Grief will let go eventually. And then I’ll remember my dad as he was

Courtesy of | By Owen Jones | Originally Published 05.12.2018 | Posted 06.17.2018

My father’s death made me realise how ill-equipped we are to deal with loss – and the grief that follows.

Grief is like wandering through a minefield, as my mother puts it: however carefully you tread, a sudden detonation can happen out of nowhere. A song played in a supermarket; an overheard phrase; someone in the distance who your mind cruelly suggests is your loved one for a fleeting moment. Grief can be a powerfully malevolent force, too, a rat gnawing at your emotional wellbeing.

I reflected on that after seeing Nightfall, a new play about a family on a declining Hampshire farm both united and divided by the grief of losing their father. The grief gnaws at them all, but they don’t have the emotional tools to deal with it. But do any of us? Our culture poorly equips us to deal with grief, a combination of death being treated as a macabre taboo subject and a particularly English awkwardness with raw emotions. It’s also – and let’s be honest about it – that the expression of emotion is portrayed as weakness in a patriarchal society.

The bereaved are often treated badly. There is no statutory paid bereavement leave, with the emotionally stunned often compelled to work within days of losing a loved one. A third of those who have suffered bereavement report being treated with no compassion by their employers. At the very least, surely, we need to learn to talk more about grief if we are to build a society that treats the bereaved better.

I lost my father in January to advanced prostate cancer; he was the third close family member to die in six months. Grief has been difficult to avoid. And four months on, it has remained hard to escape that final week: a sudden deterioration at home, wheeling him into a taxi to the hospice for the last time, the long nights of increasingly rattling breaths, wondering when the moment would come – and then that long pause before the last gasp, the instinctive, wide-eyed panic etched on everyone’s face in a moment when time froze.

A few days earlier, I was helping to lower him into a bed as he called himself “a stable genius” in mockery of the latest Donald Trump tweet; as an infusion of oxygen made him stronger, he spoke at length about George Washington (he loved American history), then four days later, he was gone.

His family holding his still warm hands and telling him that they loved him in a compassionate Marie Curie hospice while Bob Dylan played: one of the best ways to die, perhaps. But I still feel trapped in that last week. The memory of his sharp decline has supplanted the man I knew and want to remember: looking sheepish as I walked into the living room while he danced to the Band’s rendition of Forever Young, and saying it was “groovy” in that way only dads can; the gruff way he, as an obsessive creature of habit, would answer the phone if he was interrupted eating his dinner or watching the news; the way his eyes would well up when he spoke about subjects he was passionate about, like an important speech in the American civil war, or how Labour and the Tories would once compete over who could build the most council housing.

That whole period, the no-man’s land between life and death, of watching a parent who in your childhood appeared as an immortal deity becoming as dependent as a newborn child, of asking for a “yoggie breakfast” before slipping away – that does disappear in time, I’m told, in favour of memories of who they once were.

Danny Baker
 ‘As the DJ Danny Baker put it after his own diagnosis, ‘I’m just the battlefield, science is doing the fighting and of course the wonderful docs and nurses of the brilliant NHS.’’ Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

That’s why the Jewish approach to mourning and grief seems so attractive in helping to fend off the memory of those last days. A seven-day shiva, a period of mourning when those grieving open their doors to friends and visitors, where they pray, eat and remember; then, a year later, another ceremony to place the tombstone and recite eulogies. Having some form of structure to process and manage grief collectively surely helps: as someone put it to me, grief is like a landscape without a map. Another suggested that grief makes you a stranger to yourself.

Our culture doesn’t give us the vocabulary to talk to the grieving – we often admit, “I don’t know what to say” – while how well we are judged to be dealing with grief is based on how little emotion we express.

It’s difficult, too, not to be angry at the continuing taboo of death. My father did not want to die, he wasn’t reconciled to it: until he was diagnosed with cancer, he hadn’t been hospitalised since he was a teenager with tonsillitis. He didn’t have to contemplate death until it was imminent, because our culture discourages us from doing so. It’s not for me to dictate how anyone deals with their own death – nothing can be more personal – but I saw what a nonsense that whole narrative of cancer as a battle is, with the implication that you either win or lose on your own steam. As the DJ Danny Baker put it after his own diagnosis, “I’m just the battlefield, science is doing the fighting and of course the wonderful docs and nurses of the brilliant NHS.” My dad was just the bewildered victim of a malign invisible force that beat him up and then killed him. His own attitude – warm, upbeat, relentlessly positive as it so happened, not that he wasn’t entitled to be miserable and angry if he chose to be – had no bearing on his fate.

I have no idea if, or how, our culture will ever come to terms with death. But one of the strange things about growing older is how twee cliches begin to make sense: the notion of the dead living on in those left behind used to make me particularly cringe, but it’s true, we are, in part, the collective products of those we love. My dad saw himself as part of a historic struggle for human liberation: he met my mum canvassing for the Labour party in a snowstorm in Tooting, he helped lead strikes, and recruited miners to socialism. It was a tragedy that the cause he dedicated much of his life to only flourished in his final months alive, and he was immensely frustrated that he couldn’t be actively part of it: but it was an immense comfort that he lived to see it.

And that, in time, is how I’d like to remember him. Not stricken by an illness that wages a remorseless war against the bodies of its victims: but an Evertonian book-loving socialist, full of optimism, who loved to travel and to live, who told very bad jokes. Grief does, in time, let go.

 Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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