A few months ago, my dad died. Nothing particularly unusual in that. It’s something most of us will go through. I was among the youngest of my friends to lose a parent — I’m in my early 30s, and he was 66 — but by no means the youngest.
Dad had long-term health issues, so a lot of people reacted with a sad smile and a nod of the head. He hadn’t been well, after all. But though we knew he was unwell and his, say, five-year survival chances were poor, we had no idea he was ready to go just yet. The doctors didn’t even think so. So we were broken, shocked, and in pieces without the much-loved heart of our family.
Understandably, in the weeks following his death, I turned to the internet for ideas and help to process what I was going through, and, to be honest, I drew a bit of a blank.
Many of the sites assumed the grieving person was paralyzed and hysterical with their loss; I wasn’t. Dying a little inside, yeah, but still able to wash my hair, ring lawyers and banks, and make sure my mum and I ate — I didn’t need frozen meals put in my freezer or my trash taken out for me. Nor, as an agnostic, did I require the services of a minister of any sort or suggestions for meditations upon God’s love for both him and me.
Some guides were strictly practical, but my husband and I work in the medical world and had helped organise the estates of our grandparents, so I didn’t really need a step by step guide to the processes of coroners either.
Some seemed to assume I had unlimited resources and no day job, suggesting pilgrimages to his favourite locations and great charity works in his name. None of which were particularly practical with my regulation five-days bereavement leave from work.
A lot of resources spoke vaguely about inheritance and investments. I’m from a hardworking but proudly working class background, and with lifelong poor health, Dad hardly had access to top tier life insurance. His death left us with more bills to pay than it did cheques to cash.
So, these are a few thoughts on my experience, in the hope that someone else going through a similar slightly “early” loss finds them useful…
When planning the funeral, do what’s best for the immediate family
Aunty Emily doesn’t like cremations? Hard luck. Uncle Luke wants to know why it’s happening in the town you live in, not Dad’s hometown? Not your problem. Aunty Sarah and Aunty Jane haven’t spoken for ten years and neither will come if the other is invited? Tough, invite them both (or neither!) and tell them you expect them to sort it out among themselves.
Funerals, like every other big milestone, seem to bring out the crazy in extended family and friends. Ignore them. The important thing is that the service is true to the deceased and what the immediate family feels comfortable with. Don’t let yourself be bullied by the wider world or, for that matter, funeral directors and ministers.
I’d always been mystified why old people’s houses are full of photos of dead family and friends, but I think I understand now. Sometime I just really need, at a core, dumb, under-evolved-monkey level, to see his face. It’ll never even come close to having him here, but sometimes just to see his stupid grin and how much he loved being around us really helps. There’s a sense of relief to look at him at a level I can’t easily explain, and it really helps take the edge off when the panic and uncertainty set in.
Seeing the body was weird, but I’m glad I did it
Definitely a matter for personal preference here. I wasn’t there when he died (about 20 minutes away), but the hospital was very accommodating, and I was able to see him within minutes of arriving. He was still warm, and for all the world looked like he was just asleep and pain free for the first time in years. Even just five minutes to hold his hand and kiss him goodbye really meant a great deal to me, in a way I struggle to articulate. That said, it wasn’t what my brother wanted to do, and I know he’s happy in his decision too.
Go with your gut feeling, but if you even think you might like to, I would counsel to do it. It’s not something you can change your mind on later.
It’s fine not to be fine
When you’ve had your allowed bereavement leave from work, and the special treats and extra cuddles from friends have dried up, it’s okay to still not feel okay. Recovering from grief isn’t a straight line, and good days and bad days (or good weeks and bad weeks) will happen.
I also realised there are very few people in the world (particularly older people) that haven’t lost someone. So just saying, “I’m sorry I’m preoccupied/weepy/snappish, I’m just thinking about Dad a lot today, and it’s been a bit hard going,” has generally been received really positively by everyone from my boss to my friends to my partner. People aren’t psychic, and sometimes they needed reminding I was suffering, but they nearly universally reacted really well when told.
Sometimes it’s odd stuff that gets you
I’d known my dad wasn’t well and unlikely to make old bones, but some things that I had imagined would be massively upsetting to experience after losing him (a new book by our favourite author, the first time my car broke and he wasn’t there to ask for help) were actually okay-ish. But some things I never even thought would be a problem had me reaching for the Kleenex. A shop whose name he’d always made a terrible pun about closed down. I ate something I’d not had before and wanted to tell him about it. I saw his favourite gin on offer and contemplated getting it now to hold on to for a Christmas gift. It’s strange what reminds you.
Even those who lost an elderly parent felt the same
When my grandmothers died — both in their 90s — I knew my mum and dad were upset, but I assumed that what they were feeling was similar to what I felt at the time: sorry to lose them but aware they’d had good lives and it was time for them to let go. But when Dad died, older friends, relatives, colleagues, mentors, and acquaintances opened up to me about losing their parents later in life, and their experiences were still very similar to mine.
If someone’s lost their mum or dad, even if that parent was 70 or 80 or 90 and their child was 40 or 50 or 60, that sense of powerlessness, of abandonment, of losing a really key and defining relationship from your emotional landscape, seems to be very similar.
They really put in to words what I felt and helped normalise my experience, at a moment when few of my close friends had gone through the same thing. I was very grateful for that. If you’re struggling to find someone that understands, look for someone older and don’t assume that they won’t understand how you feel because the loss of their parent was more “timely.”