This is a post for other bereaved dads, so is unlikely to be of interest to anybody else. As always, it’s unapologetically cathartic and I hope it helps anybody else on this journey. It comes from a good positive place with the best of intentions.
The seminal scene in the film Good Will Hunting is the one in which Robin Williams’ character keeps telling Will (Matt Damon) that “It’s not your fault” and ends with Will collapsing in tears. It’s a very powerful moment. I watched it for the first time in a while a few weeks ago. It appears to have had quite an effect. Let me explain.
I’ve written about my challenges with grief many times, mainly around the struggle I’ve had with anger. It ended up with me in hospital, which in turn led to a course of counselling which may well have saved my life. That counselling helped me to understand where my anger was coming from, how to deal with it, and since then my grief management has been so much better.
But the problem with intense grief is that even years later it throws curve balls at you, like the one I’m going to talk about now – lack of confidence.
Prior to Edward’s death confidence was never an issue for me. If anything, I was too confident. I was the 26 year old who sat in Covent Garden eating a sandwich one day, saw an advert for a job in Singapore and, realising that the company who placed it happened to be just a few minutes walk away, walked to their office and told them I wanted the job. I had no relevant experience. One hour later I was offered the job, and one month later I was living in Singapore. Over the course of the next 4 years I worked at different companies, getting promoted quickly and ended up Managing Director of the Thai office of the world’s largest brand consultancy at the age of 30. When we returned home, the path continued. I went from senior role to senior role, each with a higher salary. And then Edward was born.
Having a child with a life threatening condition changed my life. Suddenly a world that I thought I was always in control of was in control of me. And when he died aged 4, it just got worse.
Edward died of sepsis. It was, frankly, awful. I still have flashbacks to the worst moments. Him shaking so hard in pain that the bed shook. I can still hear it. Him looking at me and asking what he’d done wrong to deserve this awful pain and me not being able to respond because it upset me so much. The fear in his eyes when he looked at me and my wife when they wheeled him away for the operation that he would never wake up from. These are burned into my psyche.
But probably the most damaging effect, and the one that triggered my anger issues, was guilt. I can recall the exact moment it began. One afternoon I asked a doctor where the sepsis had come from. He gave several scenarios but I could only hear one of the least likely. He said that the bacteria that had caused it is common on our skin, especially around our noses, and that Edward could’ve caught it from close contact with one of us.
I can’t remember if I’ve ever written about this bit before. My wife and I never left Edward’s side whilst he was in hospital. We took it turns for a month to be with him, alternating day and night shifts, and together whenever we could. He was hardly ever alone. However, our other two children were at home in Cirencester, being looked after by my parents-in-law. Mid-way through the month we decided it would be a good idea for Clare to go back home to see them for a few days.
During that time, I stayed by Edward’s side and slept with him at night. I would lie next to him, stroke him, hug him, kiss him, nuzzle him with my nose. And it was also during this time that he sepsis developed.
So sitting there as he lay dying 2 weeks later, hearing the doctor say that he could’ve got it from close contact with one of us was horrific. I have told nobody but my counsellor this, but I felt that I was the source of his sepsis. My wife had gone away. My only job was to look after him, and I’d let her and Edward down.
It didn’t matter that there were more likely sources of his infection. Grief doesn’t do rational. Not only had I failed to do what a father should and protect his child, I’d contributed to his death. Such are the silly mental games that are played in a grieving mind. I told myself it was karma.
As well as being very confident earlier in life, like many young cocksure men, I’d also been an idiot. I’d been arrogant, often insensitive and I know that I had hurt some people with my words. My grief riddled brain wanted someone to blame, so one of the people I pointed the finger at was myself. It was payback. I didn’t share it with anybody because I didn’t want it to look like self-pity, and I didn’t dare tell my wife, but it festered away inside of me.
It destroyed my self-confidence. I stopped making decisions and would just agree with everybody. I talked a good game but I let others lead and make decisions. Even up until very recently, I’d default to anybody else, have no confidence in my own opinion and, most debilitating of all, avoid all confrontation. There was no point. I’d lose because I deserved to, for being a bad person. If I got into arguments, even with colleagues, I’d feel tears coming and back off. It effected everything, even how I organise my work which would often be chaotic.
So, back to Good Will Hunting and that scene. I stayed up late a couple of weeks ago and watched it again. As the tension built, and Robin Williams kept on saying “It’s not your fault” again and again and again, it felt like he was talking to me. I sobbed away quietly downstairs whilst the family slept. But something else happened too. Something good.
Maybe it’s just the passage of time and the film was just convenient, but I seem to have turned a corner. I have felt confident for the first time in years. It’s not a great example but I told somebody off the other day. I haven’t done that except with the kids for years. I also disagreed, with some force, with somebody else earlier this week, face to face and didn’t back down. I didn’t try to avoid the confrontation or go along with them just to keep the peace, which is something I have done too much of in the last few years, and let people take advantage of me. It’s time to be confident again, but this time without the arrogance.
What’s the point of this post? Well, it’s for me and for other bereaved dads, nobody else. I’m clarifying this because, unbelievably, I still sometimes get criticism from people who think I’m doing this for attention. I’m doing it to share, to demystify grief, to get it out of my system and hopefully help others at the same time. I find it very cathartic and it has led to me a small but very supportive community of bereaved dads who share stuff like this so that we know we’re not alone, or going mad and that it’s ok to talk about it, even if it seems silly.
(For those who are interested, I wrote a blog throughout my son’s stay in hospital, his death and the immediate aftermath. It’s not an easy read and is a bit raw, especially towards the end but the link is here: http://hlhsdiary.com/wp/)
Thanks Andy. I followed your blog when Edward was admitted. My son, now 21, has the same condition. We were in Evelina, with the same staff, a month or so earlier.
The posts have helped me as I thought if my son died I would be annihilated. It helps to have any reports from that part of the map rather than “here be dragons”.
Also men writing that they’ve had counselling helps others think it could be useful for them. I talk to a counsellor every other week. Usually as a couple with my wife.
I think I’ve experienced the anger thing in some way. I remember hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone who, I felt, deserved my anger
I think of Edward whenever I see one of those white feathers.
Thanks again David
Beautifully written. As you know, we’ve crossed paths via Twitter, but the guilt you speak of here is normal. It’s taken me a lot of effort to not apologise at Thomas’ grave; like you say, grief doesn’t do rational.
So cogent and honest and brave Andy.
Andy, thank you for sharing this and being so honest. I remember following your blog after Edward has his surgery and being devastated for you all when he died. It wasn’t your fault. You made sure he felt loved and that he wasn’t alone; you did everything that any loving parent would have done. But I understand that guilt and I sobbed my way through your post because it resonates so strongly. I struggled with post-natal depression after Sophie was born and my depressed brain convinced me that I would lose Jessica because I didn’t love Sophie enough. As you can imagine, my grief brain has tormented me with that a few times, along with accusations that I didn’t react quickly enough to Jessica being unwell in those last few weeks, didn’t do enough to save her. I am slowly making peace with that and trying to hold on to those words “it’s not your fault” myself. It’s something that many of us bereaved parents need to hear at times, and be reminded of. I’m glad that you’re starting to regain your confidence again. I am sure that Edward would want that for you. Lots of love to you and your family x
I’m a bereaved sister and also thought my brother’s death was my fault, because I was speaking to him on the phone and the battery was running down, so I said I’d call him from my parents’ house, then he got in the shower and died. I kept thinking if I hadn’t called him he might still be alive. Or if I’d had the phone properly charged. I still feel it after 17 years.