Father’s Day is a poignant time for Jack*, a 48-year-old writer and one of the estimated 200,000 single fathers in the UK. ‘Every day is father’s day in a way,’ he says. ‘I was widowed suddenly five years ago when my wife collapsed and died without any warning, leaving me alone with our two sons, aged seven and eight, and five-year-old daughter. Life as I knew it fell off a cliff.’
Over their decade together, Jack and his wife, an author, had traditional roles. ‘She cooked, shopped, sorted the cleaning and did most of the childcare while I took care of the bills and mortgage.’ That worked well for them, but it meant Jack was ‘utterly unprepared when I had to take over all her jobs while trying to work through what had happened’.
In the days after his wife died, the impact of his grief hit Jack ‘like being shot with a cannonball. I felt hollow, as if there was a huge hole around my heart that I could feel the wind through.’ He was consumed by anxiety, which also manifested itself physically with ‘continually wobbly legs and an upset tummy’. The initial shock lasted through the first month. ‘Then I felt far worse. As the numbness wore off, I realised, “This new life is it – for ever.” It was almost too much to deal with.’
Jack’s mother, who had lost her sister, could empathise. ‘She said it’s as if your skin has been sloughed off, leaving all the nerve endings raw and exposed. Everything hurts. You are in continual pain. But eventually your skin grows again, until you begin to feel some sense of ordinary life returning.’
The children’s young age seemed to help buffer them against the pain of losing their mother. ‘They knew what had happened, but they carried on being normal kids – being naughty, squabbling, playing up… When we talked about their mum, they could see I was in pain so they supported me,’ Jack remembers. ‘Sometimes they still get upset, particularly my daughter, and they know it’s OK to cry. But they didn’t show any evidence then or later of being traumatised.’
Both the children and Jack were greatly helped by the in-house counsellor at their school. Such a resource is not always available and, given that one in 20 children under 16 will lose a parent, Jack believes that schools should be doing more to help.
At first, dealing with the simplest of jobs seemed insuperable. ‘I felt so exhausted and useless that even washing the kids’ clothes was an almost impossible task. Not to mention doing the school run twice a day, cooking every night and trying to stop the house disintegrating,’ he says.
Jack’s only respite in those early days was sleep. ‘I longed for the moment when I could get the kids to bed, take half a sleeping pill and the world would shut down until morning.’ His GP recommended exercise, but fitting that in among the maelstrom of the first year was impossible. Now he runs regularly, finding it ‘a salvation’.
Family and friends gave lots of support, but Jack’s journey was, he says, ‘slow and painful’. Joining Widowed and Young (widowedandyoung.org.uk), a support group for people aged 50 or under when their partner dies, was ‘a massive reassurance. I realised I wasn’t alone or abnormal. Many of us have become great friends.’ Jack is currently writing his own blog with guidelines for single dads on running a family and household (dadrules.co.uk) ‘and the unfathomable extras such as how to organise a play date – and dating’.
Today, Jack credits himself with being a ‘halfway decent cook and keeping the house vaguely presentable’. But most importantly, ‘my kids are happy and well-adjusted. They don’t have a mum with them any more, but they have a father who loves them very much and is trying to be the best mum and dad he can.’
*Name has been changed.
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