5 years ago last Saturday my Dad died. And whilst it might sound over-dramatic, it feels like a fair thing to say that my life changed completely. My Dad was the first of my parents to die - my Mum died 4 years later. But Mum already had advanced dementia and could no longer say my name. So when Dad died I lost the parent who knew me. But I was still rooted. I still had a reason to go to the city I was born in. Last year when Mum died the physical aspects of the loss were less. But the emotional and pyschological aspects were just as tough. I was an adult orphan.
I remember vividly the shock of losing Dad. It seemed to come from nowhere. A phone call on a Thursday afternoon to say he wasn’t feeling well, the doctor had been to see him, and he was going to hospital. That was the last time I had a conversation with him. He had an operation overnight - I spoke to the surgeon in the early hours of Friday morning. The surgeon said they’d done everything they could, but that he was very poorly and I should travel north. And so on Friday morning we made the trip to Hull. We were briefed on what the situation was, what the chances were, and told that there was still some hope. On Sunday afternoon he died. He’d fought on for 2 days, but finally it was too much for him. And he left me as I held his hand.
I remember sitting in the canteen afterwards and both Richard and I being in a state of bewilderment as we wondered what we did next? We had no real experience with death. I’d been involved with the funeral aspects of my Grandma 10 years earlier, but that was very much in a supporting capacity. I was now the responsible person of my family. I had to tell people, register a death, arrange a funeral. And I also had to look after Mum. Not in a practical way - she’d been in a home for over 3 years by this point - but in every other way. There were just the two of us now. Obviously I had Richard by my side. And Skitters under my feet. But that close 3 person structure that my immediate family had been for almost 40 years had reduced to a 2 person structure. And one of those was fully dependent on other people. Total bewilderment. I think its fair to say we learned a lot in that first couple of months. It was a busy time. Obviously we did tell people, register the death, arrange the funeral. We also spoke to the solicitor and got him to deal with the will whilst I dealt with the paperwork that taking over as Power of Attorney produced. We emptied and sold my family home. And I planned my life around monthly visits to see Mum.
It’s taken me 5 years to write about this. And I write about it now because somehow 5 years feels like a landmark. Birthdays ending in 5s or 0s always feel bigger than those ending in any other number. So it feels oddly right that this also feels more significant. It’s probably also related to it now being a full year since Mum left me too. I write about it publically in the hope that someone can take strength from knowing that they’re not alone. And grieving in Britain can sometimes feel very lonely - the reluctance to speak of death for fear of upsetting people makes it harder to come to terms with. I am fortunate to have a few people with whom I can talk about it, and I value their friendship such a lot.
I feel like I have changed quite a lot in the past 5 years. Probably more so than in any other 5 years of adulthood. I am more open with people. I’m more likely to talk about how I’m feeling about things. If you really ask that is. I’ve noticed that the “How are you?” exchange is a cultural placeholder. Generally when people ask how are you, the expected response is “Fine, thanks, you?”. Sometimes, even if you answer differently the conversation continues as if you’d said “Fine, thanks, you?”. The people who know me, and care, might ask “No, really how are you?”. And that is my cue to talk. And these days I do. I’m, possibly surprisingly, more grateful now. I make a concious effort to spend a few minutes every day writing down the things I’m grateful for that day. There is always something, and I’ve never listed less than three. I also share that gratitude and make an effort to say Thank you to people for doing things for or with me. To show my appreciation to others.
It’s been tough. It still is tough sometimes. I suspect that there are always going to be some days that are tougher than others. Some of those days will be anniversaries or special occasions. Some may be because of a trigger. And some for no real reason, just because…