Moving on after my wife’s death

Henry (centre) never got to meet his mother. Photo/JENNIFER MUIRURI | Nation

What you need to know:

  • Two years on, George Ojwang’ talks about being a single parent, and finding love again

Two years ago, in June 2012, we published George Ojwang’s story - his wife had slipped into a coma after developing pregnancy-related complications.

Claris was 38 weeks pregnant when she developed pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition that occurs during pregnancy, usually after the 20th week.

After complaining of a severe headache, Claris had suddenly collapsed, and was rushed to hospital, where an emergency caesarean section was performed.

The couple’s second-born son, Henry, was delivered healthy and fit. However, while the couple’s new-born son went straight from theatre to nursery, Claris was taken to the Intensive Care Unit.

A head scan revealed a ruptured blood vessel, which had led to a blood clot in the brain.

When we featured this story, Claris had been in a comma for four months, but George was hopeful that his wife would eventually wake up from her slumber. She did not.

On December 6, 2012, Claris passed away.

That day, George was headed to visit his wife at the hospital after a busy morning in the office.

“She was at the Kenyatta National Hospital, and that day, I was unable to get parking. I decided to drive back to town to park my car there, then board a shuttle to the hospital. As I was parking, I received a phone call from the hospital. The nurse told me that I was needed urgently, but refused to disclose the reason,” he says.

Just the evening before, George had spent time with his wife as usual.

“As I held her hand and spoke to her, something amazing happened. She had always been unresponsive, but that day, even though she was still in a coma, I unbelievably watched tears stream down her face."

"To me, it only meant one thing – that she was slipping out of the coma, and that it was only a matter of time before my Clarita (as he fondly called her) would regain consciousness. I left hospital that night a very happy and hopeful man.”

However, that phone call caused him great anxiety.

“I boarded a shuttle at Kencom bus stop, but it was taking too long to fill up, so I decided to walk to KNH, actually, I was half jogging, half sprinting,” George remembers.

When he got to the hospital, he immediately cast his eyes towards her bed. Indeed, she was on the bed, but she was covered with a white bed sheet. She was no more. Claris had died at 1.20pm as he looked for parking in town.

For a man who had left the hospital the night before in high spirits, certain of his wife’s recovery, the news of her sudden death shocked George.

“Throughout her admission, I was certain that she would one day get out of her coma and go on to make a full recovery. I was so optimistic; I had so much hope and faith. To me, it was not a matter of if she would wake up, but when.”

But there was no time to mourn, since there was a burial to think about.

“There was an outpouring of support for me and my boys from relatives, friends and strangers who sympathised with my situation. This is the same kind of support I had received throughout Claris’ illness. Hundreds of people attended her burial.”

George stayed on at his rural home for about a week after the funeral, most of it spent by his wife’s graveside.

“The flowers, which had been fresh and beautiful to look at, were withered within a week. This made me realise that my life had to go on; I could not spend the rest of it staring at her grave.”

Back in Nairobi, the enormity of his wife’s death hit him with brutal force.

“Clarita had incurred a huge bill. I had taken a medical loan, (insurance did not cover her illness) and at the time of her death, the loan was 13 million. I wondered how I would clear it. Here I was, a widower with two young sons to raise. How would I make it?”

Thankfully, his close circuit of friends helped him organise mini-fundraisers, which helped to offset part of it. He continues to repay the remaining 7.9 million.

Since George has been vocal about his situation, he began to get requests to speak about pre-eclampsia in various public forums targeting women, especially pregnant ones. However, after a few months, he decided not to do it anymore.

“Each time I talked about it, it would relive painful memories of my wife’s death, and I felt as if I was not moving forward. It became emotionally draining for me. I couldn’t take it anymore so I stopped.”

He admits that he took his wife’s death hard.

“That first year, I blocked my mind from thinking about it. I didn’t even know what I was feeling. I numb. I refused to believe that I would never see my wife again, so I preferred not to think about it. I kept myself distracted by focusing on my sons, and burying myself in my work, which involved a lot of travel.”

His grief was so much, that during the first few months, George would find himself driving to the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, where Claris had spent a considerable amount of time before he transferred her to KNH.

“For a while, I would chat with the guards, who knew me, as well as the nurses who had taken care of Claris, and then I would return home sad and disappointed at having not seen her.”

Back at home, Claris’ absence stood out more, now that he knew she was gone for good.

“She was a good cook and loved to entertain guests, so our home always had visitors. But after her death, our home became silent, and the frequent visitors no longer came – it made me wonder whether they came only because of her.”

It was after marking Claris’ one year anniversary in December 2013 that George finally accepted that his wife was gone.

This ‘sudden’ acceptance opened his eyes to on-goings around him. He began to notice the attention he got from women – friends and strangers alike – since his wife’s death. It is a realisation that startled him.

“Could it be possible that I could love again? Would it be possible to find a woman who could accommodate me and my boys?” he wondered.

The mere thought of starting life with another woman terrified George, who was sure that it would be a betrayal to Claris.

However, it is a thought he decided to open his mind to, and a few months later, he found someone. In a bold, brave move, perhaps something not many men would do, two months ago, he took his lady friend to Kendu Bay – the home of his in-laws.

“I have always had a good relationship with my in-laws, who have been very supportive of me and my sons. Out of respect, I decided to let them know that I was seeing someone else, and I also wanted them to meet her,” he says.

Not sure of how they would react, he took her anyway.

“After they met her, my parents-in-law thanked me for showing them that kind of respect because they still considered me their child. They gave me their unreserved blessings, and I left their homestead a relieved man.”

In spite of this new chapter of his life, George confesses that he is yet to completely let go of Claris.

“Her clothes are still intact – just the way she left them the day she was admitted in hospital. I have never moved any of them. Her make-up kit, her lotions and jewellery are still intact. I have also never taken off my wedding ring, not even for a day.”

Just a day before this interview, George had walked over to the wardrobe where Claris’ clothes still hang, intending to transfer them to a suitcase, but he was unable to.

“I just stood there, frozen. I don’t know when I will gather the courage to do it…just not now.”

Single parenting

On parenting, how has life been like raising his sons on his own? Haroun is now four, while Henry is two.

“It is a demanding responsibility, because being the only parent, I have to play a role ideally meant for two,” he says.

He points out that his routine revolves around his sons, his job, and church. He spends most of his Saturdays doing fun activities with his children, such as bike riding, swimming and playing other outdoor games.

Every evening, just before the boys go to bed, they read the Bible and pray together - they always mention Claris in their prayers, which sometimes makes George get emotional.

“When this happens, Haroun comforts me by telling me that his mum is in heaven and watching over us. He assures me that we will all see her again someday.”

As it is with all young children, Haroun and Henry fall ill once in a while - between them, they have been admitted in hospital four times.

Each time, George has taken his leave days and stayed in hospital with the sick child. The latest such episode was just a week ago when Haroun was admitted for three days, suffering from mumps.

George says that since it is women who are often admitted with their children, he is always the odd one out, but this does not bother him, and no, he has never considered asking a female relative to help out.

“Why should I, yet it is my responsibility? I am their father, and therefore the best person to look after them.”

Two weekends ago, George marked two years since his wife’s death. He says he is still on the journey to healing.

What advice would he offer someone who finds himself in a situation similar to his?

If you are married, treasure your spouse. Respect them, show them love, be faithful, commit to your marriage vows, and stand by them in sickness and in health. That way, even when the person is gone, you will have a clear conscience, knowing that you gave them your best.

If you have lost a spouse, take time to understand and listen to yourself. Everyone will offer you all manner of advice, some based on their own experiences. But you must filter what you take in because everyone’s situation is unique.

If you choose to remarry, don’t be in a hurry. Take your time, especially when there are children involved: remember they lost a parent.

Keep in touch with your parents-in-law because they are still your parents. Continue showing them love and respect just like you do your own parents.

If you have children, allow them to spend time with their grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. Do not deny them this.


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