‘MY 12 MONTHS OF LOSS’

Can­cer cam­paigner Ir­fon Wil­liams sadly died shortly af­ter mak­ing a mov­ing doc­u­men­tary cap­tur­ing the fi­nal months of his bat­tle with colon can­cer. Now his wi­dow Becky has opened her heart about the fam­ily’s first year with­out Ir­fon, and the jour­ney of livi

Wales On Sunday - - NEWS - Drych: Byw Heb Ir­fon is on S4C tonight at 9pm.

GRIEF is the painful emootional state we will all ll en­counter at some point nt in our lives, and yet it seems as a so­ci­ety we are hugely y re­luc­tant to dis­cuss it. This re­luc- tance, in turn, leads to peo­ple be­ing g un­pre­pared to deal with the emo- tional chal­lenges of grief that we e must en­dure when some­one we e love dies.

I first ex­pe­ri­enced grief at the age e of 14+ when my fa­ther died of f 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 age of 37 when Ir­fon died on May 30, 2017. He was just 46 years old. A fa­ther of five, we have two young sons to­gether, Sion, aged nine, 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 and my thoughts were con­sumed with Ir­fon and as­sess­ing my new 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.

Sleep­ing at night was a huge chal­lenge, I would strug­gle to go to sleep, then once asleep I suf­fered 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 hi k most of us be­lieve grief is s about per­sis­tent sad­ness and not ot about the whole range of other er 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 i the th first fi t of f ev­ery­thing thi th that ti is the hard­est”. 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, and the boys went back to school. I feel pas­sion­ately that schools have a huge role to play in sup­port­ing griev­ing chil­dren, given that they 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 sep­a­rate per­son to talk to. I think this has ben­e­fited 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 grand­par- ents over for lunch and I guess, guess look­ing on, it was like many happy scenes round the coun­try, ex­cept that for us all there was a loom­ing back­ground thought that one chair was empty.

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 sup­press­ing 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 it 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.

S4C

Becky Wil­liams has writ­ten about the fam­ily’s per­sonal jour­ney over the last 12 months fol­low­ing her hus­band Ir­fon’s death Ir­fon and Becky with their sons

ARWYN ROBERTS

Becky with Ir­fon

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