Gavin’s Story: Coping with Father’s Day as a widowed dad

June 2023

Gavin has been a widowed dad since last February when his wife, Nat, died after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer five years earlier. As Father’s Day approaches, Gavin reflects on his experiences and how he’s coped with his own grief while raising his 8-year-old son, Magnus.

Gavin and family

Nat and I met in 2003 while we were on holiday in Tenerife when she was 19 and I was 24. From there, we were joined at the hip. We went to university together, became social workers together, and all our friends are mutual friends. We were inseparable, often referred to as the ‘Posh and Becks’ of the social work world! Nat went to a private school, while I grew up as a rough lad from Sunderland. Despite our different backgrounds, we complemented each other perfectly. Nat was wonderful and we had an incredible life together.

When Nat died at the age of 38, it was absolutely devastating. She was remarkably well for the five years after her initial diagnosis and luckily we were able to do a lot of things together as a family. We had five years of grace. She took medical retirement and was able to spend a lot of time being a full-time mum for Magnus. And when Covid hit, I was able to work from home and spend more time with her too. But in January last year, she woke up and wasn’t able to write any more. The cancer had spread to her brain. Two weeks later, she died. It was horrible. 

To cope with our loss, Magnus and I embarked on adventures. 

"We found comfort in having things to look forward to, even on the days when it seemed impossible to move forward."

Travelling was something Nat and I both loved, and although it was initially difficult to get back onto the travelling bandwagon, Magnus and I needed to have things to work towards. 

During last year’s October half-term break, Magnus and I went back to Tenerife, where Nat and I had first met, learning how to travel as a duo. We realised that we don’t have to be sad all the time, and that Nat’s memory can continue to inspire us to enjoy life too.

Learning to live with loss

The first Christmas without Nat was really difficult. It felt as if someone had detonated a nuclear bomb in our lives. We decided to spend next Christmas in the Lake District, away from home. It gets us out of the hot spot over a difficult period. Slowly but surely, we are learning to adapt and make the changes to help us navigate these difficult dates. I involve Magnus in every decision and we make sure we carry a piece of Nat with us wherever we go. 

Gavin with his son

We’ve embarked on an even bigger adventure this year – a trip to New York during the Easter holidays. It was such a surprisingly wonderful time, and despite Nat’s absence, we discovered three important things. First, we realised that, if we can do this, we can go anywhere. Second, even though Nat wasn’t there, we could still have a good time. Lastly, we got to spend the holiday as Magnus and dad, without carrying the weight of sadness on our shoulders.

New York was a turning point for me. Every day, the healing process gets a little bit easier. Instead of being trapped in the void of what we’ve lost, we choose to focus on what we had – a truly spectacular life together. Honouring Nat’s memory means making sure that Magnus continues to be a boy filled with humour and a sense of adventure. 

Magnus and I are never bored. I make a conscious effort to keep us busy. Magnus recently took part in a 5km mud run as part of the Race for Life, raising £1,300 for cancer research. He loved the whole experience and felt proud to be doing something for his mum. I started running from scratch earlier this year, losing nearly 4 stones since January. And I’ve signed up for the Great North Run this autumn. It took me a while to realise this but, by taking care of myself, I can make sure that Magnus is OK too.

Discovering the WAY Widowed and Young community has been really helpful for me. At first, I was resistant, unsure how talking to other widows could help. But I was wrong. 

"It’s both reassuring and comforting to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences and to know you’re not alone."

When we were planning our trip to New York, the support and advice from fellow WAY members were invaluable. WAY is a very good tool that allows me to feel understood and supported.

Coping with Father’s Day

For the first Father’s Day without Nat last year, the school had made a card, and his grandma took him shopping. I cancelled any other plans and wanted to make sure it was just me and Magnus. We went for a very long walk with our dog, Sukie. It was about making sure we were together – me and him. This year, we are better prepared. Magnus has already bought me a card with his grandma. I think there’s a plan to have breakfast at grandma’s house because he keeps on asking me questions about bacon and scrambled eggs!

My advice to other widowed dads, particularly if you have young kids, is don’t be afraid to plan it yourself. 

"It doesn’t have to be a sad day. Try and make it a positive day. As widowed fathers, we should give ourselves a pat on the back."

We’ve worked hard to raise our children, and Father’s Day is an opportunity to treat ourselves. Although we may have lost our partners, we are fortunate to have our children by our side. Let’s not lose sight of that and try to make sure our kids have a good day too. I work so hard not to be sad and to maintain the happiness that Nat gave me.

Being a widowed dad is an ongoing journey filled with ups and downs. By embracing the love and memories we shared, involving Magnus in our adventures, and finding support from organisations like WAY, I’m learning to navigate this new chapter in my life. And through it all, I strive to make sure that Magnus grows up as a boy filled with a sense of humour and adventure – just like his incredible mother, Nat.