A List of Things I Learned When My Dad Died
About a month ago my father died of cancer. He’d been fighting the disease in some form or another since 2009, but for various reasons his passing was still sudden.
In the time since then, I’ve learned a few things about the process of grief. Mostly I’ve learned that it’s about one of the most subjective experiences you can go through as a human being, so I don’t know if this will help anybody else going through something similar. However I do know that:
People don’t know what to say, but the main thing is that they’re talking at all
People will witness death during their lives, and they can pass on information and advice based on their experiences, but we’re not yet at the stage where we can truly make anyone understand how something that devastating truly feels.
Worse still, we don’t know of any effective verbal balm that will soothe the wounds, but people have still tried to over the past few weeks. I’ve tried to offer words of comfort or wisdom to grieving friends and, by my own standards, failed miserably. They didn’t see it that way, but I couldn’t figure out why my inane chatter seemed to ease their suffering for a little while until I started getting the phone calls myself.
It clicked: it doesn’t matter what they say. Just putting themselves in that position and distracting from or absorbing anything you might throw at them, and talking back in turn about anything, is a vastly underappreciated service that the best friends provide. And there were a lot of distractions, which probably means:
You have amazing taste in friends
Not much more needs to be said here. The fact that I needed to leave messages a day or two at a time to reply to them is a testament to how many I was getting during the worst of it and, by extent, the high caliber and empowering spirit of those I call my friends.
Though the nonsense chat was helpful, so too was talking to those with perspective, because:
People have been through the same thing as you (sort of)
A couple of friends have had a parent die in the last few years. Both dealt with the news in vastly different ways, and I was no different in my inconsistency when my own father passed.
When one friend called, he referred to my plans for the immediate future as “The Worst Week Of Your Life: Part Two”, which was pretty accurate but also clearly a projection of his own experience when his mother died.
I’m not saying my father’s death hasn’t devastated me. It’s a huge loss, but more…symbolic than emotional. Fathers are sometimes monoliths in their children’s lives, for better and worse. Mothers less so. I know that if my mother died tomorrow I would be utterly obliterated. I don’t know what that’s like, and (fingers crossed) I likely won’t for another 30+ years.
So I don’t know what my friend had been through, but I knew it wasn’t the same. But it was never going to be, even with friends whose fathers had died. Our pain is our own, despite also being universal, perversely.
All that said, it helped to hear the stories: what they did to deal with things; what their relationships were like at the end; regrets they had, things they wish they had or hadn’t said. They wrestled with the same genre of issues as I did, if not the same exact flavour, and that helped. Because, as the best art shows us, there’s a universality in specificity.
It’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to not
Before my dad, I’d been to four family funerals. And I didn’t cry at a single one, despite them all being blood relatives who were present in my childhood. So naturally I decided I was a sociopath.
Later, when I developed a stronger relationship with cinema and a better understanding of my own emotions, I was bawling non-stop — but never around family. Girlfriends (and ex-girlfriends, mostly), sure, but there was something uniquely uncomfortable about bursting into tears around my mother or brothers.
This might have been due to the fact that my parents rarely cried in public (and shut themselves down sharpish when they did), so it became a secretive, borderline shameful act. But there’s nothing shameful about public weeping, and anyone who tells you otherwise needs to deal with issues of their own.
The night my dad died, I was at a party in London. I had fielded calls from my mum, friends, and even talked about what had happened with some friends who were at said party. But I didn’t cry then. Not until I’d made the hour-plus journey home and collapsed outside my block of flats did I actively and spontaneously weep.
That’s what I needed to do at that moment. And at several other isolated moments. I thought maybe my family would be shocked or upset, but it quickly became clear that was a dumb thing to worry about; no-one is prescribing crying quotas. I felt more honest embracing my weeping mother
I didn’t cry again until the day of the funeral over a week later, assisted at the end of the cremation service by David Bowie’s “Five Years”. This helped cement the next discovery:
Most art is really about death
“Five Years” is a song about the world ending, which makes it a painfully appropriate (and, really, narcissistic) piece for the death of someone who helped bring you into that world.
I picked that, and Roxy Music’s “Avalon” for the ceremony’s entrance music, for many reasons, but chiefly because my father had a deep relationship to those artists of a kind I never saw reflected in any other part of his life. He had (has?) an incredible record collection, and I took cuts from two of those because I felt closest to him when we were talking about the music of his youth.
Bowie is, obviously, tragically apt for these circumstances, having died of liver cancer four months before. Blackstar has widely been seen as the artist’s musings on his own mortality, but it’s not like he hasn’t flirted with deaths (and rebirths) many times before.
With the announcement of David Bowie’s death, I knew instantly how to feel about the passing of a man I had never met: I promptly cried and tried to celebrate him the best way I knew how. When my father died I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about or deal with it, because he never prepared me for it; Bowie did.
Over the course of my week back home, I realised that nearly every comic, book or film I consumed was concerned with one or more dead or absent parents. “This is what art is for,” I thought to myself as I broke down to a series of heartbreaking panels in the latest issue of Saga. “Turning something meaningless and ugly into something profound and beautiful.”
Choosing the right funeral music is important for everyone except the deceased
Because it can act as a final seal on the letter of their life; a swansong to the person who has gone from being a person to a body to a box and now a memory much, much faster than anyone would like.
I know what it’s like to hear the wrong music for a person — my uncle, an enthusiastic bird fancier, was sent to the crematorium to the strains of the Catch the Pigeon theme song — so I made a promise to do right by my dad.
Of course, he wouldn’t know a single thing about it. My family told me I’d made perfect choices, and if I made them feel half as close to dad as I did then, I know they were right.
There are probably people hurting worse than you
Like my mother, for example, who met my dad when she was eighteen and who had never been with anyone else.
Like my older brother, who met our dad before any of our trio.
Like my mother’s parents, who considered their daughter’s husband their own son. Imagine outliving your son-in-law. I didn’t until my granny let me know just how much she was keeping in for my mum’s sake.
Like childhood friends who turn up at the front door with tears in their eyes after decades of absence.
Like my aunt, who’s now lost both of her brothers.
Like clients of my dad’s accountancy, who revealed to me (for maybe the first time) that, yes, he did worry about me a lot. He never told me so himself.
Like the countless in-laws, family friends, cousins, uncles and great aunts who valued his wit, loyalty and dedication to getting things right. (Even if that did mean forcing us out of bed at 4.00am in order to make flights at 9.)
While quantifying grief is a fool’s errand, it’s important to realise that this didn’t just happen to you. And it’s happening to other people in ways you couldn’t have even imagined, and that puts my dad in countless new lights.
Those questions you always wanted to ask might not have been worth asking
I have a project in mind: a sort of living family history in which I record interviews with relatives about their lives and compile them within a book or archive. I know almost nothing about my great-grandparents, and that’s a shame, so I figured I could leave a record for our family’s descendants.
There’s now a massive gap in that plan.
The weekend before my father passed, I spoke to a friend who’d lost his own about how disheveled he had looked when I visited him the day before. We talked about my attempts to assess his emotional state, which were typically rebuffed by answers about his physical condition (mostly about being “fine” or “tired”).
The friend talked about wanting something similar from his father but never quite receiving it. After discussing how many fathers bundle up their feelings in order to function in the world, we came to the understanding that maybe the way my father had been for the last 61 years wasn’t likely to be altered or helped by a barrage of deep and meaningful questions.
At a certain point — no matter how frustrating it might be — I needed to accept that my father was going to stay the person he had become for the rest of his life. I wish he’d been able to express himself more, especially over the last few years, and that he could resolve the issues I know were simmering under the surface.
But he figured out a way to survive and thrive in life, even when it was against him, and that’s no small feat. I have to respect the man my father was and not wish that he could have been different, because that would be insulting to both of us.
Grief cake is perhaps the best cake
The evening I got back home, my sister-in-law offered me a slice of cake that she’d made for everyone. In all honesty it was one of the best slices of cake I’ve ever had, and I said as much: “I could get used to grief cake.”
And, to my massive relief, everyone in the room laughed, including my mum and brothers. It was a terrible kind of laughter, one that required my father to be dead in order to exist, but it brought some crucial levity and I learned that:
Jokes are welcome if not mandatory
And if that wasn’t the case I’d probably have exploded by now.
I don’t know if there’s much to be said about this, as it’s pretty well-trodden territory by every comedian worth their salt, but it’s probably important to let those not experiencing grief know that levity is welcome around mourners.
Don’t put on a clown mask and do a holocaust routine, obviously. But speaking for myself? I didn’t want to be miserable in the days after my father’s death. I wanted to forget myself and have a good time. It’s important to talk through your feelings, but it’s equally important to remember that sorrow isn’t the only one you possess. We all saw Inside Out, right?
Nothing you feel is wrong
Even if it feels that way.
Even if you see hundreds of people crying at a funeral and your eyes are dry.
Even if you’re sitting in the room he died in, holding your weeping mother as she tells you how she’d trade everything to have him back and you have nothing to say.
There’s no right way to mourn. I had to let myself off the hook of not being an “active” mourner because those expectations don’t really exist, except in the weird standards the world sets for behaviour. Go with the feelings you have.
And in the spirit of that last sentiment, please disregard all of this if it doesn’t relate to you in the slightest. There is no good way to deal with these things.
There’s only your way. And I wish you the best of luck.