On losing my dad: a personal essay
Wendy Maddocks the youngest daughter.
I recently ‘lost’ my dear dad as so many people have commented to me with kindness “sorry for your loss.” The thing is, I didn’t lose him, he left me (and his family) when he died. I knew exactly where he was all the time. I spent days at his bedside, chatting, playing him music, reading from a book, massaging his hands and feet, helping him get to the toilet, to move around his little hospital bed. In his final days I could literally pick him up in my two arms and move him up the bed by myself. His only grandson, my 24 year old son, also helped pick up his beloved grandfather, who had held him so gently as a baby, who patiently sat with him playing trains and lego, or endless played cricket with him. I did a lot of pillow plumping, getting them just right for Dad and his frail frame. Merely a few days before he was admitted to hospital mum and dad hosted ‘The Rhubarb Club’ in their retirement villa- neighbours come round with their whiskey and they all do a tasting!
Death is a funny thing and bring outs all sorts of thoughts, some dark, some bizarre and some just basically so exhausting I must take a nap. Even writing this makes me cry but in a good way so I guess it is therapeutic for me to put my fingers to the keyboard.
Dad died at 92 “A good innings” as so many told me. However, he was still my dad, I loved him and miss him terribly. Dad and I had been inseparable as a child, whereas my sister was closer to my mum. I guess I was ‘daddy’s girl’, whatever that means. Dad made sure my sister and I knew how to repair a puncture on our bikes, change a tyre on our first cars, how to check oil and water, how to change a fuse, ride a bike, plant a tree, drive a car, drink wine, light a fire, grow our vegetables, use a hammer and nail, cut in a corner with painting, hang wall paper amongst many other life skills. He also role modelled what being a good husband was as him and mum shared the chores, they each had a role in the house, they showed love and affection for each other and also resolved differences. Looking back I see them as a team act. Dad made the breakfast & our lunches (until we were old enough to do ourselves) then would go to work, mum did the dinner and dad and I would do the washing up. My sister got the vacuuming and bed making chores. Mum did most of the disciplining though, and dad never raised a finger too us, and there was never the threat of that happening. I possibly was a quite a naughty and adventurous child, the trendy term now might be “free range.” Nothing I did was out of malice, more a vivid imagination and curiosity for what was around me.
We had a large garden and old house with plenty of nooks and crannies to hide and play in. There was a secret room under the stairs and when the carpet was pulled up secret hiding places were found in the floor boards with old newspapers and Victorian items such as pottery inkwells. I had a small shed down the back, which used to be a chicken coop. Dad set it up for me and put a floor in. It became a space ship, a school, a hospital, a shop, an office; whatever my imagination was at the time. One time a neighbour was so concerned she rang mum as I was in there shouting at imaginary school children at the top of my voice. I was actually the quietest child at school and never spoke out, but my shed was my sanctuary as I role played the bossy teacher, doctor, nurse and one vivid memory of dad’s parenting style was when I accidentally made a bomb in my shed, mixing up some of dads gardening chemicals in my ‘laboratory’ and lit it- boom! An explosion that brought dad running over from the other side of the garden “What happened are you ok”-I was, apart from maybe a singed fringe. Dad took in the situation quickly and said, “I don’t think your mother needs to know about this, now clean it up and don’t do that again”.
Mum and dad managed, then owned a garden centre and my sister and I roamed the attached nursery and orchard with our dog David the corgi, eating apples straight off the tree and even to this day I can’t finish a whole apple as used to just eat a layer around it then throwing it away and starting a new one. David the corgi was our faithful companion, coming everywhere with us as kids and a family. We would be down the creek annoying the eels, he’d sit in the back of our trikes as we rode around, he’d lie in a dolls cot and let us play and dress him. The only bad and sad thing he did, but not with malice, was when the cat (with the original name of “mother cat’) had kittens and David got so excited he licked one almost to death and broke it’s spine. The kittens were born the night of the 5th form social and I was torn between staying to watch and getting to the social. It was very early in the morning when we found the dying kitten, and poor dad had the job of trying to kill it as quickly as possible (no vet handy). We buried it next to Tubby the goldfish and had a wee ceremony for it. Many years later when old David the dog’s time was up (aged about 15), he was gently euthanized and buried in dad’s old gardening jersey.
Many people said to me “well he had a good life” and at times I found myself saying that as preclude, as if to protect people from feeling that they had to say something extra. Yes, dad did have a mostly good life as an adult, but some parts of it were absolute crap. He certainly didn’t deserve a death hindered by pain and I was determined that it would not be. His childhood was dismal by today’s standards, his mother died of , also called childbed fever, and now postpartum infection. In the pre antibiotic days of 1935, it was not uncommon, and the long-held family legend is the midwife forgot to wash her hands. Dad managed to find her grave some 80 years later as she was buried unmarked with three other distant relatives. Dad and his siblings were virtually orphaned then as his father couldn’t cope with five young children. They were farmed out to relatives (the older ones), a hospital (the baby) and the for dad aged 5 and his younger brother aged 3.
There he stayed until he turned 14, shipped around Southern England to different children's homes, as WW2 caused the evacuation of children from big cities like Liverpool. No toys of his own, never had proper fitting shoes or clothes and was always hungry. I teach a resilience course to first year university students and used dad as an example of resilience. No counselling back then, dad had said “you had to just get on with what you had and work hard to make your life better. If you talked back to the teacher they would hit you, if you wet the bed, you washed your sheets by hand in freezing water.” At 14 he was sent to work in a grand country house as a 'house boy' then gardeners lad. The making of dad was a free passage to NZ on ship in an assisted immigration scheme, in the 1950s to help build the country after WW2. He arrived with the equivalent to a few hundred dollars in his pockets and lived in a men’s labour camp until settled into a flat and started work. The friends made then were friends for life, as children of immigrants these people became our “Aunties and Uncles” growing up.
As each friend married, had children and started out in their homes the friends would band together to build the fences, the paths, fix gardens as no one had any money. They all had different trades, Uncle Dennis was a bricklayer, Uncle John was a builder, and Dad was a gardener With Mum, dad built up a modest but comfortable life, they owned a small business, worked long hours and created a secure life to grow up in. They never had a new car, we had handmade clothes (mum was an incredible seamstress) or hand me downs and dad grew pretty much all of the vegetables himself, donating the excess to the needy.
Just as it was time for them to reap some rewards of their years of hard work and step back from the business, the stock market crash of 1987 happened, known as . Dad was 57 and mum had just turned 51 and they had sold the old family home and large gardens and moved into a new ex show home house in a new subdivision. It was not a grand house, but brand-new Lockwood style home and they were so pleased to be in it. They had to remortgage the new house at 20% interest, then sell their dream home to pay off business debts as no one wanted to buy plants then and the stock and rent needed paying and walk away with nothing but their dignity. They tried to continue trading in a reduced form in a different location, and their ex-landlord shafted them and set up another garden centre in their old site.
Dad was determined to pay every creditor when bankruptcy was a very real option. Mum went back to work in a sewing factory aged 55 and they bought a little run-down cottage and made it their home. Dad went back to work as a gardener at 60, digging, pulling trees, looking after gardens of those who had the money. Many had been his customers over the years. Resilience and determination was needed to see them through the tough times. The little run-down house was gradually done up and made nice only to be flooded out not once, but three times. The last time was enough, they lost everything, including three cats who drowned as mismanagement of flood control gates meant they were given moments to get out the house as a wall of water rushed down the swollen river at high tide. They left their house in a rowboat and didn’t get back for six months. The insurance and regional council worked together to put the house right and raise it on stilts along with others in the street and possessions were replaced (lost were photos, mementoes, and letters).
Dad nearly died after that as he developed a weird chest infection after inhaling river silt trying to retrieve personal possessions.
One of the enduring memories have of dad is his kindness and when he became ill many people contacted me with their memories; old school friends who remember dad taking them home in his van with their bike, or fixing something, or dropping things off to customers on his way home, or showing them how to open a beer bottle. I would read these stories to him as he was in hospital, and he would have a chuckle at the long forgotten memory. Less enjoyable memories for me were him being on parent patrol at the school disco and me being tapped on the shoulder by a teacher as I was snogging a boy, that my father was outside and could see me. Mortified! Dad was always quietly protective of us girls though, and him and mum were great hosts to our many friends, holding summer sleep over parties as teenagers. Kids would come who may have been on the wrong side of the tracks and were welcome. By hosting, mum and dad could keep an eye on eye an make sure we were safe in the small country town we grew up in. No one needed to drive home drunk- plenty of room on the floor and extra bedding.
I am a registered nurse and used to seeing people who are dying. However when it was my dad it was of course different. When I was clinically nursing though most of the people I saw had got there in a catastrophic or unexpected way. Even as a newly minted registered nurse at 20 I had to retell a family their father had died as the poor (equally inexperienced) house surgeon just couldn’t get the right words out to say what had happened in 'resus 1' in the emergency department. In fact, he got it so wrong the family looked at me and said, “so he’ll be alright then?” I saw the look in the Dr’s eyes, the horror that he had mis explained death after a cardiac arrest, and in that chasm of a nanosecond, I knelt beside the distraught wife, held her hand, and looked her in the eye and said, “I’m so sorry Mrs Wang, what the doctor is saying is despite everything possible being done your husband didn’t survive his heart attack. He has died. We can bring you through to say goodbye to him if you would like that”.
That young Dr went on to lead a busy city ED back in his home country and train junior doctors for the next 30 years and we remain firm friends today. We both learnt from that moment. In many later nursing situations the physical body was either totally broken by injury or disease (nursing those early AIDS patients in the late 1980s was heart breaking) or was in a perfect ‘as if alive’ condition as the ventilator was turned off when diagnosed with brain death. That is an incredibly hard concept for people to understand as they see the heart monitor ticking away, the lungs expanding in time to the machine. The body feels warm and appears normal. Then, after the necessary tests to legally determine (such as stopping the ventilator to let carbon dioxide level raise to stimulate a breath, all sedation stopped 24 hours before, poking eyes to check for a pupillary reflex and stimulating a gag reflex) brain death is confirmed. Then, sometimes the family would gather around the bed and wait as the “life support”’ is removed. However, if the person was an organ donor, they would be wheeled off to theatre with the ventilator still going for organ ‘harvest’ (a dreadful expression which I hope is no longer used). Many of those patients are still with me 30 years later; the two-year-old who pulled a TV onto his head, (the anaesthetist registrar and I stood by his bed afterwards, tears streaming down our faces as we removed the tubes so the mother could come in and see her baby. That was a hard one for me as the father and male members of family stood by as he ventilator stopped but the mother and the females were forbidden culturally to be there); the newly married woman who went horse riding on her honeymoon and fell off without a helmet on, the London City rich kid who took drugs then thought he could fly and jumped out the 3rd floor window, the young women who was strangled by her boyfriend and then set fire to the house to hide his crime; and catching a collapsed wife who was told her husband had died in the back of her friend’s car while having sex with her.
None of those deaths were good deaths, the official term is , not artificially prolonging live when the person’s condition involves an illness or injury which is unsurvivable. Some refer this as passive euthanasia. Providing medication to relieve symptoms but potentially shortens life falls under this description. The opposite is active euthanasia where medication is intentionally given with the purpose of ending someone live when there is no change of surviving an illness and the pain and symptoms are unrelenting. New Zealand recently implemented the , which has led to the service.
Despite all these working experiences, death within the family was not something I had much to do. Of course, relatives died but they were overseas so I had no intimate role to play. At school there was one boy I vaguely knew who sadly killed himself, a couple of boys who died in motorbike or car accidents and one who was shot, but they were all quite removed from my daily life. In fact, I think was first funeral I attended was in my 20’s (apart from going to one as a student nurse accompanying a psychiatric patient-another weird situation we were put in).
When I look back over the last year or so, I believe Dad had been actively dying and I knew it, and I think he knew. He was always sorting through his papers, genealogy research and giving me special books. A year before he died, he had a first heart attack and was admitted to hospital for monitoring and stabilisation. It was their 60th wedding anniversary and my son had flown in to surprise them. When we went to the house dad was sitting in a chair with a terrible raspy breathing, tired and in pain. Mum said he had been like that for more than a day and thought it was a cold. I took one look at him and dialled for an ambulance. I could see he was in congestive heart failure! A young house surgeon had “the conversation” with him abut resuscitation. I was there thankfully. She didn’t hold back-telling him it is brutal; ribs can break and there is little chance of actually surviving if CPR is started due to his age and general health. Dad had a diagnosis of dementia, probably from a series of previous indiscernible strokes over the last few years. I had seen the CT of his brain and there was more than a dozen tiny black spots signifying tissue death scattered throughout. He also had developed mild Parkinson’s Disease. Despite this he was a sharp as a tack and had the dry English sense of humour he was well known for. He politely told the Dr that yes please he would like to be resuscitated as he felt he still had some living to do! The COVID pandemic had a cruel toll on the elderly, through isolation from activities so in that sense the last year of dads life was very small. The only highlight was an outing on the which traversed one side of the South Island to the other through stunning snowy scenery, which after two years of holding back COVID the whole group of elderly got it on that trip (including me)!
Dad got frailer, losing his appetite, losing the ability to get dressed by himself, and he began obsessing over small details which is common in people with dementia. His vision was going and an administration delay meant his much needed cataract surgery was delayed by two years until a few months before his death. Too late for him to benefit in any real way. Despite his lack of formal education, dad was the most widely read person I know and had an extensive knowledge of all sorts of things and books were his one last joy taken away from him. He used to be a racing cyclist in England and had traversed most of the South Island on a bike, long before there was a sealed road over the Haast Pass.I took dad for a review with his GP in early October this year and then it was confirmed that there was no more medications for dad, what he was on was the maximum. The GP pulled me aside after that visit to query if dad “had his affairs in order”. After each visit to mum and dad I would have a little cry to myself as I could see the inevitable that dad was dying little by little. Just before I went away on a very special overseas trip , dad asked me “am I going to cark it?”. I said, “if you are please don’t cark it on my overseas trip it’s too much admin.” I knew in my heart though the chances were quite high and mum told me later dad asked her every single day I was away, “does Wendy get home today?” I phoned from Europe on his 92 birthday but he was too tired to talk to me. Normally I buy a bottle of single malt Scotch duty free, but this trip I knew in my heart there was no point.
Two days after I got home dad become very unwell and the deterioration over the last two weeks was highly visible. We had small whiskey but I could see dad wasn’t enjoying it. The next day early in the morning the phone went, and mum told me she had called an ambulance as dad was in severe pain. I rushed around there and arrived at same time as ambulance. Dad was having a massive heart attack which was picked up shortly after arriving in the ED. Those who are health professionals who have a perilously ill family member can relate to the feeling of doing “double duty” -you are there as the relative, but all the training senses are on alert as you scrutinise the monitor and check what bloods have been done. I could see the cardiac changes unfolding on the monitor as well as seeing how dad was. The emergency department consultant came in and was very clear and compassionate. He knew I was a nurse so spoke to me in a way so I knew exactly what was happening and what that meant. Dad was fully involved in the discussion and knew that resuscitation wasn’t an option. The decision was made to admit him for palliative care which meant pain relief as required but no other active treatment, including no observations.
Once I knew dad was more stable, I took a taxi home to relay this to mum and what this meant and brought her back to hospital for an hour or so. In my absence a kindly colleague kept an eye on dad and offered him cups of tea. Due to the extreme pressure the health care system is under it was a few hours before he could be admitted to a ward. I flew my son down from the North Island and as a small family we rallied. Dad was tired but still very much with us. I advocated that dad get transferred as soon as possible to a bed in their rest home in the complex they lived in (but this would take three days as it was a weekend). Watching the staff work in a stressed system was hard, but I was frustrated at some simple things that take no time or effort at all; placing the meal where the sight impaired patient can see it; stand in front of them and introduce yourself and your role clearly, make sure the bell is in their hand, and check understanding as with impaired hearing vision dad sadly found the international nurses hard to understand. His glasses were placed where he couldn’t reach them and when I visited he had been immobile for hours wondering what was happening. My dad was not going to be one of those old men in a bed unshaven and unkempt looking (he was meant to get his hair cut the day he took ill). I brushed up on my lost skill of using a blade shaver to leave him with a smooth clean face. It became my mission each day to do this.
On his last day in hospital staff were adamant there was no bed for him in the retirement complex, but I was equally adamant there was as I had already spoken to the manager and charge nurse. Being able to advocate was what I felt I could contribute as Mum has limited mobility and the effort to get her to hospital was enormous-either in a taxi then a wheelchair for the long haul to the ward. There was no way mum could manage it by herself. Finally, later that day a bed was officially confirmed, the consultant had confirmed care would be free under the ‘end of life’ process where hospital level care is provided at a rest home. Up until that moment mum thought she would have to pay something and was trying to work out how to manage this. I certainly recommend checking all of this kind of thing long before it is needed as to what is and isn’t funded. By being medically diagnosed as end-of-life, dad could access free rest home care for three months and have it reviewed if needed. This is different if a person is transferred to rest home care and not expected to die imminently. Even the ambulance transfer back to the rest home was free.
For dad he was met by familiar faces but as he went into the room, he looked around and said, “I guess this is the end of John.” I couldn't form an answer without crying. Did I lie or just focus on the moment "well Dad lets get you comfortable first then we can work out what you can do about getting back home". The room had an outlook over some beautiful gardens, but was otherwise very bleak and basic. I had asked mum to put a photo and some flowers there, but she thought it was a waste of time initially. The discharge handover missed critical information- that he needed a hospital style bed and instead was put on a normal single low bed, no morphine was prescribed and the care givers were giving him huge paracetamol tablets he couldn’t swallow. He had no appetite but a plate with steamed fish was put in front of him for a meal and left there (very unappetising!). When he went to the bathroom off his room no hand soap was supplied- it was something we had to supply so dad couldn’t wash his hands. Once he got ‘settled’ I rushed to the shops to get hand wash, extra pyjamas, some cans of lemonade and bits and pieces.
It took a couple of days to get the care right at the rest home, he was finally moved onto a hospital bed (which would have been a huge undertaking in the small room), ice-cream and custard was provided instead of steamed fish, I set up a radio, chased his missing laundry around the care home and yes I was that relative who complained as dad wasn’t being checked on and developed massive pressure areas on his feet after they were pushed against the wooden bed end for hours, and they didn’t seem to have the pain relief right (oral morphine). In the end a syringe driver was set up after the palliative nurse specialist visited (without us being there). This is given via a tiny needle under the skin and delivers a set amount over 24 hours. It means that two registered nurses are only needed once every 24 hrs to check. If needed extra morphine could be given. Dad was put on sedation plus morphine and an anti-hallucinogenic drug. He had been waking at night crying out for mum and quite disorientated. In essence he was sedated but still aware almost to the end. I checked his teeth were cleaned as the staff were only used to false teeth and couldn’t believe dad had his own teeth at 92. they seemed to forget what I consider basic nursing care.
Most of the care staff were international carers and had varying English ability. Dad was called “sweet pea” most of the time. Even I couldn’t work out who the RN was on the shift. I helped the care givers get dad up, change the sheets, shave him, dress him and fed him morsels of cream or ice cream. Mum would whip up some custard and the village manager brought in soft treats to tempt him. Initially mum found the concept that he wasn’t getting a drip or food supplements hard, as she felt this was what he needed. I would have to gently explain how the body just can’t process the food and fluids now and if fluids were forced in by a drip it would overload his heart and kill him sooner. I talked to the carers about the person dad was and tried to keep dad as engaged as I could. The plan had been to get him into a wheelchair and wheel him the hundred yards across the carpark home even for a few minutes, while my son was there. The next after he had been transferred was the best option, Mum decided it was too sunny a day which might burn his skin and didn’t want to risk it as she felt he might be slightly better the day after. That was the only opportunity as dad went downhill from there. I do regret not just doing it without telling mum to get dad to get home one last time. He was worrying about getting the Christmas cards posted to England and I couldn’t find them.
The last time dad really spoke was with a video call I set up with his sister in England. I am sure his mother came to visit him (she died when he was 5) as he described a women standing by him in great detail and the description matched the one photo we have of her. I brought dad fresh flowers from his garden each day and would read to him all the lovely messages of support. The last few days were so stressful for mum and I as we took it in turns to sit by Dads bed. For someone who had a massive heart attack his heart was beating strongly but his breathing got more erratic. He did the classic thing of long pauses where we would think he was not breathing then it would come back again. We would look at each other over his skeletal form. One time I sat by myself after dinner. My routine had been to give him a foot massage and hand massage with essential oils attributed to having a calming and spiritual component. I chose lavender, frankincense and spikenard. I believe dad knew I was massaging him as sometimes he seemed to grip my hand and hold it. He would then go to sleep. At one of these times I sobbed and sobbed and said to dad “it’s Ok dad, you can go now we will be fine. You don’t need to be in pain anymore”. But he carried on for another couple of days waiting for something but not sure what. I felt guilty waking each morning and my first thought was ‘oh the phone hasn’t rung’.
I had to have a difficult but practical conversation with mum-what does he want to happen when he actually dies. All she could say is the lawyer has the will. The very practical things though need to be known before the will is viewed and we couldn’t find a copy in the house. The lawyer wouldn’t release the will to me, would only email to dad’s email address which mum doesn’t know how to access. After dad had died, I discovered a neat pile of all the important documents in the garage in files. He had been sorting things out for months. I had to google what to do when someone dies and found the very helpful government website which gave the information in very plain language. I researched different funeral directors to discuss with mum. She was sadly still in the midst that the rest home could sort this out for her. While there are always complaints about government agencies, the response by the MSD were fantastic. As soon as dad was admitted to care mum received a letter advising her of support, increased her pension an advised that dad’s pension would still be paid at this time and confirmed care was free. After dad died and the death registered by the funeral home, mum got another letter advising hr the pension is paid for another fours to help during the unsettling down and let her know of other support she may be entitled too. This was a reassurance for mum.
Dad’s wishes were to be as simple as possible and I found a place who offered this, and everything was attended to in the most respectful way. They talked about dad being ‘in their care’ and went through the legal stuff with compassion. I hadn’t ever done this before so a heads up - we needed to know dad’s parents’ names (luckily dad had a copy of their wedding certificate in his genealogy file), as dad was being cremated we had to sign a document stating all family members were aware of this so I needed to send a message to my estranged sister in front of the funeral director. It has happened where someone has popped out of the woodwork and tried to take a body elsewhere. We chose the option where there is no service and dad could be cremated the next day. Talking to other family and friends around he world this is not common and it was a confirm for us that dad wouldn’t be left in a dark fridge for days or weeks. The rest home staff asked us what we would like dad to wear, which unsettled mum. So, we went through his clothes and picked something out and even had a small giggle when mum pulled out some fleecy trousers and she said “this will keep dad warm” and I looked at her and said “I don’t think that will be a problem where he is going’. We laughed then cried. Mum didn’t want to see dad again after she had said her goodbye, so I went with the funeral directors for the handover and saw how carefully they handled dad, talking to him. I played dad’s favourite piece of music and placed some fresh roses on his chest. He was wheeled out of his room and the staff had a guard of honour as he was wheeled out the front door into the hearse. In my heart I knew dad was gone and certainly in a better place and I couldn’t reconcile myself to the person being taken away as my dad. Once the hearse left mum and I had a couple or three sturdy whiskeys and that was it. Dad was to be cremated the next day and mum didn’t want to know when it would happen, but we both felt it in our hearts at the time it did.
I was left to deal with the practical things afterwards so felt I couldn’t really grieve – nothing can be done until the death certificate is received. I thought dad’s bank account would get frozen so asked mum if I could transfer some emergency funds to me in case this happened. Mum has no input into the banking and they had sperate accounts in different banks. Everything I did I wrote down on the checklist printed off from the website I mentioned earlier. Then came the difficult job of letting people know, finding the address book and I found an email list on dads’ computer and sent out an email to a bunch of old friends which made it easier.
In two short days I was able to bring dads ashes home in a nice wooden casket we had picked. Dad used to be wood worker and loved rimu, a New Zealand native. That was a weird road trip driving to a part of town I wasn’t familiar with in 5pm traffic. My son was here now, and I asked him to come with me even though he didn’t want to. I needed some moral support and to read out the google maps to me. I was so anxious myself I was worried I would miss a basic road instruction. We talked a lot about his granddad and how much he loved him. How proud he was and then when I pulled up, I had a small panic- how do I carry dad to the car? I didn’t want to walk out with the urn visible. In the end I settled on an old Barbour wax jacket I kept in my car for emergencies. I had bought it in England 30 years before and dad used to tease me about having such an expensive raincoat. The funeral home was an old renovated cottage and they told me the history of the house. I knew dad would have enjoyed knowing he had spent his last earthly night in a 1900 kitchen with old coal range and original Rimu wood details. I picked some rosemary from my garden to put on the urn and carried it with as much care as a new-born baby. I told my son how nervous I was driving him home from hospital after he was born and this was just a stressful. I didn’t want to have an accident with the precious cargo in the back. Dad is now resting on the shelf positioned so he can watch TV. I greet him every time I visit and touch him and say goodbye when I leave.
Grief is a funny thing and many excellent books have been written- I even teach a small segment on grief in my work. The long-accepted theory of the five Stages of Grief by Elizabeth Kugler-Ross have now been re configured and reimagined It’s not a neat lineal path, progressing through each stage like a swimming competency certificate. A university colleague of mind developed another model, which is more about recognising that grief doesn’t go away but over time life fills around it so it feels smaller. Grief can come at unusual times and the emotions could be quite random. For me I felt I couldn’t grieve as I needed to hold everything together for mum’s sake and even though I had bereavement leave no one does my work and I felt an obligation to my students to sort their things out. It also gave me time to not think about dad either. We didn’t have any sort of send-off for dad as COVID made its way back to the village, so no visitors allowed that week and not intermingling of staff/ residents. Some family friends were upset by this but as most of their close friends were either very elderly or couldn’t afford to fly down mum felt it was unfair to do that. As a family we will do something later.
People sent me flowers and I loved them all - mum also was given flowers. One friend sent flowers two weeks later when she knew the earlier flowers would be dying. I decided to dry a lot of flowers and mix them in with the roses I had dried that had been in dads’ room while he was alive. Another friend gave me a lovely relaxing eye mask to lie down with. Others donated to the cancer society as was dad's request.
I am grateful I had some special work colleagues keeping an eye out for me- one day I went to work and forgot just about everything I needed to function. My job is very flexible so I could work from home if I felt like it. After about a week I just didn’t want to be around people or socialise- it was too exhausting telling people again or listening to people tell me their own stories, which I know is done in good heart, but I just couldn’t process any extra information. At one point I felt like some friends had forgotten I was actually a nurse and had worked in hospital for many years as they told me really basic medical things about what happened to help me understand. I know it was done with love but I didn’t have the energy to tell them otherwise.
For me coming home and collapsing on my sofa with the cats was all I could do most days and shut out the world for a while. After dad had died, but before we had his ashes was a bit of limbo and I didn’t want to come home to an empty house that first night and my neighbours came over and we had a whisky and they just sat and let me talk. I needed that.
I have added my own little thoughts to grief - I am likening it to a crumpled-up ball of paper floating on the water. Every now and again the paper opens up and a word is shown and that is a trigger- for me a trigger was seeing the stock of English Christmas treats and my first thought was “oh I’ll get some of those for dad”, then feeling guilty for being relieved he is not here in the state he was. I didn’t recognise the enormous weight I was carrying on my shoulders as I felt like I had been steam rollered and no strength for anything. It’s a different grief to that I experienced when my marriage broke up unexpectedly a few years ago. Then my heart truly was broken, I had chest pain, I lost 15 kg in the space of three or four weeks, I couldn’t sleep, eat, I had to remind myself Ito get up and breath, I didn’t want to live but didn’t want to kill myself. They say losing a life partner through death is easier than losing a life partner through deceit as even though you are grieving their death you can draw comfort form the happy memories shared. Whereas with deceit every memory is a lie. A friend put it well at the time when she said you are grieving the past you thought you had and the future you thought you would have. Without realizing it at the time I just kept building new experiences and filling my life up. With dad I was the opposite- eating too much junk, no motivation or energy to exercise and watching incredibly bad Tv. I couldn’t even read any books.
I miss my dad enormously, but I wouldn’t want him to still be here as a frail, dependent shell of a person, not dead but not living. I am grateful he got to see his only grandson grow into a fine young man, that he got to see me find happiness in a new romance and to succeed in my career. Our family doesn’t follow a formal religion however I do believe dad is around in some form. One night I woke a loud knocking and I thought there was an intruder in my house. I checked everywhere (while carrying an axe) and couldn’t find anything amiss and went back to bed. The knocking happened again and I went back downstairs and saw I had left the back door wide open. I l shut it and the knocking stopped.
I know the river of sadness and grief will hit me at some time, and I will just let it carry me as needed. I told my son the best thing he can do for granddad is live the life he never got a change to, use his education, be the best version of himself, make his dreams happen and continue to be a good person who contributes to society. That will be my dad’s legacy. He had nothing from his parents to live by and created this himself.
Live the life you have the best you can. Seek out people and things that bring joy
Love you Dad. John the orphaned evacuee from Liverpool 1930-2022
Your ever loving youngest daughter Wendy
For support check out this resource https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/health-a-z/g/grief-loss/