A month after my wife died, one of my boys came into my room one Saturday morning and said, “Dad, Captain Nemo is dead.” Captain Nemo was one of his fish. He said it soberly. Serious, not sad.
Oh no,” I said half-heartedly from under the covers. “Are you alright?” He was. We had a brief discussion on the life and death of fish and whether they make good pets. His six-year-old twin brothers joined. Then they went downstairs and had me ask if my kids had gotten good at dealing with death and trauma in a short amount of time.
We do not shy away from the words dead and death. We do not use euphemisms such as deceased, passed, passed on or deceased. Death is something we all agree with. Grief is different. It’s different for all of us. And while death is immutable, grief changes over time. Death is an event that we can record. But grief is a moving target.
In the first few days after Kate’s death, my grief was small. It was in the receipts folded into the pages of a notebook. It was the mismatched socks she would have paired. It rolled around with the loose change in her wallet. It was the absence of someone to remind me that Thursday is trash night. It was not having anyone on the couch next to you when everyone else in the house was sleeping. It was the special solitude of making school lunches alone on a gray winter morning. It was never big. Never soul-wrenching. It was a small but constant reminder that something was missing. Someone.
But that has changed, at least for me. I’m disappointed that my boys don’t have a mother and it breaks my heart for Kate that her life ended like this – just after the most trying years of being a mother had come to an end. But I’m no longer bothered by the little traps that grief once laid around the house.
I think that’s because of how well Kate dealt with death. Practically to the end, she organized her affairs: we wrote wills, made lists, coordinated plans. That hands-on focus — and her quality of life over the past two months, which has involved endless hospital stays and palliative care — also provided plenty of emotional cushioning. In a way, I lived the life of a widower before she died. It was good training.
So now, when I see the little reminders of Kate’s absence, I smile. Now when I hear a song she loved, I sing along to her. Now when I hear something that would have made her laugh, I laugh for her.
But that’s not the case with my boys. The loss of her mother rocked her world. And while their grief is changing – and unique to each of them – I don’t think anything could have prepared them for it. Sometimes they are more needy, often they hesitate to leave the house. They all have different needs and different triggers for sad moments. The same goes for friends and other family members.
Many of Kate’s friends couldn’t say goodbye. You have to talk about Kate, speculate and search for details, answers or a conclusion. I enjoy these types of chats; they feel like a kind of therapeutic reminiscence. Death cannot be denied, but grief must be recognized and processed.
Before Kate died, another tragic event happened with another pet. Our cat Boo was hit by a car and thrown through the air. The children saw it and were traumatized. The tough little creature survived, but one of its hind legs had to be amputated. Now he’s a three-legged celebrity around the house.
I often compare Boo to Captain Nemo and think of the difference between death and grief. Death is a belly up fish, there’s not much you can do about it. Mourning is a three-legged cat. It keeps shaking.
In support of the quality palliative care services at St Francis Hospice, Raheny and Blanchardstown see: sfh.ie/donate
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/health-features/a-widowers-diary-death-is-an-event-we-can-pin-down-but-grief-is-a-moving-target-41998618.html Diary of a widower: “Death is an event that we can record. But grief is a moving target’