Labour MP, Sheffield City Region Mayor and former paratrooper Dan Jarvis has seen the horrors of war… but they were nothing compared to the grief of losing his wife at just 43.
Here in an exclusive extract from his new book, Long Way Home, he recalls some moments that helped shape him…
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the coping box as a strategy for others but it somehow saw me through the toughest of times.
It was a Colour Sergeant who introduced us to the concept. He said: “The way I’ve always got myself through is by putting all my worries in a box – what I call a coping box.
“When you’re in the heat of an operation, when your mates are being killed and maimed, you don’t have time to grieve, don’t have time to think too deeply about what’s happening.
“You just have to get on with it. Better to store it all away in that box and deal with it later.
“When you get back, maybe then you can open it up and deal with it.”
I first used it in the war in Kosovo. We were dropped by helicopter into an area that had been occupied by Serbian forces. There was something about the place that immediately struck me as not being right. I just got a sense that we had arrived at somewhere that had witnessed horrors.
As we neared the village we saw a young woman walking towards us.
There was a terrible sadness in her dark eyes and a haunted expression on her face. I couldn’t tell if she was afraid of us or of who had been there before. Or both.
As I was considering whether to call to her, there was a message from the lead section that they had found something. I watched the woman disappear like a ghost into the trees.
Called forward to examine the find, I discovered it was a pit about the size of a single-decker bus on its side. It had been covered with a mound of earth. It looked like it might be a mass grave.
I walked cautiously up to it, wondering if it might be booby-trapped, and knelt beside it.
Something smelt very bad. Then something caught my eye – protruding out of the mound a couple of metres on from where I was.
I could feel my heart pumping.
I looked more closely. There could be no mistake – it was a human hand sticking out of the dirt. I edged closer, my eyes fixed upon it.
On the wrist of the hand was a watch. It was still ticking.
I wondered about the woman I passed earlier. What horrors might she have witnessed or suffered?
I tried not to think about the watch, or the hand, or what was attached to it, and what else was hidden in the mound. I tried to put out of my mind the very distinctive stench of death and the haunted young woman’s face.
Into the coping box it all went and I got on with what we were doing.
After the war, life carried on and deployments around the world followed. Then, in 2000, I met Caroline. I fell in love very quickly and it wasn’t long before I asked her to marry me.
Over the next few years we had a son and daughter and while life in the Army with two small kids was rarely quiet, we were happy and hopeful.
But in April 2006 the unimaginable happened: Caroline was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Although we had come to understand there was some minor problem, the thought it might be cancer just hadn’t crossed our minds.
And now, from nowhere, completely unexpectedly, the C-word was being used. Caroline was very upset but quickly regained her composure.
I had decided to be as ruthlessly positive as I could possibly be. I didn’t want to unmask the terrible fear I felt because I knew I had to be strong for her.
We agreed both to stay as positive as possible. I tried to cope by being useful and keeping busy. But I was angry. Angry that Caroline, of all people, was having to go through this ordeal.
I was desperately frustrated that there wasn’t anything I could really do to make it go away. There was an all-consuming feeling of powerlessness and it proved very difficult to manage.
For once I didn’t feel I could just put it in my coping box.
Surgeons thought an operation had got all the cancer but in 2008 it re- turned. Chemotherapy was prescribed and Caroline began a punishing routine which continued until early 2010.
Her health continued to deteriorate. I never ever gave up but there came a moment when I had to acknowledge where this was leading. I had to start accepting that the cancer was probably going to win. That it would take her from me. That I would lose her. That I would be left on my own with the kids.
I had always looked around the corner to think about what was coming next and to try and get ready for it.
But, for the first time, I couldn’t bear to look round that next corner, nor was I able to shove it in my coping box. Maybe the box was full or maybe this didn’t belong in the box. I don’t know which – I just knew I couldn’t discard the worry in the way I always had.
I steeled myself. The final few weeks were awful. I was caring for Caroline at home with support from a nurse who came in every day.
We strove to maintain the normal routine with me getting the kids ready for school and then bringing Caroline downstairs, where I would make her as comfortable as possible.
On a beautifully fresh summer’s morning at the end of June we made it out into the garden and sat in deckchairs with a coffee.
Caroline had her sunglasses on and, despite everything she had endured, was still beautiful, graceful and delightful company. We enjoyed the sunshine and each other’s company and I took the opportunity to tell her how much I loved her.
Caroline noticed a stirring in the little rose bed by the side of the house.
It was a mole. Gradually it worked its way to the surface and popped its sleepy head out.
It paused, as if to enjoy the lovely sunshine, before deciding that it was perhaps better off underground.
Caroline recounted the tale to the children when they returned from school and was as excited to tell them about it as they were to hear it.
It was the last time I saw her smile.
In the weeks that followed she declined with terrifying speed.
On a Friday morning in July Caroline became very short of breath. An ambulance came and took her away. I sat by her hospital bedside for several hours.
All day I could see and feel Caroline sliding away. I sat holding her hand all night and for most of the following day.
That afternoon I could feel her going and at 3.30pm she died. I had no idea what to do. I sat with her for a while.
Despite all the time I had spent thinking about it, trying to prepare myself for this moment, I wasn’t ready.
Eventually, I thanked the staff for their care and walked slowly out. I was holding a small plastic bag containing Caroline’s belongings – her dressing gown and a washbag I’d made up with a few toiletries.
I’d arrived at the hospital with my wife. I was leaving with a plastic bag.
I drove back to our house, opened the front door and walked in.
That’s when the magnitude of it hit me – like a shock wave washing over me, a force field of anguish and hurt. I walked into the kids’ bedroom and sobbed uncontrollably.
How cruel and unfair that they had lost their mum.
I couldn’t make it stop. I couldn’t make it go away.
Losing Caroline only reinforced my understanding of how important it was to make the most out of life and I had long before come to understand that what you do for a job really matters.
If I was going to leave the Army it would have to be for something
that still gave me the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution.
Although I missed Caroline enormously and felt that huge sense of loss, day by day, week by week, month by month, I had started to work my way through the fog of grief to a point where I was able to ask questions of myself about what I wanted to do in the future.
I thought that serving in politics just might be the way to go and I began to get excited at the prospect of this new challenge.
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