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In September 2012, David Fitzgerald's father died in hospital after a heart attack. His death was sudden and unexpected. In the time following, David experienced intense grief, leading to dark times and family difficulties. Writing on the first anniversary of his father's death, David shares his experience of how he and his family have been coping with bereavement.
A year ago today, my dad died.
At approximately 5am, he said: "That’s ok, you’re just doing your job," to a hospital nurse who had apologised in case her duties had woken him.
He was 84, an active maths tutor, a keen swimmer, a husband and father of five. He had been referred to the hospital by the chiropodist because he had no feeling in the fourth toe of his right foot, a concern as he had type two diabetes. After investigation, the doctors had concluded the toe would have to be amputated. Not pleasant, but not life threatening.
At approximately 6am, my mum received a call from the hospital: Your husband is very poorly. Come right away. And bring someone with you.
Confused, she called my sister, who drove her to the hospital. There, they met the duty sister. She fluffed her delivery, mangling the message that my sister decoded but my mum had yet to comprehend.
"You mean he’s dead?"
He died of a myocardial infarction at a time between 5am and 6am.
At 8am, I received a phone call from my eldest brother: "Are you sitting down?" Approximately two hours later I was in a taxi, my eye caught by the driver’s mirror as it had an air freshener that stated 'World’s Best Dad'.
When I arrived at the hospital, my mum’s first words to me were, "We didn’t expect this, David, did we?"
I’d just seen what we didn’t expect. The last time I saw him alive he was waiting to be x-rayed. My mum and I had just said goodbye to him but as we walked out I glanced over my shoulder. He grinned and gave me a high thumbs up. Everything was going to be OK.
Eighteen hours later, directed by my eldest brother, I joined my mum, my sister and aunt in a tiny room just outside the ward, the bad news room, the room of shattered lives. I went from an unexpected end to the start of the unimaginable. As Iris Murdoch put it, "Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved."
As we sat, sipping tea and breaking down, my other brother and sister were making the journey from London. They arrived at about 2.30pm and we went to Bluebell House, the hospital’s mortuary. We walked in and my mum let out a cry, her face contorted by anguish, "I don’t think I can do this."
I do not know how she has done what she has done this last year: the person most gravely affected by the bereavement has been the one who has displayed the greatest mental health. Bereavement tests everybody’s maturity: on many occasions this year I have failed; she has not faltered at all.
She, wisely, I think, spends time at home, keeping herself busy, maintaining the rooms they inhabited, the places which she can, if she chooses, populate with my father. Grief has not made her a hermit: her weekly routine is structured around, as it was before, lunches out with her friends; but annual or seasonal rituals that she would have attended with my dad seem now to provoke uncertainty.
They are occasions in which she has to sit in company, conscious of her massive amputation. Gone are the in-jokes and the shared facial expressions at moments of social intrigue that have been a near lifelong staple of her experience of the communal dining table. No longer can she offer her goodbyes, return home and digest the event with my dad. No more combining memories to validate the other’s experience and cement each other’s identity.
She, we, didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. He didn’t hear "you have months to live", he didn’t glimpse his coat being held by the eternal footman, he just died. Apparently, he’d expressed a wish "to go on the dance floor", and years ago his doctor had told him, while clicking his fingers, "you’ll go out like a light." He had multiple health issues that were masked by his energy and his charisma. We, the offspring, know now that he would have been on kidney dialysis from early this year, facing death by dimmer switch.
I knew his preference but, in the dark days of bereavement, I wondered, pointlessly, if it is preferable, in the context of the ultimate double bind, to have the chance to spend time with him knowing the sand is trickling away, or to be surprised by the smashed hourglass.
There were plenty of times during the six months following his death that I really, really, felt the pain of the broken glass. On such occasions, my mind was a snake pit. Grief contaminated my thoughts, sometimes causing poisoned outbursts at undeserving people, sometimes leading to feelings of intense self loathing.
It was during one of the latter bouts that I served a brunch for four people that included cold mushrooms and insipid scrambled eggs. My head screamed: "You can’t even do that David, can you?", to which another internal voice rejoined, "What’s this? Thinking about your own inadequacies when your father died just a few days ago? Who do you think you are?". In the evening, a plastic bag I was carrying split and four cans of lager tumbled onto the street. There has not been a time in my life when I have hated myself more.
A feeling of lacking control percolated in such a manner that caused damaging examinations of past behaviour, in which my actions now appeared to be inexcusable, incompetent and insensitive. It was also the start of the "What If?" narratives, of which there were to be many, but they all shared the same need to punish, to blame, berate - myself, institutions, the world.
Scared by the intensity of these feelings, I tried to maintain a poker face, thus depriving loved ones of the chance to offer me consolation and, at times, appearing dispassionate. An anguished person sometimes needs to see a genuine reflection of feeling in the face of a family member. Sometimes, looking at me, my family didn’t see it and that can lead to intense anger, as the other seems to be an emotional tourist, not a true member of the tribe.
Consequently, I suspect that there were times when I damaged, temporarily, relationships with my siblings. My poker face was a misguided attempt to have a sense of control when everything seemed chaotic. I was so desperate to clutch at something I could control that I offered to be acting executor of my father’s will.
The experience of going through his paperwork was the opposite of that staple of fiction, the discovery of a proverbial hatbox containing a cache of letters: he had been self controlled, responsible and authentic. Everything I was not. My respect for him grew. Through clipping his passport, sending back his driver’s licence, seeing almost thirty-five years of his medical history I, over time, accepted the extinguishing of his light. By contemplating the darkness, I was forced to stop my psychological shadow boxing and began to fully grieve.
Just over three months later, all of the post-death tasks were complete. The estate had been released and my dad’s ashes were buried, in a rose garden, by the roots of a Joie De Vivre. It is then that my sense of time started to be become less muddled. During the immediate aftermath, when I was trying to come to terms with the disappearance of one of the greatest sources of consistency in my life, my sense of past, present and future were all over the place. I developed a firsthand understanding of how a middle aged person could develop obsessive compulsive disorder: amidst chaos, small routines can bring comfort and a sense of control.
Existing rituals have a permanently altered texture, as I discovered on my birthday. I visited the Joie De Vivre with my mum and brother. It was a warm, beautiful day. I felt a sadness that I would not wish away, the sadness that is part of being bereaved.
Bereavement creates many new anniversaries, the biggest of which occurs today. I hope we can create a ritual of remembrance. I hope it will draw a straight line from the past to present to the future and celebrates his life.
It was a life that was full of warmth, engagement and fun. One of the last things I heard him say, on the 13th September, as he was getting in a chair, wearing a towelled robe and about to be wheeled to the orthopaedic x-ray department, was, as he rolled his shoulders, "We’ll take him in the fifth, Rocky."
David's father was a regular donor to the British Heart Foundation