Rob Atkinson column: Doodling his way through grief and loss

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Every so often, you hear something that jolts you away from your own mundane concerns, putting life well and truly into perspective.

It happened to me just today. There I was, happily preoccupied with how Leeds United might do at Blackburn this weekend, almost unaware of the BBC’s The One Show on in the background. And then, the programme completely grabbed my attention, all because of the story of one brave man, his two amazing children, and the rollercoaster journey they have been on since late last year.

The man is the remarkable Gary Andrews, who describes himself as a “shortish, balding, tubby Illustrator and cartoonist, actor, Father of two (feels like more...) and widower”. Those first three words could easily explain my sympathy with Gary, along with the fact that he’s an actor. But it’s that last item, widower, which really got to me.

Almost a year ago, Gary lost his lovely wife Joy, the mother of his two children Lily and Ben, to sepsis, a condition arising from the body’s response to infection. Gary was working abroad at the time, so he returned home to a family life brutally stricken with disaster.

Left suddenly alone, bereft at the loss of his “goddess” and soul mate for 19 years, and with two young children to bring up alone, you could forgive Gary for crumbling into tiny bits. I say this, because I’m uncomfortably aware that this would probably be my own reaction, if faced with such a calamity. Gary’s awful reality is my deepest and darkest fear. Without wanting to seem self-indulgent – because I believe that thousands out there share this awful dread – I should say that, like Gary, I married the most wonderful girl in the world, in my case more than 29 years ago.

The difference for me is that, while I’ve come uncomfortably close a couple of times to the identical shattering blow, on both occasions I was spared my worst nightmare becoming reality. And for that, having heard Gary’s story, I am endlessly grateful – not least to our fantastic NHS.

What I’m almost certain of is that I couldn’t have coped with such an experience, not in the way Gary Andrews has. Instead of succumbing to the grief and loss that clearly overwhelmed him, Gary put his creative energy into documenting daily life after bereavement, through a continuing series of doodles which showcase both his illustrative talent and the courage and fortitude he shares with his children in picking up the threads of life and carrying on. Shining through these illustrations is the love that has survived bereavement, the strong feeling Gary and his children have that their Joy is still with her family and watching over them – and the way in which three brave people, one father and two children, are supporting each other in the darkest of times.

It’s an inspirational story, one which has helped me face my own fears, and which I am sure would be of immense comfort to the many thousands out there who have not been as lucky as me. Gary tells, in an often incredibly poignant but frequently hilarious series of sketches, the story of being “on the grief rollercoaster”, as he puts it.

In doodle after doodle, his love for and pride in his kids leap off the page, a repeated affirmation that the family is sticking together and coping, in a manner that would surely make Joy immensely proud.

I’ll freely confess that the whole thing had me misty-eyed, as I’m certain it would so many others.

Anyone wishing to read Gary’s story, as well as joining his efforts to raise awareness of sepsis, should follow him on Twitter (@GaryScribbler).

His is a touching and incredibly meaningful message well worth sharing.