Sunday, 5 February 2012

Coping with Death and Bereavement

I started writing this blog last Sunday. It was originally to commemorate the passing away of my beloved Dad 25 years ago and to comment on the fact that I've now been on the planet as long without him as I was with him. It was going to be a loving tribute to him. As I started to write it, I realised that even after 25 years, I have some painful and unresolved issues relating to his passing. I realised that the cause of many of these issues are social and cultural. I realised that if I still have issues and anger over the whole thing after 25 years, other people might as well. It struck me that maybe it's time we started a debate on how Great Britain as a society deals with such issues.

The seeds of these thoughts were planted listening to an excellent edition of the Robert Elms show on BBC London 94.9m, where the whole show was dedicated to the subject of death. I am not going to discuss the religious aspects of death or where we go or don't go, I try not to use my blog to promote my personal religious beliefs. I believe we need to have a discussion as to how we cope with the passing of a loved one.

I am an orphan. My father died in January 1987, suddenly after a heart attack on his return from a holiday in Florida. My parents had returned early as my mother's sister had died unexpectedly. They came back for a funeral. My father didn't realise that it would be his own. I wasn't living at home and I didn't even realise they were back in the UK. In those days, we didn't have mobile phones or emails. I was in a total state of shock when I heard the news. Perhaps the worst thing was the fact that no one seemed to know what to do. I guess if someone dies after a long and protracted illness, at least you have some idea and hopefully have made a few arrangements. My Uncle George died a couple of years later of cancer. He had everything planned to the last detail. His wake was in the "Load of Hay" pub in Hendon. At the end of the evening, myself and my brother Laurie were the last ones left. The landlord came up to us with two rather fine glasses of Johnny Walker whisky. He said "Are you Laurie and Roger?" We replied "Yes". He said "George said you'd be the last two in here and he asked me to give you these in his instructions for the wake".

With my own fathers funeral and wake, I remember virtually nothing, except one of his friends throwing a deck of cards on the coffin and a few old stick in the muds scowling at it disapprovingly. That and the sheer weight of the coffin (he was a big old boy). I had decided that I wasn't going to shed a tear and I would be strong. I built a huge wall between myself and the reality of the situation. I was devastated, but didn't want anyone to know. Sadly I found out almost immediately that as a society, we vandalise the emotional wellbeing of people who are grieving. Let me explain how, more through luck than judgement, at the time I had a dream job. At the tender age of 23, I'd managed to land myself a job managing a team of people doing a piece of work that to this day I'm proud of, for a blue chip company, which changed the face of High Streets in the UK. What could go wrong?

When my brother rang to break the news that my father died, I was stunned. I was getting ready to go to work. I immediately phoned my manager and said "I won't be able to come to work today, my father has passed away suddenly". What do you think she said? What would you say? Her response was perhaps the most incredible thing I have ever heard. She said "Under company rules, you are allowed one days compassionate leave for the death of a parent. I expect to see you in the office tomorrow". I was numb. I simply replied "I will be in when I'm ready and able to work" and I put the phone down. You may wonder how I felt. I don't know. I was just in a daze. The following Monday, I decided that the time had come to return to work. I made my way to the office. As I entered, I passed one of my colleagues walking the other way. This was a friendly amiable chap in his 40's. What he said took me back. "Decided to turn up at last have you?". I am not a placid person, I have a fiery Celtic temperament at times. Despite my general despondency, this roused me. I wondered exactly what he'd been told to make such a crass comment. I rared up and said "I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you've not been told the full story. I have been off because my mothers sister died eight days ago. My parents flew back from Florida for her funeral and the the day after they returned, my father had a heart attack and died. My mother is in pieces, all of the family are in pieces and to be quite honest with you, I couldn't face working. I phoned in and said I'd be in when I felt capable of working". My colleague looked visibly shaken. He said "Oh my God, I didn't realise, Jane (the manager) just said you couldn't be bothered to come to work. She didn't say anything about your father". At this I became angry. I said "What, she told everyone I was skiving?". My colleague replied "Yes, I'm really sorry, we'd have sent a card and flowers if she'd told us". He then ushered me out of the building and into a cafe. He ordered me a coffee and said "Please wait here. I need to make sure everyone knows what has happened. I don't want anyone else to behave as I did".

I sat there alone with my thoughts for an hour. I couldn't make any sense of what had happened. Why would someone say that? Was it a personal thing? How could anyone be so cruel?  I'm a pretty tough character but I felt like I'd been violated by this horrible woman. Eventually my colleague came back. He said "I've phoned everyone and they all know. They are really upset. Jane would like to see you now, I will come along to make sure you are ok. Don't lose your temper with her". I said "Ok, I'll be alright".

I entered her office and sat down, my colleague at my side. I expected an apology. She said "Why didn't you turn up for work last week.". I was determined to keep my cool. I responded "As I told you, my Father died and I didn't feel capable of working". She responded "I told you that you were allowed 1 days compassionate leave, why didn't you attend work". At this my colleague piped up "Jane, company policy states that you are allowed up to ten days compassionate leave if you are making funeral arrangements". She responded "He didn't say he was making funeral arrangements. In most families, it is the eldest children who do this". I replied "I was making the funeral arrangements". She said "You should have notified me of this". My colleague then said "Roger has now notified you. The funeral is on Thursday, so he needs to go home and continue making them". She replied "Just because you are entitled to ten days, doesn't mean you have to take ten days. I took half a day off when my father died, for the funeral". I responded "There are plenty of arrangements we need to make, I'd better go home and sort them out". At that I walked out of the office. I realised that even though I loved my job, I couldn't work with this woman. I found another job within two months.

As I reflect on this, I realise that it is an extreme example of how bad the British are at dealing with death. The response of the company to my bereavement was appalling. Now, 25 years later, as I thought about it, I came to the following conclusions.

1) My manager had received no training at all in how to counsel a member of staff who was coping with a devastating loss. She'd interpreted company policy purely based on her own prejudice. This is completely inappropriate and an abuse of position. Company policy should be clear and transparent.

2) The company had no formal process for assisting a member of staff who was struggling to cope with a life changing experience.

3) Although my colleagues were outraged at what happened, none felt that there was any point in making a complaint. A couple said "We'd like to make a complaint, but it is a waste of time for issues like this". Such issues are paramount.

What should happen? I contend that every company should have a formal policy for dealing with bereavements affecting members of staff. As soon as a member of staff reports that they've been affected by a bereavement, HR/Personell should be alerted. They should then do the following :-

a) Offer counselling and assistance to the member of staff to deal with the emotional issues relating to bereavement. I believe that a counselling session with a trained counsellor should be a legal requiremnt. If someone is in employment, the company should pay for this. If a person is on benefits, the state should. My family hadn't got a clue what to do when my father died. We employed the Coop funeral services, who helped and were very good. We shared the responsibility, although my sister did most of the work. For many people, who don't have a large family and the support that brings, a bit of help would be invaluable. It would also give an economic benefit to the company as a person with help is more likely to be able to do their job properly.

b) Ensure all managers with a responsibility to staff trained in how to deal with bereavement. I would not wish my worst enemy to have the experience I suffered.

c) Ensure that the issue of bereavement is covered in the school syllabus. Coping with it is something we all will face at some point.

There was one little addendum to the story,which shows how badly men in Britain deal with death. About a year after my father died, a friends father died. He'd suffered for years with kidney problems. He'd been waiting for a transplant. He'd been looking forward to when he had one so he could resume a normal life. Eventually he got to the top of the list. He had a transplant, but the operation went wrong and he sadly passed away.

I went along to the funeral to pay my respects. As the service progressed, I was suddenly back (in my mind) at my fathers funeral. I started thinking about all the grief I had, how much I missed my Dad and how many things I'd failed to say to him. I was overwhelmed with grief. I burst into tears and had to leave the chapel in floods of tears. I couldn't stop for about half an hour. Although it was most embarrassing, I didn't care. I went home and drank half a bottle of scotch and passed out.

I woke up the next day and I actually felt normal for the first time in a year. The sun was shining and that feeling that my head was going to explode had gone. I went to my local cafe and had a big fry up breakfast. I picked up the Daily Express and read the sports pages (reading the Daily Express is one bad habit I acquired from my Dad). I felt like I could get on with my life again. How many people are there who bottle things up for months, years or even a lifetime? I am sure that I'm not the only person who is so dysfunctional that it takes a friends Dad's funeral to release my pain and anger. How long would I have carried the burden, had I not gone that day?

I wish I could offer some help and hope and guidance to anyone who is under that cloud. That is why I wrote this blog, so that if nothing else you know someone else on the planet has an inkling of understanding of how you feel. Yesterday, for some reason, I did something I haven't done before. As I walked through the hall of my house, I paused by a picture we have. It is a montage of various family members - I rescued it from my mothers flat, when we clearing it out after her death. There is a picture of my Mum and Dad at the "Ross River Dam" in Townsville, Queensland, Austrailia taken in 1976. They are both standing there, smiling, happy, healthy and full of life, enjoying a holiday. They were in their mid 50's then. As I looked at it, I smiled and remembered all of the good times. I realised that I am over the loss of both of them. My memories are of the good things and the bad things, but they are not tinged with the anger, frustration and guilt. I no longer look at the pictures and think "why?".

What I haven't properly got over is the fact that I feel abusively treated by my employer at the time. A time when I was vulnerable and weak. I am still full of anger and hatred towards a person I feel treated me in an appalling fashion. I write this blog in the vain hope that someone, somewhere will realise that such pain is unnecessary and that it much of such pain can be avoided. I still feel an apology is warranted (although I know I'll never get one).

Life is for the living, but as a society, we will never be truly happy until we learn to cope better with how we manage the process of our loved ones passing away. I am sure there are some situations, I'd never recover from such as the death of a child. What I do know is that until we move beyond the "we don't talk about it" mentality, we are fighting the battle of coping with both arms tied behind our backs.

1 comment:

Jaybird said...

Thanks for this Roger. Companies can be very bad at dealing with the 3 Ds (Death, Disease, Divorce).

Partly it reflects the fact that people do not know what to say or do. If you are wondering, don't say "I know how you feel" because you probably don't and do say "I'm so sorry".

I had an equally appalling experience in my first job, when a 24 year old co-worker died in an accident 5 months after we both started. Nobody above the entry level attended his funeral and a number of us were told we could not all take the same off to go.

A small memorial was held for colleagues, at 6 pm. My boss approached & asked me why I was there if I had not completed all my work for the day.