I have not written a blog post for a while. I have not had the will, nor the words. And if I’m honest, I know there is enough doom and gloom around without my maudlin witterings.
But, I was asked last week how I do it. How I handle the grief with children. And how I spoke to my children about my father’s death and indeed, my mother’s decline into dementia. What to say. What to share. What to hide.
A lovely lady grabbed me at the school gate. Her father has received a terminal diagnosis and she is struggling, understandably to come to terms with that and handle the questions her young sons are throwing at her.
For a split second, I admit I was rather pleased as punch. That I was seen as someone who had their shit together. But then of course, the reality that I spend most of every day running from hit like a truck.
He is not just not answering my calls. He is not just busy playing golf or out walking the dogs. He is gone. And he isn’t coming back. Because, the truth is, I do call him sometimes. “Dad” is the second most called number on my car infotainment system. Sometimes I press it by accident, other times I press it and hope like mad that it was all a bloody horrible dream.
He doesn’t answer. In case you were wondering.
So I thought I’d share my advice on death and grief. On answering children’s questions whilst trying to manage your own grief. I don’t know if I did it right. I just did it. I had no choice but to crack on. Somethings I think I got right, others not so.
- Being Honest
The first time I told my kids that Papa was poorly, they asked if he would get better. I told them that I wasn’t sure. That the doctors were hoping they could help, but that there was a chance he wouldn’t get better. Having already lived through their granny “not getting better” perhaps this was not too shocking for them.
Being honest with the kids was important to me. For one, I couldn’t hide my own emotions at times, so I had to explain the tears and the pain. But I also wanted them to understand that even though death and pain is a part of life, how you help that person you love is a defining moment in life. Loving someone means you look after them, even when it’s hard.
It’s not all plain sailing. Mabel told me last week that she believes we should have left Papa to fall asleep and just not wake up. That perhaps then I wouldn’t be so sad.
I calmly explained that being with Papa helped make him less scared. That it was the right thing to do, even if it was hard. And that I am sad some days because I miss him. Not because I watched him die.
She misses him too. That’s something I can’t take away. Instead we talk about him a lot. We laugh at the silly things he’d say or do. We look at pictures and read books he’s give us. We include him in our life. That feels like the right thing to do, though at times it makes me miss his reassuring presence in my life even more.
2. Value Your Time
If you have the luxury of time, even if it’s just a matter of weeks, then this will be the most precious time of your life.
Say the things you never said. Ask the questions you have never thought of asking. Go to the places you have always wanted to visit. Watch the films you want to watch together. Speak about the little things and the big. Laugh about memories together and be honest about how scared you are, but in the same breath make sure they know you’re going to be okay. That this will not take you down. Give them the courage to face what’s coming and know how much they are loved.
Sitting with my father as his amazing, selfless life faded away was the single most difficult thing I have ever done. It is also one of the most precious experiences I know I will ever have. What a privilege it was to be there. To ease his passing. To help make him comfortable. What an honour to be able to tell him how I will miss him forever, but that because of his strength, I will be fine. What a gift to be able to thank him for being mine.
3. Fight for a good death
One of the first things my sister said to me, a few moments after he’d passed away was that as deaths go, this was a good one.
It didn’t mean much at the time. In the thick of the pain. But now, I know what she means.
He was at home.
He was surrounded by people who loved him.
He was peaceful and settled.
As deaths go, it was a nice one. An enviable one.
The mum at the school gates told me her father wants to stay at home, if possible.
“Demand it!” I said, perhaps a little too aggressively. “Push as hard as you can for it. Seek the help you need to make that happen.” I said. “The fact that you can help him have a good death will mean the world to you one day.”
And it is true. I believe everyone deserves an individual ‘good’ death. A death that is crafted for them personally. Surrounded by loved ones. As peaceful as possible. I know this is not always possible, but if there’s a glimmer of a chance then grab on to it and make it work.
It will help you live with what has happened. It will give you strength when it feels you are falling down. It will be a tiny sliver of light in your very darkest of moments.
4. Forgive Yourself
I thought I’d said it all. Asked everything I wanted to know. Shared the feelings I wanted to share. But sometimes, I get a fleeting thought and I think “I’ll ring Dad and ask him!” and I get that sinking feeling. That awful thud in the pit of my stomach that now I will never know the answer to why I was always so vomity as a child. Or what happened to my first violin.
And then there are times when I am out with friends or in a very public place and a word, a joke, a comment brings me to my knees. Not only does this completely destroy any fun that might have been underway, but it is embarrassing for all involved and causes me to flush with embarrassment for days or weeks after at the memory (sorry my lovely girls who have to deal with this!)
These things – these small embarrassing moments, these regrets that wash over you – forgive yourself. You’ve been through enough. You’re still going through enough. This is hard enough without judging yourself too harshly. Difficult, I know, but I think it’s worth saying. Forgive yourself for any indiscretions, emotional outbursts and your imperfectly perfect humanity.
5. Indulge Yourself
Getting through the day without crumpling into a heap on the floor in floods of tears can be a challenge. In order to behave as normal, to function as expected you have to block it out most of the time, pretend everything is okay. That the worst thing you could imagine has not just happened.
But then, every so often I allow myself the indulgence of thinking about it all. Because it does feel indulgent. I remember the days before his death. I remember my mother’s raucous laugh. I remember how excited I would feel to be going home at Christmas, to be enveloped in a house full of love and laughter. I go back there for those precious indulgent moments. I go back to being at the shops with my mother before Christmas, the smells, the sounds, the excitement – the feeling of being completely safe. I remember the moments leading up to Dad’s death. I remember how I felt as I held his hand and how his hand felt in mine. How he smiled when I massaged his swollen feet. How it felt to be curled up in the armchair in the deep dark night, listening to his faint breathing.
Taking myself to those places makes me feel so close to them both. It is like I could just reach out and touch them. It is indulgent and it is painful, but it is also precious. I have to allow myself those moments sparingly, otherwise the other day to day part of life will simply not happen.
I hope my ramblings help someone. I hope that in sharing my grief someone else feels a little less alone in theirs. I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. I don’t know whether I’m coping well, or whether at some point the enormity of what my family has endured will hit hard. I know that taking each day as it comes and lowering my own expectations of me has helped. I know that my children, my family and my friends help me to believe in good. And I know that despite the pain and the sadness, the huge Dad-shaped hole that will be in my heart this Christmas there is a small glimmer of comfort, in that when it comes to my father, I have no regrets. I didn’t want him to die. To leave me. I still need him. I will miss him forever… but if he did have to go, then at least I was there and I have no regrets. That gives me a touch of comfort.
And when you can have an ounce of comfort – hold on to it for dear life. It will keep you afloat when the grief is too wild and too angry to bear and you’re at risk of going under.
For all those who will be missing someone this Christmas – keep strong, keep smiling when you can and forgive yourself your beautiful, fragile and imperfectly perfect humanity.
As absolutely always, it is wonderful in the strangest way to read your blog and to admire your candour and unflinching descriptions of life as it is now. You wonder whether it helps others. The answer is Yes. I remain full of admiration.
Gosh, thank you. In my dark moments and through the regular doubts about carrying on with this blog, comments like yours make me think I should keep going. much love x
Hi Sarah! A beautiful piece, as ever. The words ‘I don’t know whether I’m coping well, or whether at some point the enormity of what my family has endured will hit hard’ particularly resonate with me. Just over a year since my mum’s death and two years since my dad’s, the horrors that my sister and I went through, dealing with their dementia and its consequences (care arrangements etc) have faded to such a point that they hardly seem real. I can’t believe what we went through or how we survived and I wonder whether I’ve properly processed it all – or, if I haven’t, whether I need to. Like you, I can only sparingly allow myself to look back, though the restrictions of the pandemic leave me prone to doing just that. When the future is uncertain, and there is nothing solid to look forward to, where else can your mind go but backwards? Wishing you and your family all the very best this Christmas. And I look forward to reading more from you in 2021. xx
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Ahh Helen, so lovely to hear from you. It is a privilege to share this terrible and painful journey with you. Sending lots of love and strength for Christmas and 2021. xxx
Thank you for sharing that. I was just this morning asking myself who needs to hear what today? I am not rich or poor, but I know where I am going and I want to take some of you with me. If you haven’t, turn to God today.
Thank you for sharing. I am marking the 9th anniversary of my father’s death this weekend. I hope you and your family can find those precious moments of comfort this holiday season.
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Thank you Joy. Sending love and best wishes to you this Christmas x
BEAUTIFUL. As always. My father-in-law died this past summer and his death was the hardest so far for my kids. I can tell you that even now that months have passed, your words still help.
Also – “I had no choice but to crack on.” I so wish Americans spoke like this.
The happiest possible holidays to you and your family ❤
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And right back at you! ❤️
My father was rather delighted to have you as his pen pal. Your beautiful writing moved him deeply, and also made him smile. I’m sorry to hear of your loss. It seems some of us receive relentless challenges.
Take care. Smile lots. You are brilliant x
I have just looked at the Christmas card that your dad sent to me and my husband last year. We were friends with your parents when you lived in Baildon and we played golf together at The Bradford Club. When they moved to Biggar we visited them on a couple of occasions and played golf with them there. We were awaiting the usual card from Stephen before sending one to him in order to respond to any comments he made about your mum. It is now 23rd December and, not having heard from Stephen,, I have just looked at your website and was shocked to read your sad news.
To add to your list of memories, I thought you would like to know that your parents were very popular members of Bradford Golf Club. I will always remember your mother only taking a 7 iron to get on our 14th green when I needed a 5 wood!
Your blog is an amazing piece of work and I am sure it will have brought comfort to many people in similar circumstances. Thank you.
Oh Pat, I’m sorry you had to find out like this. I was hoping to get to Scotland before Christmas and check which cards had arrived and who still needed to be told about my dad’s untimely passing. I remember my dad being a member at Bradford for many many years whilst I was growing up. I remember Mum eventually joining him and taking to golf like a duck to water.
Thank you for your kind words, My father was a true gentleman and a wonderful father and Papa who is sorely missed.
Warm wishes this Christmas
I don’t know why it’s taken so long to answer. I think the days all blend into weeks because of the….. Your comment about telling the truth to children is so important. They need truth to be able to process that life has a beginning and an end. This helps them to ask the questions even if it is upsetting for those concerned.
Also to fight for the best king of death strikes home with me. My mum was in hospital and a home in her last months, obviously very confused about everything that was going on around her. Dementia is so awful and of course it isn’t always possible to have loved ones at home but if there is a chance to achieve this please everyone try whatever the reason for their illness. Luckily I was with my mum when she died and that gives me great comfort and her too I hope. I’m sure she heard me when I gently encouraged her to let go and join her beloved parents and three brothers who were waiting for her.
Do talk to loved ones while they are alive because it’s only when they are no longer with you do you realize there are so many unanswered questions. I have many wonderful old black and white photographs handed down to me about twelve years ago, weddings of my nana’s three sisters, lots of my mum and her early family life in the late 1920s and 1930s and others of a long lost side of the family we knew nothing about until 2009. There is no one to ask now.
Thank you for your blogs, they are so comforting but probably very hard for you to write but you say it as it is which makes us all feel better because we all muddle along as best we can.
So beautifully said. I was privileged in a very similar way to be able to care for each of my parents at home when it was their time. And I too handled my grief and that of my children’s in a similar way as you have described. My heart can relate to so much of what you have said. Thank you for telling this part of your story xx