Guest post: 'Where was the support when my son lost his mother?'
When MN Blogger Ben Brooks-Dutton lost his wife suddenly, he was dismayed at the lack of support he and his son received from health care professionals. In this guest post, he describes his experiences, and argues that more must be done to help bereaved families.
Do read the post and share your experiences.
Life as a Widower
Fri 09-May-14 10:41:16
I expected to be many things by the time I hit my thirties: a husband, a father, successful in my career, settled and happy. And my luck was in because by thirty-three I was all of those things.
Just after 8pm on 10 November 2012 I left my friends’ house a happily married man and dad to a wonderful little boy called Jackson. My wife, Desreen, and I had decided to try for another child – we’d even chosen the name, which would be the same regardless of the baby’s sex. I’d recently been promoted to managing director at a brilliant PR firm in central London, as well. Life was perfect.
But by 9.17pm that same night I was sitting in an ambulance, a widower in shock. I only remember the time because I noticed the hands on the clock were in the same position as when our son was born two years and three weeks earlier. An out-of-control car had mounted the pavement where we were walking - it narrowly missed my son and me, but struck and killed Desreen.
A lot of people seem to know our story already because it was tragic enough to make national news and touching enough to keep people talking long after. And I wanted people to talk, too. It took me no time at all to realise that too many parents in my position are expected to just carry on, hide their feelings from the children and somehow bury their grief inside. ‘Be strong’ was the only advice I ever seemed to hear in the days and weeks that followed my wife’s death. Was it even advice? It seemed to me to be nothing short of an instruction at the time. But it was the only guidance I was given.
Some people may be astonished to learn that parents get more support when a child is born than children receive when a parent dies. Although a midwife came to our house to visit my wife soon after Jackson was born, I was offered no medical or psychological support when she died. No one came to check that I was, in any way whatsoever, able to care for him alone.
‘It took me no time at all to realise that too many parents in my position are expected to just carry on, hide their feelings from the children and somehow bury their grief inside. 'Be strong' was the only advice I ever seemed to hear in the days and weeks that followed... Was it even advice? It seemed to me to be nothing short of an instruction at the time.’
People congratulated me for the steel I showed in looking after Jackson, organising the funeral and delivering my wife’s eulogy, but inside I was falling apart. I was exhausted but my grief prevented sleep; I was hungry but a gag reflex stopped me being able to eat.
‘Have you tried Gaviscon?’ my GP asked the first time I visited him. ‘Are you the guy whose wife died?’ he probed in front of my child and mother-in-law on the second visit. And that was just days after he insisted that his door would always be open to me.
I had all the support a newly widowed father could hope for from my family and friends, but no one I knew had any experience of what I was going through. No one could offer me the advice I needed or the empathy I craved. I was astounded that a bereaved, broken and barely functioning father would have to take everything into his own hands.
I decided that if I couldn't find the help I so desperately needed, it would have to find me. So two months after my wife was killed, I started a blog. I couldn't help but think that some other poor bastard would wake up one day, just like I had, and realise that their wife had gone forever, too – that it wasn't just something that had happened in a nightmare. I couldn't bear the thought that when they expected to be offered help or searched for someone who could relate to the hell that they were going through, they, like me, would be left disappointed and even more desperate.
Thankfully, it didn't take me long to realise that I wasn't alone. Within a month of publishing my first post, the blog, Life as a Widower, had received a quarter-of-a-million hits and amassed a global audience united in grief. Support and advice came flooding in. It was out there - charities and support groups that know how to support bereaved parents and children – it was just hard to find for the people who need it most.
In contrast, however, it appears that few GPs have any real idea of what advice to offer or in which direction to point or refer people who so desperately needed help. I really believe that this needs to change. I think it’s time for us to ask the question: ‘why are parents offered post-natal but not ‘post-fatal’ care?’
In some ways I'm one of the lucky ones. In opening up about my loss, I have been able to express my belief that it’s acceptable for a British man to be vulnerable rather than stoic when his world has fallen apart. And in banishing the idea that the out-dated stiff upper lip is some sort of badge of honour for the bereaved, I know that I have been able to help my son and myself through our grief. I've found catharsis in the words I've written and support through the awareness they have raised.
Yet I can’t help but think that these words are not enough. How can they be while bereaved children are still so widely prescribed a marginalising dose of ‘resilience’ for their pain, and while grief-stricken parents are offered nothing other than a largely uninformed promise that ‘strength’ will see them through?
Ben’s book – It's Not Raining, Daddy, It's Happy – is available to buy in hardback and e-book now (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99).
By Ben Brooks-Dutton
Heartbreaking to read. I don't think much has changed since I was a bereaved child 30+ years ago. Luckily for me my dad did a fab job raising me. And it sounds the same for Jackson but it shouldn't be down to luck; there should be support from society in place.
Thought I should mention www.thelauracentre.org.uk/ who are there when a child dies or is bereaved. Haven't used them myself but am doing a sponsored thing for them soon as they sound amazing.
Good luck Ben.
Thank you for sharing, Ben, that was a really thought provoking read.
Your son has a wonderful father and I'm sure your wife would be exceptionally proud of you.
I can't imagine what this must be like, but I just wanted to say I do remember your story from when it happened, Ben, and hope you and Jackson are doing well.
Check out Richmonds Hope in Edinburgh. If you live in Edinburgh or Midlothian you can receive free support. If you live in East Lothian they have to charge you because East Lothian council won't help with funding.
The charity are fantastic.
Its not just psychological. Much research has shown that you are actually physically more vulnerable after a bereavement so the thought of not monitoring and supporting people (especially children) during this time is just dreadful.
I hope you manage to change things Ben x
I think that this is yet another manifestation of a problem our society has. To put it bluntly we are crap at dealing with death.
We all will die someday. It's inevitable and unpredictable and sometimes ,as here, it will be sudden and terrible in the scale of the tragedy.
And yet despite the inescapability of death- we don't push to die expected deaths at home, surrounded by our own things in a place we know the smell of. We accept dying in hospital - sometimes even seek it out. When friends and family are bereaved we struggle to know what to say. When parents lose children there is no paid leave to support them and no, there is no network to constructively engage and support bereaved children.
We run from death and if, at any point, we lose out and death catches up then we push it away if we possibly can. It is only life changing tragedies and loss that opens our eyes and the people who suffer that loss - like Ben Brooks-Dutton - are left surely bewildered and hurt by the isolation thereby inflicted upon them.
How many people reading this have thought about what would be, for them, a good death? How many people reading this have used the name of a dead child in written or spoken communication with the child's parent? How many people reading this have honestly thought that care for the bereaved, after the death of a loved one, should be governmental priority or indeed noticed the absence of it?
Analogies with antenatal care are so apt. When a child is born nobody knows what that child will encounter, what it will be like. You just have to meet the challenges as it comes. So it is with death. The life beyond a death, for those remaining, is impossible to see. Nobody runs away from new parents saying they don't know what to say or would only upset people. Instead they admire the baby, say all the wrong things about it's nose and are welcomed anyway because they care and it's a family thing. So why can't we do that with the bereaved?
Ben - I am more sorry than I can say that you and Jackson and your family lost Desreen so suddenly and in such a terribly traumatic way. I am sorry too that your experience of care within the structures of our society was so lacking. Your frankness about this can only help. As we engage with politicians and service providers it should be with these kinds of thoughts at the back of our minds and care for the bereaved should be as much a priority for the NHS, councils, employers and government as care for the joyfully expectant and young children is.
Very sad to read that nothing has changed in the 32 years since my dad was looking for help as a newly bereaved widower with a young child.
It IS shocking.
It is across the board though.
There is no help for children when they lose siblings
No help for adults when they lose their partners
No help for parents when they lose their children.
We rely on charities and help is so patchy.
I have been waiting a year for a certain therapy, 8 years after losing my DD.
No contact, just waiting and waiting.
Its time that bereavement services for children like your dear little boy are properly funded and organised.
All bereaved people should have access to appropriate support.
Thanks for posting your story, I am so sorry for your loss. As a GP I hope I can support my patients better as a result of learning about what you have been through.
My little boy was a month short of four, and my daughter just ten weeks old when my first husband died. He wasn't in the best of health, but I never expected him to die.
The complete barrenness of our lives afterwards was unimaginable. Trying to help this confused, frightened and incredibly angry little boy whilst being in the midst of my own grief was one of the hardest things to do. My little boy had lost his beloved daddy, the man that tucked him into bed every single night, who played cars and nee-naws with him, who utterly idolised him, and in return was idolised back. He was gone. Just gone. The man that I loved, the father of my babies, the person I could just sit and do nothing with, was gone.
We got no help. Nobody would help us. My sons nursery school would ring and tell me how upset and angry and seething with rage he was. They advised me to take him to the GP to access some help or therapy for him. I did, and was told that actually, i needed to man up and parent my child better so he would cope with his grief better.
I was barely coping with mine, as a 30 year old widow who was trying to make sense of her husbands senseless death... yet my frightened and confused four year old was supposed to cope with it?
I scoured the internet looking for help for him. I rang charities and advice lines. I was told if i could drive him on a ten hour round trip he could go to a weekly group for young bereaved kids.
I finally found what i thought was help. I found out that the charity Barnardos were running a grief support group for children. I rang up and cried to the lady on the phone. She said she'd send me details of the group. Instead i received a letter from them saying that we didn't live in a deprived enough area and therefore we would not be allowed to attend the group.
Similar happened when i thought I'd found a charity that offered specialist play therapy for bereaved children. Turned out it was only for children who had been bereaved through cancer. How inconsiderate of DH to have had a heart attack.
In the end i found a private play therapy counsellor. Went without many things so i could afford the £40 weekly sessions for him. He went there for several months, and it was worth every penny, every thing i went without.
He's a mostly happy well adjusted nine year old now. He's amazing. I am in awe of the way he handles things.
This is terrible. Grief is so paralyzing and so all consuming. It is incredibly difficult to keep functioning but parents have little choice. There should be help available to take a little of the pressure off, to at least make the practical side of things a little easier.
It's terrible that there isn't more around support wise through general health care and specialist areas, especially as we now seem to hear a lot more about young parents dying unexpectedly. It sounds like nothing's changed since my dad died when I was 3.5y and my brother was 2 weeks old. My mum was lucky in that she met a friend through church who had used Cruse (Cruze?) when she was widowed, and found some help through them. But official help was non existent. It was only years later that my mum realised that as well as grieving she was also likely suffering pnd.
She even left my brother at the doctor's surgery reception saying she couldn't cope (he cried all the time, possibly picking up on her grief). Luckily she went back 2 hours later, and they handed him back over - I guess nowadays they wouldn't.
I would have hoped that 33 years later, there would have been more support around. It's great that you've found the support and advice through your blog, and hopefully helped others.
Ben, thank you for your post & what a beautiful photo of your wife & son. I'm sorry this happened to your family & thank you for starting your blog. also thanks to all the other posters for sharing your stories and sorry for your loss.
I too hope to learn from these posts & agree mrs maturin that we run from death. I'm guilty of it. My neighbour lost his young niece in a freak car accident where the driver had a heart attack & veered off the road. She died covering & protecting her younger sister as they were both walking a very short walk home down a quiet road. I didn't know how to sympathise & have felt guilty about it since. I don't know how we learn to talk about it better & offer the right support as family & friends of the bereaved but like pps have said I'm now of the opinion that it's better to say something, even if it's the wrong thing, than say nothing at all. It's better to talk, as talking usually generates conversation which in itself is therapeutic & educational.
Hope that we all learn to deal with death better & for those of you that are more comfortable discussing it, please try to help those of us that are less good at it.
Ben, you and your son suffered a terrible loss and my heart goes out to you and all bereave like you.
There IS very little support in situations similar to yours and what there is is not that easy to find. What makes it more complex is that different people find different things helpful and not everybody is even able to engage with whatever help is available at the time.
I don't know what the answer is.
I do know that talking about the reality of death is something that we as a society have to work on though.
Wishing you much love and light for Jackson's and your future - he is a fortunate boy to have a father like you.
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