My father died in November 2011, four days before my forty second birthday. There was no warning; he died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Still, I was lucky enough to see him at the hospital in his last hours of life, though by that stage he had lost consciousness.
Until I lost my father, I felt pretty comfortable with the idea of loss. I had never shied away from the topic of death and felt, after years of observation and contemplation (admittedly at arm’s length), that I understood it.
I had rationalised it. I had intellectualised it. I knew about the stages of grief. I had counselled friends who had lost their parents in their teens, in their twenties, in their thirties. Perhaps, because of the phone call I’d overheard as a nine year old all those years before, or perhaps purely coincidentally, I felt as if I’d been preparing myself all my life to lose someone I deeply cared for.
As it turns out, I knew nothing. I was not prepared at all.
Just one example: Yes, there are stages of grief. But they occur randomly, in no specific order, sometimes all at once. Sometimes not at all.
Grief, as someone close to me at the time put it, is like waves that come to your shore. Just when you think you’ve got your balance in the tug and pull of the water, a large wave comes and knocks you off your feet. You can have weeks of nothing and then, out of nowhere, a tsunami.
I knew, given the sudden nature of dad’s death, that I was probably in shock to begin with. We all were to a greater or lesser extent. I thought the shock would wear off and that would be that. But it doesn’t work that way.
I realised upon arriving at work one day, about ten weeks after Dad died, that I had no idea how I’d come to be there, nor how I’d got home every day, nor what I did in the hours in between. I couldn’t account for anything. And yet I worked. I cooked. I talked to people. I walked the dog. I functioned. My inner self was in a fog, even while my outer self carried on with normal life.
On Dad’s death I’d declared to my brother that there would be no regrets; there was no point dwelling in the past. It was what it was.
This turned out to be completely naïve, especially given the relationship I’d had with my dad. Over time I found myself consumed with regret. Regret and guilt. Years after I’d tried to comfort a distressed man on a train, struggling to come to terms with the death of his own father, I found myself tormented by my own demons, my family struggling to find the right words to comfort me.
I still regret that I didn’t make the most of my last hours with Dad as he lay in the emergency ward dying. I spent those hours holding his hand, but I regret not hugging him more, not kissing his forehead or his cheek. It was my last opportunity for physical contact with him and I missed it.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t realise that evening how keenly I’d miss his actual presence in my life.
Ironically, when Dad died I had consoled myself with the thought that it was only his physical self that I had lost. His spirit and his energy were both out there somewhere, I was sure of it. And he would always be in my heart and in my mind, right?
It was a completely naïve devaluing of the physical world, as if it meant nothing. But it’s the physical world we live in.
In the midst of the fog I was king hit by an intense physical longing and I struggled to come to terms with it for months and months. While it is no longer as overwhelming or as painful as it was, several years on I still crave the smell of his aftershave and the touch of his soft skin on my lips as I kiss his smooth, freshly shaved cheek hello. Quite simply, I miss him.
In my experience of loss I learnt of the pain of physical longing, the torment of demons, the disconnecting fog. Things that I couldn’t resolve with rational thought or intellectual argument.
My salvation came in the form of a revelation about the nature of life. It was the most important lesson that losing my father taught me.
Very soon after Dad died I realised that, in the end, all that is left is love. Everything else is unimportant.
All of the things we fought about, all of the strongly held principles I had furiously defended – all of them, trivial. All of the hurt, the anger, the arguments, the bitterness. Trivial.
And while this deeply profound and beautiful insight can’t help me go back and fix the wrongs of the past, it has helped me to heal the pain and conquer my demons. It has also completely changed how I view life and my relationship with all the people I love.