One year

Today marks one year since we lost Ant.

It’s pretty rare for me to get engaged in or encourage long conversations about how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking. And in the last few months in particular, I’ve just not wanted to talk about myself because, frankly, I’m a little sick of myself: the heaviness of my energy; the knowing that if I let despair take hold, there is no longer an emotional safety net at the bottom of that spiral.

If you’ve seen me (IRL or online) in the last four or five months, you’ve almost certainly had questions you wanted to ask about how the kids and I are going but felt you couldn’t. I wanted to write something answering those questions but lacked the imagination to come up with what they could be. So I asked the listeners of my podcast. They came up with the questions below. I hope my answers give you some comfort 🙂

How do you get through the days?

The short answer is I keep busy.

The long answer is I get through the days by focussing fully on the kids. Everything I do right now is in the interest of their wellbeing. At the point of writing this, I’m really happy with where they are at. They hate that they’ve lost their dad, yet they have found a way to engage fully with life even with the shadow of that loss hanging over them. Most crucially – they have hung on the essence of who they are as people. Mia with her 100 mile a minute approach to life and Jaden’s kindness and consideration of others.

For a while, Jaden was really struggling, and his struggles were changing him into someone he wasn’t – someone quite volatile and mean. It was tricky figuring out how to let his own personal grief process play out, while also reinforcing to him that he had a choice about the person he was in the face of this grief. He could choose to be bitter and angry and lash out (primarily at his sister as she was an easy target, or on the basketball court), or he could choose to stay true to who was as a person. There was a period that I thought perhaps my cheerful, kind-spirited boy might be lost forever. But, to my relief, he came through the other side.

Focusing on helping the kids come at life with good energy and stay true to themselves and the people Ant and I were building them into together – that’s the main thing that gets me through the days at the moment.

What are the stages of grief you went through?

I think we’ve all heard about the stages of grief being:

  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope

And I think we’ve all heard that these are not ‘steps’ that happen in order. Rather, you can go through all of them several times and in all kinds of order. I definitely experienced all of the above.

But my own personal way of dealing with it all unfolded like this:

Stage 1: I was in a movie, playing the character of this woman who lost her husband. It was an intense role and I was fully invested in it. But I also felt that when I stopped shooting that movie, I’d be going home to Ant. These were the early months when I knew he was ‘gone’ but hadn’t processed that he wasn’t coming back.

Stage 2: This was where I felt like I’d been given the job looking after the life of this woman who’d lost her husband. It was my job to do everything I could to hand that life back to her in good shape when she came back for it. So I made sure she exercised every day, ate well, slept well, set good boundaries, looked after her emotional health and made commitments that anchored her to the future in some way. This was most of last year. Maybe June onwards.

Stage 3: This is where I am now. I’ve come back to the life that Kelly was looking after for me. I know I’ll be carrying this loss with me for the rest of my life and that loss currently weighs on me like a very large and heavy backpack. But it’s one I’m fit and able to carry all day so long as I get to take a rest from it each night when I sleep.

What keeps his memories alive?

The fact that the kids and I are comfortable talking about him and bringing him up in conversation. ‘Daddy used to do that’. ‘Daddy would have loved this.’ ‘Remember when Daddy …’

The fact that Ant is still present in every decision I make. 

There are pictures of him everywhere in the house. 

These two are the spitting images of him:

Lots of things really.

He’s just so deeply embedded in the three of us as people that keeping his memory alive is not something I imagine we’ll ever have to work hard to do.

What activities are too painful to do?

Going down to Yallingup at Easter was harder than I imagined. I thought Yallingup would be less painful than Dunsborough (which is where we always holidayed). But pretty much every corner of that Dunsborough/Yallingup region held a happy memory. I also forgot that by the time he’d died, we’d really achieved everything for our little family that we’d ever dreamed of. But we had one more ‘stretch dream’ – to one day buy acreage in that Dunsborough/Yallingup region and live somewhere surrounded by trees. We looked at property every time we were down there. So that was hard.

I would have liked to have gone to the ATP Cup which was on recently here in Perth and see Rafael Nadal play in real life. But last year, tickets to the Hopman Cup final was Ant’s Christmas present to me and going to that was the last thing we did together as a couple.

Going to the beach is always hard as that was where Ant and the kids had the most fun together.

Jaden playing his first WABL game and his first WABL season without Ant there to watch and guide him was extremely hard. But even though it was painful, basketball also saved both of us to a big degree last year by keeping us both very busy. So … swings and roundabouts.

Doing school pickups and seeing other dads at school pickup also tugs on my heart a lot as in the second half of 2018 we would often do the afternoon pickup together as we were both working from home together and a 3pm break from our desks was always welcome.

What are some of the dumb questions people have asked?

No dumb questions that I can recall. 

But the most frequent, well-meaning suggestion that didn’t really work for me was the thinking that since I’ve lost my life-partner, I would benefit from talking to someone else who has lost theirs. I can totally see how this would be therapeutic for someone who needs to vent to someone who ‘gets it’ about all the people who don’t ‘get it’. But I just haven’t experienced situations where people don’t ‘get it’. 

And for me, I feel less that I’ve lost my husband and more than I’ve lost ‘my Ant’. So really, if I’m going to talk to someone, I need that person to have known Ant and know what he and I had together. 

One of my dearest friends Kaz both lost her life-partner (nearly 14 years ago now) and knew Ant. So it’s been really good to have her only a phone call away. Kaz will probably say ‘but Kel has barely called on me!’ And this is true. But that’s only because I didn’t see the point of calling her with impossible questions like ‘when will this stop hurting so much?’ (Although I think I actually did ask her that anyway.)

What emotion is the most difficult to deal with?

Is yearning an emotion? No, I just looked it up. It’s a feeling. Specifically:

A feeling of intense longing for something.

For me, yearning leads to the emotion of despair (the complete loss or absence of hope). When you lose hope, things get very dark very quickly, so I shut down yearning using a trick from my triathlon days.

In the lead up to a big race, it was useful to be nervous, but not too nervous. As soon as my feelings and emotions about the race threatened to take me somewhere I didn’t want to go, I had a place I could go to mentally. I didn’t have a name for that place at the time, but let’s call it The Void now. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in The Void this year. So much so, I’ve almost lost the ability to feel. Which worried me enough that I started seeing a therapist again. (For the record – she said it was ok to do whatever you need to do to survive at this stage.)

What did you do for Ant’s birthday?

I knew I didn’t want to be around anyone on that day who had their own grief about Ant to deal with (other than the kids). His birthday was on a Wednesday. On the Monday of that week (which was a public holiday) we got together with his close friends and my immediate family and Ant’s immediate family.

On Tuesday, my friend Brooke flew in from Sydney.

On Wednesday, after dropping the kids at school, I went to see a medium. And what I heard there gave me a lot of comfort. After seeing the medium I went for a walk with Brooke to debrief. Then I got this tattoo on the inside of my wrist. 

The reason I wanted to do that (very out of character thing!) was because I’d lost something that was meant to last a lifetime. I wanted something permanent and related to Ant that I could carry with me forever.

What do the words mean? Well, there is no way to sum up what was most special and impressive about Ant in one phrase. But if I had to, I’d point to his willingness to always ‘do the hard thing’. It served him beautifully with regard to everything that was important to him in life: love, friendships, parenting, work, sport.

I knew the phrase would also serve as a useful mantra for me whenever things got harder than I thought I could bear. Through the back half of last year, they served as a constant reminder to do the hard thing of continuing to show up for life every day when I very much just wanted to die and go join Ant wherever he is.

What is the most helpful ritual for you to honour Ant?

Doing the hard thing of showing up for life every day and being there for the kids.

What’s the most helpful thing you’ve done for yourself?

I would say the most helpful thing was being financially ‘prepared’ for a situation like this (insofar as having all the right insurances for this kind of situation). That meant I didn’t have to worry about money/how I was going to support my family last year. 

This allowed me to work only if I wanted to (and I did want to as work was a very healthy distraction).

It also took a lot of pressure off my sister and mum who were managing two of our businesses.

In fact, it took pressure off every aspect of our lives and allowed me to focus all my energy on getting the kids through the year in good shape.

I also set aside a portion of the insurance money to use on anything I felt would help the kids and I get through. And I put that money to good use:

Wow – that’s quite a list when you write it all down. 

I always feel a bit embarrassed when people commend me for ‘how well’ the kids and I handled last year. I feel it really much less about who we are as people and much more about the environment we were operating in: financially secure while having a ridiculous amount of emotional and physical support from friends and family.

If ever you want to set your own self up to cope as best as is practically possible for a horrifying situation, you might be interested to read this article that shares:

The science shows that all the internal resources we can muster are seldom of much use without a nurturing environment. Furthermore, if those resources are not immediately at hand, we are better off trying to change our world to gain those resources than we are trying to change ourselves.

In other words, no amount of positive thinking or personal development is going to make you resilient if the environment you’re operating in is inherently stressful.

The ‘grief environment the kids’ and I were operating in had very little stress in it thanks to family, friends and forethought.

What’s the most helpful thing other people did for you?

My sister and mum running Swish Design and Swish Online. My sister Robyn in particular – I just have no words for what she did last year. She is my hero.

Ant and I split our roles in this way: he took care of the day-to-day logistics of the businesses, while I took care of the day-to-day logistics of home. Robyn stepping in to take care of the day-to-day logistics of the businesses when Ant died meant my role in our family didn’t change. I got to keep doing exactly what I was doing before. I got to follow exactly the same daily routines. This played an insanely huge role in me (and thus the kids) being able to cope.

The other extremely helpful thing people did was friends and family taking the kids for playdates or out for the day.

Being with their friends and their cousins makes my kids so happy. So I organise as much of that as I can. But being out and about and having to interact with people – even people I love – is exhausting for me. So when people take the kids without me having to be there, and I get to spend some time by myself while also knowing the kids are in a fun and loving environment – this is awesome.

I will admit there is also anxiety attached to those situations, however. Every time the kids are somewhere without me, I am fearful something might happen to them. And I am not sure how I would deal with something happening to one of the kids while they were being cared for by others because I needed some time to myself. Times like that, I channel Ant who never let fear rule his life in any way.

Was there anything you weren’t prepared for (paperwork-wise) when Ant died?

Here are the things that, if someone dies, you’ll be eternally grateful you had in place:

  • The original version of their properly executed Will
  • Life insurance that takes care of all your debt and gives your family enough to live on, in the way you were accustomed, for at least one year + maybe a bit extra to deal with unforeseen financial challenges
  • Access to that person’s email and phone (i.e. know the passwords)
  • Access to important bank accounts (i.e. business accounts, personal accounts, loan accounts)
  • Knowledge of who your life insurance and superannuation is with.

All our finances were in good order (thank you Mark and Mark) and all the necessary paperwork was neatly filed in my office. I can’t even begin to tell you how much easier this made life last year.

Were there any books that helped?

I read all the grief books looking for ‘answers’. To what questions, I’m not sure. I guess the main question was, ‘How do people survive pain like this?’

Grief books like It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok really just reinforced things I already knew. Grief memoirs from women who lost their husbands like Option B and The Year of Magical Thinking … I struggled to connect with them and they didn’t give insights that I found particularly helpful.

The two books that did help a little were:

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales, as it gave me faith in the strength of the human spirit to survive the unimaginable

Curveballs by Emma Markezic, as it gave me the insight that I wasn’t obliged to ‘accept’ this loss of Ant. I just needed to find a way to live with the loss.

How do you cope at nighttime when the kids have gone to bed?

I don’t cope. So I go to bed at the same time as the kids 🙂

Are you able to focus on more than just ‘getting through each day’ yet?

I’m interpreting this question as ‘can you look to the future at all yet’?

And the answer is ‘not really, but I’m making myself do it anyway’. I’ve mentioned already how one of my ‘stages of grief’ was the stage where I felt I was looking after this life for this person who lost her husband and thus my job was to do all the things I could to leave that person’s life in good shape for her when she came back to it.

One of the things I’ve felt is necessary is to commit to things that tie me to the future in some way.

So I have joined the Redbacks Board (Jaden’s basketball club).

And I have booked myself to go to Nashville (what?!) in February to do an editing workshop that will help with both my own writing in the future, as well as the writing I do for clients.

Do you find comfort staying in your forever home?

Yes. So much.

I know some people wondered if it might be painful for us to continue to live here. And sure, there is some pain. But that is far outweighed by the comfort that comes from not having to change anything, from loving where we live, from having all the neighbours on our beautiful little street looking out for us. 

Have people respected your boundaries?

Yes, they really have. 

I know this has been a lot to ask of my friends and family at times. Before Ant died I needed a lot of personal space and time. The amount I need now is more than ‘a lot’. 

I’ve mentioned how much I can’t stand myself when I am uber-sad and operating with ‘heavy’ energy. At times like that, I just can’t be around other people. I loathe bringing that energy to interactions with other people – no matter how much they are great friends and can hack it. I need to be by myself at those times and people have been really understanding of that.

Have you been back down south again?

Yes, I was determined to get over that hurdle as soon as possible as down south is my favourite place on earth and I didn’t want to develop a big hang-up about going down there or travelling that road.

So we went to Yallingup at Easter. The drive down and back was easy – no problems, only mild anxiety, no triggering. But actually being in Yallingup and the Yallingup/Dunsborough region was much harder than I thought so I pretty much avoided it for the rest of the year.

Instead, I went to Margaret River with my besties – and that was lovely. And then we had another two holidays in Busselton. I think Busselton might become our new ‘place’ down there. Not as far away as Margaret River, and not the same amount of memories as Dunsborough and Yallingup.

How are the kids going?

They are doing really well. By which I mean, they are as emotionally healthy as can be expected for two kids who have lost their dad. And behaviourally, they operate in a way that meets the standards Ant and I expect/ed from them.

As mentioned, Jaden struggled for a good few months and was behaving in a way that is not who he is as a person, and not aligned with the standards Ant and I held him to. But he has come through that now.

Mia struggled for the first six or so weeks until I remembered she thrives when she has strong boundaries in which to operate, the person who set those boundaries for her was not here anymore, and I now had to set those boundaries. Once those boundaries were back in place – she was back to being herself.

What are you most proud of accomplishing since Ant passed?

I’m proud of the shape in which the kids have gotten through the last year. But that’s not so much my accomplishment as a joint effort between me, family, friends, their psych, their school, their teachers, their friends, their sporting coaches and the parents of their friends.

For me, personally, the only thing I can take credit for is my own behaviour.

There were many times over the course of the year (starting with you, lady in front of us at the Wildcats) where I really wanted to lash out in the moment knowing my bad behaviour would have been excused because ‘I just lost my husband’. 

In all of those situations, I took a deep breath and exerted control over my behaviour. And I’m so glad I did.

The biggest thing we always wanted our kids to know is that you can’t always control what happens to you in life but you can control how you respond to what happens. It was important to me to be a walking, talking example of that to our kids over the course of last year.

Also, one of the biggest things that helped me cope with losing Ant was ‘no regrets’. I never took him for granted. I never left something unsaid. I cherished every moment we had together. And I will always have that. In the same way, I will always have no regrets about the way I handled anything last year. And I’m so grateful for that.

How do you feel about the last of the firsts being done? (i.e. The one-year anniversary of Ant’s death.)

Disbelief and relief.

Do you still feel Ant with you?

Not in the way I’d like, which is ‘a really tangible presence’.

That’s why, even though the highly-rational, scientific part of my brain rejects the concept of mediums, I’ve been to see two mediums. (I went to the second in a scientific attempt to ‘validate’ the first, of course. Ha.) It was the only way I could achieve the ‘more tangible connection’ I craved.

I took good comfort from both sessions and the second medium assured me that I didn’t need to be seeing mediums to feel connected to Ant. She said to look out for things like feathers which made me roll my eyes a bit. Because when is a feather a sign that someone is looking out for you from beyond, and when is it just a feather?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know I’ve had some significant ‘feather moments’.

I was walking on the beach in Busselton one day on a holiday and up ahead I could see a sandcastle. I thought, with a pang, ‘oh that is the kind of thing Ant was always making with the kids when we were at the beach’. When I got right up close to the sandcastle it was to see there was a feather stuck in the top of it.

After the kids and I got back from that same holiday, we had a bit of a meltdown and all ended up sitting on the living room carpet crying together. I went and had a shower to calm down and while I was in the shower, this tiny teeny feather floated down from where, I don’t know, and floated around (carried by the steam of the shower) for a full minute.

When I was out walking the trails of Tassie for three days, there was a ‘feather moment’ each day.

On Christmas Day, driving between Ant’s family’s Christmas lunch and my family’s Christmas lunch, I was completely overcome by sadness. When we arrived at my aunt’s house, I sent the kids ahead of me and just sat in the car for a while so I could have a private cry with myself. When I got out of the car, the first thing I saw on the grass was a single, perfect, feather.

Is it upsetting when people talk about Ant?

I have no desire to sit down and have a conversation where the sole purpose is to reminisce about Ant. 

But if Ant comes up in the normal course of conversation – and he does, a lot, both with myself and the kids – then it’s not upsetting at all. I mean, something might make me cry, but I don’t shy away from that.

In short, I don’t want people to refrain from talking about Ant in front of me. I love it when he comes up in natural conversation.

How have you dealt with his personal effects?

I cleaned out the study so I could give Robyn any paperwork that she might need for the businesses, and also so I could move back in there to work. (I’d previously been using our spare room as a study.)

But everything else – all his clothes and shoes, all his stuff in the garage, I haven’t touched it. Holding on to all of it for Jaden and Mia I guess.

Have you been able to feel genuine happiness in the past year?

I’ve always known that ‘happiness’ is an ‘in the moment’ emotion. (As opposed to something enduring which is where most humans go wrong when pursuing ‘happiness’).

I felt many moments of happiness last year. 

Importantly, I also gave myself permission to feel happy in those moments. 

Past me would have spent a lot of time pondering ‘what does it mean that I can feel happy in this moment’? Current me has learned to let go of a lot of that unhelpful overthinking and not over-scrutinise or apply judgement to feelings.

What was most helpful in managing your grief last year?

My lifelong tried and true coping mechanism of keeping busy. (But not so busy that I get stressed out and thus start being snappy at the kids.)

Also, the realisation that I didn’t have to ‘accept’ the loss of Ant, I just had to learn to live with it (<< which some people will say is acceptance.)

Lots of people talk about the waves of grief for example. I haven’t found that grief comes in waves. I’ve found it to be something that is always there; something I’m carrying all the time. 

For most of last year, the feeling of loss was the size of a house being carried on my back. And it was crushing me.

Today, that feeling is still big and heavy, but now it fits in one of those giant ‘holds everything you need when you’re hiking and camping out on the trail for a week’ backpacks. It’s tiring to carry it all day, but it’s also manageable so long as I’m fit and healthy and get a good rest each night.

Are you going to be ok? What does ok look like?

To me, ‘ok’ looks like being able to carry the loss of Ant in a way where I can be functional and engage fully with life. It looks like being emotionally available to my kids and being able to give them as much energy as they need from me.

I think I’m doing that now so it’s probably safe to say ‘We’re going to be ok’.

What’s your favourite memory of Ant?

How much he loved being a dad. It was everything to him and all my best memories are of him interacting with the kids

On a personal level – I’d be here all day telling stories and this document is long enough as it is. So I’ll just say, I miss his hugs. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not a hugger. He was really the only person in the world I could stand getting an extended hug from. I really, really miss his hugs.