Learning to make musical instruments has helped Jason Cains navigate his grief following the loss of his wife – and given him a new career to boot. Here, he shares his journey.

“Sarah and I were childhood sweethearts. We met each other at 16 and by 18 we were married with a baby; it all just felt right. Now I am a widow at the age of 40.

Sarah had just turned 26 when she became ill, and it took over a year for her to be referred for tests for pulmonary hypertension. We didn’t really understand what the diagnosis meant at first and didn’t really contemplate the long-term consequences of it until a couple of years later.

Sarah died 13 years after being diagnosed, in February 2017. It was a complete shock. She died suddenly at home and I couldn’t go into that room for months. I had to move all of the furniture around in the house as I couldn’t stand to see the empty space where she used to sit.

I was angry. Over nothing ultimately, but I felt angry that life hadn’t given her a proper chance. She was a beautiful human being and only had good to bring other people. She helped me so much over the years with my own mental health issues and was always there to pick me up.

I helped her with her physical health issues and she helped me with my mental health issues. That’s how we got by.  I miss that.

The loneliness was hard to deal with. I had grief counselling for three months and it was the best thing I did. I am also incredibly blessed with a big circle of family and friends and they were they for me constantly.

A wonderful surprise

For a few years I’ve been tinkering with guitars, taking them apart and fixing them up, and just learning as I went. But as the first anniversary of Sarah’s death approached, my friend Martin gave me a huge surprise – he had used his savings and borrowed money from friends and family to enable us both to take a residential guitar-making course.  

He and my sister had organised it all behind my back. They knew it would help me get through the anniversary, and help me learn a new skill that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to train in.

The course is run by Crimson Guitars in Dorset and we went for the three-month residential option, travelling from our homes in Portsmouth to stay in a cottage Monday to Friday. We were surrounded by nothing but sheep and an art gallery; it was beautiful.

Each day between nine to five involved intensive guitar-making in the workshop. I kept a photo of Sarah on my bench, so she was there with me the whole time.

Anniversaries and friendship

The anniversary of Sarah’s death came a few days into the course. I tried my best to keep going, but about halfway through the day I went back to the cottage and went to sleep for a few hours. It was a very sleepy day, as I just tried to shut it out.

It was also hard on our wedding anniversary, which was just a few days beforehand. And shortly afterwards came the anniversary of her funeral, and then my birthday.

There were a lot of ‘firsts’ to deal with in a short space of time, but Martin and I had made friends by then, so we invited people round to our cottage and tried to keep the place busy.

I met some lovely people on the course. I suffer quite a lot with social anxiety but because everyone there was doing the same thing, it took a lot of the anxiety out of it because we all had something in common.

The course started in January and was due to finish in late April, but we had to stop a week before the end because of coronavirus. I’m looking forward to finishing it when we can.

Filling the hole

I would be lost if I hadn’t done this course. I spent the last few years of Sarah’s life as her carer, so with that gone, I found myself with little to do.

Making instruments is now what I intend to do as a career. I find it difficult working with the public, and the whole social anxiety thing can be a bit troubling for me. This way I can work from home too, so there are a lot of bonuses.

I’ve been using the skills I picked up on the course to keep busy during the coronavirus lockdown. I’ve been making ukuleles and I have my first build back home too, so I have been playing that. It’s a four-string fretless bass, quite thick and jazzy, and it’s dedicated to Sarah. I have another instrument – that I need to finish – which has her name written in Morse code down the fret board.

Things are much better now, but something I continue to find difficult is being a young widow. I’m only 40, but the only people around me who really know what I’m feeling are my two nans. Being a young widow is an isolating experience; there is an expectation that young people live a long and happy life and there doesn’t seem to be many support groups.

With my depression, it would have been very easy for me to slide right down after Sarah died. But I had so many people rushing around to support me, even though they were suffering their own grief, and they offered so much love and kindness.

Grief causes a hole and that hole doesn’t shrink – you just fill it. I hope Sarah would be proud of me if she could see how far I have come in the last year.”

  • Jason would like to hear from other men with experiences of losing a partner. Please email media@phauk.org and we will put you in touch.