What do you do? (or Who are you?)

How I responded to the question “what do you do”? as a Carer and then as a Young Widow.

  • Putting on a brave face
  • Feeling a loss of identity as I grieved
  • Trusting new friends with my story

I found the question “What do you do?” to be harder than “How are you??”

When you have young children you meet people all the time through playgroups/daycare and then another new community when children start school. It is a time in your life when you usually share a lot of information about yourself to build friendships and support networks. You disclose what you do for work, how you live and from that you find commonalities.

What do you do? – How I responded as a young carer and new parent

When our children were infants and toddlers – my husband and I had a very significant difference to other parents that we met. As well as juggling work commitments and adjusting to being new parents – we were riding the terminal brain cancer roller coaster. I was a cancer carer and my husband Mick was living with cancer. Sharing that part of our story always resulted in significantly changing the dynamics of any conversation.

Most of the time we chose not to mention my husband’s prognosis or to gloss over the details. Mick wanted to have a go at being a dad while he could and focus on that.

Recently I spoke to an acquaintance whom we met at playgroup when our children were toddlers. She mentioned how she was always envious of Mick and I . She watched us attend playgroups together and wondered how we managed the “work life balance”.

Oh – how “looks can be deceiving”!

My acquaintance and I shared a wry smile as we remembered that time. It was only a few years later that she understood that Mick and I were at playgroup together as a couple because I was my husband’s carer.  He wanted to be involved with the kids as much as possible. He was always at risk of seizure and had trouble at times with balance and communication. I needed to be on hand, keeping a watchful eye over proceedings – enabling and supporting him to be a present engaged father to our kids.

It was hard for me not to tell people our full story but I made a decision early on to put most of my emotions in a “parking lot” and adopt a positive pragmatic persona so that Mick and the kids could live a “normal” life as much as possible.

I was fortunate that we had many old friends from university and work who also had young kids that I could use as my “new parent support group”. They were geographically dispersed and did not live close to us but I chose to use them as my peer group by phone and occasional catch ups for support.

I would wait until a later time to build deeper friendships with people in the local community – when I felt comfortable disclosing how our challenging our life really was. I realised I would probably have to wait until I was a widow.

What do you do? – How I responded as a young widow of young children (first year)

Seven months after my husband died, my eldest child, my son, started school. I was worried that he would find the transition difficult but he really took to school. Perhaps it was a great relief to him to have a distraction and routine away from the seriousness of grief at home?

In contrast I found school and meeting new people difficult. Everybody in the playground was very friendly and keen to get to know each other. I dreaded telling people our story and answering the question of “what do you do?”.

Yet it was important that I shared the basics of our story with the parents of my son’s new friends so that they could be supportive and sensitive as required. Everyone was of course – shocked and compassionate. The conversations were usually brief due to the demands of young kids at school pick up. This suited me fine because my emotions were raw in that first year of grief. I used platitudes to respond to kind questions and concern. Platitudes such as:

“Thank you. It has been extremely hard but we are okay, we have good family support.  We are making the most of life.”

What do you do? – Trusting others with my story (second year as a young widow)_

In the second year of grief and the second year of school, I met more people and found it harder to explain who I was and what I did. People expected that given a year and a half had passed I might be feeling better?! I had not yet returned to work and was discovering that the second year of grief was just as intense, if not more intense than the first. (Click here for a post about my grief year by year).

People were surprised that I was not back at work. I found it difficult to explain why I wasn’t. I was grateful that my work was still holding a position for me. I could refer to my employer and previous life to give people a sense of who I was.  As I told people about my work that I was planning to return to – I started to realise that I did not know who I was – I was telling them about the person I used to be.

Following this realisation, when people asked me “what do you do?” I started to answer more and more honestly. I would say:

“I am a new widow. I am grieving. I’m looking after my grieving children. I am processing my losses. I am writing. I am healing.”

I felt exposed sharing this but I also felt truth.  This response was effectively showing people how I felt which was

“I don’t know who I am or where I am headed right now”.

I had lost my identity and sense of place in the world and I was trying to find it. In the space of five years I had gone from an ambitious successful career woman (a woman sure of herself in the world) – to a new mother/solo parent, cancer carer and young widow( a woman grappling with loss and seeking new foundations.)

I decided to let go of my ego and trust people with my story and my vulnerability. Everyone was compassionate. Most people were uncomfortable and not sure what to say.  I knew that this would be the case and did not expect much because most of our society is uncomfortable discussing cancer, death and grief. It is not small talk, not a light conversation, not a quick chat. With these people I rounded off the conversation with platitudes and steered the conversation on to lighter topics.

BUT I was thrilled to discover some people who were okay with seeing my broken self. They did not know the old me, they they were not scared of my story and they were keen to nurture a friendship together. They could see my light amongst my broken shards and offered me the gifts of companionship, insightful questions and laughter.  They were happy to listen and nourish me with cups of tea and love.

I am so glad that I took the risk of showing my raw self to new friends (they are now some of my closest friends and I treasure them). It was an important step towards lighter sunnier times.

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Photo credit: Cle0patra via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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