After his own wife died in a car accident, Ben Brooks-Dutton opened up a public discussion about the lack of support for men who have been bereaved. In a recent BBC documentary, Ben talks to widowed footballer Rio Ferdinand about living with loss.
Three little words tore into me as I watched Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad last night on BBC One: ‘I need help.’
After grieving the death of his wife, Rebecca, for just over a year at that point, the former England captain and widowed father of three was finally facing up to the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to get through it alone.
It’s the harsh reality that many young widowed parents find themselves confronting when the initial shock of their spouse’s death gradually begins to fade.
‘…the plight of a modern widowed parent may actually lie in the pressure to be a hero’
When my wife was killed by a speeding 82-year-old driver whose car mounted the pavement and struck her right in front of our two-year-old son and me, it was shock and adrenaline that helped me keep it together. I meticulously organised her funeral and gave a fifteen-minute eulogy without shedding a tear. I trained in the gym, ran most days, cared for my son and grieved when I had chance to be alone – usually at the cost of sleep.
Four and a half years on, I sometimes wonder whether the plight of a modern widowed parent may actually lie in the pressure to be a hero. People want you to be ‘amazing’ or ‘unbelievable’, perhaps because it makes them feel better. It makes it easier for friends and family to get back to something like normal more quickly if the bereaved person seems to be managing without their help.
It’s all show though, really. You only have to look back over Rio Ferdinand’s Instagram feed to see the stark contrast between the persona that this grieving ‘hero’ put out into the world versus what was really going on behind the scenes, as seen in the documentary. In the public gaze of social media he didn’t appear to be a man who needed anyone’s assistance in getting him through the worst time of his life. Filmed in the relative privacy of his own home, however, he was a man literally crying for help.
These intimate scenes gave me shivers, not just for Rio but for every other widowed parent I’ve come into contact with since my wife’s death. A couple of months after she died I started a blog called Life as a Widower with the sole intention of finding other widowed dads who could relate to my situation. One became ten then ten became twenty, and before too long there would be about a hundred and fifty of us connected through adversity. We were all looking for the same thing: help, support and empathy. Sympathy didn’t hold any real value to us anymore – it was often frustratingly unavoidable, in fact.
‘We were all looking for the same thing: help, support and empathy’
There’s a scene in the film where Rio joins some of us from this group for lunch. Before joining us all that day, Rio had never been in contact with any other young widowed fathers before. While the rest of us are all united remotely through social media, it became clear that this wouldn’t ever be an option for anyone of real profile. How could a person whose private life has a value to the media ever really trust anyone they don’t know with their deepest feelings?
This is where I think someone in the public eye may find they suffer the most after the death of a partner. Money might not be an issue but ongoing emotional support may. It’s hard enough for the average widowed parent to find support, and it’s going to get even harder.
Under the most recent system, widowed parents receive financial support from the Government for up to twenty years after their spouse’s death. From 6 April, however, payments – based on the deceased parent’s National Insurance contributions – will only be given for eighteen months. Currently, the Government funds no national emotional bereavement support, such as counselling, either.
The official statements say that these changes are about “modernising” a longstanding but outdated system. One Tory MP, Richard Harrington, even went so far as to say that the bereavement benefit cut would ‘help people readjust to single-parent life.’
‘Money might not be an issue but ongoing emotional support may’
What Rio, and other widowed parents of young children, will find over time, though, is that this implication that grief is a linear process – that it’s better after a year or two – is simply not true. Grief is chaotic; the need for support can come after a week, a year, a decade. And it’s even less predictable in children.
My son is six now, which is around the age when children start to understand the irreversibility of death. He didn’t need help so much back when his mother died because, frankly, he didn’t even understand that she wasn’t coming back. It was four years on before he really needed specialist emotional support. So, who knows what he’ll need ten years from now?
When I heard Rio Ferdinand say, ‘I need help,’ I shivered not just because I saw a man opening up about what he needed in that moment. I shivered because I suspected that he, like others, might need that help for many more years to come.
Ben lost his wife in a car accident in 2012. You can find him blogging on Life As a Widower and his book It’s not Raining, Daddy, it’s Happy is published by Hodder & Stoughton. The BBC documentary Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad is available on BBC iPlayer until 27 April 2017.
Grief Encounter is one of the UK’s leading child bereavement charities, providing free, pioneering services and support to bereaved young people www.griefencounter.org.uk