (In fact, I do have a new partner who is great and who joins in our adventures at weekends with his own bereaved little boy, but ultimately, he is not Andy Murray – usually their preferred man of choice – and therefore he doesn’t quite tick all the right boxes yet, for them at least!)
Actually, if Andy Murray hadn’t put a spanner in the works earlier this year by marrying someone else, and had somehow come to meet us, I still don’t think the boys would have been satisfied. Tom, aged five, seems to be under the impression that a new daddy would simply replace the old one, but Sam, at the wise old age of seven and a half, is more aware that, really, an Olympic gold medal and a Wimbledon title would not be enough. They just need their own daddy back.
I spend many evenings at Sam’s bedside while he tells me all the reasons why he needs Daddy here, and recounts all the things that they used to do together. Sometimes, he just wants me there to sit with him and look at his framed picture of the two of them together on a rollercoaster. Sometimes, he wants to know why it had to be his daddy that died and why couldn’t the doctors make his daddy better. He is not wishing bereavement on any of his friends, but he finds the injustice of it all hard to accept. He feels different to his friends and desperately wants to be the same. I imagine this feeling might intensify as he reaches his teenage years, especially given all the related medical checks that he will need at that stage.
I usually get up in the night several times a week to Tom, who wakes feeling sad and in need of a cuddle from his Daddy. Tom was only just three when Dunc died and he spent months telling me he hoped Daddy would still come back. Now, at five and a half, he fully understands the permanence of the situation and is finally grieving. His head drops, his shoulders slump and no amount of cuddles and hair stroking from me can make up for those from his daddy that he can barely remember.
On top of the sadness that the boys still feel on a daily basis, when Daddy isn’t there to admire their swimming certificates or to receive their Fathers’ Day cards (because, frankly, putting them in their memory boxes is no replacement), they also worry about what might happen to me. Their dreams should be as full of adventures as their waking hours are, but instead, at the moment, they are filled with me dying, or them getting lost and not being able to get back to me. Then, they wake up tired and unsettled. They try to get through another day at school, doing their best to concentrate on their work alongside their peers, before coming home and trying to avoid going to bed, so that the cycle doesn’t start all over again.
And yet, if you meet Sam and Tom, you would have no idea of the struggle that they face. They are bouncy, vivacious boys who laugh and dance now as much as they always did. They tell me they feel sad at school sometimes, but they don’t usually want other people to know. It is mostly at bedtimes when they express their feelings and draw me pictures of sadness and anger. They like reading our ‘grief books’ and looking at the photobooks of themselves and their daddy. They have both had counselling through school, and Sam has had more access to external support than Tom, as he was the ‘right’ age for it when Dunc died, while Tom was deemed ‘too young’ and is now ‘too far along’. They love being part of the Widowed and Young charity (WAY – http://www.widowedandyoung.org.uk) with me, because they feel the same as the other children and get to do exciting things, like Go Ape!
Have the boys ‘got over the worst of it’? Who knows? We take every day as it comes. Two and a half years after Dunc went to play football and didn’t come home, I know that we are on a journey. It is a journey that takes us on a bumpy and unpredictable ride with little in the way of helpful signage. Just because we have faced a huge trauma, does not mean that we are exempted from facing further difficulties en route. Already, unplanned hospital stays and tricky parents’ evenings have highlighted the magnitude of our loss. Anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, weddings and other life events will always be poignant and we will always grieve for Dunc – for the things that he will miss and for the empty place that he should have filled.
Sam, Tom and I still imagine Dunc on his cloud above us, and it brings us comfort. However, Sam’s recent picture of him reaching up to Daddy on his cloud, and Daddy not quite being able to reach down far enough to hold his hand sums up the feelings that he and Tom deal with everyday. 1 in 29 children in the UK have lost a parent or sibling and all of them will face that every day for the rest of their lives. You don’t get over bereavement; you get on with it because you have to. We really want to get on with it, but we all need a little support along the way. Our children need that support when they are young to help them to become the adults we always dreamed of them becoming, before bereavement got in the way.
I hope Sam and Tom will forgive me for writing about their grief in such an open manner, if they ever choose to read this, and that it will help to raise awareness of children’s grief this week. My boys amaze me daily with their strength, their resilience and their love of life. I am so proud of them both and their daddy would be very proud too.
This photo was taken today, November 19th 2015, when we went to see Dunc’s new bench at Burton Dassett.