I remember once standing in the middle of a graveyard with my dad. We’d just been putting flowers on my grandparent’s grave when he stopped and turned to me. “The thing about graveyards…” he began, a huge grin on his face. “…is that everyone’s dying to get into them.” He laughed at himself as though he was the funniest man alive and I laughed too, because I truly believed he was. And just a few short months later he had the last laugh when he died and was buried just metres from where we’d been standing that very day.
Today marks 25 years since my dad died. 25 years since he woke up early one morning to go to work and dropped dead while getting dressed in the bathroom. 25 years since a doctor misjudged the mood of the room when he chuckled and announced “well of course he’s dead”. 25 years since eleven year old me had my whole world flip-turned upside down Fresh Prince-style without the happy ending* as I realised that life could be downright cruel sometimes.
When it comes to death anniversaries, I’m not sure anything is quite as bad as the run up to the first one, when you keep thinking to yourself ‘this time last year he was here’, ‘this time last year we were happy’, ‘this time last year I could hear the paramedics giving him CPR’ and ‘this time last year I was looking at his body on the bathroom floor’. In that first year everything can be a bit of a blur, and you’re still hopeful, thinking that you’re going to wake up from that bad dream and everything will be good again. I’ve found that over the years each anniversary is different. Some years I’m painfully aware that another year has passed since I last saw him, while others I can ignore it. But this year the anniversary has been hanging over me. My dad has now been dead for a quarter of a century, which not only means that I can no longer pretend I’m only 26 years old, but I’ve realised just how much he’s missed out on. He wasn’t there to see me start high school (he died three days before), he never met some of my best friends and it saddens me because I know how much he’d have loved them; he wasn’t there to teach me to drive (which may be a good thing because I’m certain there would have been arguments); he never saw me graduate and become the person I am now. He wasn’t there to counsel me when Take That split up, or when Rose left Jack to die in the icy waters of the Atlantic, and he wasn’t there to yell at me when I ran up a £200 phone bill thanks to AOL internet (again that may be a good thing).
One of the most common things you hear when someone dies is that ‘it gets easier over time’, but honestly, I don’t think that’s true. I’m not entirely sure you ever really get over someone dying. Life does go on, but life is very different. As time goes on you understand that the person isn’t coming back, no matter how much you want them to, and you learn to live your life around a grief-shaped hole. Even now at times it’s still difficult, not just the loss of my dad but of friends and relatives who have died over the years – each loss weighs down on the one before and brings back unwanted memories.
And then of course, there’s the anxiety of losing people who are still living. It was only recently while listening to The Griefcast (an excellent podcast about loss and grieving that I cannot recommend enough, whether you’ve lost a dad, mum, child, friend, dog or simply know someone who has) that I discovered death anxiety was a real thing and that I wasn’t just being an incredibly needy child (although I admit I am). I’m not anxious about my own death (I’m quite looking forward to it if I’m honest, mainly for my funeral playlist) but the death of others. If I call my mum and she doesn’t answer, or I don’t hear from a friend or relative who contacts me regularly I automatically think the worst. It’s like my mind likes reminding me that we cannot have nice things and wants to prepare me for something bad happening – after the shock of losing my dad with no warning, it’s like a very very odd coping strategy.
There are many stages of grief and they all come and go over the years. Even in the run-up to this big anniversary I’ve been through some of them again. I’m angry that he left my mum and I; that he hasn’t been here to help us through her recent health troubles. I’m angry that his death is the reason that even now if someone falls over or drops something heavy on the floor I get anxious. I’m angry that if things go too well I instantly think something bad is going to happen. But mostly I’m sad for everything he’s missed out on. I’m sad that I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate him; I was at the age where I took it for granted he’d always be there. I’m sad that my memories of him have faded over time, and when I think of him the first image that pops into my mind is of him lying dead on the floor. I’m sad that I have no idea what he’d think of me as a person today or whether he’d approve of my life choices.
So having been a fully paid up member of the Dead Dad Club (Griefcast listeners will understand) for a quarter of a century, there’s a lot I’ve learned over the years. Here are just a few of the things I’ve discovered about grief.
There’s no correct way to grieve
Everyone grieves differently. You want to cry? Cry. You want to shout and scream? Do it. You want to go out with your friends and have fun? Do whatever you need to do. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you what is or isn’t normal; listen to your own body and do what’s right for you.
You might feel guilty, but don’t
I remember the guilt I felt at not being able to save my dad. I beat myself up for years, blaming myself for not knowing basic life-saving skills. And then one day, many years later I realised it wasn’t my fault. I was eleven years old, of course I didn’t know how to save a life, and even if I did I wouldn’t have made any difference. It’s not your fault that someone has died (unless you murdered them, in which case it is). Don’t beat yourself up over it, when you’re grieving you feel bad enough as it is.
It takes time
A bereavement counsellor once told me it can take ten years to come to terms with someone dying. And if you’ve suffered more than one loss, that’s ten years PER bereavement, not in total. At this rate I might feel better when I’m about 258, and even then I’ll still not be over the death of Alan Rickman.
Not everyone will understand
I remember once trying to open up to a friend who’d promised me they were there if I needed to talk. She simply said ‘Oh but everyone dies’ and that was the end of the chat, and probably our close friendship too. Sadly there will inevitably be people who don’t understand what you’re going through, or feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to do or say. But for every one person who behaves in that way, there’s at least one other person who will be there for you and say and do exactly the right thing, even if that thing is sitting with you and watching cheesy boyband videos while you both have a good cry.
It’s good to talk
It may be a cliche, but it’s also true. I speak from experience when I say that bottling up your emotions is not a good idea. I tried it but believe me, those emotions eventually come to the surface. It is inevitable that you’ll need to talk about your feelings at some point in the future. It might be that you can talk with a close friend or family member, which is great. I always felt as though I was a burden to friends, and didn’t want to upset family members, but I know that wasn’t really the case. My dad died before the world of social media and online chat so I never really had the option of venting to strangers, but I would have jumped at the chance if it had been available. If you don’t feel you have anyone to talk to, remember there are people out there who can help. The Cruse website – which I wish had been around when I needed it – is a great place to start.
You are not alone
When my dad died I felt as though I was the only eleven year old who’d ever lost a parent, but I soon realised that was definitely not the case. Nowadays it’s a lot easier to chat with people who are going through similar losses. While social media may have its downsides, it is a great place to connect and also find out more about organisations that can help. It’s how I discovered The Griefcast, and through that comedian Jack Rooke who’s recently written a brilliant book about the deaths of his father and close friend. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others.
You are stronger than you think
You might not believe it, but it’s true. There are some days when you’re grieving when even the act of getting out of bed is an achievement in itself, and to go on living your life is an accomplishment is something you should be proud of.
Cruse Bereavement Care – https://www.cruse.org.uk
Hope Again – https://www.hopeagain.org.uk
Let’s Talk About Loss – https://letstalkaboutloss.org
Mind – www.mind.org.uk
NHS – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/coping-with-bereavement/
Samaritans – www.samaritans.org
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy – www.bacp.co.uk
*I’m presuming the Fresh Prince had a happy ending. It was the 90s and everything was easier back then so it must have been.
Photo credit: My mum