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.

 

Music and Its Impact on the Grieving Process

Those of you who knew my husband, Dunc, might not have known how musical he was. Unless you can recall his whistling, that is. (And then you might not remember it for its musical quality, more for its repetitiveness and its vibrato!) Dunc could sing a tune back, no matter how complex, having only heard it once. He had a really good singing voice, but had never really explored using it, favouring whistling, even in the shower. Apparently, his musical career got off to a rocky start: he failed his grade one piano exam and then played the clarinet badly in church (his own words). I think these two events deterred him from taking music any further. However, Dunc very much enjoyed listening to music, whether it be something heavy on his iPod at work (mostly when senior managers weren’t looking), or on the stereo at home on a Saturday morning, bouncing around the lounge, with the boys and I, to something more cheesy. He had eclectic music tastes and I fear that the boys will develop an appreciation of mostly pop music in his absence, unless someone comes forth and volunteers to educate them in the art of German heavy metal!

Dunc liked to play music loud, whatever the genre, and I often found myself becoming slightly irked by the volume, particularly if I’d had a busy day or was feeling stressed. As a result, I was surprised that I felt the need to listen to a lot of music, and at quite some volume, in the early days following Dunc’s death. It was as if I was trying to fill a silence and a void. If nothing else, it helped to buoy me up, as it is hard to be so sad when listening to something bright and lively. I still use music now to lift my spirits on more difficult days. Combining a good tune with a bit of crazy dancing with my two gorgeous boys never fails to lighten my mood. When my energy levels are low, I find myself at the piano, playing and singing, though preferably with only the boys around to hear my rather rusty music-making attempts. This works especially well in the evenings when they don’t want me to go downstairs after bedtime. Playing the piano calms me; the boys know I am right at the bottom of the stairs and they can hear that I am definitely there.

Sometimes, I use music to help me to acknowledge and to deal with my emotions when I know that they are close to the surface. There are inevitably times when it is necessary to put on a brave face, and this can be especially difficult if I am feeling particularly emotional. Alternatively, it might be that I can feel my emotions building, but tears just won’t come. My strategy for both eventualities is to give myself time to play a tune or two on the stereo that will enable me to cry, releasing my emotions and making me feel more able to deal with the next event or the day ahead.

Music, however, does come with a health warning when one is grieving. Along with its ability to lift me up when I am feeling low, it also has the ability to bring me right back down on a day when I have successfully managed to distract myself from my feelings until that point. Imagine me happily driving the boys to their swimming lessons on a sunny Saturday morning, only for I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, or pretty much anything by Mumford and Sons, to be played on the radio. I have learnt that it is prudent to switch it off if I do not want to find myself being stared at by the driver next to me at traffic lights, wondering what can be so bad that I am crying silent tears at 8:30a.m. on a beautiful day!

I’m sure we all have songs and pieces of music that are strongly associated with particular moments in time. The boys like listening to Nobody Does It Better by Carly Simon. They have watched the video of Dunc and I attempting to dance to it at our wedding and they know it is special. For me, it is hard to hear now, and I hope that in time it will just form one of my many fond memories again. When I hear Don’t Stop Me Now (the Mc Fly version, I’m afraid), it takes me back to the evening of Sam’s birth and Dunc being a truly brilliant birth partner. Even hearing the Match of the Day music on Saturday night brought a lump to my throat, just because it was late and I was sitting watching the football on my own. After all, our interest in football (and sport generally) was one of the first things that brought Dunc and I together as a couple.

Christmas music will soon present me with a host of difficulties. Dunc always made the most of the opportunity to play festive songs throughout December. He enjoyed the really old songs that his parents played when he was young (having searched them out on Amazon), the more recent, popular ones, and bizarrely (and discretely), Michael Buble’s Christmas album. Playing any of these tunes at home this year will be strictly according to the mood of the boys and I. Going out Christmas shopping will be risky though, because I can not control the music to which I am subjected whilst doing it. I can just picture myself browsing in the stores, laden with shopping bags, chewing my quivering lip, while Mariah Carey sings All I Want for Christmas is Youoooooo in the background. It was previously my festive guilty pleasure, but this year it just seems a bit too close to the bone. In addition, I’m wondering how many times I will have to sit through Away in a Manger and Silent Night, trying not to well up when I think about the words.

Christmas music aside (and I actually wouldn’t be without it, even now), I think music generally has a very positive part to play in helping me to deal with my grief. In the words of Johnny Depp, “Music can open up so many emotions that we didn’t know we had.” Scary though it is to face the emotions involved in moving through the grieving process, that is what I must do, if I am to emerge the other side in one piece. I wonder if Adele and Scouting for Girls know what an important role they have to play in helping me, and, presumably, many others like me, through this tricky time?!Image

Dunc exploring his musical talents on Sam’s ELC guitar!

Dealing With Bereavement

The evening of Dunc’s death is gradually becoming a blur. I presume that it is my brain’s way of helping me to cope. However, I can vividly remember that I was worrying immediately about the future. There were many lovely people around me that night, to whom I will be indebted forever, and they encouraged me to try and stay in the present and to take one step at a time. My way of coping with anything big or difficult was always to plan, and planning has just not been an option in the last few months. In its absence, I quickly expressed a need for a manual.

One of my mum’s familiar old phrases sprang to mind: ‘When all else fails, read the instructions’. It transpires that it is perhaps more relevant to constructing flat-packed furniture than to dealing with bereavement. In this case, there are no instructions to follow and I still find myself making up the rules day-by-day, hoping that I’m leading us all in roughly the right direction. My goals? To stay (relatively) sane myself, and to bring the boys up in the way Dunc and I had intended, helping them to deal with his death along the way. I did buy a book, written by another young widow, and began reading it avidly. What it taught me more than anything though, was that no two people experience the death of a loved one, or deal with bereavement, in the same way.

My experience of dealing with bereavement bears several similarities to bringing home a newborn baby. For example, you awake to a sea of flowers and gifts (both of which continue to arrive for weeks), and to a myriad of visitors and phone calls. People cook you dinners and rummage through your cupboards to try and find things stored in places that are illogical to them (but that make perfect sense to you!) Meanwhile, you try to concentrate on doing little things that just a few days ago took no effort at all, but now seem monumental and completely unmanageable. Then there’s the crushing, mind-numbing tiredness that envelops you and prevents you from thinking straight (and, five months on, it still is. My previously photographic memory now struggles to recall why I walked up the stairs!) There is no manual to which you can totally relate, and as you don’t really know what you are supposed to do, you learn to wing it, gaining confidence in your new life as you go along. You laugh when inside you feel like crying, and you smile because it is more socially acceptable to do so than frowning, when people offer you the most ridiculous of platitudes.

I am learning fast that dealing with bereavement is very definitely a marathon, not a sprint. With many things in life, I expect to be able to ‘carry on regardless’ in a week or two. I wasn’t naïve enough to put the death of my gorgeous husband in that bracket, but I did assume that the tiredness, the sadness and the confusion (about how my boys and I have ended up in the middle of all this madness) would start to fade. I’m still waiting, and all I see on the horizon at the moment are a series of further hurdles which I must clear first. I have very good days, bad days and days when I just keep busy because it is easier than dwelling on the situation. A day may start well, only for it all to come crashing down around me when I realise that Sam and/or Thomas have not shared my positive start. Alternatively, days sometimes start with a wave of sadness and the realisation that this is my new reality and one that currently has no end in sight.

I feel I might be further forward if I had more time to myself, but the last five months have been rather busy. I have concentrated very much on putting the boys and their needs first, at the expense of my own, as any mother would. Helping them to deal with losing their fantastic daddy, on top of my own feelings, constantly requires a lot of energy, way beyond the huge amount of energy and investment that is required to bring up lively children anyway. For example, I might think that I have completed the chores before the boys’ bedtime so that I can sit down afterwards, only to find that one or other of them has a different idea and needs my understanding and patience for a further ninety minutes. It is then that I often have to try and answer questions about the mechanics of the heart (and its failings), when I am likely to die, why Daddy can’t come back and how the spirit leaves the body at the moment of death.

Last night Sam was determined to stay downstairs with me because he thought I would be lonely without Daddy and needed some company. In many ways, he has hit the nail on the head and is just too perceptive for his own good. However, it is not the responsibility of my five-year-old to look after me – it is my job to look after him and, of course, I was quick to reassure him, without wishing to be disingenuous. In reality, the evenings can be lonely and I struggle to force myself to go up to bed alone. In the daytime, trying to work with the medics to get the best for the boys, and keeping them healthy on my own is a massive task. I watched a man on the television recently saying to the mother of his sick child, “You’ve been the perfect mummy today. You’ve done everything right.” It made me cry because I find the loss of that support and reassurance from the person whom I love, at a time when I really need it the most, hard to bear.

This week the boys and I will be visited by a volunteer from Guy’s Gift (www.guysgift.co.uk). I have requested their support to try and help the boys to deal with their emotions and particularly their anger. I have supported several children through bereavement during my teaching career, but it is vastly different when you are stuck in the middle of the situation with your own children. As for me personally, I have been awaiting counselling from Cruse (www.cruse.org.uk) since the end of June. I know that I need some help to work through my feelings in order to deal with Dunc’s death. I owe it to myself, and to the boys, to make sure that I emerge as mentally and physically fit as possible from all of this and I fully intend to do so. One thing that hasn’t been dented yet is my determination, and while that remains intact, I suspect that we will all make it through this.

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Sam, Thomas and I in Cornwall, September 2013.

 

Taking the Next Step

Sam, Thomas and I have just returned from a week’s holiday on a farm in Cornwall. It was a big step for all of us. Dunc and I had booked it in January, in a moment of being unusually organised. When he died in April this year, I quickly realised that the holiday was looming and had no idea what to do. We were supposed to be going in July, to the same small cottage that we had stayed in previously. I knew that I couldn’t do that, but felt very strongly that the boys should not lose the holiday about which they were so excited, in addition to losing their daddy. Following conversations with Dunc’s sister, Sam’s fabulous Head Teacher, and the lovely folk at the farm, we rearranged our visit for last week, staying in a larger cottage with Dunc’s sister for company and support.

It felt very strange while I was packing for the holiday. I was confident that once we got to Cornwall, we would have an enjoyable time. I am learning that the boys are very good at getting involved in activities and distracting me from my deeper thoughts. However, it was also very sad to be packing for a holiday that Dunc and I had been planning with great anticipation, and which the boys and I would now be taking without him.

There were practical hurdles to overcome too because there were situations involved in holidaying with two small children where Dunc and I had developed very defined roles. For example: I packed the luggage; Dunc packed the car (having carried the heaviest bags down the stairs); I did the driving; Dunc read the map (whilst casually lobbing sandwiches/magazines/sucky sweets and the occasional admonishment at the boys in the back); Dunc made the sandcastles (for which you should read ‘complex systems involving diverted streams and intricate buildings, created only by people who have a degree in mechanical engineering’); I took the photos.

This year, I managed to heave the massive suitcase down the stairs myself, adding only a couple of small bruises to my shins in the process (and next time, I’ll pack it downstairs!). I did a fair job of driving and navigating, apart from a small oversight, when we ended up retracing our tracks for about 10 miles before realising the mistake. The photos I took on the beach suggest that the sand structure was sound, if a little less aesthetically pleasing than in previous years. I’m very much hoping that Dunc would have given me 10/10 for effort in each discipline at least (and it did feel regularly like I was participating in some crazy test of skill and endurance!).

The biggest test turned out to be our trip to the coast to scatter some of Dunc’s ashes. It had dawned on me during the summer that Cornwall was the obvious place to take a portion of them, as Dunc had proposed to me there and because we had planned to retire there. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was ready to take this step, but I felt that there was nothing to be gained by keeping them on top of the wardrobe for a year (and a trip to Cornwall can only really be an annual event when it involves a five hour car journey each way with two young children in tow!). 

I wanted to find a place that the boys would remember visiting with Dunc. I concluded that the natural choice was Tintagel, as we went twice during our holiday last year, and have lots of lovely photos of our visits. However, climbing the steep steps and footpaths there with two small children and a particularly heavy rucksack was a rather different proposition to the one we faced last year, when Dunc had ably carried Thomas most of the way! In fact, the ascent last week was relatively manageable. The descent was a different matter, when I realised that I needed to hold the rail to get down the steep steps, but also the hand of both boys! I found a logical solution and we made it down safely, but not before realising that I do need to seriously consider the potential problems that being a lone adult with two small children could cause on our adventures in the great outdoors.

The weather in Cornwall last week was pretty variable and the day we had allocated for our visit to Tintagel was extremely windy. Everyone who knew about my plan to scatter Dunc’s ashes had made mention of the importance of wind direction. In fact, it played a major part. It wasn’t so much a scattering of ashes, more a ‘make a nest in the long grass and place them carefully, leaving the wind to do the scattering for us’. If I’d ploughed ahead with the scattering plan, I think the ashes would have made it back inland a lot quicker than we did! Instead, I am happy that we have left that portion of them in a beautiful place, overlooking the sea, of which we have some lovely memories of visiting together as a family. It felt right. I didn’t feel upset, just a little emotional maybe. It was another step along our new path: taking care of another task that I hadn’t imagined I would need to do anytime soon; trying to follow what I think would have been Dunc’s wishes, and making it as simple as possible for all of us who remain to process and understand.

The journey home was much harder. After all, the last five months have been long and often extremely difficult. The week away had been a lovely change. We had concentrated on having fun together, not on completing endless paperwork; and on enjoying each other’s company, not on hiding from people who don’t know what to say to us. We were anonymous and it felt quite liberating. My smiles were mostly real, not forced, half-hearted efforts. And then, we had to leave our little Cornish haven and return to face reality – the difficult daily morning routine with two angry boys; steering them through tired bath-times; the empty half of our king-sized bed; the forthcoming family events, bonfire night (which was always previously my favourite night of the year), my birthday and, finally, Christmas. My spirits were low.

As we motored up the M5, however, we narrowly avoided a major accident which happened about one hundred metres in front of us. It was enough to shake me up, to make me thank my lucky stars that we were all still in one piece, and to remind me that, while we might not have chosen the path that we are currently taking, we should still be very grateful for everything that we have and for the wonderful people who are walking it with us. We finally reached home, the boys whooped with joy upon being reunited with their toys and I faced the mountainous pile of washing that only a holiday can create. The week away was timely – I took the opportunity to reflect while we were there and now feel (slightly!) rejuvenated and a little more prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead as we take the next steps along our new path.

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Matters of the Heart

Aside

I am confident that anyone who knew my husband, Dunc, would say he had a big heart. He was kind, generous, friendly, warm and, indeed, the most well-liked person I have ever met. Sadly, the pathologist who carried out the post-mortem examination after Dunc’s death, found that he also had an enlarged heart in the medical sense. He had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. To you and I, this effectively means that his heart muscle was considerably thicker than normal. The consequence was that his heart developed an arrhythmia during a friendly game of football. Despite prolonged efforts, the medics were unable to get it back into a normal sinus rhythm and Dunc was pronounced dead about an hour later.

Just prior to Dunc’s death, we had watched a documentary about Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers footballer who collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch, during a televised FA Cup match at White Hart Lane, in March 2012. Fortunately, a cardiologist was watching the match from the stands and he, along with the medical staff from both teams, gave CPR and other vital medical support immediately. Muamba apparently maintained a shockable heart rhythm and, after 78 minutes he was revived, subsequently making a good recovery. Unfortunately for Dunc, there was no crowd of supporters at his game, no medical team and no cardiologist in the vicinity.

The documentary about Muamba raised concerns for me that Dunc was playing football once a week without maintaining any underlying fitness, having given up his gym membership shortly after Thomas was born in 2010. (One of the cardiologists that we have seen since Dunc’s death, due to the fact that the boys have a potential risk of inheriting the condition, told me my concerns were actually valid. Those of you who play a game of football / squash / netball each week, without doing any exercise in between, please take note!) Anyway, I discussed my feelings with Dunc, but he felt that I was worrying about nothing. I have since learnt that a newly-installed health check machine at work also suggested that he had high blood pressure. Of course, Dunc didn’t tell me that…

It is only since Dunc’s death that I have become more aware of the prevalence of people with underlying cardiac conditions collapsing whilst doing sport. This is often due to the extra strain that exercise puts on the heart. The charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) (http://www.c-r-y.org.uk) has been supporting us since Dunc died. Its research says that twelve young people are dying each week in the UK as a result of undiagnosed cardiac conditions. Often, they have had absolutely no warning signs at all, until they simply collapse and die, sometimes whilst participating in sport and sometimes just engaging in their normal day-to-day activities.

CRY is doing amazing work on several fronts: it carries out research into these cardiac conditions that are silent killers amongst the younger population; it supports bereaved families with counselling and advice; it provides a specialist cardiac pathology service, and it provides screening sessions around the UK for people between the ages of 14 and 35. In order to do all of this, the charity requires a vast amount of funding. I have received two of its regular updates in the last few months and it is clear that there are a lot of supporters out there raising money in memory of friends and loved ones. In fact, I find the publications very difficult to read, as it really drives home the vast number of young lives that have been lost, and the family lives that have been shattered as a result.

Dunc would have celebrated his 40th birthday next March and I am intending to mark the occasion by holding a fundraising event for CRY in his memory. However, the main reason for writing this post today is to raise awareness of the conditions that are cutting short the lives of young people before they have really begun. If, by reading my blog, just one of you decides to get yourself or a loved one checked out, I will feel that I have done something worthwhile. It’s all very well CRY holding screening sessions around the UK, but I suspect that persuading some people to attend them can be difficult. I know that if I’d asked Dunc to attend one, he would never have got round to it. Other people might not wish to confront their own mortality. Until you know someone who has died, or who has been personally affected, it is very easy to ignore the possibility that one day, you, or a loved one, might just become another statistic. So, please take action if you have a close family member who has died from a cardiac condition at a young age, or if you experience:

• light-headedness or blackouts
• palpitations (a rapid and/or irregular heartbeat)
• chest pains (often as a result of physical exertion)
• shortness of breath (often as a result of physical exertion)

Don’t assume that your symptoms are normal / will pass / are just because you are a bit stressed. Do something about it. Do it for yourselves, for your loved ones, for Dunc and I. Don’t let your partner / children / parents / siblings / friends suffer in the way that we are all suffering right now. For the sake of a quick trip to a CRY screening session, or to your GP, it is just not worth risking your health and the future emotional well-being of your friends and family.

Be under no illusion – I might usually encourage my natural optimism to shine through in my posts about the new lives of Sam, Thomas and I, but I wouldn’t wish our recent experience on anyone. It is horribly hard, endless and lonely. Losing someone you love is shocking, heartbreaking and utterly devastating. The undiagnosed cardiac conditions that are killing young people, and that a simple, painless ECG test can detect, are treatable. You just need to know that you need the treatment. Without screening, you might not live to find out. On this one occasion, I make absolutely no apology for promoting my cause. Please share this post widely, especially with those that you know and love, and always hold them tight.

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Dunc, Sam and Thomas exploring our local woodland together, Spring 2012.

Memories Old and New

One of my earliest memories of Dunc is of him wearing his Homer Simpson slippers. This seemed anomalous to me, as he owned his own home, held down a professional job and drove a silver saloon. In fact, he was really quite mature, and yet, he wore Homer Simpson slippers. I think they had been a gift, and, thankfully, Dunc soon wore them out because he was extremely fond of wearing them. It transpired over the years that this fondness was not confined to Homer Simpson slippers alone – he just liked wearing slippers generally. He took them to our neighbours’ house when we were invited round for dinner, and he took them whenever we went to stay at hotels. In fact, the only place I don’t recall him taking them was camping! Slippers were indicative of Dunc’s laid back attitude to life and he scuffed them along the carpet as he took each relaxed step. When I returned from the hospital on the night that he died, I noticed his slippers at the bottom of the stairs. They had been cast aside when he had swapped them enthusiastically for his football boots several hours earlier. It was a poignant moment.

Since Dunc died, Sam, Thomas and I have created memory boxes. I could have put his slippers in mine, as they were such a big part of who he was. However, they were also old, holey and, dare I say it, a little whiffy. I chose instead to put in his cap and his woolly hat. Much as I loved spending a quiet night in with Dunc and his slippers (and a glass or two of red wine), my favourite memories are of the adventures that we shared. Due to the fact that he was somewhat follicly-challenged, Dunc was never seen exploring the great outdoors without a hat of some description. His khaki cap saw him through the summer months, and his brown, woolly hat through the colder months. His cap reminds me of strolling through the sunshine, hand in hand, on Cornish beaches before the boys were born (or running frantically after them since!) His woolly hat conjures up memories of kicking beautiful autumn leaves in parks and arboretums, and of laughing as he hurtled downhill with the boys on the sledge just last winter.

Recently, I have begun to sort through drawers of ‘important’ things that Dunc had squirrelled away (or filed creatively out of sight, so that I didn’t complain about the mess). In doing so, I have found a number of old cards that we sent to each other on Valentine’s Day and wedding anniversaries. He was most unusual for a bloke, in that he often wrote lovely, long messages in cards to me, and these are particularly special now. They have been added to my memory box to be treasured forever, as a reminder of how romantic we were, especially in the early days, before we had the boys to look after.

Last weekend, Dunc’s old work friends went camping together. He had been to the annual reunion virtually every year since I had known him. Dunc always looked forward to his weekend of escape from the family and the opportunity to bike, walk and drink to his heart’s content with some of his best friends. It was odd to think of the ‘boys’ (mostly aged 35 – 40), enjoying the activities without him, but many of us are feeling the need to take time together to reflect on our loss, and to make some new memories in Dunc’s absence.

During the summer holidays, I have made a particular effort to plan activities that will help Sam, Thomas and I begin to create new memories. It has been sad to revisit places that hold memories of outings we enjoyed in the past as a family of four, but I am determined that we won’t avoid them. It has felt strange to try new things without Dunc, knowing that he would have loved every minute. While his friends were on a mountain bike trail in North Wales on Sunday, Sam, Thomas and I marked the weekend by cycling five miles around a local reservoir together. It is clear that the boys are growing to love the excitement and thrill of freewheeling down hills just as much as Dunc and I did. (In fairness, I don’t think Thomas had much choice in the matter, as his understanding of braking is still a little sketchy, at the age of just three and a half, but he seemed to enjoy it anyway!) I heard them say Dunc’s favourite phrases, “Awesome!” and, “Get in!” at several points. Whenever we do something new, I glance up at the nearest cloud, where the boys and I like to think that he is sitting, and think, “This one’s for you, sweetheart!”

Our lives will never be the same without Dunc. I owe it to him, and to our two lively boys, to make sure that we cherish the memories of the fantastic times we had together, whilst finding our way forward without him, making new memories as we go. I am totally convinced that this is what Dunc would have wanted for all three of us and would have expected of me. There have already been times when the boys have wanted to go higher or faster than is my natural inclination, and they make me smile wryly. It is then that I picture Dunc giving me a gentle shove from behind, or a quiet, reassuring word in my ear, as he did in the past on the odd occasion when my legs were tired, or my nerves threatened to get the better of me. So far, this has helped me to rise to the challenges that the boys are setting on a fairly regular basis. I am determined that they will not miss out on making these new memories just because their daddy is not here to share his climbing expertise or his enthusiasm for speed in person.

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Dunc and Sam reading a map on holiday in Cornwall, September 2010.

Probate and Other Fairly Pointless Pieces of Paperwork

Today, four months and four days since Dunc died, I have finally received the Grant of Representation (Probate) in the post. Four months and five days ago, I didn’t even know that such a thing existed, let alone the hoops that one is required to jump through in order to obtain it. Today, its arrival marks the beginning of the end of dealing with Dunc’s estate (which makes him sound both old and rich, neither of which he was..).

Within the first couple of weeks after Dunc’s death, a smartly dressed man came round, ostensibly from a centre supporting bereaved people who are dealing with the financial affairs of their loved ones. In fairness, he did tell me what was involved in applying for the Grant of Probate, before telling me that I could pay his colleagues about £4000 so that they could take care of the process for me. Alternatively, I could pay them £625 to do part of the process for me, or I could join the fifteen to thirty percent of people who attempt to complete the process themselves. I like a challenge and the odd bit of maths, and I figured that, sadly, I’d have plenty of spare evenings now in order to work through it all.

In order to apply for the Grant of Probate, I had to prepare a set of accounts of all Dunc’s assets and liabiliies (taking into account whether or not the liability was shared with me). I needed a ‘date of death balance’ from all the utility companies in order to complete this (and most of them required two phone calls and a letter in order to persuade them to part with the correct information).

I had to value all of Dunc’s belongings, right down to the lawn mower, the set of Denby we received as wedding presents (halved), and the value of his clothes, should they have been placed on the open market at the date of his death. Anything over the value of £500 had to be valued independently. This meant that I had to have the house valued and explaining that to the boys and Dunc’s poor mum was certainly interesting!

I completed the probate application form (PA1) with relative ease, but found HMRC’s tax form (IHT205) considerably more challenging. (Think: ‘find the total for box B, subtract the figure in box A, and write the answer in box C’, all the way until you end up with the final, important, big figure in box K, and you get the picture). It took my brother, with a business studies degree, and I three hours to complete. (After all, you reach page ten in the accompanying booklet before it advises you how to complete question one on the form!) Anyway, once I’d sent off all the relevant paperwork, along with the required fee of £125 for the privilege of completing the process, I waited to receive the oath that I needed to swear in front of my solicitor, and arranged to go and swear it as soon as it arrived. A further 16 days later, and the grant has finally arrived. I have to admit, I did feel like holding it aloft in celebration, something akin to the captain of an FA Cup winning team lifting the prize after a long and arduous campaign. After all, not only does it mean that I am a step closer to the end of all this paperwork, but it suggests that my maths isn’t too shabby either! (And I’m about £4,000 better off than I would have been if Mr. Smartly Dressed had his way..).

Of course, what I haven’t mentioned yet, is the fact that because I am Dunc’s spouse, and because the value of his estate is below the inheritance tax threshold, I am exempt from paying tax on any of the above anyway! The whole exercise has merely proved that no further action has to be taken! Mr. Smartly Dressed told me that the average estate requires 80 hours of work in order to receive the Grant of Probate (although I believe it ‘only’ took me about thirty hours). That’s a lot of work just to prove that I don’t owe HMRC anything.

In addition to completing the probate process, I have also had to fill in a myriad of additional tax forms that began falling through my letterbox within a week of registering Dunc’s death. There have been forms to establish whether he paid too much tax between 6 April and his death on 25 April and forms to establish what my new tax code should be. I’ve also filled in benefit forms, pension forms and have been forced to close our credit card account, as Dunc was the main card holder, and apply for a new one.

Throwing this amount of paperwork at someone would be overwhelming at any time. To expect people to complete it all in the first few months after the death of a loved one, is unreasonable (and I suppose that is why Mr. Smartly Dressed and his colleagues are in business). I’m not suggesting that I know a better way of establishing whether tax is owed or not. However, the current process, coupled with the utility companies’ inability to deal expediently with queries related to bereavement, most definitely creates additional stress at a time when people are already at their lowest ebb, and that can’t be right.