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.

Six Months On

I find it hard to believe that it will soon be six months since my husband, Dunc, died. It has been the longest, most difficult and utterly exhausting six months of my life, and yet, the evening of Dunc’s death seems like yesterday. I’ve said previously that the hours I spent at the hospital that night are becoming a blur, but the rest of that day is still totally clear in my mind: I know that Dunc had helped the boys to build a marble run after work; I can remember every word of the fateful phone call from his friend at the pitch; I know that as I drove there I was concerned enough to overtake a long traffic jam on the wrong side of the road, but that I was not anticipating for one moment finding him receiving CPR in the back of the ambulance. After all, I had been told that Dunc was having some kind of fit. The children with whom I work have fits (seizures), and they don’t require CPR. That was the moment when I realised that life might not be the same again.

The last six months have been a steep learning curve in so many respects. One of the first things I realised was that while my world might have temporarily stopped turning, the world in general had not. I opened the curtains the following morning and saw the post lady at work down the street. I wanted to shout out of the window, “What are you doing?! Don’t you know that my husband has died?!” Luckily, common sense, and a very real wish to hide away prevailed. I still have that feeling at times, as if the people around me are carrying on with their normal lives when there is nothing left that is normal about mine. I can feel very detached, and confused by it all. The world often feels like a very noisy place to me now.

One of the first positive things I learnt after Dunc’s death was that I have some truly amazing people around me. I have friends who give me an evening of their time every week, to keep me company and to help me with practical tasks. I have a friend who sends me a message virtually every morning and every evening, just to let me know I’m not alone. (I reckon that’s more than three hundred messages she has found time to send me, whilst trying to manage her own family life!) I have received more hot meals and shoulder massages than I can ever possibly repay to my lovely neighbour, and many random parcels of treats and goodies from a group of online friends, half of whom I’ve never actually met. My lawn has been mown; mounds of soil have been removed; my filing cabinet has been organised and flapjack made. The boys have been dangled upside down and chased (as is very important to little boys!) and we are excitedly awaiting the arrival of a beautiful Mumsnet ‘Woolly Hug’.

I always knew that Dunc and I had wonderful friends, but I could never have imagined how great they would be in a crisis, and how consistent they could be with their support, even though they are all living busy lives themselves. I can’t ever repay their kindness, but I know that they don’t expect me to do so. I feel very humble. Sometimes, it can be hard to accept help, and especially to ask for it. I liked the fact that Dunc and I were able to be relatively independent and able to help others, and I often feel vulnerable now in the knowledge that I can not always manage everything on my own. In addition, it is very strange to receive all this wonderful help and support when I am rarely able to return the favours that I regularly have to request.

I have learnt a lot more about me personally in the last six months too. I remember writing in my first blog that I was already aware of my own inner strength. It’s still there and still getting me out of bed each morning. It helped me through my brother’s wedding at the weekend and I now trust that it will see me through my first solo parents’ evening at school next week too. I’ve been amazed at the stamina that Dunc’s death has required of me. I’ve been more amazed that, somehow, I’ve found enough to get me through each long day. I know now that special dates and anniversaries will be hard, but that they pass, and that the day after is usually a bit better again. The shaking, which appears to be my body’s reaction to extreme stress, subsides, just leaving me feeling more tired than usual. I know now that I can occupy myself for five evenings of every week, when Dunc used to moan that I was rubbish in my own company (mostly when he wanted to play the Xbox in peace!). I am beginning to trust myself more. I don’t have my partner here to reassure me at the end of a battle with the boys that I got it right, and my inner voice is beginning to take over that role, slowly but surely.

I have learnt that the boys are just as strong as I am, but that our experiences of bereavement are different, even when we are grieving for the loss of the same person. Sam puts on a brave face at school and completes activities about families without complaining. Most of the time, no-one would know that he often feels sad, and worries about how we will cope without Daddy (as he finally told me after bedtime one evening last week). Thomas continues to smile and laugh, but he has now developed the vocabulary to express his own sadness, usually at night time. I have realised that while the boys might be coping well, they too must go through the anger involved in the grieving process. Naively, it hadn’t occurred to me earlier that their anger would be directed at me, because I am the one left behind, the one who now does the reprimanding all the time, rather than just half the time, and I’m the grown up who didn’t or couldn’t stop Daddy from dying, but who definitely should have done! I am now the one they love the most, but I can’t take away their sadness and give them the one thing that they really want.

I have learnt that life for Sam, Thomas and I is harder, sadder and sometimes lonely without Dunc, but that we are most definitely not alone. Six months after his death, the world has started to turn once more, with the ongoing help of our friends, and the boys and I are finding enjoyment in our new lives. We are still here, and still smiling often. I hope that in another six months the sadness may have started to recede, the tiredness to lift, and that we will feel more at ease with our new version of ‘normal’. I hope that I will be able to look back and feel proud of what we have achieved so far. When I imagine Dunc up on his cloud above us, I suspect that he would be pretty pleased with our progress so far, and would give us an A+ for effort, at least!

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Thomas, Sam and I at my brother’s wedding on October 12th, 2013.