‘What Losing My Husband To Cancer At 39 Taught Me About Parenting Through Grief’

'We had to learn to adjust from being a unit of three to a partnership of two'

Parenting through grief

by Clare Campbell-Cooper |
Published on

I will hold my hands up and say I headed into parenthood with a healthy dose of naivety. I genuinely believed that my son George would ‘pop out’ (oh yes, I was that naïve), that I would immediately embrace motherhood, complete with the sun shining, lots of floaty linen clothes, a gurgling baby and possibly some soft-focus camera shots.

The reality was less prosaic and mostly consisted of me running five minutes late for everything and leaking from every orifice. It wasn’t a glamourous time and there was definitely no linen nor soft-focused moments.

But to add insult to injury, the month before I found I out I was pregnant, tests had diagnosed that my husband had a brain tumour. And after George was born, further tests showed that the tumour was malignant and David had less than ten years to live. It felt like the rug was being pulled from under our feet time and time again. And each time it took us slightly longer to get back up.

But we were lucky, David defied the odds and we had eleven years of being together as a family unit. We had times to come to terms with the fact that David was going to die. We had time to get used to it, to say our goodbyes, and in that we were so much more fortunate than many.

But watching a child grow up with grief in the depths of their eyes isn’t easy. I think all parents feel like they can’t do right for doing wrong sometimes, and this was exactly the same for me. But suddenly becoming a single parent, grieving and watching my child grieve, heightened this. I made the same mistakes that a lot of parents make, but the ability to bounce back just isn’t there in the same way when you feel so emotionally raw from grief.

When David was alive, I was advised to keep things emotionally stable for both David and George and I did that by being the buffer to their frustration, anger and grief. In reality, these are normal emotions that any household has, but in ours it could result in seizures and hospitalisation. But after David’s death, the wheels came off.

After David’s funeral we entered the dark, dark days of overwhelming waves of grief. George was going to school, I was working, and I stumbled through the days, not really having a clue what was happening. I didn’t seem to be able to get George in the right school uniform (which is never cool). I would be scrabbling around trying to find trousers or a polo shirt that was not wet nor in the washing machine.

Always a competent cook, I didn’t seem able to get food on the table. I could never get the bins out on the right day. And there didn’t seem to be a reason why I couldn’t, as nothing had changed; school was school, food was in the cupboard, bin day was still bin day. But I didn’t seem to be able to join the dots. And George watched me, dry eyed and shell shocked, not sure of anything; but needing continuity and surety, and so I tried my best to give him that.

And over time I adapted. I bought more school uniform so that I had more time to get things through the wash. I signed up to one of those pre-prepared food companies that deliver kits to your door. I tried to finish work at a reasonable time. I took George to his clubs and we saw more of my parents.

We had planned an amazing summer, which we knew would have been David’s last. He died at the end of May, before our summer. But George and I still went to Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Gone Wild Festival, and Center Parcs. We learned to adjust from being a unit of three to a partnership of two: me at 46 and George at 11. We learned how to lean on each other for support. Where I would have told David about my day, I found myself telling George. Where George would have wanted David to play football I donned my trainers and did my worst (and my worst was very bad).

I am not saying that it was easy, it wasn’t, and we still have our moments, but we muddle through. We both have regrets, but who doesn’t? We have regrets of how we have treated each other, those cutting comments that seem harmless at the time but burn into your memory. We have regrets of what we should have done but didn’t – the hours spent away from each other, in front of a computer, when we could have been touching, laughing, feeling. But we also have memories and we have been blessed with so much love. And we still have each other.

And I have learned that everyone has something. No-one’s lot in life is any harder or easier than anyone else’s and we are all doing the best we can to raise our children and to get through life with our heads above water…and that’s just fine. I’m still waiting for the moment when I can float around in linen, looking elegant with a soft-focus lens but I have found that a large gin and tonic and some love and laughter with our friends is much better for the soul – and far more likely to happen!

Clare Campbell-Cooper’s new book Choosing to Float is out now, priced at £8.99 and available from Amazon.co.uk. Clare will be giving at least 10% of her net royalties to Brain Tumour Research

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