My father had a walking stick.  He hated it with a passion and it is my plan, now he’s dead, to burn it in one of my stoves over the winter.  The old man would appreciate the gesture.  The stick symbolised everything he hated about getting old, and there was a lot he hated about getting old.  We bought the stick together in a local shop that supplies leather goods, sports equipment and the like, which has been established for years – a sort of cradle to grave affair almost.  Well, plimsolls to walking sticks really, but you know what I mean.

My father aged reluctantly.  For many years he was in complete denial.  He was inventive with his ways of overcoming obstacles because he was a clever man, but eventually need overcomes pride.  He was unsteady on his feet and a stick was the only solution – don’t get me started on the time he needed a wheelchair, there’s a whole other blog post there – but it was welcomed reluctantly and with poor grace.  He would use it as a prod, poking at things in shops or using it to convey his disdain of litter on the ground or obstacles in his way.  The thump of his stick against his neighbour’s errant wheeley bin part of his weekly ritual.  He would use it when seated to rest his hands and chin, much like a small child and would play with it, swinging it on the wrist cord this way and that – repetitive and irritated.  He would point with it, swear at it, swing it like a golf club.  He was furious when hospitalised one time and the staff took it away because he wasn’t steady enough to use a stick.  They insisted he needed a Zimmer frame, or as he called it a ‘dimmer frame’.  I was never sure if the mispronunciation was a joke or whether he genuinely thought that was what they were called.  Either way, he assured us he’d be back using his stick before long as only ‘old’ people use dimmer frames.  He was 91.

I hated the stick too.  I hated what it meant about his health, what it meant about how our relationship was changing, would change.  Would end.  At first the stick was just used to steady his gait; then he came to lean more heavily on it changing his posture, his walk; next he used it to lever himself out of a chair.  Eventually, even the stick couldn’t help him get around.  Nor could the Zimmer which he used for only a short time.  A stick couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening, and we both knew that from the day we bought it.  It was why we both hated it so much.

Now the winter days are coming and the days shortening, I shall burn the stick.  And no doubt hear dad rejoicing at its demise.

‘Burn the bloody thing,’ he’d say. ‘About time, too.’


How not to Talk to the Recently Bereaved

I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of condolences following my father’s death.  The majority have been eloquent, sensitive and thoughtful and whilst they are not easy to receive, they do what they say on the tin – offer comfort and respect.  But there are a few, mostly the verbal ones, that have struck me by degrees as trite, insulting and in a few cases hurtful.

I honestly think that most people have no idea what they sound like when they offer condolences, but I believe people are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.  For most, having to talk to someone in the midst of loss is a rare occurrence.  For many it brings up painful memories for themselves and makes knowing what to say extremely difficult.  All of these things are understandable.

But in an effort to educate, elucidate and get the bloody thing off my chest, I offer a short course in ‘How not to talk to the recently bereaved.’

Example 1

‘You’ll never get over it’.  F*ck off, yes I will.  You want to condemn me to a lifetime of feeling like this?  Better to say, ‘you must feel awful right now, but you won’t feel like this forever’.  

Many people seem to think that getting over a bereavement is inappropriate.  But as something of a veteran (all four grandparents, both parents, both brothers, both uncles, one aunt, and one cousin) I can tell you that ‘getting over it’ is not wrong.  And you don’t get over it as such, you learn to live with it, without them.  And living well to respect the memory of those that have gone is the point.  Feeling okay about your own life with or without your loved ones is the point.

Example 2

‘You’ll get through it, you’re such a strong person’.  Tricky one this.  Sounds complimentary doesn’t it?  Sounds like the speaker has faith in your ability and knows you well.  Actually, what they’re saying is, ‘please don’t break down in front of me, I can’t handle it.’  What it does is make you hide your nasty horrible grief from view and keep it suppressed.  Years of therapy – cha ching.  

Strength is absolutely the last thing the bereaved have.  They need support, love, encouragement until they find their strength again – which they will.  Wish them courage, offer them help, don’t give them the responsibility of handling this alone because they’re so ‘strong’.  Do normal things with them, talk about the person that has died – bring tissues and you be strong, because one day you may not be so strong yourself and then you will understand why it’s such a horrible thing to suggest that it’s not okay to show weakness.

Example 3

‘You’ll never be the same again.’  Okay, maybe I will be changed but isn’t the loss of a loved one enough – you want to make the bereaved think they’re going to lose themselves too?  Cruel beyond words.  

Telling people they will never be the same again is pointless in fact.  We all change, all the time.  Not just when someone dies.  It implies that you have no value as yourself without the person you’ve lost and is such a strange thing to say.  Better to say, ‘life will be different for you now.’

And finally Example 4

That script that you read from, when you work for a bank, building society, insurance company, whatever call centre it is?  The phrase is ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ not ‘I apologise for your loss.’  Oh honey, it really wasn’t your fault!  Did make laugh that one tho’…

Love and peace

Lists, and the writing thereof

I love lists.  I have a weekly To Do list – handwritten – that I happily work my way down during the week.  It’s all there, in my A5 notebook, week after week.  I can look back and see what’s been achieved, what’s yet to do, what keeps being carried forward to the next week, and how long I’ve been putting off doing the accounts.

This year, however, there’s been a gap in my To Do lists since the first week of January.  Because my dad died; and when someone is dying, it appears that there’s both a lot to do, and absolutely nothing to do.

At the age of 91, ‘the old man’, as he affectionately called himself, was steadily becoming frail, both in body, mind and spirit.  The time had come, and was acknowledged by all, including himself, and so began the longest two weeks of my life.  I had read somewhere that when someone is dying, normal life needs to be put on hold.  Turns out, this is absolutely true.  Not only is dying a very personal process, it is also a very unpredictable one.  According to the Hospice nurse I chatted with, some people will die almost as soon as the prognosis is made, some will fight and fight and appear unable to complete the final stage.  There is nothing To Do except wait, and watch, and respect the process.

After he died, of course, there was a whole new list of things To Do.  Funeral arrangements, financial arrangements, people to notify, a eulogy to write.  I have a separate book for these To Do lists.  I find a need a degree of separation, lest my life becomes consumes by the process and the practicality.  Most of the things on that particular To Do list have been accomplished already with more to come as the finances and legal details conclude, but I find myself at last free enough to start to write in my own personal To Do notebook again.  So far, aside from paying the Gas Bill, it remains steadfastly empty.  Because it seems that what’s left to do once a life ends, is both a lot and nothing at all.

Love and peace,