A letter to Kelsey Parker
I was incredibly moved and saddened to hear of devastating news that Tom Parker had passed away, another young soul that had to leave us too soon and it made me think about my time since becoming a young widow. I met both Kelsey and Tom a long while ago when I worked for a shopping centre in Bromley and they both had businesses that they were promoting in our space. But that's as much as I know them outside of the public eye and this blog isn't a loose attempt at a claim to fame, it's a heartfelt reflective letter to someone (anyone) entering the world of young widowhood. It's a letter that contains the things I would have told myself in those torturous days immediately post bereavement.
I remember well and have written about how at the beginning I only really found comfort in the conversations I'd had with a new friend who'd also recently been widowed and although this is addressed to Kelsey, it is for anyone that finds themselves in this position. I hope it offers a beacon of light, hope and comfort in a similar way to how those conversations helped me at the start of my widowed life. So here it goes...
Before I get into talking about why I'm randomly writing you a letter, I wanted to let you know that I am so sorry for the loss that you and your beautiful babies have suffered.
I met both yourself and Tom some time ago when I worked in the marketing team for a local shopping centre and you were using our space to promote each of your businesses. But, that's not why I'm writing to you, now we have something much more significant in common.
About 20 months ago I too became a young widow and solo parent to my beautiful daughter Molly after losing my wife Lauren to breast cancer at the age of 31 and I wanted to write and share with you some things that I have learnt along the way, things that I hope, in a time when you'll no doubt feel like your world has ended, will offer you some light, some hope and a very small amount of comfort.
But before I get into it, please know that we are all very different, our experiences of life and loss are different, so, all of us respond different to such significant levels of grief and emotion, this is me giving you my take, but please only take from it the things that feel relevant.
Firstly I want you to know that you'll be ok...
From what I've seen the world is rallying around you and you will have as much support as you need, so lean on that support as much as you can and don't feel an ounce of guilt for doing so. But it's not just support that means you'll be ok, but also because although it doesn't feel like it at times, we are all strong and it is only when that strength is tested that we realise just how strong we are. I'll share a bit more at the end about where I'm at now and how I know and can say that 'you'll be ok'.
At first just after Lauren died I wanted the world to stop, in fact I wanted it to rewind but the world keeps moving and actually what I came to realise was that despite this being something I found difficult, it was actually the thing that kept me going too, especially with children because they have their routines and structures that mean you have to go on. I found a purpose by focusing on Molly and understanding how I could best support her through her grief, there are some amazing charities that can work with you in this space (Winstons Wish, Child Bereavment UK and Grief Encounter).
Widow brain is a real thing, we get confused, forgetful and I found that I lost all ability to think about the future immediately, so much so that I couldn't even think about dinner for each day, so I chose not to, I broke my days down into hours and just did what I needed to do in the next hour to survive. No doubt there'll be a lot of practical things that you have to focus on too in terms of arrangements, all of which are difficult because each one is a harsh reminder of what you've lost. I gave myself a goal of at least one piece of loss admin per day and the truth is there are still things 20 months on that I need to sort, but, by breaking it down in to smaller chunks and setting myself that target it seemed a little more manageable. I found that if I ever needed some respite from the emotion, overwhelm and worrying about what ifs? Then I'd focus on the things I could control, I'd say can to myself 'Can I control it?' If not, I'd write or think of a list of things I can control and focus on them.
The next thing I wanted to share with you is that you are not alone. Now I don't mean that in the physical sense and I've no doubt that you've a tonne of family and friends around you helping, supporting and wanting to see you through this initial stage of bereavement. But if you're feelings are anything like mine were, then all of the practical support in the world didn't stop me from feeling alone and isolated, and although I was grateful for the support offered by those around me, they didn't 'get it'. How could they? They'd never woken up one day and lost the person that was stitched in to the fabric of their existence, the person that you'd built your life with and around. But, it was at this time I'd struck up a friendship with a chap named Ben who'd lost his partner four months earlier. Although this didn't reduce the severity of emotion I was feeling, I really felt a sense of hope from our conversations. There was me struggling to get through each hour but I had Ben 4 months ahead of me and still going with his little boy, it helped me to see that I could be ok. It was this friendship that inspired me to join the charity Widowed and Young, it's a community of people that have lost their partner under the age of 51 and there's a small sub group called WAVY (widowed and very young) who've lost their partner under the age of 35. Now, WAY can be pretty intense at first and it's not for everybody. Because it's a safe place for people to share their emotions with others who in someway might be able to understand, there's some pretty tough reads at times, however, what I witnessed was that for everyone struggling there was a large number of people willing and able to support and offer hope. I don't so much lean on WAY now but advocate them massively especially for those in the early stages of young widowhood and know that they are there should I need to lean on them more in the future.
This is starting to sound like a top tips letter but truthfully these are the things that I experienced and what I found helped me to get through.
So next up is to make sure you express yourself, don't lock up any of the emotion you feel in a mental jail. Find your own ways to let things out, I did this through starting my blog and having nearly 6 months of counselling and then recently had to re-learn it because although it had been what had gotten me through, I stopped expressing myself, stopped talking, blogging and sharing and this led to a severe breakdown in my mental health.
Now this was a big thing for me, but, understanding that it is ok to be vulnerable, that in fact being comfortable with your vulnerability is probably the strongest show of strength, and knowing that there is more power in vulnerability than there is in just putting on a brave face. For me, being a stereotypical man, and someone that has always felt like they had to be positive, 'strong' and ok in every situation, not only was this level of vulnerability difficult to get to but when I truly allowed myself to be open it was also incredibly liberating.
Something that I found most difficult and am still working on is to be kind to yourself. It's really easy to will yourself to heal, to be better, to get on with everything and to do more to 'get over it'. But the truth is that you'll never 'get over it'. People mean well when they tell you 'time is a healer', but the truth is that time gives you space to adjust and grow. It's when we start to grow our lives that we get tripped up less often by our grief and its very important to know that there is no timeline, benchmarks or deadlines on when this should be, you will feel ready to add building blocks to your life when the time is right for you and not when other people have or when others suggest you should. I found that Tonkins Model of Grief was the best way to describe how it actually works and I sit here now having built my life around my grief in many ways, I still trip over from time to time but if you have support plans in place around key dates and try not to be hard on yourself when you do trip up, then you'll start to realise that you can get through it all.
I could write to you for hours about everything I've learnt about life, grief, parenthood and myself in the last 20 months and I'm still learning now but I'll save the rest for another time.
I've reached a stage now where I'm finding purpose and re-discovering me, it's not always easy, it comes with it's challenges and I might write to you again when I've learnt a little more. But, I am genuinely happy, I've started a business which allows me to still achieve my career aspirations whilst being in control of my work/life balance and prioritising Molly. I'm in a new relationship with a wonderful woman called Jess, who I see as my future and am excited to keep growing with. I am no longer just surviving, I am living and in fact with the knowledge of loss that I now have, I am living with much more of a zest for life and experience. After all, those that we have lost young, especially in the way that we have, didn't get the choice, so I feel as though it is important to respect that loss by choosing life, living, loving and making the most of what we are blessed to have.
You'll reach that stage and it may not be a business, or a relationship or anything similar to me, but you'll rediscover you and your purpose and from such horrendous feelings can come feelings of empowerment, strength and growth. I truly believe that although losing Lauren shattered and broke me it has allowed me to rebuild myself as a better version of me. A really nice reference to this is 'Kintsugi', I'll let you Google that one.
Anyway, that side of things will be completely irrelevant to you at the moment, just as it was to me, whilst you just try to survive each day, but I truly hope that for you or anyone reading this letter that it offers you a small amount of hope.
Hope is what we all tend to live off of, everything we do today is in the hope of a better tomorrow and losing your partner destroys all hope, but this is me trying to show you that it can come back, that maybe in writing this I can be a little beacon of light at the end of a dark tunnel and that you know that you are not alone.
Again, I am so sorry that we have such a heart breaking loss in common. Please take care of yourself and your little ones and trust that you are strong enough to get through.
Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!