The evening of Dunc's death is gradually becoming a blur. I presume that it is my brain's way of helping me to cope. However, I can vividly remember that I was worrying immediately about the future. There were many lovely people around me that night, to whom I will be indebted forever, and they encouraged me to try and stay in the present and to take one step at a time. My way of coping with anything big or difficult was always to plan, and planning has just not been an option in the last few months. In its absence, I quickly expressed a need for a manual.
One of my mum's familiar old phrases sprang to mind: 'When all else fails, read the instructions'. It transpires that it is perhaps more relevant to constructing flat-packed furniture than to dealing with bereavement. In this case, there are no instructions to follow and I still find myself making up the rules day-by-day, hoping that I'm leading us all in roughly the right direction. My goals? To stay (relatively) sane myself, and to bring the boys up in the way Dunc and I had intended, helping them to deal with his death along the way. I did buy a book, written by another young widow, and began reading it avidly. What it taught me more than anything though, was that no two people experience the death of a loved one, or deal with bereavement, in the same way.
My experience of dealing with bereavement bears several similarities to bringing home a newborn baby. For example, you awake to a sea of flowers and gifts (both of which continue to arrive for weeks), and to a myriad of visitors and phone calls. People cook you dinners and rummage through your cupboards to try and find things stored in places that are illogical to them (but that make perfect sense to you!) Meanwhile, you try to concentrate on doing little things that just a few days ago took no effort at all, but now seem monumental and completely unmanageable. Then there's the crushing, mind-numbing tiredness that envelops you and prevents you from thinking straight (and, five months on, it still is. My previously photographic memory now struggles to recall why I walked up the stairs!) There is no manual to which you can totally relate, and as you don't really know what you are supposed to do, you learn to wing it, gaining confidence in your new life as you go along. You laugh when inside you feel like crying, and you smile because it is more socially acceptable to do so than frowning, when people offer you the most ridiculous of platitudes.
I am learning fast that dealing with bereavement is very definitely a marathon, not a sprint. With many things in life, I expect to be able to 'carry on regardless' in a week or two. I wasn't naïve enough to put the death of my gorgeous husband in that bracket, but I did assume that the tiredness, the sadness and the confusion (about how my boys and I have ended up in the middle of all this madness) would start to fade. I'm still waiting, and all I see on the horizon at the moment are a series of further hurdles which I must clear first. I have very good days, bad days and days when I just keep busy because it is easier than dwelling on the situation. A day may start well, only for it all to come crashing down around me when I realise that Sam and/or Thomas have not shared my positive start. Alternatively, days sometimes start with a wave of sadness and the realisation that this is my new reality and one that currently has no end in sight.
I feel I might be further forward if I had more time to myself, but the last five months have been rather busy. I have concentrated very much on putting the boys and their needs first, at the expense of my own, as any mother would. Helping them to deal with losing their fantastic daddy, on top of my own feelings, constantly requires a lot of energy, way beyond the huge amount of energy and investment that is required to bring up lively children anyway. For example, I might think that I have completed the chores before the boys' bedtime so that I can sit down afterwards, only to find that one or other of them has a different idea and needs my understanding and patience for a further ninety minutes. It is then that I often have to try and answer questions about the mechanics of the heart (and its failings), when I am likely to die, why Daddy can't come back and how the spirit leaves the body at the moment of death.
Last night Sam was determined to stay downstairs with me because he thought I would be lonely without Daddy and needed some company. In many ways, he has hit the nail on the head and is just too perceptive for his own good. However, it is not the responsibility of my five-year-old to look after me - it is my job to look after him and, of course, I was quick to reassure him, without wishing to be disingenuous. In reality, the evenings can be lonely and I struggle to force myself to go up to bed alone. In the daytime, trying to work with the medics to get the best for the boys, and keeping them healthy on my own is a massive task. I watched a man on the television recently saying to the mother of his sick child, "You've been the perfect mummy today. You've done everything right." It made me cry because I find the loss of that support and reassurance from the person whom I love, at a time when I really need it the most, hard to bear.
This week the boys and I will be visited by a volunteer from Guy's Gift (www.guysgift.co.uk). I have requested their support to try and help the boys to deal with their emotions and particularly their anger. I have supported several children through bereavement during my teaching career, but it is vastly different when you are stuck in the middle of the situation with your own children. As for me personally, I have been awaiting counselling from Cruse (www.cruse.org.uk) since the end of June. I know that I need some help to work through my feelings in order to deal with Dunc's death. I owe it to myself, and to the boys, to make sure that I emerge as mentally and physically fit as possible from all of this and I fully intend to do so. One thing that hasn't been dented yet is my determination, and while that remains intact, I suspect that we will all make it through this.
Sam, Thomas and I on holiday in Cornwall, September 2013.