When I was eight years old I lost my father. He died of cancer in a palliative care home on the 31st July 2003. He was an amazing man.
I was a happy child. My dad and I had a very close relationship. We used to play farms and build lego towers as tall as possible. When we went for walks, he would put chocolates in the trees and tell me the fairies had left them for me.
Every morning I would go to my dad’s side of the bed and wake him up. Together we would go downstairs and he would put my blanket in front of the fire before putting it on my blow-up chair so I wouldn’t get cold. He would make me a strong squash (which was unique to him as my mother valued my teeth more) and breakfast. His breakfasts were always interesting; a smiley face of eggs and bacon or an island made of Weetabix with a shreddies tent.
When I was 5, my mum told me she was pregnant with a little sister and I was ecstatic. However, whilst my mum was pregnant with my sister, my dad started to feel unwell. He had a cough that would not go away and was losing weight. After a very long time and lots of determination, he was finally given a chest X-ray which showed extensive lung cancer. His had mesothelioma, cancerous tumours of the lungs caused by inhaled asbestos. He had worked for a construction company clearing the fans of asbestos powder before they had discovered it was carcinogenic. He was not provided with a mask. By this time, the cancer had metastasised significantly and after tests and a broken leg due to bone mets, my parents were given the devastating news that the cancer was terminal.
For the next three years my dad was unwell. My sister was born whilst he was still fairly well, but he quickly became bed bound, undergoing chemotherapy in the hope it would prolong his life for as much time as possible, so that he could get to know his new child.
Being a 5 or 6 year old with a father in hospital and bed bound was strangely isolating. I remember feeling that no one else understood what I was feeling. It seemed as though other children where, rightly, only worried about which Tamagotchi they had or who has played kiss chase with who. I however spent a lot of time alone. Very early on I got a sense that I needed to behave and focus because behaving badly was another stress that my mum did not need.
By the time I was 7, most evenings of mine were spent going to a hospice after school. My dad was often unconscious and not able to engage with me. The nursing team were incredible, teaching me to wet his mouth with a sponge and help with his care (in very little ways but that meant the world to me). They printed me a badge that said ‘daddies little nurse’ and came in a proper badge holder which filled me with immense pride.
A few weeks after my 8th birthday, my father passed away. I was lucky enough to be staying the night at the hospice. I think I had an instinct that he was nearing the end as, that night, I had asked my mum if I could stay for the first time. At 10.10pm my mum went to make us hot chocolates whilst I settled into a reclining chair at the end of my dads bed. My uncle was asleep in a chair next to him. Suddenly I noticed him stop breathing. I woke my uncle to tell him and he shouted for my mum. She ran back to the bed and we told him we loved him for the final time. I still remember the confusion of the last breath. How could someone be dead but let out a sigh.
After his death, I don’t really remember very much at all. I remember sitting on my miniature table and chairs next to a water feature he made, writing a speech for his funeral, determined to get up and read it for everyone – the truth is that on the day I was too upset. My uncle kindly read it for me. Other than that, I have a year or two of no memories but I know it wasn’t the happiest time.
As an adult, it almost feels as though this happened to a different person. I have the memories, but they sometimes feel like a film I watched. The pain of his loss though is very real. I miss my dad often, even to this day. Apparently, he was a lot like me and there would have been a lot I could have learnt from him.
I wanted to share my story as part of dying matters week because I wanted to share some of the things I learnt from losing him.
- My mum let me be involved as much as I wanted in the process of my father dying. She answered any questions I had honestly and allowed me to be present when I asked. In many ways she let me be the driver of my own process. I think this was the most amazing gift she could have given me. I think I felt less scared knowing the truth, as children pick up on things you wouldn’t think possible. She made me feel safe and trusted. I think I will always appreciate, in a unique way, how much children can understand and handle and how much they deserve to be consulted.
- I learnt that processing grief as a child is not the same as being an adult. Once I hit my 20s I began to struggle all over again with my loss. A GP insightfully told me that the coping mechanisms I developed as a child were suitable for a simpler life and more innocent mind. These mechanisms no longer worked as an adult. For anyone who experiences this themselves, please allow yourself to speak with a professional as an adult about the loss. It never leaves. My dad won’t know I became a doctor, he won’t meet my partner, he won’t give me away at my wedding. I can’t discuss politics or literature with him, which both he and I would have loved. The ‘dad shaped’ gap in my life is still there and it took a few years to understand that more fully in a complex adult life
- Losing someone as a child can change the way you attach to people in later life. I have identified that it is easy for me to become very anxious in relationships about being left or losing my partner. The panic and sadness that I experienced losing my dad sparks up when the commute home takes longer or an argument is bad. I am convinced my partner has been in an accident or will leave me. This was hard to beat and in some ways is still an ongoing battle. I don’t think I can advise on this as its such an individual process, but discussing it with a professional and also my partner helped immensely.
- Finally, a more positive note. I feel I have a real appreciation for my life. My dad was an adventurous, funny, intelligent, kind, and spontaneous person. While he was dying, he wrote me a letter that said he had enjoyed his life and that meeting my mum and having me and my sister were the highlights. He had traveled and done every job under the sun. From a young age, I realised that life is short. I realised that it is way too easy to become bogged down by what other people think, or what you should do, or what is easy. I try my best not to do this. I have had made difficult decisions, had rejections from medical school, and pursued it anyway. I have taken risks and travelled as much as I can because I want to make the most of my time here. I never go to bed on an argument, I don’t hold grudges and I always say ‘I love you’ when I hang up the phone.
People often regret the things they didn’t do or say when they are dying. I don’t want to be in that position. I want to make it count. Life is a beautiful thing overall. We have the opportunity to love, make a difference and be happy. My dad taught me to really live, and for that I will be forever grateful.