Life became about waiting for the funeral. It was a bizarre fixation, an almost unconscious expectation that once the funeral is done, we can start to rebuild. At the same time my brain was still trying to slam the brakes on everything, there was a very primal feeling of complete denial, and I guess bargaining (another notorious ‘stage’ of grief). What had happened felt so alien that I kept feeling like there must be a way to fix it. I was trying to fill up my diary building my new support network – considering I was off work I was very busy, I was either trying to complete all of the ‘death’ admin, researching charities about bereavement for Jamie and me, or meeting up with people who had opened their doors to me since Morag had been diagnosed.
Jay and my Mum continued to be big lifelines for me, they both called everyday, at random times and this helped immensely. I only really recognised how important these daily contacts were until they were gone. Jay dropped everything and came up to stay with me for a few nights. We talked a little bit about my feelings, but he mostly sought to distract me, smoking weed and playing video games. On the Wednesday 10 days after Morag had died he asked what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of the house – I suggested going to see Avengers: Endgame at the cinema. He said he had already seen it but said he would love to watch it again. As we got to the cinema I had my first little twinge as I realised Morag would never get to see this film. For those that don’t know, Avengers Endgame was a significant film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reflecting the culimantion of 10+ years of movies. Around the same time the finale of Game of Thrones was showing – another one of Morag and my favourites. These little realisations hurt more than the bigger losses sometimes.
I went in looking forward to being distracted for a bit. And the movie started. I honestly don’t think I could have picked a worse film. The clue was in the title, Endgame. And (spoiler warning) alot of people die, and alot of the film is about death and bereavement and adjusting to loss. The film starts setting the scene that half the world population has gone (no symbolism there right?). An early part of the film talks about getting the Power stone from planet ‘Morag’. I mean what the fucking hell? I looked over at Jay with a look of ‘Is the Universe just playing with me now?’ To be honest, it was so horrendously inappropriate it almost went full circle and became funny again. Besides, I was still riding the numb train. When I came to re-watch the film at home when my grief was in full flow a few months later, I was crying for days. Right now, it just added to the surreal situation. The film ends with someone dying, and their partner hiding their emotions to help make that person’s passing less painful. It was eerily familiar to my own experience.
People bereaved often talk about triggers for their waves of grief, a smell, a piece of music, a place. Just imagine how many triggers there are for the person you’ve spent every day with for 12 years being gone. Its not just stimulus that send your mind to that person, its your own thoughts. You are so ‘wired’ into that person it leaves you feeling very raw and like you are missing a limb. Little thoughts that get filed in the ‘to tell Morag’, now bounce back with the unwelcome realisation – ‘well no, you can’t tell her about that, she’s dead’. No easy way around this unfortunately, you just need to process it and keep making that ‘mistake’ until your brain learns not to do it anymore.
Jamie seemed to be doing ok. I was finding it very difficult to know what he needed. The broad guidance I had was to be honest with him, but in language that he could understand. I was quickly learning that no guidance is sufficient. If your child asks you an awkward question, if you panic and change the subject they will start to fill in the gaps in their understanding themselves. And at the same time you cannot get a script to help, every kid is different. And you may give an answer that feels great and right, and you get a little lift thinking ‘I’ve got this’, and then he would come out with a follow-up question to put you on your knees. I know Jamie kept asking me ‘Where is Mummy?’. I was so self-deprecating about how the first time I answered this I had said ‘with angels’. I had read a few bereavement books with Jamie that talked about the concept of death but Jamie seemed fixated on this question of where she was. Now alot of the reading I had done and experts I spoke to at Winstons Wish said that he doesn’t understand death, but my Daddy spider-sense was telling me that he did have a grasp of the concept, but where is she? I remember when I called the Winston’s Wish helpline, they told me to try and bring Jamie’s attention to bugs and other natural life around us in the Summer, and use them to talk about life and death. When you have a fly buzzing around your house ask him, ‘What’s that fly doing? Its moving, its eating, its making noises, its alive’ and then when you inevitably find a dead one you ask the same questions “What this fly doing? Why do you think its not moving? Do you think its in pain?”… But the first time I tried this with Jamie, “What’s this fly doing?” he looked at me like I was an idiot and said ‘Its dead’. Too smart for his own good. For the moment when he asked where Mummy was I just kept saying she has gone and he cannot see her anymore. The idea of trying to explain a morgue, or cremation or being buried terrified me. I think in retrospect, I would be happy to take Jamie to see her, to give her a last hug in the morgue. And I would have taken him to the funeral. The problem was I felt so fragile that whilst I was keen for Jamie to be able to see my emotions, to see me so distraught I thought would scare him.
It didnt help that Morag’s parents said that we should only ‘answer questions’ when Jamie asks them. They had this advice from an old friend of theirs who used to be a children’s bereavement officer. The problem was that the guidance I had is that if you don’t engage with your kids about your own grief or make them aware they can ask you questions then they can start to internalise things. On a child level, ‘Daddy doesn’t seem sad or upset or to be missing mummy, maybe I shouldn’t be missing or asking about her…’. You are effectively teaching your kids how to grieve. Problem is, we don’t know how to grieve either! I was tying myself in knots for ages about Jamie, but then one day I realised, there is no road map for this, and as scary as the responsibility is, noone knows my son better than me. I will do my best and simply knowing how much I agonise over it is half the reason I will do an ok job. What really helped me was when Jay’s wife, Kate, said that you cannot create these horrible emotions in Jamie. You can trigger them, but they were always there. And you kind of need to trigger them to help him learn how to explore and manage them. That primal parenting instinct of ‘not wanting to hurt your child’ needs to be thought through. I think of it like a swimming lesson, you have to get the kid in the pool to teach him how to swim.
I’m very lucky to have an amazing son that keeps me moving forwards, but I have to remind myself Jamie is lucky to have me as a father. He is going to get more love and support from me than some people get from two parents.