MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 23-Jun-14 11:35:30

Guest post: International Widows' Day - 'There's no time limit to grieving'

Today, 23rd June, is International Widows' Day. Maddy Paxman, whose husband died suddenly at the age of 50, has written about her experiences with grief and loss in her book, The Great Below - here, she suggests that the exhausting process of grieving is never over.

Do read the post and share your experiences.

Maddy Paxman

The Great Below

Posted on: Mon 23-Jun-14 11:35:30

(7 comments )

Lead photo

'I had to make the decision to remove him from life support and let him go'

Whenever I hear of someone dying young, my thoughts go immediately to their family, forced to embark unexpectedly on the long and difficult journey of mourning. Once the funeral is over - the messages of condolence are tailing off, the drama has moved elsewhere - I know that they will probably find themselves very much alone with their grief. The support available at the start quickly melts away, as people return to their own busy lives. But the grieving is just beginning.

That journey began for me ten years ago when my husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, died suddenly at the age of fifty. He had woken up one morning paralysed down one side; when we got him to hospital it became clear that he had suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage. By the evening he was effectively brain-dead, and although they operated to try and remove the clot, he never regained consciousness. Four days later, I had to make the decision to remove him from life support and let him go.

Our son Ruairi was just eight at the time, and very close to his dad – they shared an imaginative world of play that I couldn’t hope to replicate. Raising a child alone is not for the faint-hearted, especially when you are also grieving. Initially I tried not to fall apart in front of Ruairi, but soon decided it was better to be open about my feelings: children know anyway what is going on in your head. I had always been the practical one in the relationship so I soldiered on day by day, eventually making myself seriously ill in the process.

The death of someone close to you is a profound shock. For a long time it can feel completely unreal; initially I was in a bubble of calm, as though nothing particularly major had happened. In retrospect I see that this was a survival mode fuelled by adrenalin, which protected me from what might have been too much to bear. But of course it seemed to others that I was fine, coping, moving on. "You’re being incredibly strong" was how they put it, but I simply didn’t know how else to be.

When the calm bubble burst, and the true extent of our loss began – very gradually – to sink into my consciousness, it came each time with a renewed jolt of disbelief, as though it could not possibly be real. It can take months or years before you stop expecting the dead person to walk in the door, as though it has all been a very bad joke. It's like passing through the mirror into another world, where everything looks outwardly the same, but is in fact profoundly changed.


When the calm bubble burst, and the true extent of our loss began – very gradually – to sink into my consciousness, it came each time with a renewed jolt of disbelief, as though it could not possibly be real. It can take months or years before you stop expecting the dead person to walk in the door, as though it has all been a very bad joke. It’s like passing through the mirror into another world, where everything looks outwardly the same, but is in fact profoundly changed. This sense of bewilderment was described to me as a neurological phenomenon – the brain searching everywhere for the ‘lost object’, having to rebuild its entire understanding of the world. It’s an exhausting process, and it can feel as if you’re going mad.

Grief affects us all differently, of course, but one experience in common is that no-one seems to really understand what it is like - unless they have been there. These days we are mostly shielded from the reality of dying, despite its popularity as a subject for literature and drama. Many people reach middle age before they face the death of someone close to them, let alone see a dead body. Because of this, people are frightened by others’ grief – they don’t know what to say, so they say nothing, or offer an encouraging platitude along the lines of: "these things happen but you’ll get over it." Or they back away, or even - as one woman wrote to me - hide behind a tree in order to avoid having to confront their own discomfort with the situation. Often, no-one wants to mention the dead person’s name, in case it ‘upsets’ the bereaved person. I heard of a fellow widow who had been asked not to ‘bring her grief to work’, as if it were something that could be laid down on leaving the house.

We seem to have lost the ability to simply witness others' pain and be alongside it – in fact I think many of us are uncomfortable with our own pain, and try to magic it away with keeping busy and talking positive. But with grief, I’ve learned that the only way out is through, and that is sometimes a long, long way. The road has many twists and turns: times when you feel as if you’ve reached a point of acceptance, only to be knocked off your feet by a wave of sadness and loss - triggered by a memory, a song, a product on the supermarket shelf that you no longer need to buy.

Ruairi is eighteen now, and like his father in many ways. Despite, or perhaps because of, his experience he has grown up to be a very emotionally intelligent young man. We’re doing better now, but there is no time limit to grieving – Michael is still woven inexorably into our thoughts and lives. He’s gone but not forgotten, as they say, and my closest friends, those who have stayed the journey, know that only too well.

By Maddy Paxman

Twitter: @maddypaxman

DoMeDon Mon 23-Jun-14 14:26:47

What a beautiful post about the sad and sudden loss of your Michael. My heart goes out to you.

philnteds Mon 23-Jun-14 15:58:42

For once in my life I don't know what to say....but you have made me think.life throws us massive curveballs....

sittingatmydeskagain Mon 23-Jun-14 17:09:49

Beautiful post. I work with the bereaved, although I have no training in counselling. So much of what you say makes true sense - many people are actually relieved to know that part of what they are feeling has a medical explanation. I wish we better prepared as a society to handle grief.

Wishing you well.

onlyjoking Mon 23-Jun-14 17:17:23

Sorry that your Husband died, it's been a roller coaster ride for you both. Thank you for your well written peice, well it's not just a peice, more a big part of your life's tapestry.
I was widowed 6 years ago.
He had cancer so was ill for a long time before.
Our kids were 11, 14, 14. They have autism so it's hard for them to understand and communicate.
I think we've reached accepting. it, thou sometimes screaming begrudgingly.

MasterFlea Tue 24-Jun-14 07:54:12

Thank you for sharing. I'm very sorry for your loss. Your husband sounded like a lovely man and father.

A close friend has recently suffered a huge loss and I am trying to support her. Understanding is difficult without experiencing it myself. This post has helped me. Thank you.

Staywithme Tue 24-Jun-14 09:05:25

Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us. My husband is terminally ill and I already have to cope with the thoughtfulness and avoidance of other people, including family. If I think too much about what's ahead I don't think I could cope. At times I can't help but picture what it's going to be like and am in tears just writing this. When a friend looses someone close we can't help but imagine how we would feel. The reality of some one you love dearly being so ill is indescribable. I come from a very tough childhood but the shear terror at the knowledge that I'm going to lose him beyond anything I've ever experienced. Much love to you and your son.

Suz0202 Fri 11-Jul-14 09:50:06

This piece mirrors my experiences and it is good to see that how people react to me is totally normal. Before I was in this position I would never have known how to react and it is through patience on our part that we can almost 'educate' our peers as to what 'we' need them to say and do. My husband was 43 when he had a catastophic brain haemorrhage and my boys were 5 and 7. Their dad took them to school in the morning and they never saw him again. We had 16 long days of waiting for the inevitable, but now two years on I am able to see that it was what needed to happen given the injury to his brain and that I need to live my life for both of us now. Lots of love to you both xxx

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