It’s my birthday this month. That’s the day it all went pear shaped. I was only gone for 24 hours. But then I’d only left the hospice 10 mins before it happened, 10 minutes before he died.
It’s October, the month 3 years ago, when one life ended and I had no idea how to start another one. My dad died. Even those words do not seem in any way shape or form, adequate enough to express the catastrophic impact of this unimaginable, heart wrenching and tragic event on our lives.
This is the story of how I entered the hell called grief and somehow managed to learn to live alongside it.
My dad had actually had cancer for a while. But we all just lived with it. He popped into hospital every 6 months or so, had his tumours removed and life went on. Until it didn’t. The cancer became aggressive, all attempts at beating it failed and we entered the dark shadows of palliative care.
I didn’t have a f•cking clue what was going on, what to expect, what to do. None of us did. The only thing we knew for sure, were 2 things: we were all absolutely petrified of what was to come and we couldn’t imagine life without him.
I spent many hours sat beside my dad in hospital and at home going through his symptoms and discussing plans to alleviate them. Somehow, I managed to convince myself that palliative care would make it all ok and he would simply die one night in his sleep – a fairy tale ending. But it wasn’t a fairy tale ending, it was a horror movie.
My dad had been getting progressively worse throughout August and September. Constant nausea, unable to eat, struggling for breath as his lungs kept filling with fluid, exhaustion from losing blood each day and more transfusions than I care to remember. But somehow it was ok – it was ok because he was alive, he was still my dad, he was completely compos mentis. But then he wasn’t.
I saw him on the Tuesday, I told him I was off to London, just for the night for my birthday and that I would see him on Thursday. He said, “all right love, enjoy yourself”. He called me the next morning to wish me happy birthday. The same greeting, I had received for the past 45 years, “many happy returns of the day!” That was the last time I heard my dad speak to me, as my dad.
I returned home on the Thursday afternoon. I saw 7 missed calls from my sister. My heart just broke, I felt sick to my soul. I called her. He had a taken a turn for the worse the night before. They had called the hospice, it was time and in the meanwhile, the Marie Curie nurses were helping care for him, until a bed became available.
I went straight round to my parent’s house. He was incoherent, ravaged with pain, dis-orientated and scared beyond any human comprehension. We called the hospice to ask what to do. They asked if we had the ‘box’, we did. They said it was time to open it. We called the district nurse, to come and open the box that night – the box that had been sat on the kitchen side for weeks. It was basically full of everything you needed to alleviate the suffering, of someone in the last stages of cancer, as far as you legally can. And now we had to open that f•cking box. I never believed we would have to. I never believed that day would come. But it did, in the blink of an eye, it came.
I spoke to my dad. I told him it was time to open the box. I told him we wouldn’t let him suffer. I told him we would keep him asleep as much as possible. I told him not to worry. I told him how much I loved him and how I would go with him, as far as it was humanly possible. The truth was, I wanted to go with him, where ever he went. I just couldn’t bear the thought of not having him in my life. He managed to reply “ok love, I wish I was staying with you” and that was that. And so, the district nurse came and opened the box. She administered the drugs to my dad and he slept. She said to call as soon as he woke up, so she could administer more.
The next day a bed became available at the hospice. Whilst we waited for the ambulance to take my dad, family and close friends came to say goodbye. It was all happening so quickly, so unexpectedly, we had to tell my sister to get on a morning rather than afternoon flight, as she lived overseas. All of a sudden, we had hours not days to go.
I hadn’t actually told my children up until this point, that their Grandad was dying. He would not have wanted them to worry or witness his excruciating descent. I had to tell them that morning. I was nervous when they said they wanted to see him, to say goodbye, but when they went in he was asleep. I was relieved for my dad. It would have been his worst nightmare, watching his adored grandchildren having to say goodbye to him.
I also went in. I stroked his head, I just wanted to touch him, to feel him for one last time. And then something I hadn’t expected happened, he asked me to leave him alone. In the whole of my life, my dad had never asked me to leave him alone. It was like someone has stuck a knife in me. I choked back the tears and simply said “ok dad, I love you”. But those words haunted me for months. They quite simply broke my heart.
The ambulance came, we had to rouse my dad to get him on the stretcher. If ever there was a time when you can feel your heart physically breaking, this was it. It was the saddest day of my life. I will never forget watching him being carried out of his home for the last time, with nothing but a small bag, which as it happened, he didn’t need anyway.
He arrived at the hospice on the Friday. I left late that night and returned early the following morning. I stayed by his beside all day. I absorbed every precious minute of having him to myself, whilst he was still drawing breath. He couldn’t talk but he could hear me. I asked him to squeeze my hand to tell me yes when he needed more morphine. I prayed for him to stay asleep, so he didn’t have to feel the pain or the fear.
He woke a handful of times, the nurses administered more drugs, I comforted him and he went back to sleep. I worried about whether to try and wake him to drink water. But it didn’t matter, his body was shutting down. Nothing we could have done would have made a difference.
My sisters and mum came to take over later that evening. I left but something stopped me going home. There was a morrisons next door, so I aimlessly wondered around, throwing god knows what in the shopping trolley. I got back in the car – 3 unknown missed calls and I just knew. I flew back to the hospice, the doors automatically opened as they had been waiting for me. The curtains were closed around his bed, my mum and sister were crying and the nurse said, ” I’m so sorry, he’s gone”. But he was still warm, I thought they were wrong, I kept saying, pleading “are you sure, are you sure”, but their face said it all.I sobbed like a little girl, asking for my dad to come back. I wasn’t ready, I would never be ready, I wanted my dad.
The following days, weeks and months were a blur. I hated the funeral, the finality of it, the public display of my grief. It was sacred, between me and my dad – I did not want to share it with anyone else, not even my family. I went on a retreat. They said the soul is eternal, it can never die only our bodies do. When I was asked why I was there, I said ” to find my dad”. It seemed perfectly logical, his body maybe dead but his soul still existed, I just had to find a way to connect with it. I’m still trying.
I did not handle my fathers death well at all. I simply fell apart. I could not accept he was gone for good. I had no tools with which to handle the raw and overwhelming emotions, it invoked in me. I simply wanted to die without him.
Because nobody tells you what grief is really like. No one comes clean about the fact you do not get over it, part of you does die with your loved one, you will hit rock bottom, you will need to find a new way to be, time is of no use nor measure when it comes to learning to live with grief.
No, we don’t want to face the ultimate uncomfortable truth, because it’s just too difficult. But the thing is, not talking about the reality of death, or grief opens us up to a tsunami of trauma. I thought I was going mad, losing any ability to ever be able to live any kind of life again. In actual fact, I was having a perfectly normal response, to a highly traumatic and life changing event.
It is now 3 years later. I still grieve every day for my dad and I don’t want this to stop – it’s my connection to him. But I have learnt a few things, which I hope may ease the path of others, who have yet to tread this way.
- Forewarned is forearmed. It’s important to talk about death before we experience death. Talk about what happens during the process, prepare people, as hard as that maybe. Have the uncomfortable conversation.
- When someone experiences the loss of a loved one, do not, I repeat do not avoid talking to them. I still cannot forgive the friends who didn’t turn out to be such good friends, when I really needed them to be.
- Do not tell people it will pass, they are out of pain now, it’s for the best. These are hollow words in the face of deeply traumatic emotions. Listen, support and soothe, but do not judge or try and apply solutions, there simply are none.
- Do not say, ‘well they had a good innings’ or ‘we all have to die’, it really doesn’t help.
- In the absence of words, just hold someone, and give them space to experience their grief in the safety of a friend’s arms.
- Time is no measure when it comes to grief, it is highly individual – never forget that.
And above all, please be brave enough to talk about death. After all, it is what empowers us, to live our lives as fully as possible, each and every day.
A bit about me: I aspire to inspire people to be themselves, to embrace all of themselves, warts and all. To re-define our reality, to be more honest and sustainable. To re-define success, to be more diverse and focus on the stuff that really matters, not the shiny sh•t, that you cannot take with you anyway.
No-one will remember what car you drove, but my goodness, they will remember if you made them smile, feel good about themselves and accepted them for who they are. It is the gifts of kindness and understanding that will last beyond your lifetime, not the gifts of gold.
I’m a mum, writer, transformation consultant and all round eccentric, doing my own thing, in my own way, in the hope I can make others smile and love themselves a little bit more.
My blog, library of curiosity, daily inspiration and lots of other things, can be found on my website www.nikdavis.com.
Let’s have a conversation.