widow

Surprising reminders

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When you have lost someone significant in your life it is only natural that there are things that remind you of them. In the early days it feels like everything reminds you of them. Every song that comes on the radio seems to hold a memory or significance, every TV show or sporting event a reminder of the person who is missing it. Another series of Strictly. Another Olympics. Another cup final. As time goes on these instances become less frequent as new memories are formed. Not that they are forgotten but it is not so all consuming.

So, I have been somewhat taken by surprise with recent reminders of my late husband 4 years on.

A frequent one is seeing offers on multipacks cans of Diet Coke! My hubby loved Diet Coke. He drank buckets of the stuff and would always be excited when he found a good offer. So when leaflets drop through the door with offers from local supermarkets, my eye is still drawn to the Diet Coke ones!

The next is smell. My son has taken to using the same deodorant as his dad, so in the morning the landing smells of my hubby. I’ve got used to this now, but I was taken aback a while back when I was scanning my shopping at the self checkout in Sainsbury’s and the man next to me was wearing the same aftershave that my husband used to wear. For a split second I thought he was there. It’s the strangest feeling. And then a couple of months ago I was sat at a Neil Diamond concert and the man who sat down next to me was also wearing my husband’s aftershave. Smells are so evocative. You can’t rationalise them or filter them. If a smell reminds you of a person or place you are transported there immediately and without warning. No time to say ‘no not at the moment thanks I’ll think about that later…at a more appropriate time’. Nope you’re whisked off there even if you are sitting in an arena or standing in the middle of a shop!

Which brings me to the most recent incident. Walking through M&S and seeing a mannequin wearing a dressing gown. Nothing unusual in that you might think, but there was something about the style of the dressing gown and the pose of the mannequin that reminded me of him. I automatically thought ‘Oh he’d like that. I could get him that for Christmas’. This will be the 5th Christmas I haven’t bought my husband presents, yet the thought is still automatic if I see something he would’ve liked.

As the years pass and the feelings aren’t so raw it surprises me even more that these emotions still hit hard at times. That gut wrenching feeling in the pit of your stomach that the person you loved isn’t there anymore. You get caught up in the routines of daily life, but just occasionally these moments come out of left field and floor you! However, you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with things again. Acknowledging the feelings, the grief, the sadness, the loss, but remembering with affection the happiness in those memories.

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First Dates

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I love the TV programme First Dates. For the uninitiated it is a Channel 4 show where singletons are matched up for a blind date at a restaurant in Covent Garden, looked after by the rather suave French Maître d’ Fred and his impossibility attractive waiting staff. We, the viewing public, then watch the date unfold, with all the awkward introductions and initial polite conversation that becomes more relaxed as the wine starts to flow. We cringe when it all goes wrong and we delight when it’s a perfect match. And this is not just for the young and beautiful. There are all ages, shapes and sizes from all sorts of backgrounds.
So as I watch these strangers embarking on their dating adventures it got me thinking…am I ready to start dating?

It’s a topic that comes up occasionally when I’m talking to my widow friends. I’ve been widowed for over 4 years and I’m really very used to being on my own now. There are things I miss about being part of a couple, like having someone to share things with, to go places with and to stop me feeling like the odd one out at social gatherings when it seems like everyone else is part of a pair. I do miss having someone to share the driving duties with and who will cut the lawn for free and I think the young man in my life would quite like a man around to do boy stuff with.

But would I feel like I was betraying my husband if I looked for love again? I’m not sure.  I don’t wear my rings often these days, but to actively seek someone new just feels a bit weird.

Not least because I haven’t dated for well over 20 years and without wishing to sound incredibly old, a lot has changed since then! We just about had brick-like mobile phones with pull up aerials and dial up internet on a big beige box of a computer kept in the corner of the room. There was no swiping left and right and ‘Plenty of Fish’ was where you found cod and chips wrapped in newspaper, not a potential partner. I met my late husband at Uni where there was a ready made social scene and I was young! And healthy and active. But I’m now a disabled single mum in my 40’s, with a little more glitter (ok, grey!) in my hair than I would like. I’m just not sure who would want to sign up for that? My son said ‘maybe there’s a nice man out there who would like your personality and not mind about the MS’ (but this is the same boy who thinks I would make a good teacher because I have a ‘good shouty voice’ so I’m not sure how reliable his opinions are!)

And you see, I’m a suspicious sort and I really don’t think I could ever do the internet dating thing as I would never believe what any potential date said! I’ve heard too many stories of men not being who they say they are, not actually being single, being downright creepy or thinking the best introduction is to send a photo of their boy bits! (Why?! Just why?!) I know it’s not all like that and I have heard of success stories too, but I’m not sure I can be bothered. It’s tricky enough balancing what I have to do now with the energy I have available, I’m not sure I have any spare for dating.

I don’t doubt there are some great single men out there…somewhere…and if I happen to stumble across one (possibly literally!) then maybe I’ll think about it, but if not, that’s fine too.

So am I ready to date? Probably not. I’m certainly not going to be actively searching anyway. Not unless they start holding singles nights in Paperchase…;)

Why I write

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So, you might be wondering why I started writing these blogs that occasionally appear on your Facebook newsfeed or maybe you’ve never given it a second thought, but I’m going to tell you anyway! (So if you don’t want to know the reasons…look away now!)

To help others

The main reason I write my blog is to (hopefully!) help others in similar situations to those I find myself in. It’s certainly not a pity party. I try not to moan and I do aim to inject some humour if I can. Personally I find it reassuring to read about someone who has had a similar experience to me, so I hope others find it helpful too. I have written about the reality of living with MS, bereavement, single parenthood and setting up a charity along with others on anxiety, anger and changes to the benefit system. My hope is that others will find reassurance in reading my experiences, even if it’s to make them feel that they’re making a much better job of it than me!

Raise awareness and challenge preconceptions 

I love to write to raise awareness about different topics that the general public may be unaware of. Fortunately most people don’t know what it’s like to live with a chronic condition, especially when many of the symptoms are invisible. So I try to explain what that’s like so that people have more of an insight, because there are actually many people living with all sorts of ‘hidden’ illnesses and it would be great if there was more of a wider understanding. 

I like to try and challenge preconceptions too. Following my experience of bereavement, both personally and through the charity I run, I realise that the general understanding of grief and more specifically how children grieve is often misunderstood. I hope that some of the blogs raise awareness about the needs of these children and families and how we are seeking ways to meet them. 

It’s also a good way of talking about issues that are often more difficult to discuss face to face, like mental health issues. It’s a whole lot easier to write it down and share than it is to drop it into a conversation, but it means that people who are experiencing similar difficulties know they’re not alone and might even feel able to ask for help or at least talk about how they are feeling with someone else. 

It is also a good platform to raise awareness about political issues like changes to the benefits system, the NHS and education. I get to vent my spleen about injustices! 

It’s therapeutic 

I’ll be honest, I do find writing therapeutic. I have developed a love of writing that I’ve never had before. I write privately for my eyes only too, I don’t share everything publicly, but there are occasions that I think it’s worth sharing a version of my thoughts more widely. 

However, these blogs are not me spilling all of my innermost thoughts onto the screen, they are the edited, relevant highlights. It is therapeutic as in positive and helpful, but not therapy as in treatment. I firmly believe that the internet is not the place the bare your soul, but I think a little self disclosure can be helpful. 

Because I have been encouraged to!

It’s all your fault! I wrote my first blog to mark World MS Day and was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received from people…not just my friends (who have to be nice…it’s in the job description), but even some people I didn’t know!! So I thought I’d give it another go and that was well received too! So, it grew from there. I don’t publish blogs regularly, but more as topics arise and whilst the feedback remains positive I’ll keep doing it 🙂

Confidence  

I never felt I was very good at writing at school. I got a respectable B in my GCSE (and we won’t mention the A level result) but I was never confident in my ability. I got an ok degree, but again the writing didn’t come easily. It was always a challenge to reach the word count required for essays, but now I often have to cut down what I write because it’s too long! I think I found it difficult because it felt like it was all opinions about stuff that didn’t really matter. Whereas this stuff does matter. It matters that people going through tough times don’t feel alone. It matters that people have a better understanding of disability and grief and lone parenting. And if sharing a little of my experience provides an insight into those areas or helps to reassure someone in a similar situation then I think it’s worth it. 

What’s next?

So what’s next? More of the same I think. I will continue to write about topics, causes and ideas as and when they arise. Regular readers will know I have been asked to write guest blogs for the national charity MS-UK, so that’s an exciting opportunity too. They say everyone has a book in them, I’m not sure about that, but a few hundred words in a blog? That I can do. 


It’s good to talk

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As this quote that circulates on social media suggests, people often don’t know what to say to the bereaved. They don’t want to mention the person who has died in case it causes upset and reminds them that their loved one has gone. Whereas the reality is, of course, that they never forget. They are reminded every day by the empty chair at the table, when they climb into bed alone at the end of the day or when their dad isn’t there to watch the match.
It is one of the last taboos. We don’t like to talk about death or we speak about it in hushed tones. This is particularly the case with children. We don’t like to mention death even though it is the most inevitable part of life. And for the children who are in the devastating situation of having experienced the loss of someone close to them at a young age, we often don’t know what to do for the best. We don’t like to mention it. There is often talk about the resilience of children in the face of tragedy, which implies that they should bounce back and move on. That if we fill their lives with busyness and positivity that they won’t notice that the significant person is missing. That they won’t remember the trauma of watching someone they love fade away or the shock of finding out that someone integral to their life has disappeared forever, with no warning. But this is obviously not the case. You can stuff their days full of dance classes and football matches, play dates and trips to the park, trying to fill every minute with activity, but the loss will still be there to deal with.

There is also the added complication for children because they often experience and revisit their grief when they reach each new level of understanding as they get older. It might be several years since a child lost their special person, but they are going to process it very differently at 13 to how they did when it happened aged 7. 

There is no time limit on grief for adults or children and actually what is the ultimate goal? To deal with it, close that chapter and move on? I would suggest not. The person who has died was an important part of your life when they were alive so cannot and should not be forgotten now that they are not.  Time definitely does help as the feelings and emotions aren’t so raw and the grief is not so all consuming as it is in the beginning. I guess maybe it’s to find a way forward that acknowledges the past and deals with the consequences of what has happened as and when they arise. This is certainly a challenge as an adult, so it must be even harder through they eyes of a child.

That’s partly why I started BCSY and the monthly drop-in sessions for the children. It is not so that they are reminded of their loss once a month on a Saturday afternoon, because as I explained earlier, they haven’t forgotten. It is with them all day, every day. However, it does give them space to actively ‘remember’ their special person by making and creating things in their memory, but equally they might just play and have fun with other children who understand. They don’t have to explain themselves, because for some children they have never met others in a similar situation to them and they can feel very isolated and alone. However, the children often do want to talk about their special person, sometimes about the loss but often about happy things they remember about them. 

As we recently reached and passed the fourth anniversary of losing my husband it was lovely that a couple of people shared their memories of him with me. It was great to be reminded of some things I’d forgotten about. When someone talks about the person who has died and shares a memory or a funny story of something that happened it is not a sad reminder that they have died, but a good reminder of the life they lived. 

Something in the air

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I don’t need to circle the date on a calendar or write it in my diary. I don’t need to set a reminder on my phone or pop it on a post it note. I can feel it in the air. I can see it in the heavy morning dew, in the leaves as they begin to turn to copper and russet and in the mellowing of the sun.  I am reminded as the Bake off gets underway and the Strictly contestants are announced. There’s a sadness that descends. A melancholy that reflects the changing seasons. 

I’m sure it’s similar for others whatever the time of year. For some it will be the sight of daffodils and lambs, for others Christmas lights and frosty mornings or pumpkins and fireworks. Whatever the reminder it will be there. The cue to remember what happened whether you want to or not. Of course you never forget. You think about the person who is missing every day, but there is something so very poignant about the run up to the anniversary of the loss. In fact I find the run up is often worse than the actual day itself. The day approaches with a sense of dread, but usually passes in a haze of painful memories, but with rituals to help mark it. A visit to the cemetery, a trip to a special place or a meal at a favourite restaurant. 

As the anniversary of losing Neil fast approaches again marking another year since his passing. (How is that even possible? How can it be 4 whole years?) So much has changed, but the facts remain the same. He is gone. Leaving a wife without a husband, a son without a dad and the world without a Neil. And that still makes me sad. A life cut short, when it was just getting started again. 

And it’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to remember and it is also ok to look forward too. It might not be the future I had envisaged, but out of the heartache hopefully something positive is emerging. An opportunity to support other children and families who find themselves in a similar situation. 

So, I will look forward to the mellow sunshine and the changing colours on the trees. I will go hunting for conkers and enjoy watching the new contestants dancing and baking. I will embrace the melancholy of the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ with remembering, reflection…and hopefully some of that autumn fruit in a crumble. With custard.

Being an ‘only parent’

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The other morning I asked my 10 year old the somewhat risky question of how he would describe me. He said I was kind, helped him with his homework and that I was a good ‘only parent’! At first I thought he said ‘you’re only a parent’ and was ready to give an extensive list of reasons why there was no ‘only’ about it! Then I realised he meant ‘only’ as in ‘single’ and I was rather touched that he thought I was doing ok! 

I have always admired only parents, even before I became one. I marvelled at their strength and ability to manage it all on their own when it was so tough when there was two of us! Parenting is such a challenging job and you receive absolutely no training for it! As all parents know, children don’t come with instruction manuals and even if they did, you soon realise that they quickly become out of date. Just when you think you’ve read theirs and might have them vaguely sussed…everything changes and you realise you actually don’t have a clue! 

So, when only parenthood was thrust upon me 2 years ago, I didn’t really know what to do. As I’ve written about previously, in the early days after my husband died  I found it difficult to make a decision about anything. I couldn’t decide what to wear or what to have for tea, let alone make parenting decisions. All of a sudden, when my son asked if he could go somewhere or do something I had to decide whether he could or not. I had to think…could he? Should he? Was that ok? It took some getting used to and I have certainly made (and continue to make) mistakes along the way. 

But there is another not so negative side to this. There is no conflict between two parents. If I make a decision, that’s it. No negotiating with my other half if we have different views on something. No disagreements and no arguments. So if my son plays with a (soft!) football in the house that’s ok, because I don’t mind, but it was always a bone of contention between me and my husband. 

Discipline is another issue. As someone said to me recently, there’s no ‘good cop, bad cop’…there’s only ‘bad cop’ and you’re always it! All the discipline lies with you and it can feel like you spend all your time nagging and saying no! There’s no one to share the disciplining duties with…you are the sole focus of the ‘Can I? Can I? Can I? Pleeaase can I? Everyone else is going/has one/doesn’t have to/takes it to school’ (delete as applicable) You get the idea.  However, on the positive side there is no playing one parent of against another. No tension caused when one parent says one thing and the child goes to the other parent to see if they can get an answer they like more.

Being a parent is the most amazing, tough, rewarding, emotional, fantastic, frustrating job ever and to be an only parent is a mixed blessing, but a blessing all the same. 

Reflections

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Following on from the amazingly positive feedback I received from my first blog post, I am approaching my second attempt with some trepidation. It’s like that tricky second album after the debut one goes platinum!

So here goes! Please be gentle. 

Just as I hadn’t anticipated retiring from work at 28, neither had I expected to become a widow at 39! My husband sadly died of a heart attack in September 2013 aged 51.

I know it sounds a bit of a morbid topic, but hopefully it will give a bit of an insight into what it’s like when widowhood is thrust upon you, especially at a relatively young (!) age. These are a few of my reflections on those early days. 

I couldn’t make a decision

My husband died suddenly and I was in shock, getting by on not much sleep and quite a lot of adrenaline and caffeine and had the daunting task of organising a funeral for what turned out to be nearly 300 people. You only get one shot at getting it right and I wanted it to be so right, but in the midst of the shock and grief I seemed to lose the ability to make a decision! Which is a bit of a problem when there are so many decisions to be made! My dad suggested I try and make decisions in the mornings when I was less tired. It was good advice, so I tried to make sure I left decisions until the morning where possible.  Wise man, my dad. 

You’re so young

Everyone is always surprised I am a widow, even the funeral service providers. My amazing mum and dad came to stay in the early days after my hubby died and one or both of them would come to appointments with me. Whoever I met with always assumed it was my mum or dad they should be dealing with. The best example was when me and mum were called in for our appointment with the registrar early, while dad parked the car, and mum asked the receptionist if she could tell her husband where we were, when he arrived. There was a brief look of horror on her face as she assumed it was mum’s appointment, not mine! A reoccurring theme that people are always surprised by a young widow! I understand why, but it can lead to some difficult and sometimes upsetting conversations.

Have plenty of tissues 

I ended up with a box of tissues in every room of the house. The tears would come frequently and without warning. My son, who was 8 at the time, would bring me a box of tissues whenever the phone rang! Every time I opened a card with kind words in, read a nice email or a friend called, that would set me off! Or an overwhelming wave of sadness would just hit me. It’s so tiring! The grief. The tears. It was a milestone when I realised I’d got through a whole day without crying! It’s a perfectly ‘normal’ reaction, but exhausting. 

Get a good filing system

It’s boring and practical but the amount of paperwork that you have to deal with is immense! It is the strangest thing. You experience this hugely traumatic life event…the death if your husband, and then you are plunged into this world of registrars, funeral directors, cemeteries , death certificates and paperwork that you are completely unprepared for. Yet you’re kind of expected to know what to do. There are the endless phone calls to companies, financial institutions and government departments explaining over and over again what’s happened. It makes it much easier to deal with if you can keep it all in order. 

Beware the postie

In those very early days, the post would often bring beautiful cards, bouquets of flowers…and brown envelopes with windows! I dreaded those ones! One day a letter would say how much I would be getting and next day there would be another saying how much I owed them! The tax credit system is no more gentle to widows than anyone else! My particular favourite phone call to the tax office was when I rang to repay an overpayment (a joint claim cannot convert to a single claim apparently and they were quick to ask for their money back!) and the chap said, did I just want to pay half and they would get the rest from my ex husband. I explained they’d have trouble as he was my late husband not my ex! A minor detail for them, but a huge detail for me. 

Choose the music wisely 

My husband had always referred to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd as his funeral song. Every time we heard it he would say ‘This is my funeral song. I want this played at my funeral’. I have no idea why! Anyway, the only thing I knew for sure when arranging his funeral was that this song had to feature. So it was played at the end if the service. I’m sure many of the congregation probably don’t remember, but I do. And as an avid listener of Radio 2 most days, that blooming song gets played loads! I must hear it at least once a week! (You can guarentee at least every couple of weeks someone requests it on Simon Mayo’s show on a Friday!) Music can be so evocative and I only have to hear the opening bars and I automatically think of him. In the early days, weeks and months it would make me cry and I would have to turn it off, but I’m getting braver these days…most of the time!

What now?

So, what now? The funeral was over, but my whole world had changed forever. I was now a widow and a single mum. This wasn’t the plan! My son and I had to begin to try and find our ‘new normal’…