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At the age of 38, Mark Duffy lost his wife Nicola to cancer and is now faced with the huge challenge of bringing up his three-year-old daughter Grace on his own.
“Nicola was clever, beautiful, bubbly, happy, friendly and one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. But when Grace was 11-months-old our perfect lives were turned upside down,” reveals Mark, a sports journalist in Derbyshire.
In 2015, Nicola, who taught at Beaufort Community Primary School in Derby, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and “eventually, with all of her hair gone and her body hammered by treatment, it was decided that a mastectomy was the best way forward after all, including the removal of the lymph glands under one of her arms, and that was then followed by some radiotherapy over the course of two or three months.”
A year later she was found to be cancer free. However four months later her jubilation turned to despair as she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer and was told it was terminal.
The months that followed were “horrendous”, with Mark saying: “We tried to keep optimistic as the treatment had positive effects initially, but Nicola was not only having to cope with the physical battering but also mentally, not knowing how long she’d survive and how much she’d see of Grace growing up”.
'Life without Nicola will never be the same'
The cancer then moved to her brain and she died aged 35 in hospital on 17 August.
“Even though we’d known for a while the moment was coming, nothing could have prepared us for it. I’m only glad she was pain free and that we were all there.
“Life without Nicola will never be the same, but however hard it might be, it has to go on,” said Mark and with that in mind, a few weeks after Nicola died, he took Grace to her first day at nursery.
He called her first day at nursery a “bittersweet day” saying Nicola “was so keen to live long enough to see this but maybe somehow she can”.
“I wasn’t sure how she’d get on at nursery but, thankfully, she loves it and has already wowed her teacher with how bright she is. I know I’m biased, but for a child who has just turned three she’s very clever and I think her supervisors were quite taken aback on her first day when, for example, she was the only one who could spell her name, write it down and pick it out on a list of others,” he says proudly.
Getting Grace ready for nursery was a 'welcome distraction'
Getting Grace started at nursery was of “paramount importance” when Nicola died as “preparing for that proved a welcome distraction from everything else going on,” says Mark.
Up till now, Grace has been unable to attend nursery or playgroups due to the risk of infection for Nicola. “Grace always picked up colds, etc but passing those on to Nicola could cause lots of problems and on one occasion did so. Thankfully Nicola emerged, just, to fight on.”
Before Grace started at the nursery, he let the nursery know that Nicola had died. “I wanted the staff to be aware so if there are times when she is unhappy they will understand why. She is not showing any signs that I need to be concerned about yet but these are early days. Also when they do any activities involving their mummys such as making mother’s day cards then I want them to be sensitive that this could upset her.
“Nicola was very keen on her going to nursery. I could hear Nicola on my shoulder saying ‘make sure you get her ready for nursery and sort out her uniform’.
“Grace did an induction day at the nursery back in July and Nicola came along to that. She was in a wheelchair then.”
Grace is currently doing 15 hours a week at nursery. “I think that is enough for her as she is often sleepy when she comes out. Going to nursery has been a huge thing for her but she is loving it.”
Mark is recording his experience as a widowed dad on the blog The Widowed Daddy Diaries which he is sharing on the Widowed and Young facebook page. He reveals that “one of my main reasons for writing my blog is because it is cathartic. I wrote the first blog very soon after Nicola died.
'Relatively unique to be widowed so young'
“I am always very honest about how I am feeling. I want to help other people who are in the same boat as me. It is relatively unique to be widowed so young.
“Statistically there aren’t many widowed guys in their 30s put in this situation and although I’m aware of one or two through the various support groups I’ve encountered so far, it seems even more rare that those affected have children as young as Grace.”
Nicola had been diagnosed as terminally ill for nearly a year so the couple had plenty of time to plan for things in advance.
“But on the whole, her belief was that while she was obviously devastated that she wasn’t going to be able to see the little girl she doted on grow up, she had every faith I’d do a grand job.”
“I did my best while Nicola was alive to prove to her that I’d be just fine. From the day Grace was born I was a very hands-on dad so I’ve always taken on plenty of responsibility, particularly as I had to while Nicola was ill anyway, but clearly this was going to be a very different kind of scenario.”
Grace has been a 'constant therapy due to her fun-loving nature'
Children live very much in the present and Mark has found that Grace has been “a constant therapy due to her happy and fun-loving nature” and says: “Without her I’m nigh on certain we’d all be in a very different place psychologically to where we find ourselves now”.
“I can also hold quite advanced conversations with Grace too which has helped when it’s come to explaining just what’s happened to her mum.
“Don’t get me wrong, at three-years-old there remains an awful lot Grace won’t understand, nor should she be expected to, and we’re having to approach some aspects accordingly, but I’m of the opinion that she’s actually a good age to be experiencing this because she’s old enough to have some memories of Nicola and understand the basics, yet perhaps not old enough to be too adversely affected by what’s happened. Time will tell, I guess.”
In fact he says that far from being daunted by the journey ahead, he is actually relishing it, saying: “I’ll do as much as I can with Grace on a daddy-daughter level and generate as many great experiences as I can for her throughout her childhood. It will be hard work, there’s no question about that, but proper parenting is hard work for anyone no matter what the circumstances so I just need to make things work for us.”
The thing that’s stood out for him most over the weeks since Nicola died is “simply the huge chasm she’s left behind. Such was her personality, vivacity, humour and charm, someone I spent so much of the last 11 years with suddenly not being there is almost impossible to get my head around.
“I keep wanting to ask her things, check things with her, or simply hold her tight and reassure her, but I can’t do that anymore and it doesn’t feel right. A huge part of me is missing that will never be replaced.
“I’m utterly devastated that Nicola isn’t on this journey with me, but I owe it to her to ensure that Grace will flourish.”
To read more of Mark’s blog go to thewidoweddaddydiaries.wordpress.com/
For more information on WAY Widowed and Young go to www.widowedandyoung.org.uk/bereavement-support/