For the last 3 weeks or so I’ve been seeing a stream of emails in my inbox from companies whose subscriber lists I’ve ended up on. They’re all asking me the same thing, and it’s not the usual “buy all of our stuff”. Instead, they’re all suggesting that I let them know whether or not I’d like to hear about Father’s Day. I don’t remember this being a thing last year, but I’ve probably had about 25 in the last month.
Although the cynic inside my head wonders whether they’re banking on some goodwill purchases as I marvel at their selfless sensitivity, I’m pretty happy about this development. The recognition that National days of celebration are not always celebratory occasions for everyone, or devoid of complicated feelings is a welcome change.
Father’s Day can be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate those in your life who have played the role (and you can read all about mine here).
But it can also be a day of confusion, guilt, sadness, regret, and a lot of cookie dough ice cream.
So, in the spirit of making things a little easier on social media for some people today, here is an article that my friend Angeline shared with me.
There have been a fair few think-pieces and magazine features about how the mental load of household admin often falls disproportionately on women. We are (generally) the ones who not only book the appointments but constantly keep a complicated calendar in our heads of when the next GP, dentist, haircut appointment needs to be. We keep an eye on when new clothes are needed, when the toothbrushes need replacing, and when the birthday present for your mother in law needs to be ordered so it can arrive, be wrapped and still get to her in time without handing over your life’s savings to Hermes in return for next day delivery.
It seems, however, that a lot of us are still putting off thinking about a rather large area of life admin, which is actually quite important, and which I have a rather unique insight into. Ok, so technically you could call it death admin. Or I could, anyway. While looking after your children’s teeth, trouser hems, and relationship with their grandparents are all very important; most of us shy away from thinking about what would happen to our family if we died.
If you’re new then, first of all, “Hi, welcome! Pull up a chair and get stuck into the archive!”.
A quick intro: I was widowed in 2014 when my 32-year-old super-healthy husband was diagnosed with and died from stomach cancer. I spent the next couple of years bringing up our 2-year-old son and then met my current husband. We’ve been navigating the world of death, blended families, remarriage, new babies, and now a tweenager ever since. This blog is where I like to explore the intricacies, complications, and frustrations of our unique situation.
If you know me, and you’ve been here a while, then you’ll know I don’t shy away from talking about tricky subjects. Hell, we’ve discussed things like how to introduce your new boyfriend to your late husband’s parents, getting pregnant, post-partum bodies, my sex life, my laundry pile, you name it I’ll chat about it.
Every 22 minutes in the UK a parent of a child under 18 dies. (See, I told you we talk about the tough stuff here)
That stat was from 2015, so imagine what the last year and a half has done to the figures.
There are many ways that children are affected by losing a parent. I’ve written quite a lot about how Mark’s death has affected Ethan. But the one thing we hardly talk about is probably the one that makes the most practical difference: money.
I’ve been chatting with a new friend of mine who is a financial advisor. Annika is passionate about helping women get a grasp on their finances and their future, as women tend to think less about pensions and life insurance and all that jazz. After our conversation, I realized that I haven’t talked about money very much in the context of becoming a widow. It’s not an area that I’m very comfortable in. In fact, it makes me want to run away and hide. But that should drive home for you how important I think it is that we all take the initiative, instead of assuming that everything is going to be fine.
Usually, a couple will make a joint decision to have a baby. They will plan to raise that baby together and to take joint financial responsibility for the child until it is 18 (and let’s face it, probably a lot longer with rent prices these days!).
I know that the reality is not as simple as this. I am not dumping on single parents, people who have unplanned babies, or anyone with experiences that are different from the traditional route. I am just pointing out that people make life decisions, and employment decisions, and schooling decisions, based on the assumption that the adults who birthed the baby will be there for the whole ride. When things unexpectedly change you are left not only dealing with the loss of your life partner and your children’s other parent but also probably with half (or more) of your income.
When Mark was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer in the August of 2014 I definitely wasn’t thinking about mortgage payments. I was thinking about how we were going to get him through this, as well as the minutiae of how I was going to balance childcare with chemo appointments, whether I should wash the rug in the kitchen that he’d been sick on or just throw it away, how to find a safe space in the kitchen to store all the meds, who was coming to stay when and whether I had enough time to wash the sheets, and whether I was going to have to sell a kidney to pay for all-day hospital parking.
Thankfully, my super-organised and practical husband had taken out life insurance when we got our mortgage and one of the first things he did after his diagnosis was to talk to his employers about their death in service benefit. This meant that, even though I had only gone back to work part-time after Ethan was born, I didn’t have to think about whether I could meet the mortgage payments on my own. I had that bit of breathing space while I worked out what our life was going to look like now. And I didn’t have to think about uprooting Ethan from the only home he’d ever known so soon after his Daddy had disappeared. Not everyone is this lucky.
Without life insurance, I would have had to sell our home, as there was no way I would have been able to find a job that paid well enough to cover the mortgage, living costs and full-time childcare. Without life insurance, I wouldn’t have been able to take the time I needed right after Mark’s death to be the stable presence in Ethan’s life. So I’m constantly telling people that they need some. The younger you are when you take it out, the cheaper it is, and the peace of mind it can give you is invaluable. Also, although your mortgage is probably your biggest expense, life insurance can be put in place to cover all sorts of things we don’t necessarily think about: food, household bills, children’s clubs and even the endless clothes purchases that I mentioned earlier.
But, even super-organized and practical people have blind spots. Mark and I didn’t have a will. It was one of those things that we always said we should sort out, but that we never got to. In hindsight, I don’t think this was busyness or forgetfulness, I think it was a willful (pardon the unintentional pun) refusal to consider the topic. I think we both worried that sitting down and signing such a document would be tempting fate. Well, you know what, fate doesn’t care about what you think, and neither does cancer, Covid, heart attacks, or that car coming far too fast around the corner on your commute. Death happens, and you don’t get to decide when.
So that was how I found myself sitting on the windowsill of a hospital room watching a solicitor and her very uncomfortable intern asking all the relevant questions while my dying husband lay in bed with pain written all over his face. We signed our will 24 hours before he died, although we didn’t know it was going to be quite that soon. We waited until the doctor had told us, kindly, calmly but clearly that there was nothing else they could do other than move Mark to a hospice to make him more comfortable. We waited until there was absolutely no hope left before we phoned the solicitor and made the decisions we needed to. And do you know what? It was more unnecessary pain at a ridiculously painful time. We didn’t need to wait that long, and we should have talked about guardianship, finances, and wishes a long time ago, in a less stressful situation, probably over a glass of wine. We could have chuckled over how everyone would react if we’d decided to leave our worldly possessions to Cats Protection, and debated at length which one of our friends and family would have the skills, knowledge and patience to bring up Ethan in our absence. We could have had these conversations, and more, calmly and without pressure. And then we could have sat back in the knowledge that, although we couldn’t predict what life would throw at us, we could be assured that neither of us (and more importantly, Ethan) would have been left dealing with a financial shit storm as well as losing the love of our life.
So, we got in under the wire, with me fighting back the tears because it was ridiculously important to me that I be strong and stoic and hold everything and everyone together.
Since that day, I’ve had conversations with a lot of friends about how prepared they are for the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not turned into some kind of doom and gloom merchant, but I no longer have any patience for, or belief in the whole “it would never happen to someone like me” thing. Death and taxes, and we pay people to sort out how much we owe HMRC. So we should really invest some time working out the practicalities of death so that it doesn’t make our lives that much harder.
I’ve never been a fan of homework, but I’m making an exception now. If you haven’t already got an (up-to-date) will or life insurance, then you need to stop reading this and go and sort it. Now. If you need some help then you can talk to Annika, she’s really friendly, won’t try to sell you anything, and will make the whole process as stress-free as possible. She can sit down with you (in person or via your favourite video call software) and take you through a Lifestyle Financial Health Check. It’s not scary, and it can help you work out what you want your family’s life to look like if you weren’t there. Next week I’ll talk about some other important, finance-related things that she can help you with. But for now, grab a glass of wine (or two), sit down with your partner, and work out whether you’re going to leave all your money to the Hedgehog Home.
I don’t write about sex much on here, partly because my Mother-in-Law reads this blog (Hi Wendy!), and partly because I’m not sure that’s why you’re all here (and if it isn’t, then maybe skip back to the archives!).
But, if you’ve been around here for a while, then you’ll know that I’m all about busting taboos. There are so many things in life that we don’t talk about, and that makes dealing with them more difficult. Sharing is caring, and all that…
I’m a married mum of two, so, although sex isn’t as big a part of my life as it was before sleepless nights and being covered in porridge on a regular basis made an entrance, I’m just tired – not dead.
That said, we need to talk about expectations, and not the ones that we put on each other, but the ones that we put on ourselves.
The first time I invited Nick over, I deliberately scheduled my leg and bikini wax appointment for the following day so that there was no chance of anything happening. Turns out, sex can still happen (and be pretty awesome) even if your legs have more in common with an orangutan’s than Chrissy Teigen’s. Who’d have thought…
I spend far too much time in my head (as you may have noticed), and I’m prone to the belief that everything has to be perfect. And by perfect I mean, the dishwasher has to be empty, the washing has to be put away, the floor has to be hoovered, the meal has to be delicious, legs have to be shaved, hair has to be washed, children have to have been in bed and quiet for at least an hour…. The list goes on and on. Not only is this because remembering that I’ve not put the leftovers from dinner in Tupperware and into the fridge (and, more importantly, realizing that I’m going to have to do it before the school run in the morning) is enough to put me off spending quality time with my husband. It’s also because, at the moment, I don’t feel as if I’m my best self.
Nick met me after I’d been pregnant and given birth. He saw the C-section scar, the stretch marks, and the tattoo dedicated to my late husband (which could have been a little awkward). But, I’d worked pretty hard over the previous few years, and even I would admit that I looked pretty good considering all my body had been through. There was no reason to expect that I couldn’t do the same thing again. But a global pandemic, home schooling, lockdown and starting a new freelance business has meant that my usual 5-6 times a week workouts have dwindled significantly. And, as all those health experts keep telling us, regular sleep is so important for your metabolism… I am still around a stone heavier than I would like to be right now, and if I’m completely honest, it’s affecting my confidence.
As women I think we feel as if we have to put on some kind of show (no, not that kind of show, unless that’s your thing). It’s great that we’ve busted out of the shackles of prudish misogyny that imply once you’re past 30 and you’ve got kids then you shouldn’t be bothered about sex. The freedom to explore all aspects of your personality, and to enjoy jumping your husband as well as playing peekaboo with your baby (probably not at the same time), is welcome. But with this magazines have found yet another thing to sell us, to make us feel inadequate about. Yes, you can be a mum and have good sex. But to do this you have to make sure you’ve kept your grooming appointments, sweated through your 4 x weekly workouts, filled your underwear drawer with expensive knickers, met all of your child’s needs and tucked them into bed, changed the bed sheets and spritzed some light but alluring room spray around the bedroom, dressed yourself in relaxed but intriguing nightwear, and chosen a suitable playlist. Then you can have sex as your reward for ticking all the boxes.
No wonder we’re all so exhausted that, by the time we get upstairs, we’d much rather snuggle.
This idea that only when we’ve shed those last 5 pounds, only when we’ve managed to get an appointment at the salon to sort our roots out, only when we’ve attended to our more intimate grooming, only then will our husbands fancy us, is bollocks.
Sex can still be good when you haven’t shaved your legs.
Sex can still be good if you have spent lockdown falling slowly farther away from your exercise routine and so are carrying a few extra pounds.
Sex can still be good if you’ve generally not been feeling very sexy recently and have instead been feeling a little like a cleaner/taxi driver/personal chef to 2 ungrateful children and a very tired husband who’ll eat anything/PA to said family members.
And sometimes, it can be better, because then you’re more real, more yourself and not performing. And when you’re real, you’re more likely to make a connection, rather than just letting it be one more thing to tick off your to-do list.
It’s been a while, so I thought I’d write you all a little catch-up on what’s been going on chez O’Brien-Day.
Nick bought donut pops last night on his emergency wine run to Co-op (yes, I am aware that it doesn’t really count as essential shopping, but he was getting the boy outside for some fresh air at the same time, and copywriting deadlines and a non-napping baby meant wine was definitely necessary). They are ridiculous. I have eaten them all, which doesn’t really fit with my Noom food plan.
We’re 2 weeks into home-schooling (I think, time has lost all meaning), and Ethan seems to be coping with it a lot better this time around (although there were tears this morning when he got 3 maths questions wrong, every 8 year old has a bad day). He is more confident in asking for clarification from his teachers, much more independent in tasks (which means I’m not parked permanently next to his desk), and to be honest his teachers seem to have gotten into the groove a little bit more as well.
There are still the little hiccups that come from having to balance a day’s worth of live lessons with a toddling sister who just wants to be involved with whatever is happening on that screen. At the moment, to the extent that we have any routine, Erica’s afternoon nap coincides with Ethan’s lunchtime, so we can’t go outside as she refuses to sleep in her buggy. Nick has decided that he and Ethan will “walk to school” every morning to start off the day with some fresh air, so they head on out around 7am for a speedy walk around town, coming back red-cheeked and hungry, ready to hunker down in front of Miss Byrne and the rest of 4B. We’re having 15 minute speed scooter sessions out the front of the house at break, and Ethan and I take Erica out for a tour around the Marsh after last lesson. It’ll have to do, and we try to make up for it with an epic walk at the weekend with our lovely support bubble peeps. With nerf gun enticement you can usually get them to walk 4 miles (parenting is around 65% bribery in my extensive experience)!
As if the baby, home-schooling, housework, washing, cooking meals for constantly hungry people, and trying to claw back some semblance of mental health through exercise wasn’t enough, I’ve been ramping things up with the freelance copywriting too. Let’s not be coy – I needed to go back to bringing in some money. However, the original plan was that lovely Auntie Heather would come and hang out with Erica for a few afternoons a week so that I could concentrate on a piece of work for more than 5 minutes in a row. Then lockdown happened, and our options narrowed to…well…none. This coincided with me suddenly winning a fair few jobs that I now have to fit in around fixing audio problems on the Chromebook during French lessons, removing the piece of pasta that Erica has found under the fridge and is currently on it’s way to her mouth, making sure everyone is fed and isn’t wearing the same pair of shorts for the 5th day in a row, paying my husband a little attention, and sleeping.
I’m obviously very grateful to have work that I can do from home. This was the goal, and I know mum’s who have had to send their children to nursery, or who have been furloughed because of their childcare responsibilities. I am beginning to fray around the edges though, hence the need for an emergency wine run, and probably the mainlining of donut balls. I have also considerably widened my writing repertoire: last night I wrote an article for a fashion wholesaler about how to start an online clothing business, and the day before I was collating a list of 40 Easter decorations you can make with your kids. Life is a weird thing.
I have also recently (re)discovered that I am a terrible person. Every time someone messages me to check in, or ask me how things are going my heart sinks. Not because I don’t appreciate the lovely people in my life who care about me, but because I am so stressed right now with a million things going through my head, that taking 2 minutes to try and craft a positive and reasoned response that won’t send them running to social services feels like the straw that that bloody camel just couldn’t carry. I’m obviously very ungrateful, I know this. If I didn’t feel like it was terribly self-indulgent and attention-seeking (says the woman with the public online blog…) then I’d put up a Facebook status at the end of each day so that people could collectively find out that we were all still alive, no-one had glue gunned their hand to the table during DT, and we had managed to get outside for approximately 3.5 seconds in-between online school lessons and family Zoom catch-ups. Thinking about it, that idea may have merit…
In other news, this week’s house purchase from Facebook marketplace (within Covid restrictions, obvs) was a dehumidifier. Even with windows open and radiators on for an hour daily this mid terraced house struggles with condensation. The ridiculous amount of washing we have to dry through the winter probably doesn’t help, or the fact that we have, you know, 4 people wandering around breathing all day. But the new machine (hello increased electricity bill), combined with us finally getting around to bleeding the radiators only to discover everything above ground floor level was 95% air (just award me my house maintenance badge immediately), has definitely helped the situation. Now we can stop worrying that everything we’re storing in the loft is going to be completely ruined. It’s the little things…
Ah, Disney, companion of my childhood, the reason for so many hours spent rewinding VHS tapes and learning the words to “Under the Sea” (in a terrible (and probably racist, now I come to think of it) Jamaican accent.). Trips to the cinema to watch Belle dance around a spooky old mansion with a tea set, or snuggled up with my Dad watching his favourite Jungle Book. (Fun fact, the vultures at the end of the film were meant to be voiced by the Beatles, but John Lennon said no, so the animators kept the Liverpudlian accents and changed the music style to a barbershop quartet instead. Don’t say I never teach you anything!)
We’re all a bit nostalgic when we have children of our own, and I am no exception. I was looking forward to movie nights on the sofa munching on popcorn whilst I watched Ethan’s growing delight at Robin Williams’ Genie, Dumbo’s soaring triumph over adversity, Simba’s singalong with Timon and Pumba, and the surfer dude turtles in Finding Nemo.
Well, this has yet to happen. Firstly there is the fact that Ethan seems to have off-the-charts empathy levels for characters in films and TV programmes (although read him a book with death and peril and end-of-the-world stakes and he’s totally fine – go figure.), so can’t deal with anything going wrong in a film. Even if you sit there and assure him that it will all be ok in the end.
But then we add in the additional complication that pretty much every Disney film seems to feature the death or disappearance of one, or both, parents. You think I’m exaggerating?
We have, ahem, deep breath:
The Lion King
The Good Dinosaur
Beauty and the Beast
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Lilo and Stitch
The Jungle Book
The Little Mermaid
The Sword in the Stone
The Fox and the Hound
The Princess and the Frog
Told you. It’s bonkers. Disney is messing with me.
So, what do you do? Do you decide that, as a bereaved child, bringing up a painful topic for no other reason than to introduce your son to a talking crab that you think is funny, is probably not the best parenting choice? Or do you reason that, actually, seeing his own circumstances reflected on screen (minus said talking crab) might help him normalise the situation? Or do you do what I did, and decide that really, the second choice is best for his long term mental health, but that right now you just don’t want to have to deal with tears over a 2D lion?
I’ve pushed this issue down the road for quite a long time. And that’s fine. Like I said – it’s no big deal for Ethan if Sebastian isn’t a part of his life (I really loved that movie…), it’s mainly my nostalgia at play. But more and more, when we’re trying to think of things to watch together, old and new, we are coming up against the plot device of a missing parent. It’s not going to be something I can avoid forever.
It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. All stories are essentially the same: Hero, obstacle, guide, lessons learnt, things improve, things get worse, it’s all ok in the end. A dead parent is a tidy and easily explained obstacle to put in the way of your hero. I don’t really blame Disney. But I am going to have to start dealing with it.
When I step out of my initial panic mode (Argh! Crap! The dad dies, can’t watch this then! He might cry. I might cry. He’ll ask me all the really tough questions again), I need to remember that it really will be ok.
I need to remind myself that I may not have answers to all of the possible questions, and that’s ok, as long as I’m willing to listen.
I need to remind myself that, yes, he may cry, and that may be simply because the story is sad, or it may be because he feels some link to his situation, and that’s ok, good even, because dealing with hard emotions only comes with practice.
I need to remind myself that, even if I cry, he will not feel anxious or unsafe, because I’ve done all the groundwork to show him that grown-ups cry and it’s not the end of the world.
I need to remind myself that introducing hard themes through books and films is one of the best ways we can teach our children that life is tough sometimes, but that it can always get better. And that losing a parent is never the end of the story.
Today is the last day of my daily posts for Children’s Grief Awareness Week. I hope that you’ve found my musings interesting or helpful. I hope that I’ve drawn your attention to the importance of tackling the subjects of death and grief with our children, even though they make us feel awkward. I hope that you’ll follow Grief Encounter and other organisations on social media, because this is an issue that families all around the country have to deal with every day of the year. And I hope that you’ll stick around.
From all of us in the O’Brien-Day household, take care.
I grew up in the era of Friends: Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross and Joey were aspirational to me. Not just because they had amazing wardrobes and apartments but didn’t seem to do much work, but because they had elevated friendship to the level of family.
I love my family, all the different strands of it, but my friends are just as important to me.
For Ethan, having a large support network was invaluable after Mark died. I’ve spoken before about the “People who love Ethan” list that we compiled after he got a bit anxious about me dying too. A whole A3 page filled with names people who cared for him, and would look after him and support him in any way they could. The exercise was abstract, but the ways in which this support was shown were anything but.
My friends took time off work and came to help me with funeral arrangements. They sat with me while I tried to work out who I needed to call first. The loft room was a revolving door of my favourite people coming to stay for a few days so that I wasn’t alone and so that Ethan knew his world was not small. People dropped everything so that the two of us would feel loved.
My 22 year old brother took the train and went with Ethan to his Dad’s@Nursery day so that he wasn’t the only one without a person.
At Christmas I realised I’d have to buy the tree by myself. And I wasn’t sure how I was going to get it, and a 2 year old, into or out of the car, let alone put it up in the house by myself without burying us both under pine needles. So Susie and John arrived. Not only did they makes sure that I wasn’t found under a fallen tree the next morning, but they made the whole experience more fun for Ethan (and for me) with carols and giggles and mince pies.
Ali and Bekka came to stay for New Year, and they helped me take the tree and the decorations down, Ali ending up with half of the tree in her hair in the process.
Susan drove across the country with 2 month old Ben in the car, so that Ethan and I could meet him, and see our circle of people get bigger.
Sam and Sarah and Susie and Cath stepped in as Ethan-sitters so I could go to work, or have a night off with other friends. They allowed me breathing room from being in sole charge all the time.
My sister came and baked with Ethan, patiently helping him make a mess and turn it into something tasty.
One Easter, when I faced another 2 week stretch of trying to occupy a 3 year old by myself, Ali and Bekka offered to take him for a whole week, and planned the most action-packed, child-focused holiday ever with day trips galore. I got to clear my head for a bit, and Ethan got to have lots of fun.
Daniel and Bryan came to stay, throwing Ethan up onto their shoulders in a way I wasn’t able to anymore and whisking him around the Common to the sound of giggling.
I could go on and on (and I’ve missed loads of lovely people, but it’s quite early in the morning so I hope they won’t be offended!).
The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is well worn and often seems a little cliched. But my village is large in number, widespread geographically, and varied in age, background and interests. They are the perfect community within which to raise a son, and now a daughter too.
My ideal child-rearing scenario is living in the same street with as many of my friends and their children as possible, doors always open, kids hopping in and out of each other’s back yards. People taking it in turns to do the school run, or walks to the park, or running an impromptu football match. Massive BBQs, handing babies around when they won’t go to sleep. Parents and Grandparents close by to join in. Essentially I want to live in a commune, I just have to convince everyone else to move to one with me!
Life is easier when you’re not trying to do it alone. And when you’re a parent you’re basically modelling to your child every day how to do life. To me it makes more sense to show them that life is at it’s best when it’s a communal experience, and that is harder to do when you are suddenly a solo parent. It also helps the feeling of uncertainty and anxiety that children have after a parent or sibling dies: they feel as if anyone in their lives could disappear at any moment. Visibly filling the room, and your lives, with all the people you are connected to won’t replace the person who has been lost, but it will reinforce that they are not alone – that they are loved and protected.
It helps to show them that grief is a collective experience, that should be dealt with in a community, not alone. Its important to me that Ethan spends time with people who knew Mark (and who knew me with Mark) and also people who have only ever known us with Nick. It is important that he sees people grieve and remember in different ways. That he can talk to people about different facets of Mark’s character.
At the funeral I asked people to write down their memories of Mark so that, when he was older, Ethan could have a record of the sort of person his father was. Some people even wrote letters to Ethan, talking about how proud Mark was to be a father and how much fun they had had together. I will treasure these forever, and one day soon we will get them out and read them properly, now he’s a bit more grown up. And Ethan will discover how his Daddy made everyone laugh, was the life and soul of every party, would do anything for you, and loved his little boy to the ends of the earth.
Gather as many people around you as possible. They will be your lifeline.
Bold statement time: We don’t really know how to mourn in this country.
We don’t have public crying, or extravagant funeral processions, or wailing at the grave, or even the raucous drunken wakes of the Irish. The British stiff-upper lip remains firmly in place as we tell people to “be strong” and “they would want you to be happy” and “well, it’s been a year now”. We still, in the 21st Century, get well-meaning relatives saying to our children “You be strong for Mummy now, you’re the man of the house”.
We gather in our black, and sing songs that no-one really knows the words to, listening to Bible passages that the vast majority of those listening don’t believe in, read in a style of language that none of us speak anymore.
We have our wake (booze or otherwise, depending on your persuasion) and tell our stories, and deliver our flowers and lasagnes.
But then we almost expect everything to go back to normal. We might raise a glass on the 1st anniversary, or pop up a Facebook post. But, on the whole, people find it difficult to continue the remembrance in anything more than their own heads. We don’t talk about it, because it makes our chests feel all tight and awkward, and we’re not entirely sure where the conversation will go next.
If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, then you can take comfort in your lost person being up in Heaven, perhaps looking down on how you’re getting on. If you’re a Hindu, then you can imagine them re-incarnated as something else or someone else, they’re spirit not gone from the world.
At Mark’s funeral, one of his brothers talked about how energy never disappears, it just moves from one state to another; so he would take comfort in the fact that the energy which made up Mark, was just somewhere else in the Universe, doing something else, and had not been lost.
But an increasing number of people, while they may believe that the Universe is ultimately kind, or that there is a God even if he (or she) doesn’t get that involved, feel a bit vague as to what happens next. Which is fine, mystery is part of being human, I think. But it does leave us at a loss (pun intended) when we talk about the person who has died, and begin the intentional task of remembering them. And even more at sea when we find ourselves having to talk to our children about what has happened.
I’m quite a “child-led” person. Now, that doesn’t mean that Ethan rules the roost, or that he gets to do whatever he wants. It just means that, when it comes to things like how much of the food on his plate he needs to eat, how to play, or making plans for the day, or what to believe, I follow his lead (unless he comes up with something really stupid, like wanting to go abseiling in Antarctica, or just eating sweetcorn for 4 days). So when I began to help him frame his experience after Mark died, we tried out different language. We talked about how Mark might be up in Heaven, or the clouds, looking down on us. We discussed how some people looked up at the stars and thought they were their lost person.
But small children don’t do well with abstract thoughts. They need more concrete things (and to be honest, I think we all do). So rituals have worked better for us than words. My family have never been big grave-visitors. I know that for some families, this is a part of their year, a regular remembering ritual. But my family have never done that. We scattered my Dad’s ashes in one of the places we used to go on family walks. I prefer to remember things he said, places we went and ways he made me smile. When Mark and I talked about funeral plans (briefly), he wanted his ashes scattered too. He loved being outdoors and active, and being tied down to one place just didn’t seem to fit. But once he died it was the only thing I overruled him on. I didn’t take this decision lightly, but I knew that Ethan would need a physical place to come back to at different points in his life. He needed a concrete spot to form rituals around and to visit.
So we buried Mark’s ashes in the beautiful cemetery in Hungerford. There is a stone with an inscription that Ethan helped me write, wreaths and flowers laid by his parents and by us, and every year on Mark’s birthday Ethan writes a card and puts it there, sending messages to his Daddy. Now that he can write himself I don’t read them – they’re all about what he wants to say, with no pressure from me. This is one of the ways in which we help foster the connection between the two of them.
This article by psychologist and grief expert Kim Bateman is a brilliant exploration of how we can build grieving rituals into our lives.
The short term is easier, I think. There are more established processes (funerals, wakes, sympathy cards, scattering of ashes). But the long term is harder. We have to create our own rituals.
I loved this the most:
“To create your own ritual, ask yourself what brought joy to your loved one.”
Every 29th September (Mark’s birthday), after Ethan and I have visited the cemetery, all the O’Brien’s pour themselves a drink and send photos to the family WhatsApp. Usually we’re drinking rum and ginger ale – a Dark and Stormy – which was one of Mark’s favourite drinks. We’ll send memories we have, and love to each other, because keeping the connection between us is just as important as keeping our connection to Mark alive.
Ethan is learning to play the guitar. With the incentive that, if he practises hard, one day he will be able to play Mark’s guitar. We’ve started watching the few videos we have of Mark playing it – at home, on skiing holidays. Mark loved music, and this is another way that we’ll build in remembering and ritual.
And, to be honest, this blog is my ritual. It is my way of loving Mark by helping other people deal more easily with death and grief. It is how I have decided to use my meagre talents in the hope that people are a little more prepared for when they are hit by a loss.
People live for as long as stories are told about them, for as long as their faces are remembered, for as long as their names are said and those left behind smile when they are thought of. What did your person love doing? Could you do that and, in this way, remember them?
Talk about loss to anyone and they’re likely to bring up the 5 stages of grief:
“Oh, well that makes sense, because you’re still in the anger stage”
Developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969, the linear stages of grief move as follows:
But, news-flash: the 5 stages of grief are not for those grieving the loss of a loved one. Kubler-Ross developed the stages as part of her research with patients who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. They reflect the stages that a patient is likely (but not guaranteed) to go through in coming to terms with their own diagnosis. They were never meant for the people left behind, with all of the additional stresses and pressures of life continuing around us.
They are not how we should expect emotions and behaviour to develop after a bereavement.
The problem is that they give a false impression that grief is always a linear process that you work your way through, before appearing on the other side “healed” and ready to continue your life unencumbered.
And that, if your particular grief journey doesn’t fit into this generally accepted system, there’s something wrong with you.
Now, don’t beat yourself up: I’ve spent time studying psychology with bereavement being a particular focus even before Mark died, but more so afterwards. I’ve read book after book about grief and healing and moving forward. I’ve googled until my eyes were blurry. And I still didn’t know this until recently. A lot of grief counsellors base their work on these 5 stages. There are articles and workbooks for grieving children which move through these 5 stages. They’ve made their way into the popular discourse in such a way that they’ve become shorthand for all behaviour that’s part of the grieving process.
But they’re not helpful. Especially not when we’re supporting children who’ve been bereaved.
Now, it’s not Kubler-Ross’ fault. She was a visionary in the field of death and terminal illness. She helped lift some of the taboos around discussing grief, and helped countless people give language to their coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis. But her theory has been taken and popularised in such a way that people criticise themselves for not “doing grief right”, or onlookers feel uncomfortable when a widow or bereaved child seems to “slip back” in the process after “doing so well”. But the truth is that grieving is not about checking off stages, it’s not about “doing well” because you’ve moved on to acceptance really quickly and made everyone else feel more comfortable.
Grief is dancing at the wake because your 2 year old loves this song.
Grief is spending the afternoon laughing over wine with you friends and then waking the next morning with an overwhelming sadness.
Grief is cleaning out the loft 6 years later and being blindsided by a running hat and spending the next 4 hours trying to shake the spiral of memories that have appeared, unbidden, whilst you’re helping your 8 year old with his maths homework and feeding your baby steamed carrots.
Grief is raw. And unexpected.
It’s a small boy suddenly wanting to know what his Dad’s favourite food was when he hasn’t mentioned him for about 3 weeks.
It will be a 13 year old storming off to his room because he feels like something is missing but can’t identify what, when he’s been happily playing Pokémon with you for the last hour.
Grief is confusing, and messy, and more like that tangled bundle of wool you’ve found in the bottom of the craft box than the ladder hanging in the shed with its clean and regularly spaced rungs.
But that’s ok. Sure, a theory would be helpful for academics; and motivational post-its. But real life is messy anyway, whatever age you are. We shouldn’t need the 5 stages in order to talk with people about grief and loss. We should just be there for each other.
Each year, Ethan makes the visit to Xtrac, the engineering company where Mark worked before he died. Either I or his grandparents go with him. We’ll pick him up a bit early from school, drive across town to the factory and take our place at the front of the bank of chairs in the large hall. We sit amongst people who worked alongside Mark, who made up some of the standing-room-only congregation at his funeral, and who have watched this small boy grow from a babbling baby.
Ethan is introduced, and then Peter Digby, the company’s President, announces the winner of the annual Mark O’Brien award. This award goes to employees who have made a large contribution to the work of the company and it supports them through a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. Ethan helps present the award on his father’s behalf and shakes the hand of the winner. He’s done this since he was 3 when he didn’t understand anything more than that he was going to see some friends, until this year, when Covid moved everything online and stopped us from attending. This year’s winner was Demian Wieland. Here he is with the award:
When someone young dies it feels sadder. This is not to belittle the grief of anyone who has lost someone older, but the loss of a younger person incorporates the loss of their potential, all the things they didn’t get the chance to do, the life that was never lived.
It is hard to find a way out of the deep sadness, and, when you do things to remember them, it is tempting to keep your focus on how terrible it is (which it is), and not look for a way to move forward taking your love for the person with you.
Mark’s death was an absolute tragedy. He was only just 32, and had a whole life filled with success and achievement and love and family ahead of him. It will never stop being sad, however many years ago it is, however different our lives look. We have all lost something fundamental: a son, a brother, a life partner, a father, a friend.
But I think it helps Ethan (and it definitely helps me) to focus on the good that has come out of Mark’s death. We factor in these moments to our year, celebrating his impact on the world in the short time he had. The Xtrac award is one of these things. 6 people have been able to improve their skills and career prospects because of Mark and the impact he had on those he worked with.
Ethan gets to see how highly his father was regarded, and how he was loved, in this place. He gets to talk to people about the job Mark had, and see what his work life would have been like. He sees how wide and deep his security net is – the people who care about him. For his first birthday without Mark, we were invited to the factory and he unwrapped a ride-in Ferrari, that the whole build team had worked on. They were so excited to give this little boy such a cool present! For Christmas Lamborghini (with who Mark worked on a project.) sent him a remote control car, and Mercedes (another client) sent him 2 beautiful books about the cars his Daddy had helped with. And every year we go to Thruxton for the British Touring Car Championships, something Mark would have loved watching with his son. They enable me to keep the petrolhead side of Mark alive for Ethan (without me actually having to know anything about cars!).
They also help us to celebrate Mark. Celebration of the person you’ve lost is so important. Being able to enjoy the things they loved, and laugh at circumstances which remind you of them. For me, being able to look at Ethan, see the echoes of Mark in his face and manner, and smile over and above the tinge of sadness allows me to enjoy my son without constantly pitying him for what he has lost.
Because (even in the midst of his 8-year-old-boy-ness) he is pretty damn awesome.
Every photo and social media app these days has a “memories” feature. I’ve mentioned these before, with their heady mix of amusing snapshots of life with a tiny Ethan, and Facebook posts announcing funeral details. Well, these two popped up on one of my apps this morning: a perfect encapsulation of what my life was like in the month following Mark’s death.
Death admin is a whole other topic, and I’m not going to talk about it this week. Suffice to say that this was one of 13 copies of the death certificate that I had to send off to various banks and mortgage companies and insurance companies and electricity providers and the milkman, in order to prove that my husband had, in fact, died, and I wasn’t just trying to get the name on the TV license changed to commit some kind of elaborate, BBC One-related, fraud.
The practical considerations were taking up a large part of my life at this point. The funeral had come and gone, but there was still a LOT to do, and all these companies had to speak to me.
But the other bit of my life – the thing that filled my every waking thought – was Ethan, and how to deal with this small boy who seemed so lost and confused in the middle of everything.
Consistency is impotant enough for a 2 year old in normal circumstance. Children thrive within boundaries – they need to know where they stand (in a loving way) and how far they can push things. When things are too vague or flakey, then they panic. A recently bereaved child needs consistency even more. Their world has turned upside down in ways they don’t fully understand, and they are searching for solid touch points.
I needed to be that touchpoint. That rock he could grab onto and know that it was never going to move. So I tried to keep as many things normal as possible, including sleeping arrangements. Ethan went through a ridiculously terrible time with sleep in the months and years after Mark died, and I made the decision to be firm. It would have been much easier to let him sleep in my bed with me, seeing as the issue was he was lonely. But I was terrified of blurring boundaries and confusing him. And, to be frank, I was looking (far) ahead to when I started dating again and I’d have to deal with getting him used to a new person at the same time as weaning him off sleeping in my bed. Which would have been an association nightmare.
So I stood firm. The picture above is from one of the only times I let him in my bed at around 2am, and that was because he had a terrible cold and was hardly sleeping at all.
I wish I had been kinder. To myself and to Ethan. Boundaries are all very well, but I don’t believe in the “making a rod for your own back” philosophy any more. There would have been nothing wrong with Ethan sleeping next to me, safe and warm and protected. Given the circumstances. And there would have been time for a re-set once we’d both gotten over the initial shock.
Hindsight is fab. I made the decision I felt was right at the time, for the right reasons. But while we’re spending the week thinking about how we can support children who are dealing with grief and loss, I think balancing boundaries with kindness is the best move. You can never give them enough cuddles, especially when you’re hugging them for two.