Courtesy of TheGuardian.com | By Isy Suttie | Originally Published 08.07.2016 | Posted 03.26.2018
People often say the wrong thing, as Isy Suttie discovered when her dad died. Even years later, the loss of a parent is complex.
At a recent mental health event Prince Harry said that he wished he had spoken more about losing his mother when it happened. It wasn’t hard to see why he’d found the prospect difficult – particularly as a child, with the added media spotlight. Grief is shattering, unpredictable, a wily pickpocket. You’ve staggered through the initial devastation, you feel that the sands are perhaps undulating rather than shifting, and then it comes and snatches enjoyment from you when you are least expecting it: a song, a joke they would have retold, a mannerism like theirs. It’s different for everyone, and takes courage to voice.
What’s notable when one is grieving is how other people often don’t know what to do. We’re so inclined to try and make everything better that it can be very difficult to offer “I don’t know what to say”, or “I simply can’t imagine what you’re going through”. We want to serve up the classic shit sandwich that normally works for bad news the world over. You know – “Hi [insert name here], hope all’s well! I’m sorry that [insert shit thing here, eg I’m sacking you/that bloody apocalypse is happening] but [insert something about their glossy hair/forthcoming holiday to soften the blow].” But we shouldn’t try. Often there is nothing to say, and it’s OK to say that, as long as you say something.
After the loss of my father on Boxing Day 2011, when my newly formed family was raw, reeling, and felt like a shaky table with one leg missing, a friend texted, “I’m so sorry. At least he made it through Christmas.” I didn’t understand. Christmas? I couldn’t recall how I had got dressed for the past week, or how I had ended up at his bedside daily, continually fretting about whether to take his hand, silently blazing my eyes into the NHS sheets like they contained some riddle which could offer a last-ditch solution, give him extra time. More turkey, anyone?
After the loss of my father a friend texted, ‘I’m so sorry. At least he made it through Christmas’
But now it makes me laugh – because I know how much she likes practical solutions (and I’m certainly not saying I could have done any better: I once said to a friend that her newborn baby looked like Winston Churchill). The text showed she cared, and was better than nothing, and I mean that literally – better than the friends who offered me too many drinks and wouldn’t meet me in the eye. That was worse, because I felt more alone and somehow embarrassed, like I shouldn’t want to mention it. I’m sure they didn’t mean it, but I just wanted to be given permission to talk.
There are fleeting flashes of comfort from those early days. The kindness of the funeral director letting me use the toilet in her house (“Those are their flannels,” I thought, gazing about. “One day will I wash my face without thinking about Dad?”). The Inbetweeners Movie. A tap on the door revealing a steaming pot of chilli con carne on the doorstep (does chilli ever fail in times of turmoil?).
Now, my grief is inextricably stitched into the memory of my father, so I feel him and feel his absence at the same time, which can be very sad and also strangely humbling. I’ve only lost one person close to me, but I imagine the aftermath varies each time, depending on your stage in life as well as your relationship, replete with all its labyrinthine complexities, to the person who’s gone. You need everyone around you to believe it won’t always be this way, and tell you so, repeatedly, through words and actions. I think that need is probably magnified for children, because so much about living hasn’t yet been cemented. You may have only just learnt that unicorns don’t exist, and suddenly you have to get through life without the person who gently told you that fact.
I admire Harry for speaking out now, because digesting someone’s disappearance is a continual process.
Isy Suttie’s tour The Actual One runs from 15 August to 30 (isysuttie.com)