Less than two months after I completed a post-graduate certificate in grief, loss, and trauma counselling, my dad died.
He was fit and healthy. He died from a heart attack on the narrow front porch of our house, as the paramedics worked over him, and my younger brothers and my Mum and I held hands and prayed and sang in the front room.
I don’t know if he heard us begging and pleading with God for a miracle, or if he was unconscious by then. Before the paramedics arrived, one brother had performed CPR until our neighbour took over, while my Mum sat at his head, and I spoke on the phone to the ambulance dispatcher, and our youngest brother, who had been having his bedtime story read to him, stood glued to my side.
Our family huddled together, waiting and praying.
I didn’t believe he would actually die.
But he did.
In the days that followed, Mum barely left her bed. My brothers and I dubbed ourselves “horphans” or half-orphans. I dispensed Mum’s sleeping tablets when she asked for them. We talked about the funeral.
I don’t think there is a “right” thing to say to a grieving person. There’s no “right” way to grieve, either.
My oldest brother used black humour, his conversation peppered with what I recognised as jokes but friends and acquaintances often didn’t. When he didn’t know the answers to the questions the police asked; “I’m sorry, I’ve just never had a father die before.” When he lost a board game with his friends; “Don’t worry about it, it’s not like it’s the worst thing that’s happened this week.”
Me, I organised things. Dad was English, and his family and friends abroad needed to be told. There was a eulogy to write, photos to scan for the slideshow, music to choose. A family to keep hydrated. Has someone checked on Mum? Has someone fed the cat?
In the hours and days after Dad died, Mum fell apart, then clawed the pieces of herself back together. She began to write, and to paint images that came, very clearly, into her mind. Poppies. Butterflies. Storm clouds and clear sky. At night she slept fitfully, waking many times with words running through her head, writing them fast into the notebook she kept on the bedside table. When daylight came she transferred her words to her computer and shared them on Facebook. Our private, reserved mother shared her messy, anguished journey through her grief.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t do that. I had been a writer since I could hold a pencil but right when I needed this gift to help me grieve, to help me make sense of my fractured world, it was gone.
My very thoughts slowed down. It took ages for me to grasp new information, to retain what people said, and what I read. My thoughts were so slow, I could practically see them dawdling their way across my skull. I had not expected this to happen, and I hated it.
Then, it was my turn to fall apart.
The fact that I was training to be a psychologist and had done a specialist course in grief counselling, did not provide me with a cushion. It wasn’t a dramatic thing. I just…stopped coping.
I found myself a therapist, cut back on work and stabilised. I would return to therapy about a year later, with a different therapist and a different way of working. That time I would stay longer as I tried to make sense of the mess that my grief was, tangled up with stress over work, my never-ending psychology internship, my new marriage, and my shifted relationships with my mum and brothers because of that marriage.
That’s what I needed.
My friends let me talk about Dad, when I wanted to, and not when I didn’t. I asked for a couple of Dad’s jumpers, dark blue, big on him, enormous on me, and wore them. They were warm. They were his. I listened to his music, the music I’d grown up with: Gerry Rafferty, Dire Straits, UB40, Eric Clapton. Sometimes I listened to the Christian song my brothers and I had sung together as he died, over and over again, and I cried.
I cried when I heard an ambulance siren. Then I prayed for whoever they were going to try and save.
I needed those things too.
Therapy was crucial for my emotional stabilisation. But it wasn’t for the rest of my family. Mum used the creative arts, my youngest brother used social connection – he needed to be near family, sometimes, and hang out with his friends, sometimes. Mum found mentors for both brothers. Slowly, so very, very slowly, we found our way.
There is not one part of me that wouldn’t give up the self-awareness, the insight into grief and the improvement to my therapy-skills in a heartbeat if it meant having Dad back.
It has been a little over two and a half years since he died. I miss him immensely. The pain is more of a dull ache now, when I think of questions I want to ask him, news I want to share, milestones reached. I will always miss him, because I loved him. I still do.
Bereavement counselling has moved far past a mandate to forget and move on. We will always have the memories of the people we love, the people who changed us and shaped us. So it is about what you will do – how you will choose to remember them, and incorporate that chapter into the whole of your life-story. In the way you find. In your own time.