In April 2016, we were given the news that my wife did not have long to live. The cancer which had started in her kidney had spread to her bone.
Of course, this was absolutely devastating to me and at first, going into work felt impossible. Doing my everyday tasks as a planning consultant – dealing with applications and administrative issues, people’s complaints about neighbours and developments in their community –felt so irrelevant. It had nothing to do with my life and what mattered.
There were times, though, when it was surprisingly welcome. A place where ‘normality’ was an escape from my home life. I was on close terms with a few people in my team, and so I was able to tell them it had returned and that there was nothing that could be done. They were great, and it was a comfort to be in a place where I felt supported.
My line manager, in particular, was good; checking in with me often and making it clear that the priority was for me to do whatever I needed, whether that meant ducking out of meetings for private calls or dropping everything and leaving at the last minute.
But my boss, the head of our department, stopped talking to me.
We were in the kitchen together one day, and I said hello but he barely responded. I put this down to him having a bad day.
I was fairly sure he knew what was going on, so was a little annoyed that he didn’t reference it – say he was sorry to hear, at least – but didn’t think too much about it.
But it happened again shortly after when we arrived at the office at the same time one morning. I said hello, to which he responded, but there was no more. I tried to make conversation – we were both keen cyclists and the Vuelta was on at the time, so I asked him if he’d seen any. He gave a perfunctory response then pretty much bolted ahead of me, striding to his office.
I was gobsmacked and spoke to my line manager about it. Was there an issue with one of the applications I was working on? I thought maybe I’d messed up somehow (not unlikely considering my head was ‘elsewhere’) and he was unhappy but didn’t want to bring it up due to what I was going through. I thought, in a strange way, he was trying to be considerate.
But my line manager was totally unaware of any problems with my work, and it’s something she would have known.
So it was left as a mystery. We had had a good relationship previously, working together on a regeneration project, which at that stage had been the biggest of my career. He was impressed with me, and we got along on a social level, chatting easily whenever our paths crossed, mainly about cycling but I knew about his family and often asked after his children, as did he with mine.
For the eight months that my wife was ill, before passing just after Christmas, my boss’s behaviour never changed. I felt embarrassed and angry, and it just served to compound what was already a horrific time in my life.
I had two weeks bereavement’ leave and when I returned I was really touched by my colleagues’ behaviour. The women were generally more forthcoming with asking how I was doing, but male colleagues were good too. I remember the first morning I came back to work, a guy from another department made a point of coming to find me, shaking my hand and asking how I was. I was moved and grateful.
People don’t know how to deal with bereavement, which I understand. You don’t want to say the wrong thing or make someone feel uncomfortable, but overcoming your own awkwardness to let someone know you’re thinking of them is important. If in doubt, send an email.
Six months later, I left my position to work somewhere new. Primarily this was because it was a better opportunity for me, but my boss’s behaviour was definitely a contributing factor – feeling badly treated isn’t conducive to enjoying your job.
I’m still friends with my line manager, and not long after I left, she found out that our boss had lost his mother to cancer.
She had been chatting to him and he’d asked how I was. She’d told him that I was doing well in the new job and was seeing a bereavement counsellor. He blurted out that his mum had died of cancer when he was doing his A-levels and then quickly changed the subject.
It seemed, then, that he had found my situation just too difficult to confront.
When I heard I was a little stunned. Of course, I felt for him – if his mother had died some 30 years previously, but he was still affected to that extent, he must be carrying around a lot of emotional baggage.
I don’t know the details, but it might be a fair guess that, as a teenage boy in the eighties, he wasn’t able to allow himself to feel emotional. Perhaps he still wasn’t.
I’m pleased there’s more of a conversation now about men and their emotional wellbeing; it feels as if a lid has been lifted and more and more men are feeling able to be open about their difficulties. That can only be a good thing; if things had been different for my boss, maybe he would have been able to let me know that he had some experience of what I was going through. And that would have meant a lot.
For help dealing with bereavement, try Cruse Bereavement Care at cruse.org.uk
February 7th is Time to Talk day – part of the campaign to help end mental health discrimination. Find out more at http://time-to-change.org.uk