Monday, July 01, 2019

Gone with no goodbyes - the strangeness of a sudden death in the family.

My dad, me and our snow art

One of the things about my Dad's recent death is that it was abrupt. It's the best word for it. We had no warning it was going to happen. The circumstances were traumatic, especially for my mother who administered CPR under instruction from a 999 operator, and my brother who literally cleaned up a pool of blood.

The sheer intrusive violence of the fall that killed my father seems so unusual and remote that it's actually hard to tell people about it. We were unprepared and, as a family, we may have overshared with the people who we spoke to in the aftermath.

The suddenness of it all has been one of the hardest aspects of our bereavement. It's the first time I have lost someone close without saying some kind of goodbye. With my grandparents and grandparents in law there were hospital visits, and opportunities to speak to them. After a late night drive to Wrexham Maelor Hospital I held my Grandma's hand for about 15 minutes before she died. That was at the end of a slow decline in health and strength that we all knew only had one outcome.

But this was different. On the Saturday before he died I had driven up and gone to see the Shrewsbury match against Wycombe. My brother had scored some free tickets in the fancy section so we had gone in there. After the game we were due to walk to Dave's home, but it was pelting with rain. Looking across the car park we could see my parents' car stationary in the traffic queuing to leave.

Instead of the half mile walk uphill to Dave's house in driving rain, we dashed across the car park and piled into the back seat of their car, squeezing in next to the car seats for ferrying grandchildren. Mum was driving. Dad was trying to listen to the Radio Shropshire report on the game we had just all watched.

Mum deposited us up at Dave's house and I got in my car and drove down to my parents'. I ate tea with them and then got back into my car ready for the long drive home. A round trip to Shrewsbury means about six hours in the car, minimum (and depending on farm traffic!). As I drove south along the A49, which I contend is one of the worst roads in England, I asked myself why I had bothered. Admittedly I had driven up with a large freezer in the car that my brother was taking off my hands freeing up some much-needed space in my house. And Shrewsbury had won. And it was nice to see Mum and Dad...

And three days later my brother told me over the phone that Dad had died.

I went into a sort of high-functioning shock. I drove up on autopilot - the road I had literally driven three days previously. I alternated between manic concentration on the road ahead, or the song on the CD player, or the back of the vehicle in front of me, and just trying to blink away tears.

In the weeks that have followed, as I met people, I heard the same things and faced the same questions. I say that it was sudden or unexpected. I usually use the word at the beginning of the conversation. But the questions keep coming. "Was he ill?" "Did you have any warning?"

I went to the local paper shop to cancel Dad's magazines and the newsagent said "But he was in here on Sunday buying the non-league paper!" Yes, he was. Someone else said: "But he looked so well!" Yes, yes he did. I had to ring up one of his friends from the stamp club who wanted some items back that Dad had borrowed. "But I was talking to him just last week!" Yes. Yes you were.

That's what sudden means when we say it was a sudden death. One minute the person is here, fully functioning, possibly even being quite annoying, and the next they are gone.

It feels like we just aren't used to that anymore. Death happens in a slow, suffocating process, with medical appointments and care plans and stuff. Like a train announcement, we are told it is coming, and we stand on the bleak platform waiting the while it takes to arrive.

And let's be real, sometimes, when the person we love has slowly been overtaken by pain, or robbed of their dignity as their body has failed, sometimes death comes as a release. We feel guilty that a small part of us is glad that we can actually begin the next stage and move on with doing everything that we put on hold. We've been holding our breath and we can breathe out at last. We can sigh and grieve, and actually a lot of our grief has already happened.

But sudden death? That's a sharp indrawn breath, not a released sigh.

People have compared what I have been through to their own experience. A few days after my dad died, a beautiful friend of mine experienced the final loss of her father, years after a diagnosis of dementia. That's a long painful goodbye. Other people who have been through a bereavement like that have expressed that what I experienced was preferable, maybe. It was painless, for him. It was quick, for him. There was no halfway house of immobility for him.

I get that. I don't feel like agreeing. Any way of losing a person you love sucks. It sucks if it takes ten years; it sucks if it takes ten minutes and they die in the ambulance before they reach the hospital. No type of bereavement offers anything else than consolation prizes and I don't feel consoled. There may be comfort from being able to say goodbye, but I didn't get that.

There's a temptation now to close out this blog post with a little moral point - always make sure the people you love know that you love them just in case, or something twee like that. But I don't feel like doing that. I feel like raging at the sheer fucking audacious unfairness of the whole thing; that he can just be gone; the universe would just close off the bundle of synaptic receptors that generated his consciousness like that; that transmission can just stop without any permission being asked or granted.

I don't want to draw any trite conclusions because I hate how this event concluded. I don't want this to serve as a homiletic lesson for everyone else, because that's something you do afterwards. And I don't want it to have happened, let alone be in the afterwards.

It's a sharp breath in and my chest still hurts.

I don't plan to write any more blog posts about this (but plans are not promises). Thank you for reading.


  1. Mo badham1/7/19 21:13

    My mum went to bed on her birthday, after all of her children visited her, and never woke up the next morning. My dad was out shopping 2 weeks ago on the Monday (I went round, he was out great) the next day he had a heart attack and died. Mum was 81, dad was 88. They were both old and had to die sometime. We are (all 6 of their children) very grateful that that’s the way they died. They would’ve hated to have been ill, in hospital and us all visiting them. They never had no illness, were not really ever in hospital and on no tablets what so ever. I just pray that when I or anyone else in my family die, that’s the way we go. Yes it’s hard for us all left behind, but it was definitely the perfect way for them. I’ve watched my friends son 21, fight a brain tumour for 3 years. He blow up, went blind and couldn’t walk. Then died, yes they had a chance to say good bye, but it was horrendous. I’m sorry for the way your dad died, I know it was a shock, but try and remember the good times xx

  2. Thanks for sharing Jon. So far, I have not lost someone who I really cared about so I can't be in a position to fully relate but I recognise your pain and loss. Many of my relations have passed away (mostly due to old age) but I was not that close to them. I even had a friend who died tragically young in her 30s ... but again, I would never say I was particularly close. A lost her mum to cancer about ten years ago and that was, for her, a fairly catastrophic loss, made particularly cruel by the fact she was only sixty and had just retired so she was getting ready to finally enjoy life (my boys, her grandsons, never got to know her). I am bracing myself for that time which will certainly come ... when individuals who I deeply care about and enjoy spending time with are no longer here. Unless I go first, of course.
    So, I have no words – because what words could ever possibly make things better?
    All I can say is I am sorry for your loss and hope that time will eventually make the pain more bearable and do try and take comfort in the fact that your dad was a wonderful person who helped, encouraged and loved so many others.