8 Years (Part Two)

My father died eight years ago this month. The anniversary surprises me every year. I feel restless, unable to settle to anything, abandoned and uncared for. I start to look for attention in all the wrong places. Eventually, I remember that I have been “abandoned” by the person I was closest to for most of my life, the person who made me feel seen and upon whom I could depend for a response.

I still grieve the loss of his support and the way he died. My father did not have a good death. We watched helplessly as he suffered terribly, both mentally and physically, through his last few months. I feel haunted by regrets, and sometimes guilt, even though I know he would not have wanted me to feel this way and that one of the last things he said to me was, “Enjoy your life”.

Eight years on, what do I want to say to you about grief? First, you don’t “get over” the loss of someone close. You can adapt to it and, if you’re lucky, your life expands around the loss, so that it no longer feels as all-consuming as it did at the beginning. But you always carry it with you. I remember a colleague, who lost his mother when he was five, telling me that even as a middle-aged man, he could always be pulled back into that pit of grief.

I still feel like I’m adjusting to the situation. On the one hand, it seems like my father has been gone for a long time, but on the other, if I walked into the kitchen in my parent’s house tomorrow and found him sitting there in his usual chair, it would just be a relief to discover that I had been mistaken.

I think that one of the biggest adjustments in bereavement is accepting the changes to yourself. We construct our identities in relation to other people and losing them changes us, often in ways we do not like. I feel like I did not, and would not have, consented to these changes in myself.

That’s another thing. Grief is such a bizarre and unexpected experience. It does not manifest how you think it will. I expected to feel sad and miss my father, but I did not expect to be having panic attacks almost every day for years. I’ve got the anxiety under control now, but I still have anxiety attacks whenever I’m confronted with a problem that my father would have supported me with. I’m just more able to recognise that this anxiety is actually grief.

Your relationship with the person doesn’t end with their death. It just changes. In a way, I feel like I know my father a lot better now that he’s dead and I can see the whole story of his life. I can also see that I did not address the difficulties in our relationship and never confronted him about the ways that he failed me which, if I’m honest, were as significant as the ways that he supported me. I think he knew this too, but we never talked about it because it was too dangerous. I never would have been able to think, let along say, this when he was alive.

Despite the silences and unacknowledged difficulties in our relationship, I still think about my father every day. I will always regret the way he died, miss him and feel the loss of the support he gave me.

Part One

For grief support “that doesn’t suck”, see Megan Devine, Refuge in Grief

8 Years (Part One)

My three-year-old nephew plays on the floor. “I’ve been feeling sad”, you say, “because I won’t see him grow up”.

At the time, I thought you were just experiencing a bout of the morbid thoughts that had always occasionally plagued you, but later, I wondered if you already knew.

My nephew is eleven now. The rope binding you to us unspools a little more every year. Distance grows.

Two homes that you never entered.

Two jobs that you never heard about.

My grey hair, which you will never see.

I heard about a woman who spent thousands of pounds to save the life of a dog her late husband had loved.

Your cat died a few months ago. The last pet we will ever share with you.

My nephew reads Harry Potter and loves riding his bike. “The worst thing”, my sister says, “is that he doesn’t remember Dad”.

Part Two

On Not Managing Grief

The second Christmas since my father died and I feel like all my attempts to manage the situation have come to nothing.  I find myself plunged into grief again.  I realise now that my mistake lay in imagining that I could “manage” the situation in such a way as to avoid experiencing painful emotions because, let’s face it, that’s what I really wanted to achieve, even if I didn’t admit it to myself at the time.

Content note: death, bereavement, grief 

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Bereavement, Depression & Capitalism

One of the problems with being bereaved is that the grief starts to kick in just as society expects you to be getting “better”. My father died in May and I didn’t really start to feel bad until August, since when I’ve felt progressively worse.  And I know it’s only just beginning; I don’t really believe that my father’s dead and still feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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Bereavement, Self & Capitalism

Another thing bereavement has done for me (and this is no bad thing) is make me really aware of some of the ways in which I’ve constructed my sense of self.  One way I’ve done this over the last 15 years or so is to see myself as very professional, efficient and hard-working person. Other people appreciating these qualities in me makes me feel valuable and important.

Bereavement is helping me let go of this self (at least a bit) because I simply can’t do it at the moment.  I’m completely worn out, physically shaky and feeling unwell, mentally vague, preoccupied and forgetful, struggling to concentrate for more than half-an-hour at a time.  My levels of work productivity have inevitably dropped and the illusion that I had of myself as this energetic, well-organised person who never asked for help has taken a battering.  I’ve had to take a day off work today because I just don’t feel well enough to go into the office. And I’ve realised that I’m going to have to adjust my working practices and ask my colleagues for a bit more support over the next few weeks.  Well, I said I wanted to get rid on my workaholic tendencies and it seems I don’t have much choice about that now.  It’s really made me think about how I value myself and whether I want to carry on valuing myself in that way.

This professional persona is really a reaction to an old script from adolescence in which I was constructed as a lazy, useless sort of person, and an underachiever at school.  As I grew older, I reacted against it by creating this super-efficient persona.   Stories build on stories and it takes work to unravel them all.  The “lazy” persona was nothing more than a reaction to a lot of other stories that got told about me for various reasons – mainly these were stories that enabled people to avoid dealing with the fact that I had depression as a teenager.  I’m really beginning to understand why my counselling course tutor asked us to make a list of all the stories that people tell about us.

But then I caught myself thinking that I’m fortunate to work for an organisation that cuts me a little slack during bereavement.  I was shocked to realise that I’m feeling “lucky” to work for an organisation that doesn’t sack me immediately over a slight drop in productively!  Talk about being conditioned by capitalism.  That’s an appalling situation, but it counts as a privileged position in the UK.  Lots of people have to go to work and try and be productive no matter how terrible they feel because if they don’t go in, they can be sacked and instantly replaced by one of a hundred others waiting for work in the class war that our conservative government is currently attempting to inflame to even greater levels.

Funeral and Aftermath

So Dad’s funeral was really, really hard. It would have been better if we could have had it the week after he died when we were all coping better, but we had to wait three weeks, which is too long.

We told people not to wear black because Dad never liked dark, sombre clothes.  When I was a kid he was always encouraging me to wear brightly coloured clothes, without much luck, since like a lot of teenagers I tended to think it was a good idea to dress almost entirely in jeans and black t-shirts. He liked the colour red, so for the funeral I wore a red top and my brown velvet jacket – and my jeans, since I think Dad would want us to go as we were and I am a jeans kind of person.

It was a small funeral, about 40 people were at the church and about 20 came on to the crematorium and to the house for refreshments afterwards.  While I know that we were in no condition to handle a big funeral, it also felt kind of wrong that it was so small.  My Dad touched a lot of peoples’ lives and many of them were missing on the day. I felt that more of them should have been there.

The fact that it was a Catholic funeral caused me a lot of pain that I’m only just starting to unravel.  Standing there with my partner in a church that rejects us, that says we are morally disordered people and that our relationship is sinful, I felt totally excluded from the ritual. I also felt terribly conspicuous sitting with Andy in the front row under the gaze of the priest, relatives and random Catholics who’d come in for the service. I felt anger at being made to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious while being comforted by my partner at my own father’s funeral.  We could have just not worried about it, but there would be real consequences for my mother if we’d made ourselves too conspicuous as a lesbian couple and I’ve decided to be sensitive to that as well.  This meant we found ourselves in an oppressive double-bind with no good choices.

It’s always a very strange experience to go back and immerse yourself in something after you’ve left it behind and for me it was hard to see just how bizarre the beliefs I was raised in are. I was particularly disturbed and upset by the denial of death – it rather felt like the entire religion has been created to assuage death anxiety.  Well, most religions try to assuage death anxiety in one way or another, and since human beings are so immensely averse to the idea of death that’s one of the functions religion serves.  However, I really don’t think the Catholic approach is helpful and in many ways I think it actually increases the suffering of the bereaved. The message we were getting at the funeral was:

1. He’s not dead because death doesn’t really exist – denial causes suffering because he is dead and death does exist!

2. We hope that he’s in heaven, but we don’t know if he is and he might not be – causes suffering because it produces fear and anxiety about where the loved one might be.

3. Because we don’t know where he is, we’d better pray for him and offer masses to try to make sure he gets into heaven (you have to pay for the masses obviously) – causes suffering because it puts responsibility on grieving relatives to get loved ones into heaven by doing the right things.  This is potentially guilt-inducing.
I’m sure a lot of Catholics have more sophisticated beliefs about death than this, but it’s pretty much where my relatives and mother’s friends are at and I find it disturbing.

My father was lapsed from Catholicism for years and reverted when he became terminally ill.  I feel that this happened mainly because he hadn’t made the effort to find another spiritual home and when he found himself dying, it was too late to look for something else. The upshot was that the Catholic funeral didn’t feel like my father at all.  He was an anti-authoritarian, non-judgemental man and his spirituality was very much a personal, simple “just me and Jesus” kind of Christianity.  He was a bit of an anarchist, really, who always believed in doing his own thing and I honestly think he would have been much more at home in Quakerism or Unitarianism.

The Catholic funeral also reminded me of my father’s lack of spiritual comfort at the end of his life and this is very painful for me.  I wish it could have been different for him, but for various reasons he couldn’t trust anyone and, ultimately, I think that included distrust of God as well.   It’s interesting that the person who helped my father most when he was dying was an Asian doctor, who he thought was either a Hindu or a Buddhist, and who sat down and talked to him very directly about death.

Andy and I have decided that we’re going to do out own memorial for my father which will involve going to a place that was emotionally significant to him and doing something to memoralise him, such as building a cairn. This will be a place we can return to when we want to remember him.

On Dying: Part 5

Just over a week since Dad’s death and I have sense of unreality. I’m off work and it’s like we’re having a very strange holiday. On one level I feel relieved.  The stress of the last seven months has lifted, but the reality of Dad’s death hasn’t sunk in, so I’m not feeling the stress of that yet.  It doesn’t help that the funeral isn’t until the 1stJune which is heck of a long time in limbo.

At the moment my grief is all about the fact that he suffered so much, both mentally and physically.  I’m grieving seeing him so vulnerable and helpless.  I’m also feeling very shaken up by the experience of actually seeing him die.  His death was as good as we could make it under the circumstances, but it still wasn’t what I would have liked for him. He never accepted the fact that he was dying and he fought it all the way to the end. This denial had a huge impact on us as his family because it controlled everything.  So I’ve been grieving a lot about his illness and the way he died because it was just so fucking sad and traumatic for all of us, but I haven’t even started to think about his actually being gone.

Also, I think I’m waiting for my “real” Dad to come back – not the sick one, the “other” one. His illness changed him a lot and that kind of change in a person allows you to disassociate and psychologically separate them into two figures.  Even while I knew my Dad was ill in the hospice, I still jumped whenever I saw bearded men who looked like him.  I jumped out of my skin the other day when Mum inadvertently sent me a text from his phone.   It’s like there are two Dads – the one that got ill and died and the other one who I last saw in October and who is surely still around somewhere and who I’m expecting to return.