Occasionally TV makes me catch my breath. At the news channel where I work, I introduced a report this week about a Briton unfairly imprisoned in America and whose release has been delayed by coronavirus. The inmate was a devout Christian. A colleague in the USA, an old friend from the days when both of us were foreign correspondents, ended the piece with the poor man’s words – which happened to be from Psalm 23. Some journalists are awkward about allowing faith to be part of their storytelling. But the report was all the more faithful to reality as it ended with the wrongly jailed man intoning: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”.
Widowhood poses different challenges for men. In particular, for fathers. – Colin Brazier
They are the words I chose for my late-wife’s gravestone. The second anniversary of her death falls next month, a couple of weeks too late for the date – June 23rd – set aside for bereaved spouses. Grieving women, to be precise. Given the dreadful implications that can follow the death of a husband in developing countries, the United Nations rightly felt there was only room in the calendar for International Widows Day.
Widowhood poses different challenges for men. In particular, for fathers. So here are some of my thoughts for men who find themselves, as I have, thrust into the role of both Mum and Dad. I do not set myself up as a parenting guru. Many Catholic fathers have found themselves in far worse situations. My six children were young when their mother died, but not toddlers. And, though not rolling in cash, we are not broke either. All experiences are different.
First, there is no substitute for time. Children thrive on routine. After their mother died, my younger children were fearful if I was unexpectedly absent. They struggled to articulate their sorrow, but it was obvious they had been sensitised to loss. Work meant that I couldn’t be there when they went to school, but I could make sure I was there to meet them at the end of the day. This mattered to them.
Second, it’s important to make yourself available to each of them individually. I never press them to share confidences, but sometimes they will emerge, unbidden and organically. This doesn’t need to be time-consuming. For instance, if I’m going to the supermarket, I will take one of them with me in the car, which often acts as a confessional booth (both for them and for me).
Third, if you don’t already; learn how to cook. My late-wife was a great believer in the importance of family meals. There was always a roast lunch on Sundays. It might be tempting to let them feed themselves, but the convenience of a TV supper comes at a cost. My dining table feels like a clearing house for family news. But it’s not just where I find out that Gwen has a French test on Tuesday. It’s where I can see – often through the interplay between them – whether someone is struggling.
Fourth, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. My home is not a shrine to my late-wife. But there are a few pictures of Jo, including a large, unignorable one by the front door. She comes up in conversation all the time. We share reminiscences and do not launder her memory. The children are happy to recall being scolded every bit as much as being hugged.
My wife’s death prompted the sort of grief that leaves you raving and breathless. But grief is natural. – Colin Brazier
Fifth, remember that bereavement is not a mental illness. I loved my wife very much. We were devoted to one another. Then she got cancer. We had more time together than we would have done before all the oncological advances of the last 50 years. Then she died. It prompted the sort of grief that leaves you raving and breathless. But grief is natural. I have been agnostic when my children have been offered counselling. If they want it, they can have it. But I’m certainly not going to force it on them.
Sixth, don’t underestimate the ability of siblings to care for their brothers and sisters. My children know they are now set apart by loss. Their friends cannot understand what it’s like to sit on your mother’s bed as she takes her last breath. They do. And it gives them a shared emotional language that will bind them together for years to come. A sibling is for life, not just childhood.
And finally, don’t be afraid to trust your own judgement no matter how much you came to rely on your spouse’s. It’s hard not having a backstop. Almost every week a novel parenting challenge will emerge. “Can I have my nose pierced?” Sometimes I invoke Jo’s memory. “Do you really think Mummy would let you do that?”
But, ultimately, you can’t keep asking your late wife for posthumous advice. You can try and imagine how she’d deal with an unexpected situation. But as they grow older and things change, it’s on you.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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