14) Moving on, being happy and finding love again

I wasn’t sure when to write this blog or even how to approach it, but it’s very much one that is worth writing, I think, especially as I’ve not posted for a long time. It’s also a long one, so bear with me, but such are the complexities of its content it probably needs to be!

The whole point of this overall blog was to talk about my experience of life both before and after losing Nicola and more specifically the challenges of bringing up Grace ‘on my own’.

Those first few months, as documented here, provided a combination of great relief as Grace coped so well with what had happened, as well as great sadness that Nicola wasn’t there to see her developing.

As for Grace now, well, she turned four-years-old in July and is thriving. She started at primary school in September, which she loves and where she excels, and is a clever and charismatic little girl who charms everyone she meets. She can be a proper little madam too, but how many of her age aren’t?!

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Grace dressed for her Christmas nativity play

As for me, well, the process of moving on which was so crucial to the rest of my life has been a difficult one but one which has ultimately resulted in both Grace and I being much happier and more positive.

Let’s first deal with the undeniable facts. When Nicola died, my world fell apart. I’d lost someone I thought I’d be with for the rest of my life and my young daughter had lost her mother. Our future was changed forever and the uncertainty attached to that was hard to deal with.

So quite how anything, or anybody, would be able to lift me from the gloom and sadness I was feeling would be anyone’s guess.

As time had progressed after losing Nicola, the full extent of what had happened over the previous three years had begun to hit me. There I was, caring more or less full-time for a young woman being destroyed by cancer, tending to her every need at all hours of the day and night, all whilst trying to maintain a full-time career and bring up a toddler.

The mental exhaustion didn’t really hit me until after Nicola had died, and when I look back at those three years which saw her first diagnosed, go through the illness, the elation of being ‘all clear’ and then the agony of the illness returning and literally watching her die, I honestly don’t know how I got through it bearing in mind all those other factors.

I’ve mentioned before about the release I felt from the shackles of those circumstances but that’s really only a short-term thing. Before long the feeling of loneliness sets in and times such as being sat alone at night after Grace had gone to bed were having a negative effect on me.

That doesn’t mean I decided that dating or a new relationship was the answer, far from it, but when, out of the blue, I met someone very special, I dared not deny myself the chance to at least see what effect it would have on my life which had so recently fallen apart.

When Nicola died, I was adamant that it would be some time before another relationship would even begin to be an option. I simply couldn’t imagine being with anyone else and whilst I knew that eventually I’d probably meet someone and find happiness again, it wasn’t the plan for that to happen too soon.

So, it came as a surprise to me as much as anyone else when, by the new year, I was seeing someone with whom I clicked on so many levels, who was fully understanding and respectful of everything I’d been through, and also who had lifted me out of a considerable gloom I’d found myself falling into.

That someone, (I’ll call her Kristen because, well, that’s her name), didn’t initially know how recently I’d been widowed, although she knew I had been. It eventually transpired she knew of Nicola because she knew people who had taught alongside her at one of the schools Nicola worked at, so the full extent of what had happened and when soon became apparent.

But rather than run a mile like most people probably would from a recently widowed man with a three-year-old daughter, she showed great understanding and in the end it was the fact we had so much in common and clicked on so many levels that out-weighed any concerns about recent events.

I had to think long and hard about what was happening, of course. It would have been all too easy to fall into the trap of quickly seeking some kind emotional and physical ‘replacement’ for Nicola and that’s the accusation levelled at many widowers when they start new relationships, whatever the timescale, but it wasn’t like that with me.

It had been very hard watching the Nicola I loved and married deteriorate as she did, and our life together become a total shadow of its former self long before she died and on so many levels.

The reaction of people to the fact a new relationship was happening so soon would, of course, vary. My own family and friends’ overriding feeling was that they were simply pleased to see me smiling again and could see that I was visibly lifted. Of course, the timing raised many an eyebrow and they would no doubt have naturally had concerns surrounding that, not least that if things didn’t work out with Kristen I’d potentially end up being very sad again, but as time went by and they all met her, those fears were allayed.

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Kristen and I in late 2018

The people that found it toughest to digest were Nicola’s parents, but that was something I was well aware could be the case. My biggest fear, given how close I am to them, was upsetting them in any way.

I totally respected and understood why they found it hard and some very emotional conversations took place where I had to assure them that none of what was happening was for a second meant to be disrespectful to Nicola, nor was I ‘forgetting’ her in any way. That would be impossible on both counts, given how much she meant to me and everything we went through.

My primary concern in all I do remains Grace and that will always remain the case. In fact, Kristen’s presence has actually ended up enhancing not only my life but Grace’s too such are the experiences and opportunities that opened up as a result, so I hope that’s something that Nicola’s parents can see as being a huge positive to come out of it.

They’ve understandably found losing Nicola incredibly tough – losing a child at whatever age will inevitably do so and we come at our grief from entirely different angles. So the developments merely added to their upset and it’s something I felt awful about such is the love and respect I have for them. But I had to be a bit selfish in a way because not only my own happiness but primarily Grace’s had to be at the forefront of my mind. After all, if I’d sunk into any kind of depressive state then we’d all have suffered hugely from the knock-on effects.

We all still talk and see each other frequently and they often look after Grace as always given how important it is for them to spend time with her and vice-versa, but I know it’s a difficult subject for them to face up to and it’ll take time for them to accept. As much as neither Kristen or I had done anything wrong, emotions were still too raw to make it as instantly acceptable as it normally might be.

While so many factors have meant that it’s ended up working out for the better, I know not everyone can see things from the same angle as I do and fully respect that.

But, on the whole, the vast majority of people have been incredibly supportive of us as the relationship has grown, including those who were close to Nicola and loved her so much.

Kristen, at times, has found things very tough going, such are the judgements of her personally that sometimes become apparent, for example, our relationship being likened to an affair in some way.

Not only that, but she has to wrestle with the concept that were it not for Nicola dying, she wouldn’t be experiencing the happiness she now feels, and that carries with it a degree of guilt.

There’s also the fear that because someone I planned to spend my life with died, Kristen will only ever be a ‘substitute’ and never live up to Nicola on whatever level. Part of the challenge for me has been to dispel those fears and highlight that life, and the nature of fate, isn’t something that can often be reasoned with and that fears like those mentioned above shouldn’t be allowed to either ring true, nor dictate how we move forward.

I have, however, decided to sell the house Nicola and I bought just days before she became ill for the second time because, quite frankly, it has far more bad memories than good of our time here and I need to shake off whatever psychological shackles I can if I’m to really move on.

One of my motivating factors for continuing down this path is Nicola herself. I’m not huge on the whole spiritual side of things, but I’m almost certain that were she looking down on us and seeing how happy not only I, but in particular Grace is nearly a year-and-a-half on from her passing, she would be happy too. She’d probably bash me over the head for the timing of it all, I get that, but she’d trust me, and also know that she’s never forgotten and is talked about all of the time.

Kristen, who has a 13-year-old son of her own, regularly says she is so proud and honoured to be the person who is now playing such a big part in bringing up Nicola’s little girl. Perhaps more importantly, Grace bonds very strongly with Kristen and thrives from having a maternal figure in her life again. Nobody should be allowed to deny her that given one of the hardest things to accept about Nicola’s death would be that Grace would potentially not have that important female influence so close at hand.

Widows and widowers embarking on new relationships is something of a taboo subject. So often I’ve felt the need to defend myself for what’s happened, sometimes unnecessarily but other times when I’ve felt that I’m being judged unfairly and where people may be questioning my reasoning behind it all. I’m far from the first widower to be in this situation and I’ll be far from the last.

I’ll end this blog by saying this. I still miss and grieve for Nicola, of course I do. Grace talks about her but her physical memories are limited, and as hard as that is to accept it’s the sad reality. She’s taken Kristen on as a mother figure and having seen daily how that dynamic works, I am leaving it entirely up to Grace as to how she interprets Kristen’s role and how she identifies with her as I’m in no way inclined to upset or confuse her any more than she has been already. She’s happy, healthy and thriving, so that is all I can ask for.

As for me, I’m embarking on a fresh start in life and, as I prepare to turn 40 next year, I am grateful to have been able to do that given all that’s happened. I’ve gone from being that widowed daddy bringing up a young child alone, to being part of a couple raising two amazing children.

Our future looks bright, and as I’ve become only too aware in recent years, life is just too short to be sad.

13) The importance of being positive

New year, new start. It’s a bit of a cliché I suppose but it’s one I’ve tried to adhere to a little bit as I try and put what was, quite frankly, a pretty horrific 2017 behind me.

From the very start of the year right until mid-August, Nicola was terminally ill and then passed away. After that it was dealing with the aftermath, the grief, and trying to make sense of it all. Not a good year in anyone’s book.

The latter part of the year was very strange in many ways. I spent a lot of time crying, reflecting, pining for the lady I’d lost, feeling quite lonely at times and wondering just how low I’d get.

But I also had Grace to pick me up, lift me out of the bad moments and to concentrate on as she began nursery and continued to grow ridiculously fast in both mind and body.

All of that, coupled with spending a while sorting out the various formalities that one faces in such situations, meant the whole period between August and Christmas was something of a blur.

There was one big factor, however, that I had to make sure I kept under control and which at times looked like I’d struggle to. My own state of mind.

Everything that had happened over the past two years had really taken its toll on me mentally. At the time, I just dealt with it, going into some kind of autopilot as I juggled looking after a very ill person and all that comes with that, caring for a toddler and also continuing to work.

But looking back, I don’t quite know how I got through it given those very factors. It was only on quiet nights to myself after Nicola had died that I suddenly realised just how much I’d had to go through and how I was still reverberating from it all – indeed the quiet nights were that much more conspicuous given they’d been almost non-existent beforehand.

What began to happen, however, was that as the raw emotions wore off and reality began to sink in, a degree of anxiety started to announce itself and that would reflect in my mood and my entire outlook.

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Madam and me

It was something I saw coming, to an extent, but became that bit more apparent at certain times. I was fine when surrounded by family and friends and would enjoy those times, but when they’d all dispersed and I was plunged back into the reality that Nicola wasn’t here with me, it got hard for me to adjust.

The problem was, it began to affect too much. My sleep was affected, which in turn made me tired and perhaps a bit more moody, and that then began to affect how things were with Grace as I might have been a bit more snappy at her than she deserved. I soon realised that I didn’t want that to happen.

Therefore, I had to give myself a good talking to and think just how I was going to be. Was I going to let myself be consumed by the grief and have it control me, or was I going to instead look at all the positives I have in my life and let those be what drive me forward?

Nicola would have been the first person in line to bash me around the head was I to let the first scenario happen, if nothing else for Grace’s sake as well as my own, and that alone helped me realise that she wouldn’t have wanted the inevitable sadness of her absence be what controlled and defined me for too long. In fact, she’d told me as much in conversations we had before she died.

I’m 38-years-old. All being well I’ve probably got half of my life ahead of me. I couldn’t let the rest of it be destroyed when there were other things I could look forward to. Yes, of course Nicola not being there to enjoy them with us was hard to comprehend, especially things revolving around Grace and doing up the great house we’d bought together, but I have no control over that and instead take solace from how proud she’d be if she WAS here.

Grace started ballet classes in January – she’s a constant performer and loves singing and dancing around the house. Having had two or three classes she turned to me recently and said: “I miss my mummy. I wish she could see me doing ballet.” It broke my heart, as you can imagine, but I talked to her and tried to assure her that Mummy would be so proud of her and was watching down on her dancing all the time.

Grace, who is now three-and-a-half and starting to apply a little more logic to the whole situation, protested that Mummy couldn’t see her because ‘she’s up too high!’ before swiftly changing the subject and doing something else. Not 30 seconds later, a song came on the TV programme Grace was watching at the time that Nicola used to sing to her a lot. As I’ve said before, I’m never sure how to truly interpret things like that, but at that moment it was as if Nicola WAS watching down and wanted to let Grace know she was with her always. It wasn’t lost on Grace, and it’s fair to say it left me with more than a lump in my throat too!

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Grace before one of her ballet lessons.

Those kinds of things are bound to happen but whilst in the past they’d have been enough to reduce me to a blubbering wreck for a few hours, now I try and raise a smile about it and, to coin a phrase, keep calm and carry on.

Various events and people have helped give me more reasons to be cheerful, the importance of which can never be underestimated at times like this, and I know Nicola would wholly endorse anything that had that positive effect on me, Grace, or both of us. Decisions I now make are a lot more rational than they might have been at first and I’m thinking hard about the effect the bigger ones will have on our future.

Different people cope with grief in different ways. For a time, I was really struggling, facing up to life without the person I thought would be in it forever and struggling to comprehend how I’d bring Grace up to be the girl/lady she has huge potential to be.

Now, whilst I still feel sad and inevitably have the odd ‘wobble’ here and there, I’ve had to try and control the grief rather than let the grief control not only me, but also decisions I make that could impact me negatively further down the line, and I feel a lot better for it.

 

 

 

12) Coping with Christmas

*This blog also appeared on the Daily Mirror’s website after they approached me to write a piece – click here to see it.

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If there was one time of year Nicola loved more than any other, it was Christmas.

Without fail, the decorations would be up on December 1 (only because I had to ban them from going up in September) and so much time would be spent planning the various activities and food for the day itself as well as who we would see and when.

So, as you can imagine, having lost Nicola in August, this Christmas is going to be a particularly tough one for us to go through.

For a start, my organisational skills are nowhere near as good as Nicola’s were and, whilst it’s true that most guys are often guilty of leaving things until the last minute, as I write this just a few days before Christmas Day itself I can’t help but feel abject terror at what I’ve still got left to sort out.

In the past, presents would all have been bought, wrapped and distributed, cards written and posted and copious amounts of food and drink already purchased. Let’s just say that right now, I haven’t even located the sticking tape, the address book or the supermarket shopping bags.

If you’ll pardon the pun, the saving grace for us this year, is Grace. At three-years-old it’s really the first time she’s fully embraced Christmas and all the fun surrounding it, which perhaps makes it all the more tragic that Nicola isn’t here to share it with her.

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The wooden tree bauble I had made for Nicola.

Grace is, however, the main focus for the family and I this year and making sure she enjoys the magic it can bring to someone her age has been a welcome distraction from the upset caused by Nicola not being here.

She’s sung Christmas songs in a performance at nursery, loves wearing any Christmassy clothing, and of course is excited about what Santa might bring her. Needless to say, the evidence so far suggests she’s going to be quite spoilt this year given everything she’s been through.

She also helped me decorate our Christmas tree. That sounds like a simple task, but Nicola’s Christmas tree design skills were rather impressive so the pressure was on to recreate it and I think we ended up doing OK once I’d spent most of December untangling the lights and stopped Grace putting 50 baubles in the same square metre of tree.

It’s little things like that which bring it home to me just how hard it will be this year. I ended up getting quite upset at one point that the house just didn’t look as good as it usually does this time of year. It almost felt like I was letting Nicola down by not making it as special as she could. She wouldn’t think that, I’m sure, but those are the kind of feelings that you can’t help encountering from time to time, and not just at Christmas.

I guess my heart just hasn’t been in it on this occasion. That will be different in future years, without doubt, but this time I’ve found it hard to fully embrace some of the traditions at which we’d always excelled with Nicola’s help.

I actually had a special bauble designed for the tree this year, a wooden one with a dove on it and the message ‘In memory of Nicola/Mummy, we miss you’. We’ve of course got memories and photos of Nicola all over the house, but a simple presence on the tree seemed apt, even though I can get a bit emotional every time I look at it.

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Nicola, Grace and I pictured last Christmas, which we knew was likely to be Nicola’s last.

It’s so often the case that people spend Christmas surrounded by loved ones and whilst that should happen as much as possible at all times of the year, the festive period always seems to have that something special attached to it. This time last year, Nicola had not long been diagnosed as terminally ill and we knew there was a strong chance it would be her last Christmas. That sadly proved to be true, but the joy she took from seeing Grace open her presents and being around her family will always stay with me.

The four months since Nicola died have been a rollercoaster of grief and emotion but also full of lots of fun and laughter as we remember an incredibly clever, bubbly and wonderful person. That’s how I want Christmas to be too as her family and friends all get together, because even though she’s not here in person, she certainly will be in spirit and we’ll raise a glass or two to her, that’s for sure, just like I hope people everywhere do as they remember those they’ve lost.

On Christmas Day itself, I’ll go to Nicola’s grave, place a wreath and some flowers and spend a little time alone with her there as I often do. Going there doesn’t yet get any easier, but given how she felt about this time of year in particular, I can’t let it pass without at some point being next to her, maybe talking to her a little bit about the day, smiling as I remember previous festive fun and simply saying: ‘Merry Christmas, babe’.

11) A bit of a progress report

So how on earth are we coping so far? That’s pretty much the essence of many questions fired my way at the moment so, you know me by now, I’ll blog the answer out.

Well, we’re doing OK. We miss Nicola every day, that will never change, but as has been the case since day one, Grace is keeping us in line in more ways than one and we’re trying to get on with life as much as we can.

Most of the formalities that took up so much time to sort out after Nicola died are now dealt with and I’m back working at full capacity having gradually phased back in over a few weeks. It’s not been easy, I must admit, as my motivation levels aren’t great at the moment for obvious reasons, but whereas some widowed folk I’ve come across took anything from six months to a year to even consider working again, for me it was a case of using it as a distraction and a tool for ensuring I didn’t just end up wallowing.

A big part of the grieving process is accepting that what’s happened has happened, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That might sound straightforward, but believe me it’s not.

It wasn’t so much denial I felt initially, more disbelief that Nicola wasn’t here. She’d been by my side more or less every day for 11 years and all of a sudden she wasn’t and that was hard to process.

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Not having Nicola around as always was very hard to accept at first. (Excuse the sun burn in this photo)

As time goes by, that feeling slowly ebbs away as I come to terms with having to make decisions by myself. Some are easier than others of course. Where they involve Grace, whilst I’m fine with most, I sometimes have to rely on the advice of nearest and dearest if I’m not sure about something.

So my levels of acceptance are getting better and as I talk to and read about more and more people going through similar circumstances, I realise just how horribly common situations like this are. Talking about it helps – I still talk about Nicola with huge pride and affection and always will. Yes, that in turn can make me sad, but it’s an important part of the recovery process.

As I’ve said in previous blogs, I have tried to keep busy doing things that cheer me up. On nights I don’t have Grace – she stays at Nicola’s parents’ a couple of nights a week and sometimes on Saturdays – I usually prefer not to mope around the house and have found myself disappearing off to random football matches or heading out to buy stuff for the house. This widowhood thing is expensive…

I’ve had nights out with friends which have been great too. They’re not the same without Nicola of course, who was the life and soul of many a gathering, and getting ready to go out on my own and getting in taxis by myself takes a bit of getting used to. At least getting ready by myself means we get out a bleedin’ sight quicker.

My advice to anyone in this situation is to do all of that. Anything at all that makes you smile is crucial, whether it’s activities, people, thoughts or the whole lot combined. Despair can so easily be drowned out by joy.

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Grace is thriving and decided she wants to be a chef. Well, for about ten minutes before she then decided she wanted to be Elsa from Frozen again.

When it comes to Grace, I’m getting most stuff right I think. She’s happy, healthy and thriving, which is all I can ever ask for and given the circumstances is something I’m very happy about. She asks questions and talks about her mummy here and there, but seems to have grasped things really well and is quick to cuddle me if she sees I’m a bit sad.

The ‘wobbles’ I talked about in another blog still happen of course, and it’s often very small things that set them off, but maybe they’re necessary to get it out of my system.

This is going to be a long and difficult journey and things are still sinking in, but having gone a long way towards getting over the initial raw pain of what’s happened, I’d like to think Nicola would be proud of the progress we’re making.

 

10) No regrets

‘Do everything.’ That’s pretty much the message I’ve been dropping into conversations with a few couples close to me in recent weeks who are embarking on lives together or who hopefully have long ones ahead of them.

I wouldn’t normally be one to preach what others should do with their lives, it’s not my place to do so, but the last couple of years have shown me just how glad I am that Nicola and I did so much together.

Something that gives me a lot of comfort at the moment is that, quite simply, I don’t have any belief that my 11 years with Nicola were in any way unfulfilling. I don’t look back and wish we’d done more of anything, nor do I regret taking the decisions to do the things we did.

Of course, I feel robbed that I don’t have another 40-odd years of doing more of those things with her, but as I said in the eulogy I delivered at her funeral, the memories we created over our time together will go some way to easing that pain.

Perhaps more importantly, Nicola told me she felt the same. When she knew she was dying, she made it abundantly clear to me that she’d been happy, that she’d enjoyed her life, and that irrespective of the fact it was going to end prematurely, she’d do it all again. It’s something her family and I take great comfort from.

In terms of the portion of her life where I played a part, we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to do so much. By that, I might mean travelling far and wide – we covered every inch of cities like New York, Budapest, Krakow, Prague, Amsterdam, Dublin, San Francisco, Edinburgh, to name but a few, as well as soaking up the rays on some spectacular beaches in places like Hawaii, Cape Verde, and, erm, Clacton.

Or I might mean making sure we filled our lives with fun and laughter in other ways and in the company of not only people we loved as much as possible, but perhaps above all, each other.

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We made the most of every opportunity to make memories

If we weren’t getting away to another country we’d have weekends in London taking in West End shows and getting a little tipsy in the odd bar here and there, or we’d head out to the countryside and walk for miles in more tranquil surroundings – although a pub usually featured in that activity too.

Don’t get me wrong, we had our bad days like every couple, but those never diluted the overall fun we had together, something I’ve now become incredibly grateful for now that we can have no more.

We were together for eight years before having our daughter – something we again have no regrets over – so Grace’s arrival opened up a plethora of new opportunities to make new memories and we did just that, albeit it got harder once Nicola’s illness took hold. A few days spent at the coast together just two months before Nicola died will be a memory I’ll cherish perhaps above all others, even if it did rain for most of it…

Life’s fragility and unpredictability is something most people are aware of, particularly those who have lost someone close or been through serious illness, and it’s something I’ve been made acutely aware of in watching Nicola suffer as she did and then in losing her.

My task now that I don’t have Nicola to share new memories with is instead to create them with Grace. Travel will play a big part again – I was fortunate enough to do it a lot as a youngster and it’s something that’s benefited and educated me greatly, so ensuring Grace can experience the same will be so important. Likewise, surrounding her as much as possible with the people that make her happy will be so important.

But overall I want to give her a life that won’t differ too much from that she’d have had if her mum was still alive. It’s my role as a father to make sure she’s happy, and if I can do that then it’ll be another thing to look back at with pride.

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Nicola and I pictured in a foreign bar, which was quite a common occurrence. This one in Budapest.

I won’t rabbit on too much about this as I’m probably preaching to the converted in many cases, given it almost goes without saying that we all endeavour to enjoy our lives as much as possible. I guess I just have a different outlook on things now and don’t want to see people waste opportunities and lament doing so when it might be too late.

So, my message is this, and you can do with it what you will. We probably only get one crack at this thing they call life, so whatever you do, just enjoy it, because you don’t know just how short it might be.

Don’t put things off for too long, don’t pass over the opportunity to create a spectacular memory here and there whether it’s shared or personal. Don’t deny yourself the chance to be able to look back at your life at some point in the future and say, as my darling wife did in her final days: “I regret nothing!”

 

 

9) The emotional ‘wobbles’

There’s an element of ‘heat of the moment’ about this particular blog, given how I’m feeling as I write it, but maybe it’s the best time to do so.

The ‘wobbles’ is a term I’ve become more familiar with since being widowed – it’s used by the grieving fraternity to describe those moments where emotionally things get the better of you and you have an undefined period of time struggling on various levels to cope with what’s happening. All very natural, but not all that pleasant.

I’ve had a few of them, it goes without saying. Usually they don’t last that long and they tend to happen when I’m on my own. I just sort myself out, imagine Nicola telling me to pull myself together and get on with doing something else. Sometimes they last a bit longer and hit me like a steam train. You could apply the latter description to my last 24 hours.

I was actually writing a different blog post last night, which I’ll now put up another time. In the process of doing so I was seeking some photos to attach to it, and found myself watching a video I’d taken while Nicola and I were on a city break in Budapest four years ago.

It was a pretty innocuous sightseeing-type video – we were passengers on a hillside tram ascending above the city and I was filming the view, as you do.

But it was the last three seconds of the minute-long video that knocked me for six. I’d panned the camera round to where Nicola was sat and initially she wasn’t looking at it. Then she turned, saw me filming her, and sprouted into one her cheerful smiles and waved at the camera, saying ‘hi!’. Then the video stops, freeze-framed on this beautiful, bubbly, smiling lady in a pose I so often saw her in and looking straight at me.

It broke me.

I’ve viewed lots of videos and photos featuring Nicola in recent weeks and whilst they’re sad in the sense that we’re looking back at a time when she was alive and we long for her to be still with us, they’re also a comfort because they’re just a brief reminder of her personality, what she sounds like, and so on.

But for some reason this just felt different. I think the fact I wasn’t expecting it played a part – I can’t remember why I watched that particular video, nor why I watched it to the end given it wasn’t all that interesting, but those final few seconds were enough to unload a torrent of emotion that in the ten weeks since Nicola died I’ve not quite matched, albeit I’ve come close.

It just felt like she was suddenly there with me. There she was, on a laptop screen right in front of me, looking directly ‘at me’, waving and smiling. It was as if I’d just walked in a room and she was greeting me.

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The slightly slowed down part of the video (without sound) that I’m referring to.  As you can tell, it doesn’t take a lot at times like this!

People say it’s ‘the little things’ that can trigger these wobbles and it’s very true. Maybe more will follow at times when I’m least expecting it. This seemed different to any of the grief I’ve been dealing with up to now, though, and perhaps emphasised just how many forms and extremes it can take.

With Grace having gone to my in-laws’ for a couple of days, I’m at home on my own. That’s not a bad thing – I’m usually fine in my own company even in this state of grief – but I think the fact I had nobody here meant the whole thing hit me that bit harder as I wasn’t afraid to ‘let it all out’.

I’m not even ashamed to be telling all and sundry about it – I know for a fact that lots of people read this blog who either are or have been in similar situations so can probably relate to it.

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This sums things up quite well, I thought. No idea who said it but I couldn’t think of another pic to use…

It meant I had a pretty rough night, and the hope that I’d be OK by the morning was dashed pretty quickly after I woke up when the whole thing played through my head again. I was exhausted. I work from home, but my head simply wasn’t right to apply myself to that particular task. Thankfully, I’m blessed with work colleagues who have been very understanding throughout the last two years and taken on my workload when I’ve been unable to do it for any of the numerous reasons that have prevented me, and this was another example.

It’s the sheer power with which it’s hit me that has surprised me. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had ‘wobbles’ before and they’ve affected me to varying degrees, but this one has hit me the hardest yet. I know it’s natural and part of the grieving process, but flippin’ eck…

Anyway, grieving is all it is. I don’t feel like I’m spiralling into any kind of depression or anything like that, nor do I anticipate that happening, but I guess on a temporary basis that’s the kind of thing it is. It’s crap, no doubt about it, but as I’ve mentioned already, it’s all part of the process for anyone going through this kind of experience. I don’t want it to look like I’m attention-seeking in any way – it just helps me to write about it.

To some extent, it’s as if the initial release I felt from the considerable shackles of Nicola’s illness, which perhaps overshadowed the actual grief felt from losing her, is now wearing off and the raw emotion is coming through again. The numbness I felt in the initial aftermath is now ebbing away. It’s almost like a delayed reaction.

I’ll be OK, and will distract myself with things that will hopefully cheer me up let alone catch up on the sleep I’ve lost, and whilst I know that these kinds of things are bound to happen from time to time, I’ll probably get better at coping with them.

There remains, however, one final, inescapable feeling that might never change.

It’s that no matter how well I may deal with things on the whole, no matter what great support I have around me, no matter how amazing Grace is at instantaneously improving my mood and no matter how true it might be that time will eventually be a healer, the fact remains that the only person I truly want here to help me through these times, that I truly want here to coach me, hug me, reassure me, to ‘smile me better’, and that I truly want here who could possibly help me through a wobble so profoundly induced by missing Nicola……..is Nicola.

 

8) Telling Grace

I’ve talked a lot in previous blogs about the impact Grace losing her mum has had on her, and was even asked to discuss it on BBC radio a few days ago, which you can listen to here.

Thankfully, as things stand, she seems to have taken things very well and although she clearly misses her mum, there haven’t been any obvious psychological effects on her and she remains a very happy and care-free three-year-old.

Despite that being the case, she’s still had to be told what has happened and just why the mummy that was a constant in her life since the day she was born is suddenly no longer around.

With Nicola having been ill for some time, there was at least some context to everything when it came to explaining things. Grace knew that Nicola was poorly and that she was in hospital a lot and that the doctors and nurses were trying to make her better, as doctors and nurses do. She’d got used to seeing Nicola ill in bed, knew that the ‘medicine’ had made her hair fall out and was used to Nicola going out and about in a wheelchair when her mobility became so affected.

However, given that for the last ten months of Nicola’s life she was terminally ill and we knew that eventually she’d succumb to the illness – and most likely whilst Grace was still very young – we’d had to decide how I’d approach it when the end finally came.

Nicola was very keen for me to assess things at the time, as it was hard to predict in advance just how things would develop and to what extent Grace will have been aware that her mummy was suddenly gone.

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Grace wearing a pair of glasses that aren’t hers but really should be, to be honest
With Nicola having been in hospital for ten days, it was highly likely that no matter what we said to Grace, she’d still assume Nicola was there and indeed that proved to be the case for a few days after she died. After all, Nicola’s seizures and admittance to hospital for the final time all happened while Grace was fast asleep, and she was also at home asleep when Nicola died and I returned home, so there wasn’t a specific incident to which Grace could relate, which is perhaps thankful given something like witnessing the seizures could have traumatised her.

I decided I had to be quite frank with her. Using words like ‘died’ and telling her what cancer was played a part, mainly because I wanted to get across as much as I could that Nicola didn’t want to die, it wasn’t Nicola’s fault and above all it wasn’t Grace’s fault either. It was really important to ensure Grace didn’t feel like she’d done anything wrong or that she was in any way to blame for Nicola not being there.

To that end, telling her the news the morning after Nicola died was very difficult from my point of view. Inevitably, I was in tears trying to explain things and she saw I was upset and quickly wanted to ‘cuddle me better’. At the same time, she was trying to process what I was telling her.

Understandably, it perhaps didn’t register too much. I’d told her that the doctors and nurses couldn’t make Mummy better anymore and that she had died. There was, of course, the necessity to try and sugar coat things without telling her anything that might give her hope Nicola would one day come back, so explaining that Mummy was so special that she’d been chosen to go and be an angel in the sky was the first step towards that.

It’s an idea Grace likes the thought of and it’s now habitual for her to say goodnight to Nicola at her bedroom window every evening, insisting that whoever she’s with does the same! It’s heart-breaking, but at the same time a comfort – and not just to Grace. It’s this relative innocence that is usually a therapy to those around her at times like this.

It’s important not to overload her with facts. It’s also pointless given she can only take so much in – quite often I’ll be talking to her about it and she’ll swiftly go off and play rather than be bombarded with emotional chat.

Older children, depending on age, would pose different levels of understanding and may need more coaching through it all. At three, it’s often a case of dealing with the odd question or comment which can occur at random times and catch you off guard. Then she gets on with doing what she was doing.

Day to day, Grace mentions her mum here and there and we have plenty of photos and videos to cast our eyes over. As I’ve said in a previous blog, the videos in particular are difficult because the sounds of Nicola’s voice and laughter are immediately enough to have me pining for her, but for Grace it’s so important to keep those images and sounds fresh in her mind so I’m learning to go with it.

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Grace in a photo taken a few months before she lost her mum. She’s been a huge therapy to us all.

Time will tell just how much Grace will be affected by what’s happened. Nicola was always pretty sure that somewhere along the line, she’ll be affected one way or another by not having one of her parents around and whilst I am sure that’s true, it doesn’t mean we can’t minimise that impact effectively. After all, as hard as it is for us to accept, Grace will live a vast proportion of her life without Nicola so will adapt accordingly and far better than the rest of us might, particularly given how young she was when she lost her.

Having read various accounts by other people on how they’ve dealt with similar situations, it’s clear, as with the grief process as a whole, that there’s no right or wrong way to do things and no guidebook to follow. It’s all down to knowing your child and understanding how their mind works, as well as looking out for any adverse reactions and addressing any quickly should they occur.

I’m pleased that so far things have gone well on that front and whilst it’s true that the road ahead will be a tough one, Grace’s personality, the days out we have together and the memories we create to add to those she has of her mum, will all be crucial factors in ensuring she grows up relatively unscathed by the events that have cast a shadow over her early years.

7) “So how are YOU doing, Mark?”

It’s probably the question I’ve been asked most but find the hardest to answer. So why not blog about it, I hear you (probably not) ask.

I don’t mind at all being asked how I’m doing, I’m always grateful for people enquiring, but my response is initially the same most of the time: “I don’t know.”

That’s because I genuinely don’t. One minute I’m dealing with things quite well and the next I’m a blubbering wreck because something has pushed the ‘grief button’ and set all the emotions rolling.

I try and be reasonably composed when I have company. I don’t like the thought of disintegrating into an emotional mess around other people, just because others might rightly be unsure how to react and indeed it might upset them too. I know it’s an expected scenario and nobody would begrudge me being upset, but I try and keep the more serious ‘wobbles’ to when I’m alone.

Those tend to be numerous. I might go a day without one and then the next day I have several. Following on from the incredibly difficult job of sorting through Nicola’s belongings, in the last couple of days I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures and videos that have Nicola in them from throughout the last 11 years, sometimes doing it with Grace. Needless to say, it’s sent the mercury rising to the top on the ‘griefometer’.

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One of the many memories Nicola and I created that involved a bar in a foreign city somewhere – this one in San Francisco as part of our honeymoon

Pictures and videos are so important and I’m realising that now more than ever. Thankfully I’ve always been one to whip the camera out given half the chance and I have thousands that feature Nicola. Whilst they’re of course hard to look at right now, I’m so glad they exist because not only do they remind me of the good times, they’re also great for our little girl to see not just now, but perhaps most importantly as she grows up and tries to form an accurate image of her mummy that I don’t think she can fully achieve through just being told about her.

Videos are perhaps that bit more poignant because I can hear Nicola’s voice and her laugh and see her beaming personality shining through. For a few seconds, if I shut my eyes, I can almost imagine she’s in the room with me which can be a combination of a comfort and then a heartbreaker when the video stops and I’m brought back to the reality that she’s gone and that I can’t enjoy those moments with her again. Without fail that’s bringing the tears on at the moment but I hope it’ll improve.

When it comes to the grieving process as a whole, I’ve tried not to be too quick to go down the ‘woe is me’ and ‘it’s so unfair’ line because the fact remains that this is life, these things (and worse) happen to an awful lot of people and, above all, because I have SO much to be thankful for from the times I had with Nicola.

Yes, the fact I’ve been denied more great times with her hurts, a lot, but as I said in the eulogy I delivered at her funeral, the fabulous memories we created will go a little way to easing the pain of her not being alongside me as we grow old.

Having said all of that, there is an inevitability that one does sit and feel extremely hard done by because that’s a natural human instinct. We’re good people, with great families and friends and a beautiful young daughter, and yet life dealt us this horrid situation that we had virtually no control over and it’s ripped us apart in more ways than one, although I’m keen to emphasise that I mean that in a mental and emotional sense because it’s probably brought us all much closer together as individuals.

So, in the last couple of days I’ve perhaps gone down the ‘it’s not fair’ route a little more than usual because the memories generated from looking back at photos and videos have, in slightly simple terms, made me feel like a baby that has its favourite toy cruelly snatched away, and has probably generated a similar reaction!

Overall, the days seem to be passing by in a bit of a blur. I’ve started phasing back into work, but even though I work from home the whole process hasn’t been as ‘straightforward’ as I thought it might have been. I’m incredibly lucky to have a very supportive team around me, but motivation is difficult and I sometimes feel guilty that, just six weeks on, I’m sitting there doing something so ‘normal’ in the sense that it’s something I did routinely before Nicola died.

After all, how can anyone be expected to slip back into any kind of normality or routine so soon after the love of your life has passed away?

That’s a natural reaction, I think, and people have told me not to feel guilty about feeling guilty, but it’s prominent at the moment. It can’t be something I dwell on too much, and certainly can’t hold me back from at least trying to get back into what will be a very new sense of normality. The alternative is that the whole thing causes me to stagnate and Nicola would be the first in line to launch me if I let that happen, not least for Grace’s sake.

Speaking of Grace, she’s been so important to all of Nicola’s close family since Nicola died. Being the bright, intelligent and entertaining three-year-old that she is, she’s been a great distraction and lifts us all psychologically, the importance of which is easy to underestimate. Quite literally a ‘saving grace’, if you will.

My toughest times are when I’m at home on my own or when Grace is in bed, such is the positive distraction she proves to be when I’m in her company. I take her out for dinner, on excursions (we’ve been to the zoo today), to the shops – you name it, we tend to do it. That’s how I always want it to be, and whilst it will never be the same doing those things without Nicola, if I keep letting that factor be a barrier we’d end up doing nothing. Again, Nicola would not be happy!

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Grace chats to a giant tortoise on our day out to the zoo

To coin an oft-used cliché, ‘time is a healer’, and I know that things on all levels will get better. I’ll always love and miss Nicola terribly, that will never change, and I’ll always feel incredibly hard done by that she’s gone, but I owe it to myself, Grace, Nicola’s family and perhaps most importantly to Nicola herself to not let this whole situation consume me to the point where it’s any more detrimental to our lives than it naturally will be.

I’m always comforted by Nicola’s strong belief that she ‘won at life’, that she was happy with her lot and that despite the way and manner in which it’s all ended so prematurely, she’d live her whole life over and over again if she could. Whilst I’m fortunate enough to be able to feel the same way about my own life, and that’s despite the pain I’m now going through in this particular part of it, I’m now keen to make sure I can progress in a way that before too long, when I’m asked the question at the top of this post, I can forever say: “I’m really good, thank you.”

 

6) On to the job in hand

Having written five blogs pretty much setting the scene and banging on a lot about my lovely wife, it’s probably time to finally address the reason why I’m writing all this stuff in the first place.

At the age of 38, I’ve been tasked with bringing up my three-year-old daughter on my own. Well, I say ‘on my own’, I do have a great support network in place to help me, but you know what I mean.

The situation I’m faced with isn’t all that rare. Plenty of people are tasked with bringing up children alone due to marriage break-ups and such like, as well as those like myself who have been widowed.

Nevertheless, statistically there aren’t many widowed guys in their 30s put in this situation and although I’m aware of one or two through the various support groups I’ve encountered so far, it seems even more rare that those affected have children as young as Grace.

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My little girl

As I’ve said before, the fact Nicola was terminally ill for nearly a year meant we knew this situation was coming at some point, so we were able to plan various aspects of it and she was in a position to discuss certain things with me in advance.

But on the whole, her belief was that while she was obviously devastated that she wasn’t going to be able to see the little girl she doted on grow up, she had every faith I’d do a grand job.

No pressure, then

I did my best while Nicola was alive to prove to her that I’d be just fine. From the day Grace was born I was a very hands-on dad so I’ve always taken on plenty of responsibility, particularly as I had to while Nicola was ill anyway, but clearly this was going to be a very different kind of scenario.

I’d therefore get frustrated sometimes when I didn’t handle something all that well or wasn’t able to do a fundamental parental job sufficiently, fearing that Nicola would somehow lose confidence in me moving forward. Realistically, I had no real need to feel that way, but it’s just how things were in my mind.

Grace and I are incredibly close. She’s always been a ‘Daddy’s girl’ and whilst she was of course equally as close to her mum, the fact that since Nicola died Grace has seamlessly adapted to it being just ‘me and her’ has helped a great deal.

I’ll talk about how Grace has coped with losing Nicola in a separate blog, but for now I’ll just say that initially, she’s handled it better than I thought she might.

That in turn has helped me and others who have been so saddened by what’s happened. Grace has been a constant therapy due to her happy and fun-loving nature and without her I’m nigh on certain we’d all be in a very different place psychologically to where we find ourselves now.

We’ve always had to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible for Grace. She’d got very used to her mum being ill as she was just 11-months-old when Nicola was first diagnosed, but thanks to the support I’ve had we’ve managed to minimise disruption to her overall development.

That was of paramount importance too when Nicola died. Within a couple of weeks, Grace started nursery and preparing for that proved a welcome distraction from everything else going on. We’d had to essentially quarantine Grace from hugely social situations like playgroups and so on due to the risk of infection; she always picked up colds etc but passing those on to Nicola could cause lots of problems and on one occasion did so. Thankfully Nicola emerged, just, to fight on.

So, I wasn’t sure how she’d get on at nursery but, thankfully, she loves it and has already wowed her teacher with how bright she is. I know I’m biased, but for a child who has just turned three she’s very clever and I think her supervisors were quite taken aback on her first day when, for example, she was the only one who could spell her name, write it down and pick it out on a list of others!

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Grace and I after one of her (thankfully rare) 5am excursions into my bed a couple of months ago.

The fact that’s the case is also a big help. Developmentally, the sort of situation Grace has found herself in from a very young age could have had a negative effect, but Nicola – who taught four and five-year-old children for a living – was always keen to ensure she was learning at every opportunity so thankfully it’s been quite a seamless transition into the school environment.

I can also hold quite advanced conversations with Grace too which has helped when it’s come to explaining just what’s happened to her mum. Again, I’ll go over all of that in a separate blog, but the fact she can converse like she can and already ask quite pertinent questions means that the daunting job of trying to help her understand has been made just a little easier.

So all of those factors have been a big help. Don’t get me wrong, at three-years-old there remains an awful lot Grace won’t understand, nor should she be expected to, and we’re having to approach some aspects accordingly, but I’m of the opinion that she’s actually a good age to be experiencing this because she’s old enough to have some memories of Nicola and understand the basics, yet perhaps not old enough to be too adversely affected by what’s happened. Time will tell, I guess.

Far from being daunted by the journey ahead, I’m actually relishing it. I’ll do as much as I can with Grace on a daddy-daughter level and generate as many great experiences as I can for her throughout her childhood. It will be hard work, there’s no question about that, but proper parenting is hard work for anyone no matter what the circumstances so I just need to make things work for us.

I’m utterly devastated that Nicola isn’t on this journey with me, but I owe it to her to ensure that Grace will flourish.

 

5) Dealing with the aftermath

The last blog talked about the funeral but this one kind of prequels that a bit because I’ll talk about how things felt immediately after Nicola died and in the run-up to her final farewell.

I promise I’ll get round to the whole ‘widowed daddy’ thing eventually like I’ve said I will…

Nicola passed away late on a Thursday evening and even though I didn’t sleep particularly well that night, despite being utterly drained from the previous few days, I knew I’d have to be pretty on the ball in the immediate aftermath.

For a start, I needed to make a lot of phone calls to inform various people, then there was the not insignificant challenge of how to tell Grace.

The phone calls came and went before I spoke to Grace, mainly because she woke up in a bit of a strop and wanted to be downstairs with my mum rather than talking to me! Suffice to say I let her cheer up for a couple of hours before broaching the subject.

Future blogs will go fully into how I’ve talked to Grace about all this and how she’s taken it, but initially it was just a case of being as honest as I could be with her and giving her the basic details. She listened, saw I was upset, cuddled me lots and even gave me one of her dolls’ dresses to help wipe away the tears, which as you can imagine broke my heart into even more pieces.

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Grace was immediately a great support to me from the second I first told her about her mum passing away.

Those initial jobs done, the rest of the day actually felt quite surreal – in fact it has done ever since. For two years, I’d had the shackles of Nicola’s illness both in a mental and physical sense at the forefront of my life, yet suddenly I was faced with the fact that no matter how much I was always happy to, there was nothing I could do anymore to help her and that she didn’t need me to be fetching her medication every hour or so, and also that I wasn’t worried sick about how her illness would eventually take her away.

I’d hesitate to use the word ‘relief’, but there was certainly a sense of there being a degree of release from the very difficult bubble we’d all been in while she was ill, as well as a lot of comfort that the end came with her in no pain and with her immediate family sat with her.

It’s easy to be selfish and wish that she’d been around for a lot longer, but I had to remember that in Nicola’s case that would also have equated to a lot more suffering and although that was something she herself admitted she’d have been prepared to endure in order to witness things like Grace starting nursery or another Christmas as a family, the reality was that the nature of her illness meant it was causing more and more irreparable damage not just to Nicola but to all of us the longer it went on.

As anyone who’s lost a family member knows, there’s a lot of formalities that need to be carried out, sometimes quite quickly, and over the following week or two I spent an awful lot of time on the phone and online sorting various affairs out. That didn’t bother me because it kept me busy, and whilst I had many moments of grief and mourning as you’d expect, I was determined not to let that consume me to the point where I just ended up being a gibbering wreck the whole time, especially with Grace around.

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This is (possibly) me dealing with all the paperwork following Nicola’s death. 

Having family and friends around me was crucial as they gave me a psychological lift, but I also needed time alone to grieve rather than bottling it all up; I’m not keen on being overly-emotional in front of people if I can help it so preferred to do that alone.

One of the hardest parts of the first few days was the process of going through Nicola’s belongings. Our bedroom, for starters, contained lots of her clothes and personal effects but I felt like I needed to begin the sifting fairly quickly because every time I woke up in the morning I was looking right at her things and it was having a very saddening effect.

It’s been one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had to do. Clothes, for example, are just pieces of fabric, but they were pieces of fabric that Nicola chose and wore so well and many dresses and tops were synonymous with her given she wore some more than others. Those were the hardest to work out what to do with.

It simply didn’t feel right having to discard even the simplest things. A lot has been kept, such as things that are still of use to us and things that hold good memories, but there are some things that if kept would just sit ‘collecting dust’ and that didn’t hold enough sentimental value to keep. That said, it’s still hard to just toss them away – after all, they’re Nicola’s things and it’s hard to accept she can no longer use them.

The thing that’s stood out most over the five weeks it’s now been since Nicola died is simply the huge chasm she’s left behind. Such was her personality, vivacity, humour and charm, someone I spent so much of the last 11 years with suddenly not being there is almost impossible to get my head around.

I keep wanting to ask her things, check things with her, or simply hold her tight and reassure her, but I can’t do that anymore and it doesn’t feel right. A huge part of me is missing that will never be replaced.

That kind of reality is harder to take on some days than others, but nothing can change it and it’s a case of constantly trying to make the best out of it. One thing about knowing Nicola so well is that I could pretty accurately predict what she would have said or advised in certain situations (not that she’d admit it…) so she’s actually been helping me make a few decisions even though she’s no longer here.

That might refer to when I bought some clothes for Grace last week or a bigger decision such as something money-related – in no way do I yet feel that I’m making certain choices alone. Thankfully, Nicola was usually right about stuff, so it’s probably best that I bear her supposed thoughts in mind for a while yet!

The issues I’ve covered here are really just the tip of the iceberg. Overall, the last five weeks have been a massive roller coaster of emotion on so many levels. We knew Nicola was going to die from her illness, but nothing could have prepared any of us for the true sense of loss we’d feel simply due to not being able to see her, talk to her, laugh with her or hug her.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take for that to ease enough for it not to feel like my heart’s being ripped out, and I know it’s all part of the natural grieving process, but whilst it’s true that Nicola herself would be sitting here now telling me to get my backside in gear and start getting on with my life, I can’t help but feel it’s going to take a while.