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There’s no guidebook on how to be a single dad after losing your wife to breast cancer

When Martim’s wife, Celina, died of secondary breast cancer, he initially worried about how he and their four young children would cope. He tells us about managing grief, finding support, and adapting to change.

When Martim’s wife, Celina, died of secondary breast cancer, he initially worried about how he and their four young children would cope. He tells us about managing grief, finding support, and adapting to change. 

There is no ‘right’ way to deal with losing a partner to cancer 

I don’t know if everyone feels this way about their partner, but I always assumed I would be the one to die first. It may sound silly because I was only 18 months older than Celina, but usually women live longer than men, so it never occurred to me that I might outlive her.  

I also just expected it to happen much later in life. I look at the people in my family, and it’s the women who have been widowed, and always when they were a lot older. 

When you lose a partner to cancer, there’s no real instruction booklet on how to do it right. There’s no manual on how you should react, nor any guidelines on how you’re supposed to help your children through it. 

Being a single dad, too, seems to be more uncommon than being a single mum. I don’t think one is necessarily easier than the other, but it does feel like there isn’t really as much of an established toolkit or framework to follow. 

Over the last couple of years, however, my family and I have learnt a lot and been able to adjust. 

I worried about how I would cope as a single dad 

One of the first things I learnt was that cancer is such a lonely place. It was lonely for Celina to be going through a stage four cancer diagnosis, but I also felt alone a lot of the time. I was in a situation where a lot of my friends were just starting their families or settling down with their partners, meanwhile my wife was dying. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of charities and organisations that will give advice or put you in contact with useful resources. Not just for partners, but for children, too. 

It’s hard to manage your children’s grief, because it’s something you end up experiencing through them. I have had to face the reality that my children will spend the overwhelming majority of their lives without their mum. I was lucky enough to get 14 years with her, but knowing that they only got a tiny fraction of that is hard to accept. 

It’s also difficult to adapt to being a single dad, especially with three daughters.  

At first, I was worried about being able to relate to them – not just when it comes to things like their bodies, but also really fundamental things like how they think. However, I’m really lucky to have a lot of support around me.  

I now have an amazing partner who treats the kids as if they are her own, a family who helps out, and I’ve been able to explain the situation to my eldest’s school. Just being open about the situation invites a lot of support because, ultimately, most people want to be helpful in these circumstances. 

Cancer is lonely for everyone involved 

If there are other people reading this who are in a similar situation with a partner who has stage four cancer, I want to say that there’s no right or wrong way to do things, but there were certainly things that helped me towards the end of Celina’s life and shortly after her death. 

One really important thing that allowed me to accompany Celina in those hard moments was to accept what was happening. Really listen to what the doctors are saying, and ask questions – but only if you genuinely want to hear the answers. 

I’ve heard stories through the community of instances where partners or close family members just refused to accept the reality of what was happening. When that happens, it’s both exhausting and heart-breaking. Nobody wants to keep reminding people that they’re dying – whether that takes years or, in Celina’s case, 11 months.  

By accepting that Celina wasn’t going to recover, it allowed me to understand it better, and to be with her in what she was experiencing. And that’s so important, because cancer is such a brutally lonely place to be, even if you’ve got a million people around you. 

One of the things that made me feel less lonely – and also why I wanted to share my experience with Breast Cancer Now – was hearing the stories of other dads who had lost a partner. 

When Rio Ferdinand’s wife died of breast cancer, he really opened up about it. That was so helpful for me to see, because he’s the kind of guy people expect to be invincible. But that’s the thing about cancer: it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, cancer can still affect you. 

Being kind to yourself is so important during this time 

I set up a Fund in Memory for Celina because I knew it was really important to her to raise money for others in her situation. My initial "goal" was to raise £3000, so you can imagine just how overwhelmed I was when we ended up raising over £22,000. It would have made her very happy - which is another good reason to set up funds like this.

It’s still hard, more than two years later. But it’s getting easier. 

I worried so much at the beginning, because I’d always taken my cue from Celina, in a way. I had the impression that she always knew what she was doing with being a parent, and I was just following along. 

But you learn to take things step by step, and suddenly the magnitude of the task doesn’t seem so great.  

At the same time, though, it’s important not to hurt yourself in this process of adapting to something new. As my counsellor says to me over and over again, we sometimes find it difficult to be kind to ourselves. Even if it might seem inappropriate – especially if you’re a parent with responsibilities – it's so important to give yourself a break.  

Accept that there will be days when you’ll be angry or upset, and don’t beat yourself up over it. 

 

Triple negative breast cancer needs targeted treatment so that young mums like Celina have a better chance to live. The best way for that to happen is through research, and the key component of that research is funding.

By setting up or donating to a Fund in Memory, you’ll be able to cherish memories of a loved one while raising vital funds to help others affected by breast cancer.

Find out more about Funds in Memory

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