Dear Minister..

Earlier this week, a letter written by my 8-year-old son Sam to our MP was read out during a debate in the House of Commons.  I could have burst with pride. But my joy was short-lived when MPs went on to vote in a raft of proposals that will leave 75% of bereaved families like ours worse off at a time when they are already extremely vulnerable.

 

Let me explain: I was widowed suddenly in April 2013 and I receive Widowed Parent’s Allowance (WPA) – an allowance based on my late husband’s National Insurance payments, after eighteen years of employment.  For eligible parents who are widowed on or after April 6th this year, financial bereavement support like this will cease only 18 months after the death of their spouse.

 

Me and Sam won’t be affected by these changes.  My allowance will be honoured in its current format, which means I will receive it until my youngest son leaves full-time education.  Many of the people that these reforms will affect – those widowed on or after April 6th this year, do not yet know that they are going to need support.  Because these people are mostly unaware of the financial implications of the proposed Government reforms, and the knock-on effect that they will have on the well-being of their bereaved children, those of us who have already been widowed are trying to raise awareness on their behalf.  This is why Sam wrote to Chris White MP, our local Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington.

 

Having listened carefully to the parliamentary debate, I have now written to Caroline Nokes, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery, to help her understand a bit more about what it is like to be a widowed parent and the huge difference WPA makes for us.

 

I am sharing this letter just before another debate takes place in Westminster Hall tomorrow (Thursday, March 2nd).  This is our last opportunity to ask the Government to pause the introduction of the new Bereavement Support Payment while a further review is carried out.  Please take five minutes to read my letter and then follow this link (from the Childhood Bereavement Network) if you would like to email the Prime Minister about these changes: https://ncb.eaction.org.uk/lobby/PM_BSP

 

Dear Minister,

I am Sam’s very proud mum.  You commented in the debate, on Monday 27th February 2017, about his moving and intelligent letter to our local MP, Chris White, about Widowed Parent’s Allowance, and I could have burst with pride.  My husband, Duncan, died suddenly, aged just 39, in April 2013.  Having watched the debate, I feel compelled to write to you about some of the points you discussed, in order to ensure that you are as fully aware as possible of what life is really like for bereaved children and their remaining parent, and to ask you to reconsider the forthcoming legislation.

 

I am a teacher by trade.  At the time of my husband’s untimely death, I was an advisory teacher for pupils with complex needs across Warwickshire – a job I loved. Duncan and I juggled our childcare arrangements around my varying working hours and it worked for all four of us.  We were ‘Team Phillips’.  When Duncan died, it quickly became apparent that my job was no longer tenable: my boys needed me to be there for them at the same time every day (and preferably all day).  After all, their daddy had gone to play football and not returned.  It is a constant worry for them, even now, that something similar will happen to me.

 

In the debate, you commented that many households are now dual income, and ours was, but suddenly Dunc’s death meant not only the loss of his salary, but also of my own.  Despite the fact that I am a determined and resilient person, there is no way that I could have found or taken on a new role earning a ‘real’ salary any sooner than I have done.  Like many of my widowed friends, from the charity Widowed and Young (WAY), I wanted to go back to work once I felt that the initial ‘fog’ of bereavement had begun to lift, but I knew that I would not be able to take on the responsibilities required of a class teacher.  I took a role as a teaching assistant in the boys’ school, earning a salary one tenth of that earned in my previous job.  It was not until two and a half years after Duncan died, in November 2015, that I felt able to take on some of the responsibilities of a teacher, and I was fortunate enough to be taken on in a supply teaching role, which allows me flexibility for the boys’ illnesses and many medical appointments.

 

You also suggested that the reforms to Widowed Parent’s Allowance are necessary because growing up in ‘a workless household’ is known to have a detrimental impact on children.  Firstly, I would like to say that I have never worked as hard as I do now, running a home on my own, whilst supporting two young children following the loss of their daddy.  I go to work, as a teacher, for a break!   My boys are very aware how hard I work and are learning how to do chores of their own, in order to lessen the burden on me.  I would also suggest that widowed parents who are out of work for a period of time following their bereavement are, in fact, learning a whole host of new skills that might provide new prospects for future employment.  A widower told me only yesterday about his new-found skills in the kitchen, while I have learned how to replace the decking.

 

Your new proposals are based around providing some limited support to (married) widowed parents for the first eighteen months post-bereavement.  Whether or not I was fit to be working and earning a ‘real’ wage again at that stage, my difficulties in creating a new life for the boys and I have been compounded by the fact that I can only move forward at their speed.  You said that you are ‘committed to providing [financial] help in the difficult months following their loss’.  Dunc died forty-six months ago, and I can assure you that every single one of them has been difficult.  In some ways, they are more difficult now than they were in the first eighteen months.  Initially, I functioned on adrenaline and with the frequent help and support of wonderful people around me.  Now, I am permanently exhausted.  I am not a single parent, but a double one.  I am responsible for Sam and Tom 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and I rarely get more than two hours’ sleep in one go, due to their nightmares of them or me dying, and their on-going physical health needs.

 

Tom was just three when Duncan died.  He asked me every day for months if Daddy was coming back.  It was only in October 2016 that he finally said, “Daddy really isn’t coming back, is he?”  I had been struggling to find any emotional support for Tom prior to this point because he was deemed too young to access counselling and then, by the time he was the ‘right’ age, it was deemed too long since our bereavement for him to be eligible for support.

 

Once Tom began counselling in September 2016, he finally began to accept his daddy’s death.  Unfortunately, this brought some very challenging behaviour, which included worrying risk-taking (such as running away in the dark, aged six) and comments about going to be with Daddy.  The survey referred to during the debate found that ‘the availability of the consistent, nurturing presence of the surviving parent was one of the strongest predictors of bereaved children’s emotional health and behaviour.’  I would argue that my boys need this as much from me now, nearly four years after Duncan died, as they did in the early days following our bereavement.

 

I will continue to receive Widowed Parent’s Allowance in its current format and it helps to provide a cushion: I can manage financially without having to work five days a week (which would require leaving the boys in after-school club for many hours), and I can provide them with similar life experiences that they had when ‘Team Phillips’ was still a team of four.  Life will never be the same, and there is nothing I can do to make up for the fact that they have lost their daddy, but bringing a smile to their faces and helping my boys to enjoy life as much as possible is one of my main aims.  It distracts them from their continuing sadness too.  I am very fortunate; Duncan and I had contingency plans in place, but I hear frequently about widowed friends for whom the current allowance helps to keep them afloat.  My widowed friends who were not married, and, therefore, have been ineligible to claim Widowed Parent’s Allowance, often struggle more financially.  Providing hot meals and school uniforms for their children are a stretch.

 

In conclusion, I fail to see the proposed reforms to Widowed Parent’s Allowance as anything other than a measure of austerity, despite having listened carefully to your comments.  The reforms will save the Government many millions of pounds, whilst causing ‘great panic and worry’ to newly-widowed parents, as even my eight-year-old son can understand.  The Child Bereavement Network suggests that 75% of widowed families will be worse off.  Ultimately though, it is the potential harmful effect on bereaved children which is most alarming.  If the proposed measures are implemented, many widowed parents will be forced to return to work sooner, for longer hours, and possibly in occupations that are new and difficult to learn.  As a result, widowed parents will be less available physically and emotionally for their grieving children, whose future mental health may be affected.

 

The ‘difficult months’ that you mentioned in the debate continue a lot longer than the first eighteen months after a parent dies –  I hope the examples I have given from my own family have helped to illustrate that for you.  Bereaved children are horribly vulnerable; their grief is on-going and develops alongside their increasing level of understanding.  They need their surviving parent to be as fit as possible to guide them through their grief, and that requires us to prioritise our own needs, at times, too.   The complicated new system you plan to introduce will cause extra stress to parents who often feel barely able to function as it is. The pressures of being a widowed parent are vast, and unrelenting, without adding additional financial worry.

 

I understand that savings are required in all areas, but I believe that it is grossly unfair of the Government to reform this allowance so drastically for families at their most vulnerable point.  I urge you to listen to the Child Bereavement Network’s plea, asking you to pause the introduction of Bereavement Support Payment, bring forward the review to which the Government has already committed, and work across parties to build on the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s recommendations. Please work with the relevant organisations to come up with a solution that mixes the best of the old and new system, supports those with children for longer, and is fair to those children whose parents lived together but were not married.

 

Yours faithfully,

Mrs Beth Phillips

#maketime2listen

The focus for Children’s Grief Awareness Week, 17th – 23rd November 2016, is #maketime2listen. As the mum of two young boys who are grieving for their daddy, I want to share my experience of supporting them myself, and why they also need experts to #maketime2listen to them too.

It is over three and a half years since my husband, Dunc, aged 39, went to play football and never came home. He collapsed on the pitch and died a short time later. At 5:40p.m, Dunc had kissed us all goodbye and told us that he loved us. By 6:40p.m, the world for Sam, Tom and I had changed forever. That night, our two boys became part of a shocking statistic: 1 in 29 children in our schools have been bereaved of a parent or sibling. Sam was just five and Tom was just three.

The morning after Dunc died, Sam immediately understood that my carefully chosen words meant his lovely daddy would not be coming back. He cried. He asked a lot of questions, both then, and in the weeks and months that followed: why did it have to be his daddy? Why couldn’t the doctors have made his daddy better? What if I died too? About six months after Dunc’s death, Sam became very angry and lost control on several occasions. It was difficult to see how much he was hurting, and upsetting because I could not take his pain away. I did my best to support Sam through this difficult stage and was reassured by other members of the charity, Widowed and Young (WAY), that this was very normal for a grieving child and that he would come through it. We read books about feelings, and especially anger; we had teddies and cushions to hug or hit; we made Sam a den to sit in and he saw the school counsellor for a long while. Sam drew pictures of me falling off mountains and wrote me letters about how horrible I was. I reassured him that, while some of his behaviour was unacceptable, feeling angry was all part of grieving for his daddy, and that I loved him just as much, and more, than I had ever done before. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he began to work through his anger, and our home became more peaceful.

At the time, I remember also worrying about Tom. He did not cry when I told him that Dunc had died. In fact, Tom skipped off merrily when he realised that his uncle was asleep in the room next door because he was too young to understand the permanence and significance of what I had said. During Dunc’s funeral, Tom even whispered quizzically to me, “Are we going to get Daddy out of his special box in a minute?”

During the next two years, Tom’s understanding did not appear to be changing much. There were still no tears, no anger, and only occasional expressions of missing Daddy. When Sam accessed support for his grief, I asked about support for Tom too, but initially I was told he was too young and then, eventually, he was too far into the process to ‘tick the right boxes’. Tom saw the school counsellor when he started school, but avoided talking about Dunc much at all. On the surface, he seemed to be coping, but over time, he appeared increasingly sad and would be found sitting silently on his bed, looking at the photo of him with his daddy. When I asked what he was thinking, Tom just raised his eyes and looked up to the ceiling. At one point, my deep little boy replied, with a mournful expression, “I raise my eyes, and then I let them fall.” It was heart-breaking. Tom also told me that he was feeling lost and hopeless; he was struggling to sleep, and also struggling to get up in the mornings.

On Tom’s sixth birthday, in February this year, he told me that he did not want to go and spend his birthday money, “Because I think Daddy might come back today.” My heart sank. When I listened to that single comment, I knew that he had not yet accepted Dunc’s death, despite his evident on-going sadness. I scooped Tom up, brought him gently back to reality, and distracted him from becoming too sad to enjoy his special day. Once we had negotiated our way through it, I began looking for further support for him.

I have always made a conscious effort to try to really listen to the boys, and they still talk about Dunc almost daily: in the bath; after bedtime; in the dark at 3a.m. and, often, when I am driving and they have a little quiet time to think, and where they can tell me things without having to look me in the eye while they do so. Sometimes, though, they need someone else to listen: someone who is less caught up in our family; someone who will listen without becoming visibly upset; and someone who has the specialist skills to lead them forward. Sam and Tom do not usually want to talk about Dunc at school, at least not at any great length. They feel different to their peers and are already reaching an age where they desperately want to fit in. That is why local children’s bereavement support services are so crucial.

This summer, Sam and Tom began seeing trained practitioners at Echoes Children’s Bereavement Support Service, based at The Shakespeare Hospice in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The boys are gently being supported to explore and talk about their feelings, through structured games and activities. When they leave, they seem a little lighter and brighter, as if a weight has shifted slightly. Following the sessions, Tom often becomes very angry and this has been equally difficult to witness and manage, as it was when Sam was experiencing similar emotions three years ago. This time though, I know that Tom will come through it; and that it appears to be a common part of the process for young children accepting the loss of someone so precious. I feel that he is finally dealing with his bereavement.

I can’t change the fact that Dunc’s untimely death will affect our boys throughout their lives. However, I hope that by making time to listen to them myself, for as long as they want to talk to me, I am building their strength and resilience for the future. The support that Sam and Tom are receiving now from Echoes can only be helping to build it further (and they will be able to access it whenever needed, until they are eighteen). We are very fortunate to live in an area where such skilled support is available. Like with many things though, it is a postcode lottery. Every bereaved child needs easy and continued access to specialist support in their own locality. Such services can successfully support families in helping children to become the adults that we dreamed of them becoming before bereavement got in the way. With 1 in 29 children affected, we need to consider and plan for the future of our bereaved children, and work towards making these specialist bereavement support services available to them all, where trained practitioners can #maketime2listen.

Children’s Grief Awareness Week UK

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.20151119_155628

A Whole Year On..

Dunc was big and strong.  He was calm, and laid back to the point of being horizontal.  He had time for everyone and a brilliant way of saying the right words at just the right moment.  Dunc was extraordinarily competitive at board games and had an infuriating habit of tying his laces very precisely in double bows, even when we had all been waiting for him for at least five minutes.  He was warm and kind, and always keen to help others.  Dunc had a boyish enthusiasm for sailing down hills on a bike at speed and a cheeky sense of humour.  He was confident on the outside and humble within.  He was loved and respected by everyone he knew.

 

Dunc and I planned to grow old together.  We explored the world together for over ten years and we had plans for further adventures.  We took on the medical profession as a team for the good of our boys.  We danced, drank, laughed, and played tennis (badly..) when we got the chance.  Dunc was my friend, my partner in crime, the one person who could reassure me with a squeeze of the hand, a hug or a smile from his bright blue eyes.  What I wouldn’t give now to hear him say, “It’ll be fine!”  I didn’t always believe him when he said it, but I was simply reassured by the fact that I knew that he’d be right there next to me, no matter what.  And then, of course, he wasn’t.  The shock of his sudden death, on April 25th 2013, has subsided, but the hole in our lives that his death has created remains.

 

Our boys have lost their daddy who built train tracks, marble runs and lego spaceships with great expertise; a daddy, who might quietly mutter the occasional expletive, but would always get up to them in the middle of the night, despite having already been up three times; a daddy who was fun, and loved running down hills just a little bit too fast, whilst holding them tightly by the hand; a daddy who taught them all about Star Wars and how to bounce up and down noisily on lock gates, to the dismay of the ducks nearby.  He was a daddy who took time to play, to cuddle and to sit and watch the Octonauts with them; a daddy who was proud of their slightest achievements and excited about their futures.  He is a daddy that they miss every day, despite the fun that they have in between.  This time last year, the boys’ worlds were predictable, stable and secure.  They knew their boundaries, they loved our adventures and they dreamt of the next building project, rollercoaster ride, or exploration of the great outdoors.

 

The care-free innocence, to which every four and six year old has a right, has been cruelly interrupted.  If I go out now, the boys don’t assume that I will come back safely.  They know that they are different to their peers – that they are the only ones in their classes without a daddy.  They know it’s not fair and that not every story has a happy ending.  And yet, despite all of that, they still laugh and smile their way through their days.  Their resilience, their strength and their ability to take joy in the small things is inspirational.  Their joie de vivre gets me out of bed in the mornings, albeit an hour or so earlier than I would like, and lifts me at times when I still feel overwhelmed by the thought of facing the future without Dunc visibly by our sides.

 

The world has carried on turning since Dunc died.  It’s just that at times it turns at a slightly more precarious angle, or at a different speed, for the boys and me.  The house is clean(ish) – although my mother in law might disagree; the boys are fed, washed and arrive at school on time; I haven’t yet arrived at a hospital for an appointment with the wrong son; and we still take great pleasure flying the kite, riding our bikes and swimming regularly.  I can do this double parenting thing (I like this term, for single parenting really doesn’t do it justice), but it requires a monumental amount of energy and effort to parent my two gorgeous boys on my own.  After all, they are lively and boisterous – like any other small boys, they continue to have multiple hospital appointments, and their worlds have also been turned upside down without warning, just like mine.  Being solely responsible for them twenty-four/seven is simply exhausting.  Even if I do leave them for a few hours, I am glued to my phone, in case one of them is taken ill or has another accident.  I desperately need a break, but I can’t switch off, even when I’m given the chance to do so.  (‘Me time’ is now squeezed into Tuesday mornings, between cleaning the house and getting to work after lunch, in my new role as a teaching assistant at the boys’ school).

 

Sam, Thomas and I are slowly learning to live without Dunc, for living life is what we must do, and what we want to do more than ever now. The pain of our loss hasn’t gone away though.  The boys aren’t ‘over the worst of it’ (as I was asked recently), and we haven’t ‘moved on’.  I don’t think we will move on.  Life will always be a little bit worse, whether we are revisiting old haunts or making new memories at places we didn’t manage to visit with Dunc before he died.  I believe that we are gradually coming to accept that he is no longer right here with us and feel a little more at peace with the situation in which we now find ourselves.

 

We are extremely fortunate to be surrounded still by lovely, encouraging, caring, patient friends and family.  I have also joined WAY (Widowed and Young), (http://www.widowedandyoung.org.uk), a charitable self-help organisation that provides invaluable support and has made a tremendous difference already to the boys and me in our new lives.  I like to believe that Dunc is still near us too.  At times when everything feels wrong, like it does this week, I feel his presence in a beautiful sunset, a starry night, or through the appearance of a rainbow (and have you noticed how many of those we have had in the last few months?!)  They give me comfort and the strength I need to keep on keeping on.  I can’t quite believe that the boys and I have been doing that for a whole year already in Dunc’s absence.  A whole year… That’s 365 days without him giving us each a big squeezy cuddle at the end of the day; 365 days without hearing a satisfied,”Aaahhhh,” as I sit down in the evening; 365 days without a text message telling me how much he loves me, and 365 days of trying to be responsible for using the tv remote control all by myself.

 

Dunc, you were an awesome husband and daddy.  We love and miss you and we always will. xxx

Image

 

Roles and Responsibilities

During the first five years of our relationship, Dunc and I would usually approach projects together, as joint ventures. For example, when painting a room, he would paint the ceiling (as he was considerably taller) and start rolling paint onto the walls, while I painted the skirting boards and then neatly and patiently painted the edges. We worked very well as a team, and not just when it came to DIY: one cooked, the other washed up (usually depending on who arrived home from work first); Dunc read the map, I drove; he did the washing, I did the ironing. We assumed equal responsibility for household chores and the general running of our lives together.

After Sam and Thomas were born, Dunc and I fell into much more specific roles with particular responsibilities attached. He became the main bread-winner of our partnership, as he continued to work full-time, while I worked part-time and juggled my teaching role with that of managing our home, the boys (and often Dunc!). I occasionally joked that if something happened to me, the household would grind to a halt. Dunc was always (well, usually..) very willing to do any chore I asked of him, but he was simply not aware of some of the little things that were involved in running the house, or in organising the boys, day to day, in order to keep things ticking along nicely.

Having had the last six months to reflect on our relationship, I have appreciated much more the role that Dunc played in our partnership. He provided the stability at the core of everything and gave me the confidence to help us keep our ship afloat amid the madness that was family life. His relaxed and laid back attitude might have driven me slightly bonkers on the odd occasion, but he always assumed that everything would be alright. He did worry about things from time to time, but not to the same degree or with the same frequency that I did/do. At times when I don’t have the answer to something (and there have been many), I yearn for him to tell me, “It’ll be fine!” in a slightly exasperated tone. I didn’t always believe him when he said it, but it certainly had a calming effect. Oh, how I miss that.

Now, in Dunc’s absence, I feel incredibly responsible – for the boys’ welfare (both physical and emotional), and for our future success as a slightly smaller Team Phillips (in addition to keeping the house looking nice, managing our finances, and trying to make decisions about my career). Most parents feel a weight of responsibility to provide the best that they can for their child/ren and to bring them up to be upstanding members of the community. The difficulty for me is that I have suddenly had to take this responsibility all on my own shoulders, without warning or time to prepare (and I do like to plan!), during an incredibly difficult time. In order to succeed, I need to develop more confidence and trust in my own judgement, and I guess that comes with experience and a growing understanding that I can make sound decisions without Dunc’s input and reassurance. If I could just find enough energy to be able to concentrate for more than three seconds at a time it would also be useful!

I need to fulfil the role of both mummy and daddy for the boys: to make sure that they continue to learn to love and cherish each other and other people; to develop their confidence in themselves, and their abilities, so that they grow up to be strong and independent individuals; to help them learn right from wrong and to play fairly in life; to be respectful of others and to behave respectably; to develop their love of learning. Dunc and I were keen for them to know that exercise is not only good for us, but is also great fun; and that family is important. I need to teach the boys how to explore, to experiment and to mend things. I want them to be able to read a map (and I can actually do this, so we should be okay!) and to climb trees. I want them to be able to play a good enough game of football so that they don’t get left out of the side on the playground, and I want them to have the opportunity to lark about freely, which was much more Dunc’s bag than mine.

At times, everything feels rather overwhelming at the moment, and I know that I just need to concentrate on taking little steps in the right direction. The temptation is to wrap the boys in cotton wool to try and keep them safe, and to spoil them rotten to try and make up for the injustice of losing their daddy at such a young age. The practical part of me knows that neither of those options is really viable or sensible. Instead, I aim to lead by example and show the boys that we can still succeed even when life has thrown us a pretty massive curve ball.

I also have responsibilities to myself: to give myself time to grieve for the wonderful husband that I have lost (which is a hard task with two small boys running around) and to gradually let the new ‘me’ develop. I have to redefine who I am – my role as a wife has been replaced by a new and definitely unwanted role as a widow. I need to become self-sufficient once more, when I thought I’d been there, done that and found the ideal man to settle down with. (I had, it’s just that he wasn’t able to stay around nearly as long as we’d hoped and expected). The year 2013 has taught me several things, two of which are that you never really know what is around the corner and that life is for living. My life might not be quite what I expected it to be right now, but I have to assume that there will be further opportunities for happiness in the future. I will soon be thirty-seven and I hope that I am nearer to the beginning of my life than its end. That’s a lot of time left to recover, to regroup and to enjoy many more adventures with my gorgeous boys. Yes, my roles have shifted unexpectedly and quite dramatically, but it is my responsibility to make the best of the situation in which the boys and I now find ourselves. It’s a responsibility I intend to take very seriously. (And with that in mind, I intend to take a little break from my blog over the next few weeks while I make sure that we have the best possible Christmas. Thank you for reading and for all your wonderful support).

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Dunc and I at my younger brother’s wedding in 2006, 6 weeks before our own wedding.

A Prescription for Happiness

In the ‘manual’ I read after Dunc’s death, the author suggests that a surviving partner will almost inevitably experience depression at some point. As a result, I have been mindful of trying to look after my mental health (although I’m sure many of my friends would say I’m several years too late!!). I certainly feel a great responsibility to ensure that I remain emotionally stable and well, so that I can be the best mummy that I can be for Sam and Thomas. I’m not uncomfortable with the idea of asking the GP for antidepressants if I feel I need them, but, so far, I have managed to find a number of ways to lift my mood when required.

Dunc and I laughed a lot during our relationship. Initially, it felt odd to be laughing after his death (and even at points during the evening that he died), but I feel strongly that Dunc would want us to be happy, not sad. There has been plenty of gallows humour in the last six months, and I have come to learn which friends know me well enough to laugh with me, and which folk are uncomfortable with it. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine, and it certainly seems to be so. If nothing else, it serves as a distraction from the sadness which might otherwise threaten to overwhelm me at times. My wonderful friends, who have dedicated so much of their time to me since Dunc died in April this year, have provided plenty of opportunities for chatter and laughter. The company of good friends should definitely form part of any prescription for happiness.

There are frequently humorous incidents involving the boys which make me happy too. Maybe only a parent could appreciate the amusement derived from attempting to catch an escapee turd in the boys’ bath, floating casually amongst the Octonauts! I’m sure though that many people would be amused by Sam’s recent revelation that (nearly) all men who have moustaches are robbers! Even on my less joyful days, the boys bring a smile to my face with their infectious giggling. (Sometimes, it feels as if someone forgot to tell them that they were supposed to be sad – and thank goodness for that!) On days when I am totally worn out, I still appreciate the two huge blessings that are my bonkers boys. They are definitely the best tonic!

For me personally, getting out in the fresh air is a particularly good remedy for sadness. After spending part of last week on the local children’s ward, with a poorly Sam, I felt compelled to visit our favourite local park at the weekend. I wanted the opportunity to breathe deeply in the cold autumn air. Sam was barely well enough to venture out, but both boys were exhibiting signs of cabin fever too, just like I was. We huddled together on a bench, watching the colourful leaves blowing from the trees in the strong wind. The boys squealed with delight as they spun round fast on the roundabout and leapt from one part of a huge fallen tree to another. While they were scooting off in the distance, I had a tearful word or two with my invisible superhero about the week that I had just endured, but I returned home feeling rejuvenated and more able to face the rest of the weekend.

Another good ‘pick me up’ since Dunc’s death has been exercise. I have always enjoyed exercising and have found it hard that my opportunities to do so have been somewhat limited by the fact that I have become a single parent. However, I have managed a few workouts in the gym, a lot of bouncing on the trampoline with Sam and Thomas, and a few refreshing bike rides with my incredibly tolerant ‘cycling friends’. One of the most enjoyable exercise-induced endorphin rushes has been created by doing some Let’s Dance on the Wii with friends. Just dancing to a few songs seems to be enough to make us breathless and to laugh at our own efforts at the same time.

I’ve received a lot of cards and gifts from kind and generous folk since Dunc died and these bring happiness too. They remind me that I am not alone and that there are people rooting for me from far and wide. They make me smile and they bring joy at times when I might have started the day feeling a bit down. I have allowed myself small treats along the way during the last few months as well (and have probably eaten my own body weight in chocolate). I have also eased off on the rules from time to time. I used to be the one in our relationship who liked to have everything carefully planned in advance and a routine in place that we could all follow (preferably to the letter). I am learning gradually to give myself (and the boys) a little slack, as it makes for a happier household. I have realised what really matters and I wish I had appreciated this more while Dunc was still alive. (I’m sure he’d be very amused to read this after his death, when he’d spent the last ten years of his life trying to persuade me to relax!)

If you’d asked me seven months ago to describe happiness, I would have said happiness was: lying in the sun with a good book or waking up to a snowy morning; spending quality time with my family or taking a peaceful, uninterrupted bubble bath; seeing fireworks fizzing in the crisp November night air; the moment when Thomas whispers, “I love you, Mummy,” in his sleep as I tuck him in; playing my favourite tunes on the piano or taking a beautiful photo that captures a special moment; witnessing Sam’s excitement at learning something new. These things still bring me happiness but my gorgeous husband is no longer here to share them with me. It’s a pretty fundamental change that affects everything, including the depth to which anything currently has the power to make me happy. Many happy moments are now tinged with sadness, and the physical ache of missing Dunc is particularly strong at such times. However, I hope that by seeking out small doses of happiness when I need them to help see me through a particularly challenging moment/ day/ week, I will remain strong enough and well prepared for a time when the sadness of losing Dunc begins to fade and happy moments will be purely happy once more.

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Dunc, Sam and Thomas enjoying the Autumn leaves at Batsford Arboretum, October 2012.

 

Supporting Children Following the Sudden Death of a Parent

I wanted to write about this topic because the day-to-day support that children need during the grieving process is extensive and is required at a time when the other parent (in this instance, me) is at their lowest ebb. One thing that I have learnt in the last six months is that the grieving process is a very individual thing.

What works now for Sam, aged five, and Thomas, aged three, may be different to what works tomorrow, next week, next year. What works for them may not work for another child. I also believe that the challenges I face in supporting the boys after Dunc’s death are different, although inextricably linked, to the challenges I face in grieving for Dunc myself, whilst also parenting them. I may return to that in the future. I want to write about this in the hope that it may help others in a similar situation and provide insight for professionals who are supporting bereaved families. (And, at the back of my mind, I am always mindful of what I write about Sam and Thomas being available to everyone on the internet. I hope that they will not read this in the future and wish I had kept it to myself).

As soon as Dunc died there were big decisions to be made almost immediately. The first was what to say to the boys about the fact that he had died. I was in the fortunate position to have received advice from Winston’s Wish about this in the past (through work). I knew that at three and five years old, the boys’ levels of understanding would be quite different and this proved to be the case. I knew that my wording was important, and had to be clear and direct, so that there was no room for ambiguity. I was also prepared for the fact that children can respond in unexpected ways to news of a death. Therefore, I was not too overwhelmed when Sam said, “So can we have another daddy now then?” within five minutes of me imparting the news. I was keen to tell the boys myself, in the way that I thought was best, and in a calm and comforting manner. I didn’t want them to be frightened and I wanted to start as I intended to go on.

I also had to decide whether to let the boys attend Dunc’s funeral. I took advice from Winston’s Wish and gave the boys the choice. I was keen for them to attend, as I felt that it was an important part of the process of saying goodbye, but I would never have forced them. In order to prepare them for it, I asked them to help me to choose the music, the flowers and their outfits. I took them to the church the night before and talked about the details of the following day. I also took photos of the coffin (with the lid on) when I went to see Dunc at the chapel of rest so that they would know what a coffin looked like.

Before the funeral began, I asked my brother to take a photo of the hearse with the coffin in so that the boys have a record of the occasion. One of the key ways I believe I am supporting the boys is by helping them to keep their memories of Dunc alive. I have made them a photobook each and we have all made memory boxes with important things in that remind us of Dunc. In the summer, we had a ‘Thinking about Daddy’ morning where we got out our boxes and talked about the contents, read the photobooks and drew some pictures of our family. Sam decided to draw a cloud above us for Daddy to sit on. I asked why I couldn’t see him and he told me in despair, “He’s invisible, of course!” We have also blown bubbles to Dunc, and sent him a Star Wars helium balloon on Father’s Day. We have visited the park where he was playing football when he collapsed, at the boys’ request, and his mate has kindly answered Sam’s questions about that evening.

We have received and read many books about death. At one point, a package arrived in the post and Sam exclaimed, “Oh no, Mummy! Not another sad book!” However, both he and Thomas often ask for them to be read. I think such books should come with several health warnings. Firstly, they often have a particular take on the process of death and what happens afterwards. This has to match your own ideas, or the children will become confused. Secondly, it is important to read ahead. For example, one of the books has a small child in it who asks what will happen if mummy dies too. I skipped over this page with the boys until the thought occurred to them anyway, as I didn’t feel I needed to plant the worry in their heads – they had plenty of their own! Thirdly, the books are often quite difficult to read aloud at a time when the adult may be struggling to manage their own emotions. My heart sinks a little when one is chosen from the bookshelf at bedtime, but I appreciate that they can facilitate useful discussion and develop understanding. The boys have certainly taken the characters to heart. Initially, I was a bit confused when Sam said, “Let’s send bubbles to Daddy, Grandad and Badger,” but then realised that he was referring to one of the book characters!

I believe that it is important to show my emotions to the boys, because it helps them to understand that grief encompasses a whole range, and that it is fine to be happy, or sad, and to cry. However, Sam and Thomas had not seen my cry before Dunc’s death and I am wary of worrying them by doing it too often. There is a fine balance to be struck. I try to verbalise how I feel and the boys have come to understand that sometimes I am unintentionally grumpy with them because I am having a sad day. I think this has particularly helped Sam of late, as he has been becoming increasingly angry and has been struggling to express it in an acceptable manner. I have worked hard to reassure him that being angry is normal when someone special has died, but that we have to help him to find an appropriate way to express it.

I have commended both boys for telling me how they are feeling, as I know Sam would be inclined to hide his feelings for fear of upsetting me. I have spent a lot of time after bedtime chatting quietly with him and Thomas individually and they certainly seem comfortable asking me questions, whether they be practical, medical or religious in nature! In addition, both boys are now receiving support from Guy’s Gift, and I hope that the introduction of a third party, and a professional, will help them to be able to express their feelings freely.

On a practical level, I now feel a great responsibility to ensure that the boys get to enjoy the element of physical activity that having a daddy of 6 ft 1″ tall brought, in terms of spinning them round, holding them aloft and generally playing the fool. Whenever I make a den or build an airport out of Lego, I find myself thinking, “This one’s for you, dear!” At the same time, I feel incredibly protective of them. I have become painfully aware that I can not protect them entirely from other people’s occasional insensitivity and lack of understanding, dealing only with the aftermath once I know about the problem.

Dunc and I often talked about how we wanted the boys to grow up, in terms of their values and attitudes. I am trying to ensure that I help them to become robust and decent young men, despite the impact that losing their daddy will inevitably have. I hope that I am continuing their paths in the right direction through supporting them in the ways that I have described above.

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Sam and Thomas in Cornwall, September 2013 – our first family holiday without Dunc.