06/16/2012 01:46 am ET

What I Know About Fatherhood After Losing My Spouse

In his book, "Mum's List: A Mother's Life Lessons to the Husband And Sons She Left Behind," St. John Greene tells the story of his romance with his wife, Kate; their struggle to help their son, Reef, overcome a very rare form of cancer; and -- most heartbreakingly -- the loss of Kate herself to breast cancer in 2010. The "list" of the book's title is a set of suggestions, facts and practical instructions for raising the couple's two young sons (e.g. "Please teach [the boys] to be on time") recorded by Kate before she died. Here, St. John shares the lessons he's learned about family and fatherhood since losing Kate.


Go with your gut instincts on everything.
As a couple, we felt there was something wrong with our son before the doctors picked up on it. We went to our local doctor probably 20 times before they actually referred Reef to a specialist to find out what was wrong.

Looking after children is a massive job, and everybody does it in a different way.
I don't think there's a right way and a wrong way. For single parents, the job becomes harder. You’ve got nobody to bounce ideas off of before you implement certain rules; you have to work harder on making sure that everything's balanced. As a single parent, you need to use your friends and your family to help you make the big decisions in the house. I think if you do that, you'll do well. It's good to talk. Chat with the children in the family, too, because sometimes getting their opinion can make a massive difference.

Make sure you communicate.
Blokes are renowned for not being very good communicators, and not showing their feelings, but sometimes you need to. Tell the family what's going on.

When Kate died, I got one amazing piece of advice from the school. They told me to tell the boys that their mum had died -- not that she was asleep or floating on a cloud or something, because that might make the boys afraid to go to sleep at night, or fly in airplanes. They told me to be honest, but to be simple, explain things in a child's way -- not overcomplicate things.

Celebrate the good things and good times, and do it on important dates.
Someone who had obviously been bereaved before came out of the woodwork when I was feeling pretty low, and told us this. So rather than getting upset near the date when Kate died, we actually go out and celebrate and do something really cool on that day. Just so that it isn’t horrible, and we aren’t sitting at home dwelling on bad times. The lesson is to be positive.

Be calculated in your risk-taking.
I was always the daredevil of the family -- even when I was a little boy. I'd be the first one up running along the top of a wall, or climbing to the top of a tree. I still do that now, at the ripe old age of 46, but it's all more calculated. I make sure I look after myself, because the boys need their parents, and since the loss of Kate, the odds for me have become a little bit different. I need to make sure that I'm taking care of myself -- but I still like doing the risky stuff. Living on the edge, as they say.

Surprise yourself every day.
The boys are quite demanding; they're 7 and 6, so you can imagine them clamoring for attention all the time. To hold down a job and, at the same time, make sure you’re mum, you're dad, you're disciplinarian –- you’re the one who comes and sorts out the problems; you're the one who gives the cuddles and the love, and all the rest of it... It's a big task for one person to do. It's a big task for a couple to do. Yes, I was a bit worried, but I feel I've done a reasonably good job. Writing a book was something that I never thought I'd ever do. I'm dyslexic, so writing this story was a massive journey for me to undertake. I think my English teacher would probably have a coronary knowing I'd done it.

I didn't want to let Kate down, so I probably worked way harder than I should have done, initially. But it's paid dividends now. The boys are really well settled; they're quite well grounded, and they're very polite. Those are the values that we've instilled in them. I hope they'll carry on like this.

Some people have sent letters saying the book has helped them through crises they themselves are dealing with. The response online -- especially from people who are writing their own lists -- is fantastic. That's something I would really like to see: Everybody writing their own bucket lists, or lists of things they would like to achieve in their lifetimes. We keep telling people: Get out there and live it, because you can work all your life and not have done something and retire and die the next day. Because life is so short, and it's not a rehearsal.

As told to Emma Mustich

"Mum's List: A Mother's Life Lessons to the Husband And Sons She Left Behind," is published by Dutton. The pictures below, with St. John's captions, appear in the book.



Photographs From "Mum's List"