Becky Williams, Bangor
Grief is the painful emotional state we will all encounter at some point in our lives and yet it seems as society we are hugely reluctant to discuss it. This reluctance, in turn, leads to people being unprepared to deal with the emotional challenge of grief that we must endure when someone we love dies.
I first experienced grief at the age of 14 years when my father died of Malignant Melanoma. Back then, as I was entering adolescence, my grief was an inconvenience. It threatened to stop me chasing boys and going out to meet friends and so I pushed it to one side and carried on with teenage life.
At the age of 20, my mental health began to suffer and it became apparent that I was experiencing delayed grief. I saw my GP who referred me for counselling and after working through my grief with a psychologist I was able to move forward.
When my husband Irfon was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer in 2014 our world came crashing down. I became a widow at the young age of 37, when Irfon died on May 30, 2017.
The first few days after Irfon died were a blur, what I can remember is feeling like I was standing still and the world was carrying on around me.
He was just 46 years old. A father of five, we have two young sons together, Sion, aged nine, years and Ianto, seven.
Drawing on my earlier experience of complicated grief I was determined this time to face my grief head on and knew it was vital I supported my two boys to grieve also, in order for the most positive outcome.
The first few days after Irfon died were a blur, what I can remember is feeling like I was standing still and the world was carrying on around me. I was numb. The funeral came and went and the boys were keen to return to school. As a mother, my priority was to ensure my children would be ok.
Having had our world turned upside down, I knew my role now more than ever was to ensure they had consistency in usual routines, boundaries, buckets of love and people they loved around for them.
The first few months were extremely challenging, I had no physical energy and spent every day in bed consumed with sadness, my brain trying to process this huge and devastating life change.
I would take the boys to school then go back into bed until school pick up. I was clear in my own mind that the little energy I had, should be reserved for the boys routines and needs and so I decided not to answer the door to visitors.
During those early days, weeks and months my concentration was extremely poor, my thoughts were consumed with Irfon and assessing my new found life situation.
I was terrified of the future and found it hard to see how I could find a way out of the pain I was experiencing. I was so distracted I would find people talking to me and realise I’d not heard a word they had said.
I think most of us believe grief is about persistent sadness and not about the whole range of other emotions it brings.
Sleeping at night was a huge challenge, I would struggle to fall to sleep then once asleep I suffered with vivid dreams that Irfon was still alive and well. I would wake suddenly in a panic: it would take me a few seconds to realise that it was just a dream and like a punch in the face, the grief was there again.
I think most of us believe grief is about persistent sadness and not about the whole range of other emotions it brings. Once the numbness wore off, I found myself feeling very anxious and began experiencing fears about safety.
I worried if the boys were not in my company, would something terrible happen to them? I also found myself up several times during the night checking the doors and windows of our home. At times I felt I was going mad.
The boys also struggled with the new bedtime routine: previously it was Irfon who read a bedtime story to them, and so bedtime became a regular trigger point for grief.
As time moved forward, I found my energy levels increasing and would spend periods of time sitting in the garden. I was able to accept visits from friends. The numbness wore off, the debilitating sadness began to lift and new emotions came into play.
I remember one Saturday morning struggling to get Ianto’s football studs on to him in preparation for a match. Anger flashed through my body like lightning: “Irfon should be here doing this. Why did he die? Why us?!’.
Another time, I remember trying to get the lawnmower out the garage and ending up sitting on the garage floor, tears streaming down my face.
As the months rolled on into summer, new challenges faced us in a cluster of milestones including a lot of family birthdays and going on holiday for the first time without Irfon. It’s often said to people who are dealing with grief “oh, it is the first of everything that is the hardest”.
I also think it is important for the boys to see me cry and through doing so they have learned not to feel awkward or scared of sadness.
From my experience I don’t think that is true. That first year I was numb and just went through the motions, in particular for the boys. We tried our best and stuck to the usual routine of making a fuss of birthdays, I kept Irfon’s words in the back of my mind as I blew out my birthday candles with the boys excitedly looking on: “Celebrate getting older, not everybody gets to do it.”
Summer moved to autumn, back to school. I feel passionate that schools have a huge role to play in supporting grieving children given that children spend the majority of their time there. Thankfully, the boys’ school has been extremely supportive and so the transition back to school was made very easy.
By now the boys had been seeing a child psychologist regularly, I felt it was important they be given some space and a person separate to talk to. I think this has benefitted them tremendously and they had begun feeling secure in their world once again.
As a mother, to see this was wonderful, I remember several occasions where just watching them innocently laughing and smiling made me well up with huge relief, joy and pride, because “we are doing it, we are making it through!”
One thing Irfon and I were always very clear about is the importance of honesty with the children. During Irfon’s illness we were always honest with the boys despite their young age, and in the last few weeks of Irfon’s life, they were aware Irfon was dying.
I think this honesty, despite being absolutely horrendous for them, in the long run has been of benefit. They were prepared as much as they could be for Irfon’s death, they were given the chance to say goodbye to Daddy and are now more secure knowing they are always aware of what is going on.
I have actively encouraged the boys to cry and remember feeling particularly angry towards one visitor to the house who clumsily told the boys: “Come on now don’t cry, be big boys for your Mum.”
I also think it is important for the boys to see me cry and through doing so they have learned not to feel awkward or scared of sadness. We now as a family can recognise that emotion and sit with it comfortably.
Christmas arrived and it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I’ve found it is the anticipation of these dates that is more tricky than the event itself. I remember feeling very scared in case I became paralysed by grief and couldn’t make the day special for the boys.
On Christmas Day, we had both sets of grandparents over for lunch and I guess, looking on, it was like many happy scenes round the country, except for us all there was a looming background thought that one chair was empty.
There is no final destination in the grieving process, we are now living a different life alongside the grief.
In Spring I returned to work. Returning to work was a challenge as Irfon and I had worked together so it was again another situation to feel his loss and it brought back painful grief. After a few weeks of perseverance, this latest wave of grief settled and I found being back in work of help. It helped me gain my sense of identity, here I was ‘Becky the Nurse’ and not ‘Becky the Widow’. I could feel confidence in myself returning which was encouraging.
By now the waves of grief were becoming further apart and day to day was feeling easier to manage. When a wave of grief did hit me, it was still capable of knocking me off my feet. I found these waves inconvenient and disappointing, however I learned that they pass and so would go with it
Around this time I began an eight-week mindfulness course. I wanted to find something I could use to help manage the persistent anxiety that had plagued me since Irfon had died. I also began worrying a lot about my own health and mortality – what if I am diagnosed with cancer? What will happen to the boys?
I have found practising mindfulness of huge benefit, it keeps me in the here and now and I am far more tuned into my emotional state. It’s not about surpressing difficult emotion but rather recognising it for what it is and feeling it.
Before we knew it, the 12-month anniversary of Irfon’s death was upon us. As I approached the date, it felt an opportunity to look back and examine how far we had come in such a short space of time.
We are now in a place emotionally that was so difficult to imagine reaching in those early days of intense pain and sadness. It is no longer all consuming and we are able to laugh and have fun but most importantly we have learned to feel our grief and accept it.
We have learned that this grief will never leave us, it is now part of us for life. There is no final destination in the grieving process, we are now living a different life alongside the grief.
A huge relief came when I realised I can now feel grateful. Grateful for having had our wonderful Irfon in our lives: and as long as we keep talking about him, as we do every day, then he stays alive. We will always have the enormous love we showed each other, as love never dies.
Irfon wrote a book, which was published after his death: ‘Fighting Chance - The Autobiography of Irfon Williams’, also available in Welsh.
But we’re leading change
Never Too Young is leading change for younger bowel cancer patients. Every year 2,500 younger people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK. Our research has shown that younger bowel cancer patients have a very different experience of diagnosis, treatment and care.
What are we calling for?
- Improved clinical guidance and practice on bowel cancer in younger people
- Improved identification of people with genetic conditions and access to surveillance screening
- Improved information for younger people on bowel cancer symptoms