How it Feels: Becoming a Widowed Parent

Tomorrow marks the 12th International Widows’ Day. Originally set up by The Loomba Foundation but, since 2010 it has been recognised by the United Nations and celebrated as an official ‘awareness day’. Much of the work done by the UN centres on the developing world, where widows and their children struggle to survive after the loss of a husband and father. However, in developed nations, women can still be faced with financial hardship and, often, social stigma.

Tonight’s guest writer, Abi, is a dear friend of Jo’s from University. Two weeks after giving birth to Primrose, during a night feed, a message popped up from Abi, explaining that her wonderful, happy, brilliant husband had been taken. It was incomprehensible at the time and, almost two years on, still seems unbearably cruel and unfair.

Here, Abi shares her story and, very kindly, offers some incredibly helpful advice to anyone who finds themselves not only mourning the loss of a loved one, but helping to navigate the way for a child (or children) who will struggle to comprehend what has happened.

Over to Abi…

On the second of October 2015, I woke no longer a wife, but a widow. I didn’t know it yet, and wouldn’t for another six hours. Our then two year old son, George, woke me at around 7.30am: shortly after the train heading towards Blackfriars station stopped- its driver having spotted an object on the adjacent track. That object was my 31 year old husband Richie’s broken body. He had fallen, perhaps around 3am, hit his head on the live rail and been electrocuted. 

When the police knocked on our door that lunchtime and broke the news to me, the shock was like powerful drug, numbing and rendering me speechless. I didn’t cry, or scream, or fall to the floor, I just stared at the police officer’s face while he repeated a question I had failed to answer. It is hard to say if my reaction was influenced by the presence of our sweet, unknowing George, who was only a few yards away from me, or if I would have reacted as I did had I been alone. 

The first time I took my eyes away from that police officer’s face was to look at George, who was happily investigating his colleague’s radio while he chattered away to him. At that moment, I felt an overwhelming desire to protect my child. As I saw it, I was now all he had and quite simply, falling apart was not an option- he needed my strength now more than ever.

One of the first things I found difficult as we carried on with life without Richie was seeing dads out with children at the weekend. Everywhere I looked – in playgrounds, swimming pools and parks, fathers with children they would have missed while they worked during the week were there, pushing swings, holding little hands and having fun. In the early days, I stopped going to these places – these dads haunted me around every corner and it just was too much to bear. Avoiding things became a coping mechanism in fact – films with fatherhood themes, all social media, even weddings we had been invited to. I didn’t know if avoidance was the ‘right’ thing to do, but it got me through that time and helped me cope.

I didn’t know much about how to be a parent on my own – the newly widowed are sadly not provided with a handy ‘How To’ guide. I felt totally clueless than when the moment came to tell George that Daddy had died and answer the confused two year old questions I knew would follow. I sought help from charities and read as much as I could online about the best way to talk to bereaved children. I bought heartbreaking books such as Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute and the more factual When Dinosaurs Die and read them to George when I could manage to get through a page without collapsing into tears. I did let George see me cry from time to time – I felt it important that he know that his grief, just like mine, was perfectly valid and his tears, when they came, were an important part of life and of the process of loss.

Now nearly four, the questions he asks about death haven’t actually changed a great deal. He still doesn’t understand what death is or where Daddy has gone. He believes he is in a place that he cannot visit but doesn’t understand where this is. Well George, join the club. We may not be able to see Richie, or hear his voice, or even understand where he has gone, but there are things which we can do to remember him and keep him as the important part of our lives he always was. I never imagined, right back at the beginning, that I would be offering advice to others in a similar situation, but if you’ve got five minutes to spare and Netflix isn’t working, here are a few words of advice for helping you and your bereaved child…

1) Allow children to cry whenever they feel like it.

For me this one goes for non-bereaved children too. Children are so often told “You’re fine”, “Don’t cry” or “Don’t make a fuss”. What happens to those emotions when that child is told he or she must suppress them? Well, they are just that – suppressed. They become temporarily buried or they turn into another emotion such as anger, resulting in behaviour commonly termed “bad” but actually just an attempt at communicating or releasing some of those simmering emotions.

2)  Allow them to see you cry.

This one is a classic case of leading by example as a parent. If your child never sees you cry, how are they to understand that it is not only OK, but beneficial to let those emotions out through tears? Nothing brings you closer than the loss of one half of the backbone of your family – you will feel like clinging to them more than you have ever done before. Allow yourself to cry with them if it feels natural, they may find it hard to deal with but they will feel a sense of unity and take small comfort from the fact that you are going through the loss together. As with many things, a balance is needed here, however. Some bereaved children find it so hard to see a parent cry every time they themselves cry or talk about their loss, that they stop doing it altogether, something which will inevitably cause problems when they are older. 

3) Allow very young children the freedom to hypothesise about death.

It is sometimes kinder to allow very young bereaved children to create a fantasy about where their missing parent has gone. Their understanding about death is so underdeveloped at this age, they can only make sense of it in their own minds and in their own way. It breaks my heart when George tells me he would like to grow very tall to, “be with Daddy in the sky” or to die himself for the same reason. While it is tempting to correct him, I know he would only end up tearful and frustrated, as his attempts of making sense of his loss are ridiculed. I do gently correct him when he says these things, but I don’t push it. As his understanding of the world develops further as he grows older, he will realise these difficult truths without me hammering them home at this stage.

4) Talk about who you have lost.

I remember when Richie first died and we were staying with my own Dad who my sister and I still call Daddy, little George would look up when the word was said and ask, “My Daddy?”. The pain was so unbearable then that I couldn’t cope with the word being used because I knew it would prompt George to ask where he was. As time went by however, I was desperate to keep his memories alive by talking about Richie. It is so hard, especially in those early days, weeks and months to talk about who you have lost, but it is so important. We talk about Rich most days- I remind George of silly things he used to say, things he liked, places he visited and favourite books he read. I remind him how much he loves him, in fact how much he will always love him and read him the beautiful Always and Forever to help him understand.

If you are reading this, newly bereaved and feeling lost, I want you to know that you are already stronger than you think you are. You might feel like you are only winging it and any minute you will drop the ball but, believe me, you have been through one of the hardest things you will ever have to cope with and you have survived. I think that’s pretty amazing.

Abi, writing for The Mother Side xx

Editor’s note:
Whilst Abi turned to her family and friends for support after Richie’s death, she has recommended two charities that she feels are particularly helpful in building coping strategies:

Winston’s Wish  offer support and guidance in helping children cope with the confusing feeling of loss and bereavement. They sent Abi a guide to supporting George and she spoke to a volunteer who was very understanding.
WAY (Widowed and Young) offer bereavement support and have many social gatherings throughout the year.

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