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.
44,000 children annually are bereaved of a parent in the UK.
1 child in every UK classroom has been bereaved of a parent or sibling.
Sadly, because of the pandemic situation, a lot more children will be going through situations of grief and loss this year.
Obviously, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of my blog, this is a subject close to my heart. Dealing with grief as an adult, with our supposedly mature emotions and coping mechanisms (healthy or otherwise) is difficult enough. Dealing with grief and loss as a child, when you have little or no understanding of what has happened, can’t manage your own emotions, and have practically no control over what goes on in your life, is almost impossible. Children need mature and loving adults around them who can keep the lines of communication open, and offer unconditional love at all times.
The theme for this year’s awareness week is #saythewords. They are encouraging children and adults to speak out about their experiences of bereavement, because the more we talk about death and how it affects us, the less awkward these conversations become, and the safer children feel about bringing it up.
Which will come as no surprise to most people who know me.
I love cooking up new and yummy things for people who come and stay, hosting dinner parties and brunches and plying people with brownies.
But people coming over are in short supply at the moment. And more of us are stuck at home struggling to keep food interesting and healthy.
So, my friend Chris had a fabulous idea: a website where people can find easy and healthy lunch ideas that aren’t sandwiches (because sandwiches are boring and not that good for you nutritionally, and we can do so much better!).
So I jumped on board, because if I can’t devise tasty meals for real life people right now (other than Nick, Erica and Ethan) then I’ll have to it virtually.
Things have been a bit quiet over here at STA…sorry about that. There are 2 main reasons.
1. Erica has decided that sleep is for losers, and that 3am – 5am is for being wide awake because something exciting has obviously been happening that she’s been missing out on… So I’m back to being sleep-deprived, which is not conducive to writing anything coherent and/or interesting.
2. I’ve been working on an exciting new project that is non-baby, non-widow related. This has left very little time for the introspective moaning that you all know and love!I’ll let you all know when it’s ready, and hopefully your FOMO should be short-lived.
So I hope you will forgive my silence. There is still a lot going on at Casa O’Brien-Day, some of it stressful, most of it funny, and all of it a little bizarre as usual. I’ll catch you all up on it soon.
In the meantime..please enjoy this complimentary picture of Ethan attempting his own version of “sleep training” his sister 🤣. Spoiler alert: it did not work!
I’m lying in the bath. The bath that’s heating up around me. I’m the proverbial frog…you know: the one that’s in a pan of water that’s warming up over time until its boiling but he doesn’t realise its boiling until it too late. Those are the kind of baths I like: I am that frog (no idea why its always a male frog….).
I get to the point when the water is perfectly scalding and then suddenly I’m too sweaty and I need to open all the windows and let the cold air in.
I’ve always been like this with baths. No idea why.
I don’t have baths very often. Right now I have a streaming head cold. So, for want of a nearby sweat lodge, I’m attempting to shift it. And hoping that Erica won’t wake up until the water has chilled and I’ve topped it up at least twice.
I’m going to be uncharacteristically stereotypical, but it is based on a huge amount of anecdotal evidence I’ve collected over the years (whilst being in no way scientific!):
I hate being ill as a mum. There are no mum sick days. And even if you are the most hands-on dad ever, unless you are the primary caretaker, its not the same thing. You can stay in bed and recover, drink chicken soup and doze with tissues stuck up your nose. If you’re the mum then the tissues will get pulled out and used as padding for a Pokemon camping arena or something, the dozing will be interrupted by someone realising that they can’t find the prep folder that’s in the same place it’s been every day for that last 6 weeks, and the chicken soup will be stolen by a small person who thinks it actually looks quite tasty (even though if you tried to feed it to them at any other time it would be sneered at for having “bits in”).
There are many tough parts of parenting – many trenches you have to crawl through with Lego under your bare feet and porridge in your hair. But being sick is one of the worst. The defining characteristic of being a parent is that your needs are no longer paramount. You spend each and every day (mostly) putting someone else’s needs first. So, you might be struggling to breathe, or liable to hurl your guts out each time you move your head from a horizontal position, or squinting through one eye because your migraine feels like someone is attacking your forehead with a nail gun; but you still have to make sure your tiny, demanding charge is fed, clean, entertained and comforted. And it sucks. I have played more games of Minecraft whilst trying not to be sick than I care to remember.
Of course we do it – that’s what love is. But a very large (and snuffly) part of me wishes that there was some kind of emergency number you could call, probably from a red desk phone, which was picked up by a friendly but efficient state-funded nanny-type who would come round immediately, tuck you up into bed and take your small people out for a wholesome and educational forest walk, bring them back rosy-cheeked and exhausted, and pop them into their pyjamas, while you had the recovery time you needed without the added sprinkle of guilt.
It’s possible that we should focus on funding the education system properly first…but a girl can dream…..
I’ll be fine again soon, and Nick has brought home chocolate and paracetamol, the twin pillars of support for every poorly mum. But right now…I’m waiting on that Nanny!
I’m over at Feel Fit UK again today, with the final installment of my truly unscientific, but hopefully quite interesting, look at how things have changed in health and fitness down the generations of my family.
You can find the blog (and the previous two installments) here.
I’d love to know what you think and whether your family experiences have been similar.
One of my most useful skills as a youth worker was the ability to chat about a range of subjects without getting embarrassed or tongue-tied. I’ve had conversations and “facilitated informal education sessions” on politics, sex, drugs, not actually rock and roll, but a lot of other things in between.
I think that this makes some other people feel uncomfortable. I remember when I jumped (well, stepped daintily) back into the dating world in 2016…
I didn’t want to have the awkwardness of turning up on a date and having to tell the guy that yes, I was a mum, but yes, I was also a widow. There are two ways that conversation can go. Either you do it at the beginning of the conversation, in which case everything that happens afterwards is coloured by that one fact about you – there is no escaping the assumptions that the other person will bring to the meeting. Or you do it half way through/when it comes up naturally, and then you watch the initial shock in their face followed by the horror as they speedily run through everything they have said up until that point in fear that they have horribly upset or offended you in some way.
Neither is fun, let’s be honest, but I usually opt for the former – lay all my cards out on the table. As I wrote in a previous post I saw no point in spending the time getting to know someone if they couldn’t cope with my son, I also saw no point in putting the effort in if the whole widow thing was going to be impossible for them to get their head around.
I wish I’d taken a photo of my match.com profile, carefully crafted as it was by Susan, Ali, Bekka, myself and a bottle of Rioja. I bit the bullet – the opening sentence mentioned both my widow status, and my 4 year old son. Best case scenario – this weeded out all the time wasters. Worst case scenario, Ethan and I lived happily ever after just the two of us and I never had to share my wardrobe space…win win!
But there is no match.com equivalent for platonic socialising or networking (not sure there’s a “widow” check box on Linked In). Obviously this sort of thing is less likely since bloody Covid, but when I met new people at weddings, or parties, or school gatherings, or in new work environments I would always have to gauge very carefully at what point to drop the “W” bomb. Sometimes it would have to come after I naively said something about my 1st husband, or Ethan’s dad, and explanation for a weird sentence construction or a context that didn’t quite make sense. Sometimes I’d feel the need to explain a particularly strong opinion about the NHS, or mental health funding, or childcare. I am forever saying “That’s ok” to a well-meaning (and blindsided) person’s “I’m so sorry”. I feel a little like Tom Selleck’s character in Friends at his dinner party (cue sympathetic head tilt).
But, whilst I’m not embarrassed to talk about being a widow, and I’m not squeamish talking about Mark’s illness and death, I do worry that bringing it up (at any point in a conversation) implies that I want the rest of that conversation to be all about me. It is focus stealing: a particularly effective form of one-upmanship unlikely to be topped by what someone did on their holidays. Someone could be in the middle of explaining how their husband took their son for a male bonding camping trip on his 5th birthday and innocently ask if Ethan had gone on anything like that with his dad, before expecting to tell a very funny anecdote about forgetting to pack a tin opener and spare pants, when I drop the bombshell of Ethan’s dad dying when he was 2…(delicately or not depending on how much wine was being thrown around). And suddenly the little circle they were enjoying entertaining is now focusing on me and my little tragedy. This isn’t really the best way to win friends and influence people. And (because of my ridiculously independent streak) I hate the idea that someone would pity me, whilst still being quite keen to offer up mitigating factors (e.g. Why I’ve only been married for 2 years, or why Ethan doesn’t like to go upstairs by himself).
It’s a little like that quote attributed to Mark Twain (that Brian Tracy based a whole book on) “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day”… By saying the worst thing first and getting it out of the way, then it wasn’t hanging over my head for the whole conversation, with me spending most of my brain power on working out the best point in the conversation to butt in with it, rather than on listening to the other person talking to me.
It is quite useful with annoying customer service people and cold callers. “well I’m sorry but my husband died, so you can’t talk to him” has the perversely satisfying result of bursting their annoyingly cheerful bubble. I do usually feel a little sorry for them when I hang up the phone, but only a little. Anyway, if your husband is going to die and leave you to bring up his son alone, then there have to be some perks. If it gets me off with chuggers then I’m going with it.
6 years ago, when Mark died, a lovely friend told me about Widowed and Young, an organisation set up to support those widowed under the age of 51. I went to a few of their local meet ups and spent some time on the forums. It was a wonderful safe space where people could share stories and ask for advice from those who had perhaps gone through similar experiences.
But it sort of felt like that was the only place you could talk about it – in the closed (paid for) forum. Social media wasn’t the place for you to bare your soul, or to highlight to others what grief could mean….
But now on Instagram we have At a Loss, thegriefcase, onefitwidow… Places where individuals can write down what they wish they’d said to their loved one, or what they wish they’d known about grief. There are raw, ragged portrayals of lives ripped apart, deep, bellowing cries of sadness and confusion, and it’s ok. It’s not something to be hidden away.
Now, obviously algorithms make it less likely that those unaffected by these topics will stumble across them on their feeds – there is still a separation – a safety barrier – so that no one has to think about it if they don’t want to.
But I think that might be a mistake. For those of you who have listened to my conversation with Jenni Osborn on her podcast Jenni Talks you’ll know that I think hiding away from the topic of death in the hope that it never affects you is naïve. Bereavement and grief will affect us all at some point in our lives. Not talking about it, or feeling so uncomfortable when someone else talks about it that you’d rather leave the room, is short sighted.
I like to think that as a society we’ve learnt that sweeping things under the rug doesn’t work. The more we talk about something, the more we normalise it, for those who are going through it and for those who may be further down the road. By being open about some people being gay we lighten the load for those who were struggling in silence with their sexuality. By opening up the conversation around mental health, especially amongst men, we neutralise the shame of those who think they’re just not strong enough. And by talking about death we break the taboo. And this taboo cripples… It cripples those who are trying to comfort and support the bereaved.
In my experience it cripples those people trying to make plans with those who are terminally ill. Mark was determined to “fight” his disease (I’ll get into this harmful battle language another time). He was going to be the one who got through it. We were going to buck the trend, astound the doctors and fight through it all. Honourable attitude, you might think, positive mental outlooks obviously affect the march of the illness, right. More power to him. But actually what happened was that any talk of planning for his death felt like mutiny. We couldn’t talk about wills, or funerals, or even plans for Ethan because to do so was to assume that he wouldn’t be here – that he wouldn’t win. It also meant (for me, anyway) that we couldn’t talk about how much we would miss each other, we couldn’t be sad about the prospect of me living the rest of my life without him, we couldn’t talk about how scared of dying he might be (or, later, how much of a relief it would be). Anything that smelt of defeat was shooed out of the hospital room, right up until the very end. We never said goodbye. He never said goodbye to Ethan. And that will haunt me until it’s my time to go. It is my biggest regret – that I didn’t push it, that I didn’t say the hard things that I was feeling, because I wanted to keep up the pretence that one day, we would look back on this and laugh and nod at lessons learnt, together, probably with another child running around with Ethan in the garden.
If I can pass on one single thing for you to learn from my experience, it isn’t that life is short (although it is). It is this:
Have the conversations.
Make the plans.
Don’t think that you’re tempting fate or giving in.
Talking about death doesn’t make it more or less likely to happen – death and taxes – the only certainties we have, you just don’t know when either of them are going to bite you on the arse.
Yesterday at 12.30pm I was refreshing the Guardian politics live blog with baited breath, whilst trying to get through my TA workout before the small energy-sucking machine woke up (mental note – multi-tasking does, in fact, mean not doing any of the things properly, as my nose can attest after I lost my balance and face-planted the mat).
Six months since lockdown and another 6 months of social restrictions are announced. Not, to be fair, as bad as I had feared. I was waiting for the return to no socialising outside of your household and phoning round my friends to see who had managed to get bread flour in their online shop. But still. 6 more months of not being able to hug my sister. The realisation that, not only were we missing out on our Waters-Dewhurst/O’Brien-Day half term holiday, but I wasn’t going to be able to gather my family around the table at Christmas either.
I can just about handle masks everywhere (although I do worry what Erica is making of all that). I can remember to wash and sanitise my hands (mostly) and to remind Ethan to do the same. I am coming to terms with the awkwardness of not greeting people with a hug or a kiss (to be honest this does mean that I’m not stuck in the awkward “one cheek or two” conundrum that just results in headbutts or worse!). I have gotten used to most of the general population not actually being able to visualise 2 metres.
But the lack of any light at the end of the tunnel threw me yesterday. I suddenly felt very alone and hopeless. I was prepared for the isolation and loneliness that inevitably comes with having a new baby. I knew it would be hard, and that I would find it more difficult than last time due to an increase in age, decrease in stamina, guilt of being torn between two children and the massive lack of patience that seems to have appeared since Mark’s death. But I was not prepared for the world to be turned upside down. For even my small lifelines to be taken away from me: Ethan’s mini holidays with his grandparents or Auntie, the drop-ins I could drag my sleep deprived self to and hug coffee while Erica played in a safe environment and actually saw other babies. For soft plays to be closed (yes, I know they are germ factories at the best of times, but they are indoors, when it rains, and they serve coffee), and for baby classes to be non-existent. For no Health Visitor or GP contact for 6 months (or what will be a year).
I think that what really hit me was that Erica will have spent the first year of her life only seeing a small group of people, under weird restrictions. And this bothers me. I don’t like it when things don’t go as I though they would. But this is at a whole other level. I have gathered around me a phenomenal group of people. They live all over the place, but they have held me and my tiny family together through countless struggles. And I miss them. Zoom quizzes are no substitute for drinking coffee whilst you put the world to rights and your children play together on the living room rug. The reality of the “rule of 6” is that there are a LOT of people who I will not be able to see for a year. People who are important to me. Whose children are small enough that they may forget me. Who won’t get to enjoy seeing Erica learn to walk. I miss my people. And, because life was busy even before a new baby, unless we put visits in the diary, days and weeks go past before you have time to text or call or skype.
I am sure that everyone else is dealing with their own disappointments and fears surrounding this “unprecendented time” (beginning to be a bit sick of that phrase, if I’m honest). But these are some of mine. And last night I had had enough. My mini tantrum ended in tears and Nick driving to Tesco to get some sourdough bread, roast chicken and dairy free Ben and Jerry’s…because he’s awesome. But I’m still a bit shaken by it all today. I’m still terrified of the spectre of an invisible, potentially deadly, illness. It gives me flashbacks to shocked faces in consultants’ offices. And sometimes I just want to hide at home away from it all. But I also want things to get back to normal. Unfortunately, I can’t have either of those things. So today (with the help of some lovely local friends) I am working on what I can change to make things seem a little more positive.
Spoiler alert: avoiding housework will feature heavily in this new plan.