Guest written by Author of The Tide Inside, Katy Towse (@mintrainbow_mama)
“‘Grief’ didn’t actually start for me when my Dad died three years ago. It started eighteen months before that when we received his terminal diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease. That was the moment my world shifted. Along with everyone in it.
As my family and I reeled from the shock, we made the decision not to tell our then almost-four-year-old anything more than “Grandad’s muscles aren’t working,” “Grandad’s voice is quieter” or “Grandad will have to play swords sitting down today”, and so on. For us, this was absolutely the right decision because MND is a hugely variable disease, and we had no idea how it was going to play out or how much time we had – and of course, we all know that kids have all the questions.
Looking back, I very much see my grieving process as a journey of two halves. The first half, when Dad was still with us, but with rapidly declining health, was a different kind of grief. A very private kind, that we kept from our son (and daughter, though she was just one) as we tried to make the most of the time that we had. We had a beautiful photo session with a photographer, we took a family holiday and did a special Lapland UK experience but mainly we spent many, many hours together in our gardens, reading books, having meals, watching films and just being together – Dad didn’t want to do anything differently, he just wanted more time with us. That’s all any of us wanted. Want.
Some days were manageable, and the 24/7 distraction of small children was a godsend. I honestly dread to think what this time would have been like without the children’s day-to-day needs pulling us all through. Other times, grief would pour out of me with little or no warning. Driving was one of these times – I remember staring straight ahead at the road with tears coursing down my face on most journeys, trying not to let the children sitting in the back see me so upset and somehow always composing myself by the time we had reached our destination. I still do this now. I also remember literally being able to pause and reschedule my emotions for later in the day, at a more convenient time for a break down (Mums really can do anything!) to protect the children from it, or even sometimes just to crack on with a busy day. So yes, I managed it, but wow those post-bedtime evenings were tough.
During this period, I also found that I spent a huge amount of time mourning the loss of our children’s future relationships with Dad. Desperate for them to have him in their lives for longer. Desolate on their behalf about what could have been. It’s still what I struggle with the most – even now. But this isn’t the way young children see it. It’s a part of my grief but thankfully it isn’t a part of theirs. They miss what they had of course, but not what they could have had. And in some ways, the fact that they live so presently makes that side of things easier.
Everything changed once Dad died and my personal grief became very present and public in our household overnight. Pregnant with our third son, with a five-year-old and two-and-a-half-year-old, our family finally grieved together and, honestly, it was a relief to be able to let them in and to open the floodgates. It was also a complicated time and combination of emotions because whilst we were devastated, there were also elements of relief in the conclusion of Dad’s journey, and the ending of a very visceral and overwhelming fear about what we potentially might be facing as a family.
The main shift is that we suddenly become very focused on our five-year-old son’s well-being as opposed to our own. Dad and Alfie had had something seriously special going on. They spent most days together. They had endless time for each other and were without a doubt each-others favourite person. So, for him, the transition was huge. Coming to terms with the loss has not been easy for him, particularly as he weathered this storm through a global pandemic and a massively disrupted routine. We’ve seen everything from beautiful gestures and memories that make you so proud you could burst, to huge outbursts of rage, behavioural issues, and deep sadness. We’ve had the extremes of happiness, anger, and indifference – sometimes all on the same day. Whilst we didn’t have the children at Dad’s funeral, that same week I arranged a memorial on the beach for all of our close family members and we released balloons, wrote messages and drew his name in the sand followed by beach cricket, swimming and fish and chips. It was perfect. And awful. But it was important for Alfie.
On the one hand, focusing so intensely on someone else at this time was of huge benefit to me – allowing us to open the lines of conversation in the house, create healthy outlets for our grief to be channelled into, and even seek professional support (via Cruse Bereavement). I also wrote a children’s book during lockdown called ‘The Tide Inside’ which aims to support children suffering from bereavement and it’s been so beautifully received and already helped many other families – I’ll always be grateful for something so good to have come from a situation so terrible I could never have imagined it possible.
Katy reading The Tide Inside with her children
Since his death, I am open with the children and if my tears are for Dad, I will always say. Speaking to them about it will always lighten the load. (Also, children have the innate ability to say something so utterly hilarious – such as the time Alfie explained MND to his baby sister as being “similar to Trench Foot” after a particularly affecting WW1 lesson- that you can’t help but laugh. Especially when it’s something like this that Dad would have truly loved!)
For us, it’s very much about being open. Open to talk about Dad, to remember him, love him, mourn him, be sad, be happy, be angry, be anything. Anything needed on any given day. Anything that helps. Sharing and being open with your own grief opens the door to that essential communication, allowing your children to mirror your behaviour and also to know that they are free to feel however they feel. That’s not to say it’s easy. In some of those earlier days I was so exhausted from controlling/containing/sharing/expelling* (*delete as appropriate) my own grief that I quite literally had nothing left to give for anyone else’s. And yes, there were times when I just sat on the floor and cried. (Let’s be honest, it was probably most days in lockdown with a newborn, a toddler and a broken-hearted, home-schooling child).
Of course, as a parent, there is the danger that despite your best efforts, your own grief is often pushed aside. I do still find myself brushing away tears or swallowing down the lumps that form in my throat when it’s just not a convenient time. Not because I don’t want the children to see it, but more that I quite literally don’t have time for it. That sounds terrible, but it’s the truth. I still save the shattering out-pours until post-bedtime because I feel the need to shield them from that level of pain. It’s a natural, maternal act of protection. But I also know that when the time is right, with my husband or if I see my oldest friends, for example, it’s more than likely going to all come out at some point. (Beware of hens, weddings, and birthdays – aka any semblance of ‘you’ time – because time to think, plus concerned loved ones, plus alcohol is quite the concoction when it comes to grief).
But this is all ok. I’m dealing with it in a way that is manageable for me. If I allowed myself to feel every bit of sadness, to dwell on every moment missed and every heart-breaking ‘what if’, I’d never get out of bed again. And I can say with one hundred percent certainty that Dad would not want any of us to live like that.
For me, parenting and grieving is a balance of pressing forwards whilst continuing to stop and remember. It’s about allowing all of our emotions to ebb and flow as naturally as the school run schedule will allow. It’s about being a pillar of strength, with the occasional, very visible, wobble. And it’s about addressing their needs whilst never ignoring our own. The self-care battle we all struggle with daily, but that is so very important.
But it’s also about time. Time doesn’t heal. Well not so far for me, anyway. But what time does do is present opportunities for learning and growing around grief. As we approached the third anniversary of Dad dying recently, the passing of time remains hard in itself because it creates a distance that none of us wants. But there are some comforts to be drawn from it too. With every day that passes the shock of Dad not being here diminishes a little. With each new experience without him, the gap in our lives becomes a little less raw around the edges. As the children get older and more articulate, their memories of Dad are more beautiful and comforting than ever.
It’s never going to be ok that he isn’t here. But as long as we’re grieving and evolving together, as long as we’re channelling our displaced love into each other, recognising each other’s triggers and needs and creating space to grow around our loss, I hope, actually I know, that we’ll be ok.”
KATY’S GRIEF SUPPORT IDEAS FOR KIDS
“I can tell when my son is sad about his Grandad immediately; he gets photos off the walls and out of drawers, he gets his memory box out, or his book of poems from Dad or grabs a toy or teddy that he connects with his Grandad.
This is why I’m such an advocate of having these physical reminders on hand for bereaved children. It means they have a real place to take their grief to, and some tangible items to use to provide comfort.
- A Memory Box – a simple one, but always effective. Our children completely love their Grandad boxes and will often get the items out when they’re feeling down.
- Keepsakes – we got the kids beautiful Christmas decorations with photos of Dad in, which really are a comfort at that time of the year. There are so many lovely options and ideas on Etsy.
- Special items that belong just to them – our daughter, for example, was too young to form as many connections with her Grandad as her older brother did, but she still very much wanted her own items to hold onto, so we gave her some of his things to keep as her own.
- Books – there are some wonderful books around to help open the lines of communication with your little ones – alongside The Tide Inside (of course), we love Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine, If all the World Were, Grandad’s Island, The Invisible String, A Place in my Heart, and The Way I Feel.
- My necklace– I wear a locket with our pictures inside it and whenever I wear it, the children will always ask to see Dad’s picture and it will more than likely evoke a conversation or a memory about him.
If you’re a parent struggling to manage your own grief alongside your children’s, then I just wanted to say you are not alone. You are strong and brave and you can do this.”