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.

The Empty Chair

Chairs were important to Dunc. He loved to sit on his arse at any given opportunity (and often remarked on the lack of such opportunities since the arrival of our two lively boys). Dunc had a very special chair during the first few years of our relationship. In fact, initially at least, he had two, until I moved in with him, accompanied by furniture that was twenty years newer and which required space in our less-than-capacious first home together. His chairs were gold, tassled, 1970s, patterned family ‘heirlooms’, perfect for a lazy evening in front of the television. The remaining chair met its end six years ago as we prepared to transform Dunc’s ‘gaming room’ into a nursery for Sam, and its loss was significant to the man who had spent many a long evening reclining in it over the years, playing his Playstation 2, or watching films until the small hours. I’m sure many of our friends would think of Dunc’s precious gaming chair when his name is mentioned in conjunction with any form of seating.

The empty chair of which I am thinking, however, might be the other half of our soft, brown, leather sofa that slopes inwards after six years of wear, so that we always ended up sitting half on top of each other, even on occasions when we didn’t intend to do so. The evenings are often shorter now, by the time I have done the chores by myself, but I don’t relish sitting alone on the sofa once I’ve finished. There is no-one flopped next to me, letting out a satisfied, “Aaaahhh!” as they sink into its soft cushions at the end of a long day; there is no-one sitting on it for me to drape my legs over when watching a film, and no-one to cuddle up to on it, under a blanket on a cold, dark night.

Then there’s the spare chair in the hospital consultant’s room where once – many times, in fact – Dunc sat in an act of mutual support when fighting for our boys’ interests and wellbeing. When I took the boys to appointments by myself, I often felt that doctors listened attentively to me, before writing ‘fussy mother’ at the top of the notes. On the occasions when Dunc came with me, I always felt that we were taken a lot more seriously. Usually, he didn’t even speak much (claiming that my memory of events and understanding of all things medical lent themselves better to such conversations), but the mere presence of both of us seemed to make medics sit up and take notice.

We now have a spare dining chair at the table each mealtime. It causes Sam distress because he says he no longer has anyone to sit by. In the early days after Dunc died, I moved to sit in his chair as I could not bear anyone else to be sitting in his place at the table. I ended up staying there because Thomas often needs support with eating his meal. I didn’t even realise that Sam was feeling lonely at the opposite side of the table until he cried one day and explained. I tried moving him next to me, but it didn’t solve the underlying problem for him, or for me.

As we set off somewhere in the car, Thomas has said to me several times in the last four months, “Daddy should be sitting on that seat next to you, Mummy.” He says it mainly when we are going off on an exciting outing and it demonstrates his awareness of the situation in which we now find ourselves. We all know that, by rights, Dunc should be sitting there next to me. Having adventures without him is better than having none at all, but they are just not the same. It’s as if we all have to make an extra effort to have fun, just because Dunc is not there to enjoy them with us.

Tonight, the actual chair in question is in the shed. The very fact that I am sitting in our tent, in our back garden, in the semi-darkness, with two sleeping children nearby, without my partner in crime sitting in his camping chair next to me (usually reading his book by the light of his head torch), brings a lump to my throat and creates a physical ache in my chest. I never thought I would go camping on my own with the boys and, actually, at the moment, I’d feel too vulnerable to do so, hence the fact that the garden will have to suffice for the time being. Putting the tent up was surprisingly manageable without Dunc. Sitting in it during the late evening without him, is both lonely and heartbreaking.

I am fully expecting the most difficult ’empty chair moments’ to be those in the future when I will sit and watch our boys participating in events such as their Christmas nativity plays, their graduations, or on their wedding days. I have every confidence that one of my many supporters will be there to sit next to me, but it should be the boys’ daddy who is there to watch and be proud of them, alongside me.

In all these situations, we can not get around the fact that the presence of an empty chair represents our loss and reminds us of it every time we sit down. Maybe eventually, if Sam gets his way, Andy Murray, or someone else with slightly curly hair, will fill the empty chair, but, right now, that seems unthinkable and a very long way off. Currently, at this early stage in our new lives, I still prefer to think that Dunc is actually sitting next to us in some form. I just have to remember not to tread on his superhero cape!Image

Ten Things I Miss About You

As I write this, it is exactly eight years to the day since Dunc asked me to marry him. In fact, he asked if he could keep me. This confused me somewhat, as I wasn’t entirely sure if he was just buying a bit more time while he made up his mind about actually marrying me, or whether he was finally proposing! Eventually, I summoned up the courage to ask him directly to clarify his intentions, and he confirmed that, yes, marriage was indeed on the cards!

We were in Cornwall – possibly our favourite place in the world. Those who knew Dunc would have expected him to take the traditional ‘bended knee’ route for a proposal, in front of one of the many beautiful Cornish coastal views that drew us back there every year. But no, Dunc suddenly realised during dinner in a village pub that he had left the ring (that he had secretly chosen for me) unattended in our tent. He rushed us back and decided to seize the moment there and then, so glad was he that it was still safe where he had left it! He had forgotten to take account of the fact that it would actually have been my dad’s birthday that day, had he not died 18 months earlier. In reality, this just meant that 15 August became a day of both happy and sad memories. Now, of course, it is a doubly difficult day, and the first of the special occasions that I will mark without Dunc sitting next to me, red wine in hand.

On 18 August, it would be our seventh wedding anniversary, and in order to help me make sense of my feelings right now, I thought I would compose the following list (named after the film 10 Things I Hate About You, which is the first film I can remember watching with Dunc). So, for Dunc (and in no particular order)…

10 Things I Miss About You

1. Your amazing ability to say exactly the right thing at the right moment.  You definitely had a way with words and were particularly empathetic for a male of the species. You were confident and comfortable talking to absolutely anybody, in your usual relaxed manner. You said things diplomatically, sympathetically and were always extremely encouraging. That’s why I still hear you now, urging me on and keeping me going when things are tough.

2. Your love of the great outdoors and the occasional ‘short’ walk or bike ride.  I have kept your baseball cap and woolly hat, as you were never without one of them (depending on the season) on any of our outings and they signify the adventures we shared in the beautiful British countryside.

3. Your sense of responsibility. You were always keen to do the right thing, in any circumstance, and could be relied upon to help people move house, to help me through each and every night shift with the boys, even though you had to be at work the next morning, and to do your half of the chores (if at your own speed..). I was always very aware how lucky I was to have you, compared to many of my friends whose husbands felt that their role as the main breadwinner relieved them of any domestic responsibility.

4. Your nocturnal activities.  I didn’t always appreciate you turning on the bedside lamp in your sleep and looking for spiders under the bed, or your regular sleep talking, but it made for good conversation with you and our friends! Our bed is very empty (and quiet!) without you.

5. Your cuddles.  A tight squeeze from a big, tall male is not to be underestimated, and you were one of the cuddliest that I have ever met. In fact, you taught me how to hug people, and I think it’s made me a better person. The night you died, I recall you hugging me while I was trying to make the tea and me saying, “I do really love your cuddles, but it is a bit tricky to make spaghetti bolognese at the same time.” If only I’d known.

6. The fab team that we made together.  I always felt that I could take on the world with you by my side. We were different in many ways, but our differences seemed to compliment each other well, and made us a really strong family unit.

7. Our Scrabble marathons. In fairness, we didn’t play so regularly after the boys were born, but you really knew how to play a good game of Scrabble! I soon learnt from the master how to play tactically and was often able to match your score until the last turn, when, somehow, you always seemed to win! That was, unless I was pregnant, when I seemed able to win several games in a row. Of course, you claimed that I had an unfair advantage, as we were technically playing two against one!!

8. Your laid back attitude to life.  You taught me how to sit still once in a while, and I know you would have appreciated being allowed to do so rather more often! Admittedly, you being laid back sometimes drove me slightly potty, but I did admire your ability to ignore the washing up, and the boys fighting, when the FA Cup final/the Ashes/the Six Nations was on television. Somehow it never bothered you that you turned up to one of your best friend’s weddings after she (the bride) did, and I always felt you would live longer than I would, because being consistently late totally stressed me out. Just how wrong could I be? What I wouldn’t give now to hear the regular conversation in the car between the boys and I, which usually went along the lines of, “What are we waiting for, Mummy?” to which I would reply, “We’re just waiting for Daddy!”

9. The fact that you were indisputably the nicest, kindest, most lovely bloke a girl (or, indeed, anyone..) could ever hope to meet, and somehow, inexplicably, for ten and a bit years at least, you chose to be with me. I always felt incredibly lucky, and that won’t ever change. If I can bring our two boys up to be anything like you, I will feel I have done a good job.

10. Your bum, actually..  (Sorry, Mum!)

Happy anniversary Dunc. I’ve found your ‘Films to watch with Beth’ list (gulp…) and I may just pop one of them on while I do my regular Sunday night ironing session this week.DSCF0289

The Challenges of Life After Dunc’s Death (Part Two)

Today I reacquainted myself with the drill and finally fitted a new doorbell (much to the relief of visitors who have stood out in the rain longer than strictly necessary during the last year). In my days of being young, free, single and a home owner, I didn’t think twice about undertaking such a task. I’d grown up in a single parent family and believed I could have a good go at anything DIY-related. However, after 10 years of life with Dunc, a mechanical engineer who had a box full of tools and a shed full of ‘useful’ pieces of wood, my relationship with power tools had become a distant memory. Until today that is, when I woke up and decided that it was time to locate the drill in the depths of the shed, and get the job done. It took less than five minutes. In fact, retrieving it from the back of the shed probably took longer than the job itself! The element of challenge involved fitting the doorbell, whilst encouraging Thomas not to hit Sam with the hammer or hide the electric screwdriver in the playroom!

This is representative of most of the practical challenges in our new life so far. I have learnt to do a number of things that I just didn’t need to do before Dunc died. For example, I can now cook roast beef (which was always, inexplicably, Dunc’s job); I can start the petrol lawn mower (and mow our lawn in a fairly expedient fashion, as long as Thomas doesn’t decide to ‘help’ me) and I can heave containers full of books back into the loft, unaided. I’ve even lopped off a load of overhanging branches using the extendable cutters. However, if you imagine Thomas following me up the loft ladder, or Sam playing chicken with the branches I am felling, you begin to see the problem.

This week, the boys and I, complete with heavy double buggy and a rucksack, caught the train for a day trip to Birmingham. When we went on the train last year as a family, Dunc was in charge of hauling and stowing the rucksack and buggy, and I was in charge of the boys. This time, it was all down to me. I would never have contemplated doing this on my own before Dunc died, because we would have done it together. If I had tried it, I would have been entirely confident that he would have rescued us, if all else failed. This loss of my partner, my other adult in Team Phillips, is one of the biggest challenges that I face. Dunc and I were quite different in many ways, but together we made a cracking team. If I’d got us totally lost or developed a migraine in Birmingham, the buck stopped with me, and me alone. I know that there are friends who would have done their utmost to come to our aid, but ultimately they all have families to attend to, and places to be. Dunc’s unconditional love for all three of us is irreplaceable and its loss immeasurable.

The biggest challenge currently involves the grieving process and the fact that we are all at different points along the journey it entails. Sam understood immediately the meaning of, “The doctors tried to make Daddy better, but his heart was too poorly and he died.” He was initially tearful, pensive and full of questions. Now, three and a half months later, he has decided that if we haven’t got enough adults to go swimming at our local pool, then the obvious answer is to find a new daddy. He has decided to help me with this task by asking any lone males in town if they would like to take on the unenviable role! In fact, he has gone one step further and has pinpointed Andy Murray as the ideal replacement for Dunc (because he has money, a Wimbledon trophy, a dog and slightly curly hair!).

Thomas, aged three and a half, had little understanding of what Dunc’s death meant at the time. Just last week, he told me again that he’s still hoping Daddy will come home. In the last two weeks, he seems to have begun to come to terms with the permanence of the situation and I would say he is now starting to grieve (and is very angry with the rest of us). As for me, I’m trying to make time to grieve, whilst also looking after the boys, the house, and the endless paperwork associated with a death, and it usually happens at about midnight. The professionals tell me that it is good to show one’s emotions in front of the children, and I am quite comfortable with doing so. However, you know it is time to be the grown up and take a deep breath when your five your old says to you, with a slightly scared look on his face, “You’re not going to cry <em>again </em>are you, Mummy?” After all, he’d never seen me cry before Dunc died and I’m sure he feels that it is his job to look after me now, even though I’ve been at pains to tell him it isn’t. (He can help me with things, but it is definitely my job to look after him).

As my mum watched the boys, while I stashed things in the loft this week, she said, “You’re working on overdrive, aren’t you?” The honest answer is that I don’t think I am. (She just didn’t observe my life this closely when Dunc was alive!) I sit down a little later at night, and the efforts of a day trip without Dunc were tiring, but not unmanageable. The responsibility to try and meet the differing needs of the boys and to bring them up as we both intended, on my own, feels overwhelming at times though. I am choosing to take one day – and each tiny step – at a time, and so far, it seems to be working. My window cleaner has informed me that my lovely friends and neighbours are ready and waiting to catch me when I (inevitably) fall. It is reassuring to know, but I’m hoping not to require it of them. Only time will tell whether the combination of taking on new practical tasks whilst steering us all through the first few months of our new life will be a challenge too far. When the boys are safely tucked up in bed and I have time to take stock, I’m still feeling positive and as determined as ever.

The Challenges of Life After Dunc’s Death (Part One)

During the early years of our relationship, Dunc set me a series of challenges, including a scary six hour mountain bike ride in the rocky Lake District and a ten mile hike in the boggy Peak District. I often joked that he was testing me to see if I was ‘wife material’. Somehow, I passed! Since Dunc died, there have been many new challenges and the mettle required of me back then has stood me in good stead thus far.

The first challenge, and clearly the hardest, was telling Dunc’s family and friends that he had died. I felt very strongly that I should be the one to tell his parents when they reached the hospital, and doing so is something I will never forget. I then spent the entire night trying to work out how on earth I would tell Sam, aged five, and Thomas, aged three, that their daddy had died. I also wanted to tell as many other folk as possible personally, particularly those who were close to Dunc. Saying aloud that he had died, repeatedly, wasn’t an easy task, but Dunc was always a man who did the right thing, and I wanted to do the right thing too. I think people appreciated hearing the news from me directly, and I drew some comfort from realising how very special Dunc was to so many people.

Some of the challenges that have presented themselves since then have been of considerably less magnitude and have even made me smile at times. For example, I had to produce a vast array of important documents for the pension department at Dunc’s work. This involved locating them all within our slightly out-of-date filing system. I searched extensively through it, and through the pile of paperwork that had lain unfiled for the last twelve months, when Dunc had announced that the filing cabinet was officially full. Eventually, I found our marriage certificate neatly filed under ‘Car Documents’ and Thomas’s birth certificate in ‘Doctor and Dentist’. It took me five days to find everything, but then I was also still trying to operate, in some fashion at least, as Sam and Thomas’s Mummy (in between answering the phone, the door and the coroner’s many questions).

Once I had found the documents, a representative from Dunc’s work came to meet with me. He arrived late, just as an engineer arrived to change the electricity meter. This meant that the engineer was both listening to and disturbing the confidential conversation I was engaged in. Meanwhile, Sam and Thomas were fighting in the lounge because the television programme I had left them to watch had been interrupted, without warning, when the electrics were turned off. The electricity company had given me a six hour window for the engineer’s visit, and, yet, somehow the visits had coincided in the most farcical fashion! This was just a week after Dunc had died when I was still finding even the most menial and familiar tasks challenging. I recall sitting at the dining table, amongst the melee, wondering how my life had suddenly come to this and why the heck my husband wasn’t there to help me. It was a ‘laugh or cry’ moment. I smiled and shook my head, distracted the boys with the iPad, and continued with the meeting, trying hard not to appear as flustered and discombobulated as I felt.

I also had to take my folder of important documents to the local JobCentrePlus so that the staff could verify them for my bereavement benefit application. I hid behind my sunglasses on my way there, fearful of bumping into well-meaning friends to whom I simply couldn’t face speaking at this stage. As I sat waiting apprehensively for my appointment in this new environment, a man was wrestled to the floor and arrested, in a great commotion, not ten feet from me. Someone spotted my bewildered smile and asked me what was amusing me, to which I replied, “I’m just contemplating the fact that you couldn’t write about my life at the moment!” It was then that I realised perhaps I should try!

Another particularly challenging day occurred when I began ringing the utility companies to inform them of Dunc’s death. I endured some truly awful phone conversations, and found myself shaking from head to foot once more, as I had for the entirety of the first five days of our new life. I then had to take Thomas to his swimming lesson and to a hospital appointment shortly after. Upon leaving the pool, Thomas had an accident and I had not packed any spare clothes. We had just enough time to drive home, change him, and still make it to the hospital on time. However, I hadn’t bargained on finding a ten foot tall box, containing a tree, outside the house and awaiting removal to the safety of the back garden!

Picture me trying to manoeuvre a box almost twice my height (which warned me in big letters that it must be kept upright), followed by a rather damp, waddling three year old, who was kindly providing a running commentary of my progress! As the scene unfolded, I imagined Dunc watching from afar, giving me an engineer’s guide on how one should approach the task. Quite why my invisible superhero didn’t intervene, by sending forth a neighbour to assist me, at the very least, I don’t know. Anyway, Thomas and I made it to the hospital appointment, dry pants and all, with about thirty seconds to spare. The lovely ladies who sent us the beautiful tree in memory of Dunc were somewhat dismayed to hear the tale of its arrival, but it provided a little light relief during a difficult time.

Many of the events that occurred in the early weeks of our new life are a blur that I can barely remember. However, I can vividly recall the amount of energy that surviving them consumed and the overwhelming tiredness that resulted (and lasted for about nine weeks). The simplest of tasks seemed almost unmanageable, exhausting and strangely scary. The challenges above have stood out as the more amusing ones, but there have been numerous others in the last three months. In fact, I am contemplating putting in a claim for a superhero cape (with matching pants, obviously…) all of my own!

Saying Goodbye to My Husband

On the evening that Dunc died, he left for football while Sam, Thomas and I were eating tea. He kissed each of us in turn and told us that he loved us. Dunc did this every week before football, and every day before work. It was something that I had strongly encouraged, having worked closely with a family who hadn’t had a chance to say a proper last goodbye to their child. Dunc was always a little bemused by my somewhat fatalistic approach, but understood its basis. Our heartfelt goodbyes had grown to be one of our family traditions. Sitting in complete shock and disbelief in the relatives’ room at Warwick Hospital later, I felt a huge sense of relief that we had at least said a proper goodbye.

During the course of the evening, I was able to take my time to say goodbye to Dunc again. Initially, I held his hand and told him how much we all loved him. I assured him that I would do my absolute best to take care of the boys and to do the things that we always planned to do with them. I believe that his spirit had left his body by this point. Instead, I felt he was standing just behind me, wishing that he wasn’t the cause of such heartache and distress. As time passed, Dunc’s parents and sister arrived and said their goodbyes too. I wanted to be the last to leave. In fact, I didn’t want to leave him at all, but I knew that it had to happen at some point. My brother drove me home through the darkness, as I tried to make sense of the events that had unfolded since Dunc had told us that he loved us, just five hours before.

In the following days, I decided to go and visit Dunc in the chapel of rest. It is not something I have ever even contemplated doing before, but my lasting image of him at that point was one of him surrounded by medical paraphernalia and the evidence of the aggressive treatment that he had endured during the fight to save his life. It troubled me. My amazing friend, who had supported me at the hospital on the evening of Dunc’s death, visited him first. She explained to me that he looked very peaceful, and I decided to go too. I am so relieved that I did. The image of Dunc in that hospital bed is one that I see sometimes when I am tired and unable to sleep, but the image of him resting peacefully, in his favourite casual clothes that I had chosen for him, is a much more positive final memory.

I began to turn my attention to planning Dunc’s funeral. There was a delay, caused by an initially inconclusive post mortem result and a bank holiday weekend, and it gave me time to make sure that the service was just right. After all, my wonderful husband deserved a great send off and it was really the last thing I could do for him directly. The difficulty was that, unlike my mother, who has spent the last thirty years giving me instructions about which song/poem/person she wants at her funeral, Dunc had never mentioned his. He was too busy enjoying life to contemplate its end.

I was very relieved to find instructions for cremation recorded in Dunc’s Will. Although he was an agnostic, I felt that he would be happy for the rest of us to remember him in the village church in which he and I were married less than seven years earlier. If Dunc wasn’t impressed with the religious aspect, he would at least have appreciated the fact that the three hundred mourners would never have fitted into the local crematorium, where family, close friends and I went with him afterwards. (The church service had to be relayed outside to ensure that everyone who had come could hear it – a great indication of Dunc’s popularity).

I had decided that the Imperial March, by John Williams, would be ideal for Dunc’s entrance into the church, as he and the boys enjoyed many lightsaber duels to it. The funeral director, however, politely told me he thought it was ‘a bit heavy’. This presented me with a dilemma. I had great respect for him, and he clearly knew a thing or two about organising funerals, but this was the piece that meant something to Dunc and the boys. As I discussed the problem with two close friends one evening, Thomas was suddenly heard singing it loudly in his bed over the baby monitor. The decision was made!

The music began as we were walking up the path into church behind the coffin, carried by six of his friends, and it made me smile. The fact that we could have organised a pallbearing relay to take Dunc on laps around the churchyard, because he had so many friends who wanted to do it, struck me at this point and it made me smile too. After that, I got through the service without tears. In fact, I sang loudly and listened intently to the stories from his family and good friend. (Well, as intently as you can when your three year old is lying on the floor in front of you, making patterns on the kneelers, whilst asking, “Are they going to get Daddy out of his special box in a minute?”). The vicar read my reflections about Dunc on my behalf and we sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot as a nod to his love of sport. The coffin left the church to Jack Johnson’s ‘Better Together’. It had almost been the song for our first dance at our wedding, except that we found we couldn’t dance to it. This time there was no need for dancing.

Following Dunc’s funeral, one of his closest friends posted on Facebook, ‘You and the boys have made Dunc a very proud man today’. The father of one of my school friends, who had come to represent her, said, “If there can be such a thing, this was the best funeral I have ever been to.” The fact that we were holding and attending a funeral for Dunc at all, was all wrong. The least I could do for him was to get our final goodbye right.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Surviving the Death of My Wonderful Husband

How do you start a blog about an end, a conclusion, a massive, hideous and, frankly, traumatic loss? And actually, this isn’t just about the end. It’s about the beginning: of three lives, touched by a wonderful man, who has left us far too soon, and our adventures forward from here.

In March 2013, my husband, Duncan, went on a short skiing trip with a friend. I had agreed to ‘keep the home fires burning’. In reality, this meant ‘keep our three and four year old boys, Thomas and Sam, washed, fed and preferably out of Accident and Emergency’ (a tall order!). Dunc had an awesome time away. He returned, however, in holiday mode and, after giving him only a few hours’ leeway, I made it absolutely clear that if he did not snap out of it, I might just have a nervous breakdown. A tad melodramatic perhaps, but this solo parenting effort, juggled with a stressful time at work, came on top of a myriad of hospital appointments and procedures for both boys over a three year period. (Think eight sets of appointments in four different hospitals, in the previous four months alone, and you start to get the picture…). Well, cumulatively, it had pretty much finished me off, and I meant every word.

Dunc looked like a scared animal. I’m sure he must have wondered two things: firstly, how had things got this bad in just five days? Secondly, why had he come back?! He was a tremendous husband and a very hands-on daddy (and I was even heard to confirm this regularly before his death). Dunc had always seen it as his responsibility to take an equal share of the night shifts that looking after two small children brings, and we shared the chores around the house. After my outburst, he immediately upped his game: he remembered the myriad of medicines the boys’ required, and usually at approximately the right times; he sorted out my car insurance for the year and he plumbed in the new dishwasher. I reduced my working hours to accommodate the hospital appointments and, for five weeks, life became more manageable.

On 25 April 2013, shortly after his 39th birthday, Dunc went to his weekly game of football, and suffered a cardiac arrest. Prolonged attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful. By 8pm, my gorgeous, dedicated, loving husband had died and I was officially a widow. Not just a widow, but a widow with two little boys at home, who were totally expecting me to come back and say that Daddy was fine. After all, they knew all about hospitals, and the clever doctors who make you better. Except on this occasion, they couldn’t, and my world, and that of our boys, had changed forever.

I always thought I had some inner strength (learnt from losing my dad ten years ago, amongst other things), and the last three months have required every ounce of it. In case you are wondering, I haven’t yet had my nervous breakdown. In fact, I’ve found reserves I didn’t know I had. I have organised Dunc’s funeral, and steered the boys and I through it, and I have completed the probate process already. My lovely friend and I sat watching my boys playing recently and she said, “They haven’t changed. They are still Thomas and Sam.” Ultimately, I know that the sudden loss of their fantastic daddy at such a crucial stage in their development will have a huge effect on them. However, the fact that you can not always see it, is a good place to start. And I feel that this is the start. Not one that we had planned (and I’ve done a lot of planning with a somewhat reluctant Dunc in the last ten years!), or one that we would wish to be making. It is the tragic, early end of Dunc’s life, but the beginning of a new chapter in ours.

I have been absolutely determined from Day One that we will make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves, as a slightly smaller ‘Team Phillips’. Sam told me that first day, “When people die, they are still walking next to you. You just can’t see them anymore.” He then added, “If you can’t see Daddy anymore, he must be a superhero, with invisibility as his special power.” I feel Dunc’s presence strongly, and love the image of him sporting pants over his trousers, with a matching superhero cape. He would be thrilled to be their superhero, although in this life, rather than the next. In moments when I am tired, or feeling low, I imagine him sitting on a cloud, beer in hand, saying, “Come on! Stop feeling sorry for yourself! Get off your arse and keep on keeping on!” In fairness, he was a lot gentler than this, and would have given me a huge hug and lots of reassurance about how well I am doing instead. I hear that voice too, but sometimes I need the kick up the arse that the first voice provides.

I feel we have survived pretty well thus far without Dunc visibly by our sides. We haven’t made any new memories yet, but we have put some building blocks in place so that this can happen in the coming months and years. We have laughed, cried, sung, danced and enjoyed a lot of squeezy cuddles. The boys have learnt to play together more independently, while I cook or answer the phone (again…). Their giggles and laughter reassure me often that we are moving in the right direction. I’m not naïve, and I know that there will be many difficult times ahead, but we feel well supported. We also have a lot of love for, and wonderful memories of a great daddy and husband to sustain us along the way. It’s not a bad place to be at this point, especially when, in March, a few days of solo parenting threatened to send me over the edge!

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