How do you tell a child their mother is dying?
It’s a question Chris Martin had to confront when his late wife Renee was diagnosed with incurable kidney cancer.
The couple decided not to use the term cancer to describe Renee’s illness in order to shield their daughter from other people’s tales of cancer and loss.
Instead they referred to the disease as “the germs in mum’s belly”.
But eventually they had to have a heartbreaking conversation with their then-six-year-old.
“I remember the day telling Grace that we didn’t know whether we were going to be able to beat the germs in mum’s belly, and if we couldn’t that meant that mummy’s body wouldn’t be able to live anymore and she’d die,” Mr Martin told ABC Radio Melbourne’s Libbi Gorr.
“That was full-on, as you can imagine, having to tell that to a six-year-old girl and the look of disbelief and non-understanding in her eyes.
“At the tender age of six it’s not something you contemplate.”
Renee was pregnant with the couple’s second child, Albi, when she received the diagnosis.
Albi was two when his mum died and hadn’t had time to form many memories of Renee.
“He’s coming to all that now which is really nice to see,” Mr Martin said.
“He wants to watch videos and see photos of his mum and have conversations about happy times.”
To help him cope with the tumultuous time after his wife’s death, Mr Martin started the Just a Dad blog.
In it he shares his experience as a grieving widower and a single parent struggling to be both mum and dad.
“It’s that whole journey of grief. Trying to be a mum, trying to be a dad at the same time, and also trying to process your own feelings and emotions,” he said.
“It’s a daily struggle for me to try and wear both hats and recognise which one I should be at the right time.
“I obviously miss a lot, well, nearly everything to do with having Renee in my life.
“I miss the companionship, the shared load, the daily debrief. Those little moments in life are the things you tend not to think about but they’re the things you miss the most.”
What started as a cathartic experience and a way to keep his friends and family informed, quickly grew into something much more inspiring when he started receiving messages from men in similar situations.
“They were patting me on the back and saying, ‘Really well done for this, there’s not enough of this out there for guys speaking about loss, about grief, about raising kids’,” Mr Martin said.
“It’s just been a really inspiring journey so far to share what I do.”
While he has received a lot of support from his online audience, Mr Martin said it was his children who provided the greatest source of strength.
“Luckily for us it was a long journey through cancer and I think maybe subconsciously [the kids] got an idea of how things were tracking,” he said.
“To be honest, if it hadn’t have been for the kids, I don’t know where I’d be at this stage. They really helped me through the whole thing.”
The biggest lessons Grace and Albi taught him were not to focus too much on the future.
“Kids live so much in the present, they deal with emotions and thoughts and everything in the moment, and unless it’s going to affect them in the next two hours or two days it’s sort of dealt with in a few minutes and then on to the next thing,” he said.
“I was a bit put off at the start, and as time has gone on since we lost Renee these two kids have taught me so much about living in the now and not worrying about the what ifs and what could bes.”
ABC Radio Melbourne listener Ward phoned in to share his story about losing his wife in 2001 when his two children were eight and 10.
“One word that has stuck with me is loss. When we lose our wives, I found, and I think it would be the same with a lot of men, we lose our identity as well,” he said.
“I was running a business as a tradesman so the whole lot stops to look after your kids.
“Your whole lifestyle changes, your identity changes, you lose the identity you created in your work environment and then you’ve got to swap to be the mum.”
He said one of the hardest things was creating a home for his children without his wife.
“As a man I’m good at building stuff, I’m good at building houses, but I’m not good at building a home,” he said.
“I found it hard to recreate that environment as a man. I did it as best I could, as we all do, we’ve still got to get up the next day regardless of our grief and our losses.”
Another listener, Barry, became a widower almost a decade ago when his children were in secondary school.
His advice to other men going through the same experience was to find someone to confide in.
“I know what kept me going was I’ve got one mate in particular and I know I can hop on the phone to him when I’ve been feeling down, when things haven’t been going well,” he said.
“You just need that one connection with just one person.”
Mr Martin is trying to share that same message through his blog, encouraging other widowers not to hide their pain.
“Women are really good at regular connection and networking and leaning on their friends for help, whereas guys, whether it’s harking back to the stereotypical tough Aussie male, we don’t tend to reach out and pick up the phone and tell people we’re not feeling well,” he said.
“We feel this innate need to just power on and be tough and I think that’s one of the biggest problems with men’s mental health in this country.
“That’s why I go public with my journey.”Leave a reply