Empty Chairs

There were empty chairs at the Christmas table. Some temporary, some permanent. Some have been empty a long time. Some we are still getting used to.

Others might think thirteen around the table to be a grand-sized party. The table was full and crowded. But the empty chairs were obvious to me.

I sat in my father’s chair. It made sense, as the only one of his children present. But the burden of taking that place felt heavy.

The party was congenial but I missed my natural allies.

Little things were difficult. A discussion of family likenesses to those not there. The bottle of wine my father always bought for Christmas. Traditions replaced by new alternatives.

The grief has been hard this year.

Things were wrong and there was no way to make them right.

I went to the ocean. I felt the cold water on my body, the sting of salt in my eyes and I let the ebb and flow of the pounding waves carry away some of the pain.

But still next year there will be empty chairs at the Christmas table.

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The Grief Never Leaves You

 

Woven grief

The grief never leaves you, you know. It lingers on, hidden from view but an eternal presence woven into the fabric of your being.

You move on. You accept that this is how life has to be from now on. Joy returns, new life grows and living can be good again.

But the grief never leaves you.

You realise this at times both obvious and unexpected. Anniversaries, holidays, significant family events… How could that absence not be noted?

It’s the unexpected ones that catch you, though. That bring forth the pain so suddenly it seems impossible that you could have moved on, that your life didn’t stop the moment they left you.

A song on the radio, a photograph, a name in a book. Reminders of a life taken too soon, of memories you shared and of memories you have had to create without them.

Giving away something that once belonged to them feels like giving away a piece of the person they were. If you gave it all away would they cease to exist?

It doesn’t matter how long it’s been – months, years, even decades.

The grief never leaves you.

As the pain takes your breath and the tears cloud your eyes, you ask yourself, “It’s been so long. Why this pain? Why these tears?”

It’s hard not to chide yourself. It’s hard not to feel indulgent, ridiculous even.

But you’re powerless to stop the feelings of loss, of sadness, of wishing things were different.

Because the grief never leaves you.

 

 

 

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Tomorrow Always Comes

Tomorrow

 

Staying awake throughout the night

Trying hard with all my might

To stop the coming of the day

To try and keep the pain at bay

 

Running far as the road will take me

Running from the grief that aches me

Such a pain so hard to bear

Fearing it is always there

 

All these things are just distraction

And a ‘life’s too hard’ reaction

Hiding from a haunted life

Hiding from the dawn’s new light

 

But as hard as I may try

I know the sun will always rise

And when all is said and done

I know tomorrow always comes

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday?

Happy Birthday

I have a birthday coming up soon. These days, I tend to approach them with some measure of dread.

It is not, as you may suppose, because I am well past forty and rapidly heading towards the next significant birthday. I have learned from previous experience that those decade celebrations can be an opportunity for growth – a chance to be a little bit braver and to venture a little bit further out of my comfort zone.

No, I awake on my birthday with the ever-present shadow of knowledge that my sister‘s birthday will come five days after mine. And less than a month after that it will be my niece’s birthday and a mere eleven days after that, we will once more live through the reminder of that awful day when they were both taken from us without warning.

By then, all the signs of Christmas approaching will surround us and we will endure the lead up knowing there will always be those empty places at the Christmas table.

am grateful to have another birthday. Truly. I am grateful to be fit and healthy and that I possess a body and mind that do what I ask of them (mostly). I have a family to love and who love me and I live a good life. There is much to be celebrated at the end of another year on this earth.

But my birthday will always be the day that signals the beginning of the hardest time of the year for me.

I’m not suggesting that you not say “Happy Birthday” if you’d like to but only that you understand why your good wishes may be greeted with a sad smile and an awkward “Thank you”.

 

 

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Mourning Clothes – Why Queen Victoria Had It Right

Why do we no longer wear mourning clothes? Why can’t we, like Queen Victoria, have an outward sign for others to know that we are still grieving?

When you suffer a loss, it often hits hardest three to four weeks after the death. Why? Because that is when the realisation sets in that this is how it will be from now on. And because by then those around you have moved on with their lives.

People are uncomfortable with other people’s grief. They can respond appropriately in the immediate aftermath but weeks later they can find it difficult to know how to react to someone still in pain.

Of course, those grieving often don’t help themselves. Not wanting to make others uncomfortable, they act as if nothing has happened, that everything is normal.

But it did happen. And nothing is normal. In fact, nothing will be as it was ever again.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into mourning. She dressed in black and continued to wear black until her death in 1901. Her mourning clothes were a constant reminder to others that she had suffered a great loss that would always be with her.

Queen Victoria & John Brown at Balmoral Photograph taken by George Washington Wilson in 1863 (Public Domain)

Queen Victoria & John Brown at Balmoral
Photograph taken by George Washington Wilson in 1863
(Public Domain)

Unfortunately, there is now no obvious way to indicate to those around us that we are still suffering.

In the absence of a mourning outfit, I offer the following:

Just because the funeral is over, please do not forget that I am still grieving and I may need you.

If I am laughing and joking with you, it is because sometimes I need to remind myself that there will still be joy.

If I am arguing loudly with you about a topic, it is because it stops me from screaming.

If I ask you casually, “So, do you want to meet up for a coffee?”, what I’m really saying is, “I need to be with someone doing something so I don’t crawl into bed for the rest of the day.” Please be there for me if you possibly can because it is more than just coffee to me.

If I seem to be getting on with life, it is because I know it makes you uncomfortable to see me sad all the time so I act ‘normal’ to make it easier for you.

I may look to have it all together but inside I am broken and while I may eventually heal, the scars will always remain.

And finally:

Please be patient. This will take time.

 

 

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Garden of Sympathy

A garden sprang up in my house this month. Flowers of every colour mixed with the traditional white. A garden of love and sympathy.

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There were words too. Awkward, loving words from those unsure of what to say. It’s not the words that count, I wanted to tell them. It’s that they’re there is all that matters.

There hasn’t been a garden like this one for more than twenty years. That garden was just as beautiful in its love and sympathy but it was tainted by feelings of horror and disbelief that these things should happen.

In this garden there was an understanding that this is the way of it. It is painful but it is as life is.

It’s gone now bar the stocky little daisies who like to hang about, sitting in a ceramic bowl that will remain as a keepsake from a friend’s loving gift.

“Don’t you think daisies are the friendliest flower?” – Meg Ryan in ‘You’ve Got Mail’

And the words remain. The words will always remain.

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In Answer To Your Question

People keep asking me how I am. I’m grateful, truly I am. It’s just that once four people have looked at you sorrowfully and asked you how you’re going in the space of about 30 minutes, it can be hard to find the answer.

Because, frankly, I don’t really know how I am.

People need me. There are things to be done. Life moves on whether you want it to or not.

Not to mix metaphors (oh, why not?), I’ve got the blinkers on, head down, looking for the next bend in the track (the home straight being an unthinkable goal) and while I’m doing that, I’m paddling madly underneath it all in the hope I won’t sink.

That’s how I am.

How I Am

 

 

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Saying Goodbye

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

– Kahlil Gibran

It was Dad’s funeral today. It was the chance to say goodbye.

Only…

I’d already said goodbye. I’d sat by him for hours the day he died. Felt him go cold. Knew he’d gone.

I’d gathered my memories and shared my stories of him. Been touched by the responses of so many.

Today was about letting others say goodbye and to share more of who he was. To put together the jigsaw of experiences, of his contact with others into a coherent and impressive narrative. Even those who thought they knew all he’d done, learned something new today.

It’s been unseasonably fine and mild this week. Until today. Today it turned bitterly cold, the wind blew in gales and the rain came down in buckets. Weather gods love a cliché.

I am an introvert and a shy person by nature. I’ve learned, with age, to hide it. But social gatherings are still stressful at the best of times. Today loomed like the Cliffs of Moher.

But I did my best. I listened compassionately to others’ memories of him, accepted gratefully the sympathy and love. It was meaningful.

And now it is done. In my immediate future is some time to myself and, hopefully, sleep. And tomorrow I will have to get on with learning to live without my Dad.

“She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”

– George Eliot

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My Dad Died Today

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My Dad died today. He was 83. He had lived a long and productive life. A good life.

But.

He was my Dad. Dads are immortal, invincible and always there when you need them (and even when you don’t). Dads don’t get sick or leave and they certainly don’t die. As my friend Sylvia said, “Your Dad going is what happens to other people, not to you.”

At least, that’s what the little girl in my heart tells me. The adult in my brain unfortunately knows otherwise. She knows people age, get sick, leave us. She knows she is growing older and thus the people in the generation above grow even older.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

My Dad was a healthy man up until a bit less than a year ago when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. At that time, he bragged he’d only been in hospital twice – for appendicitis and for a severed tendon on his left hand. (He ended up with a permanently bent little finger. He always joked about being a nine-and-a-half-fingered pianist.) In the end it wasn’t the mesothelioma that took him but something unrelated that couldn’t be operated on because of the mesothelioma and thus claimed his life. Perhaps it was better this way, not to see him gasping for his every breath at the end.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

Dad was forced to leave school early to help in the family business. He completed his high school qualifications at night school, put himself through university and finished up with a PhD in Accounting from the University of Cincinnati. Education was important. We were given the best, even if it meant he was still paying school fees off two years after the youngest child finished school. He retired as Associate Dean of Management at Deakin University. He could have had glory. He was offered full professorships at universities in the USA. But he turned them down, not wanting to unsettle his children, wanting them to continue their schooling where they were. I have a first class education and a university degree and I had a steady upbringing because of the sacrifices he made.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

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Dad couldn’t swim but always took us to the beach every summer. He would sit on his towel on the sand and watch us for hours, occasionally venturing to the water to paddle no deeper than his knees. The beach holds no fears for me because he overcame his own.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

Dad was a teetotaller until the day, in his 40s, someone introduced him to wine. It became one of his great passions. And so my memories of family holidays are coloured by the wineries we visited. Brown Brothers, where I learned to love olives (they used to offer cheese and olives with their tastings – too young to drink, I just ate the cheese and olives); Delatite, where they had the best piece of playground equipment ever (it was four connected seats with a handle and footrest that you pushed/pulled and it made the seats spin) that I have never seen anywhere since (sometimes I think I must have dreamed it); Taminick Cellars, with their Trebbiano wine I loved (ahem, when I was old enough to drink, of course, ahem) and we visited so often that when I was 13, the owner Cliffy Booth gave me a bottle of port and wrote on the label it was to be saved for my 21st birthday which it duly was and enjoyed; Tahbilk, which when I first knew it was ‘Chateau Tahbilk’ until the French got snooty about people using the word ‘chateau’ and they became simply Tahbilk Winery. As I write, I have a glass of the best wine I own in my hand. I have an appreciation for good wine because of his passion.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

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Dad took his young family of a wife and four small children to the USA for a year in the late ’60s and for as much of the time as possible travelled with the whole brood (including a less-than-one-year-old me) across the States in a time when travelling with small children was not the done thing. We certainly drew a lot of attention. He went on to travel extensively, returning to the USA to complete his PhD, presenting academic papers to conferences around the world, and just travelling to see what was there. I, too, (and more recently with my husband and children), have travelled the world to see what is there because he taught me the big, wide world is there to be explored and nothing should stop you from seeing all you can see.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

Dad was a master of the segue. I think it always bewildered him that he had produced a family of geeks and nerds. At our monthly family dinners, as the conversation inevitably steered towards sci-fi, IT or superheroes (when we weren’t passionately arguing our political views), he was at a loss to contribute. As a man who liked to hold court at the head of the table, this was not acceptable. And so he would listen carefully and at the opportune moment latch onto a word or phrase and execute a breathtaking segue into a topic on which he had much to say. It became a bit of a shared family joke and we would give him a score out of ten for the segue dependant on how tenuous it was. But, at the end of the day, I have a passionate interest in many, many things because of his fierce intellect and insatiable thirst for knowledge. Really, I am a Jack of All Trades because he showed me there is so much to learn.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

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Dad was a giver. He gave of his time and expertise to so many organisations, councils, committees that I wonder, come the funeral, how we will fit in all the people who knew him. While in no way in the same league as my father, I hope I am also a giver of my time and expertise to the things that interest me, that need me. I hope that I make a difference because he made such a difference to so many.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

My Dad died today. It was time. He was ready to go. He is now free of pain and at peace.

But it doesn’t make it any easier.

 

 

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Last Words

Last Words

 

A dear old man I know died last week. One of life’s true saints, the world is a little poorer for his loss.

I’ve lost too many precious Elders from my life lately. Keith – a dear old friend who always knew when life was not going well for me and would greet me with a “let’s talk” at just the right moment. Dennis – my grief already well documented in this blog here and here. And now Jock – who always showed me what being a ‘Man (or Woman) of God’ was really about in the face of evidence to the contrary.

My life has been truly blessed for knowing them.

The common words used to describe Jock at his funeral today were the same I would have chosen. Compassion, humour, humility.

Funerals always make me think about what people might say about me when I’m gone. That sounds self-absorbed but I think it is not unusual to consider your own mortality in the face of grief. And today I had time to reflect, once again, on what the epitaph of my life may be.

In my most whimsical moments, I imagine someone reading an excerpt from one of my books or playing a song from one of my albums. I imagine stories of adventure, endurance or sacrifice or the time I was awarded Mother of the Year.

Realistically, what would I want people to say about me after I’m gone?

“She was a good person.”

No tales of derring-do or international fame. I’d just like to be remembered as a good person.

It is what influences my decisions in life and the reason I take mistakes so hard, particularly those mistakes that cause hurt to other people. Any choice of action that results in me not being the kind of person I want to be becomes a regret held forever.

But it drives me and gives me a reason to do better tomorrow. It is an ideal for which I can strive. I will inevitably fail on occasion – I am, after all, human – but I do not think it is unattainable and so I do the best I can each day. Day after day. Until the day people hopefully say:

“She was a good person.”

What would people say about you? What would you like them to say? I’d love you to share in the comments.

 

 

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