The strange grief of losing someone to prison

Families do time too

Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash

Over a decade ago when my son was a toddler his father -my now ex-partner -went to prison. It was the most shocking thing that had ever happened to me at that point in my life.

There had been significant events leading up to his arrest — clearly he’d been breaking the law — and as I’ve now come to realise, can’t seem to stop screwing up. I’ve given up trying to work out what his problem is, other than concluding that there must be a significant personality disorder and/or impulse control disorder and/or an organic neurological problem going on.

But that’s not my problem to solve.

When the police arrived at the house at 5.45am one morning with a search warrant I nearly lost my mind with shock, rage and powerlessness. The legal instrusion felt like a psychological rape, the experience was that traumatic.

Our toddler son was crawling around quite amused by the all conundrum. I stood there powerless as the police searched all through the house, looking at whatever they wanted filimg us and what they were doing. I found it ironic that they wanted to take my computer given my ex-partner could barely turn one on.

But his crimes were white collar in nature so it stood to reason that there was further incriminating evidence in the house computer. I begged them to let me save my uni honours work onto a disc, which thankfully they allowed. It was months before I got my computer back.

Looking back now I marvel at how, when the ex was taken away for questioing, I was so worried about him. The anger I later experienced and couldn’t get past didn’t show up straight away.

I see that now as denial.

He was bailed to the community after questioning and we had a few weeks of ‘freedom’. I didn’t attend any of his court appearances; it was just too traumatising and stressful to consider. I was studying and raising my first child. I needed to try and have some normalcy in my life and not let everything blow up.

He plead guilty on advice from his lawyer, but later said he regretted it because he still got a hefty sentence. But, turns out his committed offences when still on parole from his first stint in jail before we met. Something I knew about but never in whilst dreams did I think he would do it again; but he did.

When the lawyer rang me the day of his sentencing to say ‘I’m sorry but he got 6.5 years, having to servce 4.5 before being considered for parole’ (he ended up doing the full 6.5 years), I answered her in shock saying ‘But we’ve only been together 3 years’. All she could do was essentially say sorry.

But it wasn’t her fault.

The first few weeks with him in prison were filled with night time ice cream eating sessions in bed while my son was asleep. In a way I was grateful to have a child to take care of because it kept me focused on practical tasks and surviving. But I knew I was up shit creek without a paddle because he had been the sole income earner.

Overnight I became a single parent due the shameful event of the other parent being incarcerated. Up until that point in my life I had never met anyone who had been to court, let alone jail. I was a middle-class white educated woman, what had happened to my life?

Suddenly I had rent and bills to pay, car repayments to make and I had no income. I immediately applied for social security but given my exes’ financial affairs were extremely messy and dodgey (aka fraudulent), they said it would be weeks before their assessment was done and they could help me out.

I’ve never felt so helpless and alone in all my life.

Gratefully a family member stepped in and offered to pay the rent for a few weeks before I moved out. I had to sell the car, pay out the loan and buy a much older cheap car outright with what little was left. But at least I was still mobile. I got extensions on my uni assignments and got to experience first-hand the kindness of other people in one of the lowest points of my life.

Later in the new rental as a single parent, I sold my exes’ gardening and other equipment desperate for money. I didn’t care if he objected, he had put us in this position and I was left with no child support or practical help. So I found money where I could.

It became apparent to me almost immediately that sure, I imagine being locked up sucks, but for the families — especially partners with children — the time we do is harder. We’re sentenced too.

No income, no shared parenting, the shame of a partner in prison, having to pay for a roof over your head and feed your child; a prisoner doesn’t have to do any of that. I assume (and hope) they feel guilty and worry about us left behind but that offers little comfort when your struggling to survive.

Families do it tougher than the prisoners I’ve come to believe. Sure we still have freedom — of course this is a fantastic thing - but really, families of prisoners are secondary or tertiary victims of crimes. They have no choice in being dragged into the messy world of a criminal.

We go to our own prison when they go away; only our only crime is being a family member or loved one of a prisoner. I felt punished for no reason and it felt grossly unfair.

The first time I visited my ex in prison I nearly laughed at how close it was to our house. I literally walked their with the pram. Entering the prison grounds was deeply shocking; he really was in prison.

That first visit was traumatising.

I went to the wrong entrance, pushing a pram. I couldn’t think straight I was so stressed and terrified. I evenutally found the visitors centre and was kindly supported by family workers who let me sit in a room and cry. They talked me through the visiting process: signing you and your child in, storing your bag, removing jewellery, what to expect with metal detectors, drug dogs and secuirty checks. It was very dehumanising and humiliating but I was determined to keep our little family together, so caught up in my denial and fantasy I was.

And the grief….

I later came to learn the terms ‘ambiguous loss’ and ‘disenfranchised loss’ to describe the emotional and psychological experiences of a loss to a loved one to prison.

A loss that is ambiguous is not complete. Nobody or nothing has died, but the life you used to know has ended without closure. The loved one may be still alive but not physically or psychologically present: think prisoners, soldiers, missing persons, loss to dementia or drug use or mental illness. You live in this in-between space of intense powerlessness, confusion, fear and grief often with no end.

You can’t perform any of the usual rituals like a funeral or wake or ceremony. You can’t properly say goodbye because they might have disappeared or they’re still alive but just not physically or psychologically present in your life.

It’s intensely difficult to wrap your head and heart around.

Disenfranchised loss occurs when the loss you experience sits outside of what society would ‘normally’ deem acceptable to grieve. There might be shame attached to the loss so you can’t open express your sorrow or be supported in your grief. Your loss experience can’t be validated or acknkowledged by the wider commuity because somehow it’s seen a different way than loss by death.

Think loss of a pet (Why are you so upset? It was only a cat), a relationship (Plenty more fish in the sea), a move to a foreign country (Think of the new life you’re now living!), or a termination (You chose to have the abortion so why are you so sad?).

What is someone supposed to say to someone whose partner goes to prison? Sorry you partner went to prison, you’re better off without him! (?)

I don’t think so.

Whenever I see news stories of some idiot (I’m allowed to call them that because continuing to make choices that jeodarize your family and leave children without a parent is idiotic) going to prison and seeing the wife clutching his hand in front of court, I think: You poor thing. You’ve got no idea what’s coming.

The justice system does the dumping for you, because you may as well have broken up. A few months apart is bad enough if you still love your partner, but a year, 5 years, a decade…. It’s near-on impossible to keep a relationship going with that length of time apart under very difficult circumstances.

The loss for children of their parent — and then them developing memories of visiting Dad or Mum in prison — is profound. If they’re young, they don’t understand it. How do you tell your child anyway that their parent is a criminal and is in jail? We’re taught to fear jail, rightly so, so how do you navigate that with your own children?

The whole thing is nightmare.

And if the story ends up in the media….Lord help you. I was always grateful my exes’ charges were relatively unseen by the media. But his offences did make their way onto the local radio station when we briefly lived in the country (and a news crew did knock on the door once; I begged them not to do the story and cried for hours), and in the city when he was pursued by those trashy commerical current affairs jouros.

But they, he didn’t make the evening news so that’s a bonus right?

It’s crazy how we learn to be grateful for the strangest and stupidest things. Ultimately though I wanted to protect my son from the behaviours of his father. Why should he be labelled or judged as being the kid with his father in prison when he did nothing wrong?

I did everything I could to shield my child and give him the most ‘normal’ and stable childhood I could after his father went to prison. Later I came to see that his father going to prison was a blessing in disguise because life became peaceful, albeit more financially and physically stressful. I developed a resilience I never knew I had. I had control over every parenting decision and I did my best.

I hope I still do.

Australian writer, sexologist, & therapist. I sometimes write about sex & pleasure. I sometimes write about weird shit, my interests & being human.

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