Sunday 30 December 2018

Bereavement Blog - The happiest time of the year? Not for me

Last picture of Dad a week before he died
We are used to the refrain that Christmas is the happiest time of the year. For many this is true, especially those of us blessed to have small, happy children. There are, however, another group who it is probably the hardest time of the year for. Those who are suffering from loss and bereavement, especially those who are just going through their first Christmas following the passing of a loved one. There is an empty chair, a void that cannot be filled. Perhaps for me the hardest of all the losses I had to deal with was my father when I was 24 and he was 69. He passed completely unexpectedly, of a heart attack. The family was devastated and all dealt with it in our own way. My mother lost her sister the same week, so she had an awful time, but sadly in hindsight I did little to support her, as I was too busy dealing with my own grief.  The first christmas was an exceptionally trying time. My Father died on Jan 29th, so enough time had passed for us all to get back into a normal routine. My mum confided to me that she really didn't want to do Christmas and wanted to be alone. After 43 years of marriage, she really didn't want to celebrate at all. I was going to my in laws. My eldest sister persuaded her to join her and her family. On her return, my mum informed that it was lovely, but next year she would go on a cruise and pretend she'd never had a husband. I was rather shocked. She explained that then there wouldn't be "constant reminders". She was a very practical woman and from her perspective, the less she thought about my father, the better she was, so she made every effort to minimise any memories. She even asked me to "stop going on about him", which I didn't understand at all.

When my father died, a very strange thing happened. Two days after he died, I awoke to find him standing at the end of my bed. I was shocked and not a little disturbed. He gave me a message to pass on to my mother. The thing was it made absolutely no sense to me. I decided that it would not be helpful to pass this on and that the whole thing was probably simply a figment of my imagination. Having said that, I was deeply troubled by the experience. At the time I considered myself an atheist and what had happened did not really sit well with my view of the universe. The only solace was that the message seemed so nonsensical to me that I had a degree of reassurance that it was all in my mind.

True to her word, she spent the following Xmas on a long cruise. When she got back, for the first time since my fathers death, she had recovered a bit of her spark. My mother was a glamorous woman, who was confident and intelligent. She'd spent the best part of two years feeling sorry for herself and being rather depressed. Her long list of ailments seemed to grow. On returning from the cruise, she seemed ten years younger. She told me she'd made friends with a Dutch woman who had informed her that "your husband is dead, you are not, you have a life to lead and you only get one go, so stop feeling sorry for yourself" For my mother, this snapped her out of her cycle of depression. She spent the cruise drinking and dancing and came back, if not happy, then most certainly in a better frame of mind. A couple of weeks after she returned, for the first time she brought up the subject of my father. Over a glass of Guinness (my mum was of Irish ancestry), she said to me, completely out of the blue "You know I simply can't believe that your father went without trying to say anything to me". Misunderstanding her statement I said "He had an unexpected heart attack downstairs". She corrected me and said "No, we made a pact that if one of us went first, we'd make sure the other knew that we were OK". Although my partner (now wife) was aware of the strange experience I'd had (as she was in bed next to me, although she deliberately didn't open her eyes), I'd not told anyone else of my father's visit. Although I didn't want to upset my mother, I felt I had now to tell her. When I told her that he'd appeared at the the end of the bed, she was stunned. She said "Why you?" I said "I don't know, but he gave me a message. It makes no sense at all. I didn't want to tell you as I thought it was simply my imagination". My mother, who was extremely superstitious and a practising Roman Catholic started to become cross "Surely its for me to decide if its important, what is it?", so I told her "He said he was truly sorry that he'd left, especially as he'd promised he wouldn't but he had no choice". It was like a gunshot hit my mother. For the only time I can recall, she burst into uncontrollable floods of tears. For me this vindicated my decision. I said "I'm sorry". I thought she was so upset as it was nonsensical and that she'd wanted a message such as "I love you" or the suchlike.

Eventually she got her composure and said "I have spent the last two years feeling furious at your father for his betrayal in leaving me. He promised he'd stay with me to the end. How could you not tell me that?" She slung me out of the house on the spot in a massive temper. The whole thing was simply too much for me. I didn't see her for a couple of weeks, as I thought she was so angry at me that she wouldn't want to see me. Eventually she told my wife to tell me to come up for a Guinness. I didn't raise the subject but after a while she said "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to be like that". I said that I was sorry too. She then explained that she'd gone to bed furious at me. In the night, she dreamed that she was with back with my Dad alive. Then she remembered what had happened and said "Why did you tell Roger, why didn't you tell me or one of the girls who would have passed the message on?" He replied "I knew you weren't ready for it. I knew he'd tell you when you were ready to hear it".  She said that she was still angry for a few days, but had thought about it and realised that if one of the girls had told her, she'd probably have not really taken it in during the aftermath of the funeral etc. If he'd have told her, she'd have dismissed it as dreaming or imagination. As it was, the fact that I'd thought it was nonsense and waited till she was strong was proof for her that he'd actually told the right person. She said that she felt guilty for doubting my father, but I said "Don't be stupid, anger is a big part of bereavement. You can't escape it.".

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether this was simply all a figment of imaginations that desperately needed some kind of reassurance. I drew my own conclusions. At this time of year I always think a lot of my father, who passed in 1987 and my mother who died 31 years later in 2008. Whilst my father's death was a shock and I was left with a bitter sense that he'd gone far too early, my mother's death almost came as a relief. She'd had a stroke just before Xmas 2000 and had never really been the same again.  In 2006, she broke a hip and nearly died of c-diff whilst on a recovery ward. Her eyesight had started to go, robbing her of the ability to read, which was, along with alcohol, was one of the few remaining pleasures in life. I was abroad with my family when she had another stroke and passed away. In truth I wasn't surprised. It is hard to find more of a contrast between my feelings when my father and my mother died. I was sad and I do miss her, but there was no sense that it was wrong or I was cheated of time with her. Over Christmas I gave this some thought. I think that when you are in your 40's and have children of your own, you are far better equipped to deal with such things as when you are 24 and have little experience of life.

Paul stage left with The Falsedots at Dingwalls 1984
Every Christmas, as a family, we always raise a glass to lost friends and relatives. The list gets longer. Losing parents is one thing. Losing close friends is another which I've struggled with. Back in 2012, I lost Paul Hircombe, one of my oldest and closest friends. We'd played in the same band, The False Dots on and off for 28 years. We toured Scandinavia and got up to all manner of shenanigans. Paul was a massive risk taker. He was full of life and full of mischief. Sadly this lead to drug addiction, prison, poverty and the estrangement from many friends. Following a spell in HM prison Belhaven, he vowed to get his life back on track. Ultimately we never found out how seriously he was taking this commitment because he developed cancer of the oesophagus. A year of ever more debilitating illness ended in a horrible death. Paul was two years younger than me and I struggled to make any sense of what happened. Although I'd not seen Paul at Xmas too often in recent years, it is a time when my thoughts return to him. As teenagers in a band and in our twenties, we shared many an Xmas partying and getting up to all sorts. New years in 1986 is one that sticks out. I'd just met my now wife and we all went down en mass to Dingwalls to see Desmond Dekker, then adjourned back to my sister's flat in West Hampstead to party into the morning. I recall very clearly something Paul happened to say, a throwaway comment at the time. He quietly said to me "you know I think this will be the best new year, this will be the one we always remember". At the time it seemed a very odd thing to say, but strangely it came true. Due to work/life/other commitments that group of friends never spent New Year together again. We never saw Desmond Dekker again and though we've had some great ones, they've all been slightly tame in comparison.

Whenever I hear Desmond Dekker, I always think of that. I always make a point of listening to "The Israelites" at New Year and I always shed a tear for Paul. We wrote many songs together and it has taken a good few years before I can play them in a setup with another bassplayer and feel happy. Over the years, I've repeatedly had dreams that he's come back to step into the band, assuring me that the dead can do that any time they like, they just choose not to. Then I wake up and I realise that it's all a dream, a very difficult one. I've often read that dreams help you deal with things, I've found that in relation to bereavement they have quite the opposite effect and just make you start feeling bad, when you think you are coming through something. It is nice to be reminded of those we love but to repeatedly have that snatched back from you can be very hard to take.

In some ways I'm lucky. Dealing with the loss of a child or a partner must be the most devastating loss of all. That is something that thus far I've been spared. The thought of it is too monstrous to want to even contemplate. The one thing the loss of people I've loved has taught me is that you should not hold on to anger with people you love. We never know when the grim reaper will come knocking. I am in some ways lucky that I've been in a good place with all of those that I've loved who have passed away. Perhaps the people who struggle most are those who feel they have something to say or some unfinished business with someone they lost. In my father's case, this was so nearly true. We had a massive bust up a year before he passed away. We didn't speak for six months. Eventually a very good friend of mine, Ernie Ferebee (also sadly departed), took me to one side, told me in the most unflattering terms that I was being an arse, told me this was really upsetting my parents and pointed out that my Father was getting on a bit, wasn't in great health and wouldn't last forever. He then said "how would you feel if you woke up tomorrow and he'd died of a heart attack". I was lucky as I took this to heart and made up. Shortly before my father died, my mother went away and we went for a curry and a few beers at Mill Hill Services Club and a nightcap. It was one of the very few adult conversations we had. I felt robbed of the ones we couldn't have but at least my last memories of my father were 100% positive. The last conversation I had with him was by phone for Xmas 1986. He was in Florida visiting my sister. It was a short conversation, neither of us knew what would happen. I can't even remember what we said, it was along the lines of Happy Christmas, hope you are enjoying yourself, don't get too pissed". Like everything in the real world, it was really quite unsatisfactory in the context of what happened next. But we can't lead our life as is for each of us, it may be the very last day. Sadly that means that when we get to Christmas and we think of those we love who have gone, it is always tinged with an element of regret.  As I get older and the children have grown up, I've got to like Christmas less for these reasons. We always have the conversation about all of those who used to come when I'd cook dinner for 22. "Oh there was my mum, Clare's parents,  Aunty Jo, and Mary and Tommy and Uncle Leonard and oh yes there was.....". And this year there was eleven. So that is a lot of empty places at the table.

1 comment:

Reader said...

Thank you for sharing this very personal insight. I am sure everyone identifies/will identify with some part or other of your experiences.

It is intriguing how our paths are charted such that they reflect how we are what we are or have become.

On reflection, you have turned out great. Even though I don't know you other than through your blogs, I would say you turned out ok. Your parents would be very proud of you.