As I approach the second anniversary of my wife’s death, I anticipate the multitude of emotions that will no doubt, return. There has always been attention paid to grief and its connections to health and illness. My experience and the impact between mental wellbeing and grief was pretty much textbook.
It wasn’t too long ago, I looked at myself in the mirror and acknowledged that my life will never be the same as it once was. I could face the fact that life, in general, doesn’t’ always go to plan. No matter what our story is. My life went in one direction and within a blink of an eye, it faced a different one.
I never planned it, and I never once asked for the direction it went. However, it wasn’t’ just my life that changed direction, it was also a range of other elements, such as my wellbeing.
The concern around my mental health was a common theme in my grieving.
From the beginning, the loss of my wife generated huge vulnerability and mental limitations. It had shaken the foundations of meaning and produced considerable suffering for me. My mind found reality too traumatic to deal with and too painful. My brain spontaneously took the action it needed to protect its host.
I did have days when my head would be overloaded with torturous thoughts and visions. One specific thought I duelled with constantly was how Katherine would have managed if I had been the one to have died. How would she have coped and was I content for me to live in this pain and not her? I also tortured myself during milestone moments with my daughter. I would imagine in my mind just how Katherine would have responded and expressed her happiness observing Margot’s behaviour.
Apparitions would appear during moments when Margot took her first steps, spoke her first words, had her first birthday, went on her first holiday. Even the more obscure and funny moments with my daughter would be bittersweet. It would break my heart into pieces when I’d think about it too much. It really did bring tears to my eyes.
Loneliness was a massive factor in my wellbeing. I always remember when I began to sink emotionally. During the weeks and months after the funeral as most people, apart from family, had started to drift away. The loneliness officially started to kick in. I felt that I was no longer part of the couples’ world and I had no one who understood what I was going through.
At first, I refused to seek help or change course for the deviations I noticed. Instead, I decided to go away with friends for a winter holiday to Spain. My aim was to clear my mind and create some happy memories for me and my daughter. Each day was meant to be filled with fun and laughter in the sun. In reality, I just ended up duelling with my mind more so than ever. I returned home and all of the facades of doing OK came apart and the depression took over. Everything came crashing down on me. I became dependant on alcohol and I cried, a hell of a lot; I was incredibly sad and lonely.
After dropping my daughter off at the nursery in the morning, I would drive into work, park my car, sit with my head on the wheel and stir at my knees as my eyes rained onto them. It would take at least ten minutes each day before I could get myself out of the car and go to work.
It was only when I discovered support from the charity sector and from a specialist service that my wellbeing started to change for the better. This didn’t happen overnight, it took dedication and openness to find mindfulness. One key element that really helped me was discovering somebody who had been through what I was going through. Someone who was also a widower and a single parent. I had found someone who had come out the other side and it gave me great hope. Margot was going to be ok. I was going to be ok.
From my support days, I really want to touch upon a broad component of widowhood that I have observed. I had discovered that expressions of grief were sometimes very deeply gendered. I found that some men would grieve in a way that can only be described as a masculine practice. It was almost as if some felt judged and alienated to show raw emotion. All I could think of was the term “man-up” as some adopted a form of toughness. The feeling of crying or even attending a support session resembled some sort of weakness.
I understand we’re all very different and express ourselves in our own way. However, when expressing and releasing grief, I think it’s really important for men to open up. It is equally important to know there’s nothing wrong with tears. It’s ok for a man to cry, in fact, it’s more than ok to cry. I say this in the contest to the perceptions of male grief and the entire ‘Harden up’, ‘Man up’ and ‘Suck it up’ medals of honour.
I can’t emphasise how important all of this was for my journey. Timely support protected me against the risk of poor mental wellbeing. Please don’t have any shame in seeking specialist/professional interventions. Grief cannot simply be suppressed. It will eventually catch with you at some stage in your life.
I recalled a story more recently describing how Prince Harry revealed that he sought counselling after twenty years of bottling up his grief. He had unhealthily suppressed his emotions after losing his mother when he was twelve and came close to a complete breakdown. In an ideal world, I guess if our society was to understand the impact of bereavement better, it would be more geared up to support those in need and to prevent any form of depression from grieving.