The Blog

The Long Goodbye

For the first few days, my pupils were so large, my eyes looked black. I thought this was because I had seen Death and now even looked as different as I felt. But I discovered that this, too is normal. Powerful emotions like love, or pain, make your pupils dilate. So grief can turn your eyes black. The blue is now, gradually returning.

I helplessly watched my wonderful dad slowly die, unexpectedly, just before Christmas - a few months after a week-long, family celebration of his 60th birthday.

And I will never be the same again - nor would I want to be. You can't, after something like that. A part of me died with my dad.

So I am trying to make him proud, by adapting to this strange, new world without him (physically) in it.

I am also learning to adapt to the new me, slowly realising that the changes in myself aren't going to make me lose more loved ones, as I occasionally feared.

People might become frustrated or impatient with you, because you will sometimes grow more distant, as you internalise the shock. They might also be scared to talk to you as they once did, but the ones that matter will come back... and so will you. These are necessary changes.

I truly appreciate all of the lessons, memories, family and friends that dad has left us and made possible. And I genuinely no longer fear death or life.

I've learned more since that cruel hospital shock than I thought possible. And I'd like to share some of this with anybody out there also grieving a loved one - or helping somebody through a loss - so that something positive can come from something so brutal.

I have it on excellent authority that Death has been going on for quite some time and I'm still learning, but I've put together a few thoughts, while it's still raw, which have helped me wake up each morning, realising all over again - and trying to accept - the fact that he's still not here.

This is something that every single one of us will have to face at some point.

That only sounds terrifying if you don't talk about it. It's strangely unifying and comforting to really understand this and talk about Death openly, because the more you know and are prepared for, the less frightening anything is.

I only found out about the losses of many people close to me, when this happened, because it is something we all shy away from discussing. And that only makes the difficult facts of the Human Condition harder, when we all ultimately face it, head-on.

Lots of strange and previously unimaginable thoughts and sensations will happen, and every one of them is normal. You are not going mad.

For the first few days, my pupils were so large, my eyes looked black. I thought this was because I had seen Death and now even looked as different as I felt.

But I discovered that this, too is normal. Powerful emotions like love, or pain, make your pupils dilate. So grief can turn your eyes black. The blue is now, gradually returning.

All humans are built to deal with Death, just as everybody is built to deal with parenthood - as their childless friends look on, amazed at how effortlessly they care for their new baby - because life and death are beautiful, sad and natural. It's what we do.

Whatever you feel and as impossible as it all seems, as long as your emotions change, you are on the right track.

It's too much to handle in one blast and would probably drive you insane. So you have built-in, coping mechanisms, like going numb when it all becomes too much, or sleeping.

Sleep is so important - I'm usually a Grade A, professional insomniac, but grief requires lots of rest. It's exhausting and draining, especially when you're pretending to be the person you remembered, until some of the old you returns.

It can also be frightening if you have nightmares and flashbacks, as I have had. But it is a powerful and important medicine and you often see your loved ones again in your dreams, which slowly replace the nightmares and are a huge comfort.

In the beginning, I was hungry for physical sensations to get closer to him. So listen to the songs that your lost ones loved; look back at old photos and videos; read emails and texts from them; drink in their social media; watch films you enjoyed together; wear their after shave or perfumes - touch, smell, taste, hear, watch and remember every last drop of them and all of the emotions that come with it. This is sickeningly difficult, but healthy.

When dad was still breathing, my brother and I helped each other put his limp arms around us for a cuddle, and told him how much we love and will miss him.

Afterwards, for weeks I carried around, slept with and obsessively sniffed and touched the "Grumpy Old Git" socks he wore in hospital, which I had bought him a previous Christmas. I didn't want to wash my hands, because they smelled of him, from holding his until the end.

You will feel horrific if you were there and if you were not there - for different reasons - but the end result is the same. It's the memories before which really matter.

To make myself eat again, I ate the foods he loved - bacon sandwiches with brown sauce and mushrooms, pasta, pork scratchings, curry. I'm eating more healthily now papa, don't worry.

I constantly hear his voice in my head - a friend who lost her step-dad described this as having an "irreverent squatter" in her brain, which sums it up beautifully.

I still talk to him regularly. On my first time alone since he left us, I went numb in a Birmingham train station and couldn't work out how to get home. I was a zombie, getting in the way of busy people. But I heard his voice loudly and clearly, as if he was standing beside me, talking me through each step in his caring and pragmatic way, until I was safely on the train back to London.

It's tempting to avoid that first moment alone, distracting yourself with looking after other people; taking care of practical matters; returning to work.

They are also valid and normal coping mechanisms - and some parts, like work, are often impossible to avoid, even at times like this. You must do whatever you need to do in whatever order feels right for you, and deal with everything else later, when you can. The worst has happened and you can handle anything else, when you are whole again.

But the first - and subsequent - moments alone are so important and so, so difficult. This is when you really face the reality. It's necessary because you can "ugly cry," talk to him, shout - do whatever you need to do, unselfconsciously. This is your intensely personal and private time with your lost loved one and I wouldn't have been able to start the difficult grieving process without it.

Shamelessly and indulgently wallow in your loss and sob until you think you can't cry any more - you can, and will. But there is only so much crying you can do. You may also be terrified, because you become so numb you can't feel anything at all. You will feel again - it's just Nature's morphine.

But slowly, with baby steps, you really do start to smile when you think of them and the tears gradually lessen.

It's also important to remember that anger is another natural feeling, but this is the least constructive part of the grieving process. Nobody owns grief. It is all legitimate and must not be a competition.

In the end, we're all stories, so share them, comfort each other and be proud that your loved one touched so many.

The worst has happened, so you don't need to protect others who are also grieving. They will amaze themselves - and you - with how wise, strong and resilient they are. And they will find it just as comforting and cathartic as you, to know that you are all in the same difficult boat and there are no more secrets.

Laughter is also important, throughout the whole process of dying, and death itself. It is sometimes easier to laugh (and cry) with others who are grieving or have grieved, because they truly understand. And you might be filled with guilt when your fake smile is replaced with a genuine laugh in front of people who haven't been through it.

But when your laughter gradually replaces the quiet, thoughtful times; the numbness; nausea; and the constant, aching sadness, you are on your way to the next part.

I'm not there yet, but I now know I can get there.

When we were little and something made us sad, dad always used to say: "Pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again."

And that's exactly what he'd want us to do, with him inside us and everything he has left us with, so that every breath we take, we are taking one for him.