My Journey Through Grief

My Dad in the 1940’s
Image credit: Cate Reddell

Recently I was asked to write a guest post for Journeys Through Grief NewslettersIt is a great honour to write for this support group and I very much appreciate the opportunity to share my journey through the grief of losing my Dad last year. 

Dad was a very special man.  Like all of us, he had his faults.  He wasn’t the perfect father, but then does he exist?  He backed me 100 per cent, the whole way through my life. Even when I did things he didn’t like, or agree with.

As a man whose Christian beliefs were central to his life (and work) I know with certainty that Dad prayed for me every day of my life, and even now that amazes me.  His dedication to supporting me always has taught me a lot of about love. 

The weeks and days leading up to his death last year were very difficult for him, and for me and the rest of my family.  The circumstances around his death were difficult for me to come to terms with, and find peace about.  But I did, and somehow I know that from somewhere, he is watching, and I think he would be very happy for me.  Perhaps all those prayers were answered. 

I know too that he completely supported my desire to write, and would be very pleased that I am doing that now.  Even in writing about him.

The Journeys Through Grief Newsletters is an excellent site with a lot of useful information.  I very much appreciate the opportunity to write for them and I encourage you to visit. 

What I wrote for them was published today (apologies for the length but I had a story to tell), and follows…

I was just twelve when I was told how I would respond to my father’s death. My mother told me that I would completely fall apart and she was worried at that point how she would cope with me when he died. At this point, it’s important to say he didn’t die for another 33 years, but I ‘knew’ from then on that his death would destroy me. So I was warned, anyway.

Dad and I were always close. While I had two older brothers, I was the only daughter, and from early on he was my hero. My mother could see this and it worried her, particularly at the point when Dad went overseas for six weeks for work, when I was twelve. I can remember sitting in the car bawling my eyes out on the way home from the airport. I was desperately trying not to cry, because no one else was upset. But as my mother quite rightly decided, I was a mess.

In the meantime, I had left home at 18 and had my own life living away from my parents. Dad and I continued to be close, perhaps even more so when I became depressed at the age of 28 and slipped into a nightmare of mental illness including depression, Anorexia Nervosa, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and eventually was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). That journey went on for nearly 19 years and included many long, and short, hospital admissions, several major suicide attempts, repeated self harm, alcohol abuse, three separate series of Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) and a broken marriage. It wasn’t a pleasant journey for anyone, including my parents who watched mostly from a distance.

I was never very close to my mother, but Dad was one person that I could mostly talk to. That said, at one stage my doctors falsely accused him of having sexually abused me as a child. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the doctors were overly keen to put what had become a treatment-resistant illness down to something concrete. I was very unwell at the time and was having a round of ECT so don’t remember much of it, but enough to know that my father was completely devastated by the accusation. If it did anything it strengthened our bond. I knew how much he loved me and I knew how this accusation was so wrong and unfounded.

Over the years, Dad became the one stable influence in my life that I felt able to reach out to. Even though I held very little hope for my own recovery, I knew he believed in me. I knew he had hope and for some years his hope was the only reason I stayed alive, the only reason I started to work toward recovery through psychotherapy.

I now live in Christchurch, New Zealand, the city that has been bombarded with nearly 12,000 earthquakes in the past two years including one on 22 February 2011 which killed 185 people. My now elderly parents also lived in Christchurch and on that day they lost their home to the quake, along with most of their possessions. They immediately moved in with me, living in a small badly damaged home, but at least one we could exist in. I also had a brother and his family living on the outskirts of the city, and their business was virtually destroyed by the quakes.

It was an incredibly stressful time for all of us. The stress from the quakes that had been now going on for five months significantly changed the personalities of both my parents. That’s hardly surprising when you consider how much they lost. Not only had they lost their home and possessions, they were worried about the rest of the family, their church (in which they had been involved all their lives) completely collapsed and was destroyed, and the city they had known all their lives was in tatters. The grief for them in all of this was enormous, and while we were in survival mode for some time (and continue to live affected by what happened) it was difficult to come to terms with what had happened to us all.

Six weeks later, my parents were still staying with me. Dad, who had medication-controlled heart disease, became a different person. Actually, since the heart disease had been diagnosed a few years earlier his personality had begun to change and while he had been a very compassionate, caring man always interested to help the next person, he became irritable and, at times, seemingly irrational. Sometimes it was hard for him to see another point of view. While I have no medical training, I understand that this type of personality change is often seen in people who develop heart disease. Of course, the stress of the earthquakes and the loss he had incurred just added to that.

On 8 April 2011, I argued with Dad over the need for us to use a portable chemical toilet (something that was necessary in my part of the city for a number of months because of the earthquake damage to pipes). I also refused to give him something of mine that he wanted because I felt he had treated me very badly the day before. Dad was very frustrated that he felt I wasn’t seeing his point of view. He took a breath to reply to something I had said, and collapsed. His heart stopped.

For 20 minutes I did CPR on my father, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Usually it would take 10 minutes at the most, but so many roads were earthquake damaged and/or closed. My mother stood and watched, talking to the emergency services on the telephone. I have no idea what was going through her head, as she’s not the sort to talk about her feelings, but I am fairly sure she assumed he would be ok. At that point I don’t think I stopped to consider what might happen. I was completely exhausted from doing the CPR and was simply desperate for help to arrive. Shortly before the first paramedic arrived, I heard one of Dad’s ribs crack under the pressure I was applying. I remember thinking he wouldn’t thank me for that.

The paramedics continued to work on him for another 20 minutes but were unable to revive him. In a moment of harsh words, my Dad was gone, and I knew this was the moment I had been dreading for 33 years.

Because I was the youngest child, and the only girl, I think I always assumed that my brothers would deal with such a situation. And of course I was expected to completely fall apart, so in that case I never expected I might have to do anything, let alone try so desperately to save Dad’s life.

Actually, I didn’t fall apart. And there in lies what seems like the miracle of my life, after it having been forecast otherwise for so long. What happened was that I had to take control and take care of my mother. I had to ring my brothers and let them know, as well as close friends. I had to identify Dad’s body for the Police. This was required because even though I had quietly wondered whether all this stress would end in the death of someone, it was still regarded as a sudden ‘unexplained’ death. I had to be the adult, perhaps for the first time in my life.

And in between that I cried, but mostly I looked after my 83-year-old mother. It was difficult for me to express how I was feeling because while Dad and I had both been quite emotional people, Mum was not. I don’t think she understood tears, and that might sound harsh but not if you knew her. It just isn’t who she is.

My brother, Chris gave me many hugs in those days. Usually it had been Dad I would turn to for hugs but thankfully Chris stepped in. With him I was able to cry, and I guess that was the way I made sure there was space for me too.

Dad’s funeral couldn’t be at his church because it had completely collapsed in the quake. Dad had been a Baptist Church minister for most of his life, so to not be able to have the funeral in the church was difficult for everyone. I struggled at the funeral to contain my grief. I didn’t want to be the mess that my mother had predicted all those years earlier, and with no one else in the family showing much emotion, I fought to hold it together. That was until outside afterwards when we watched the hearse, containing Dad’s body, drive away. I suddenly hit me that Dad had gone and would never be back. The tears flowed and thankfully my brother was there again for me, as he has continued to be in the coming months.

The months that followed were incredibly difficult. Mum was still living with me and, I struggled to understand what seemed on the surface to be a lack of grief. Of course, I know she was grieving for her husband of 53 years but she had a completely different way of handling it. They had walked out of their damaged home six weeks earlier with only the clothes they were wearing. They had lost so much, and there was so much uncertainty because the quakes continued to roll on. And now, Mum had lost her husband too. How much more could one woman take?

Eventually, we arranged a new home for Mum, and I took on the responsibility of all the insurance claims and sorting out as much as I could for Mum. I had my home back to myself, but I could still see that spot on the floor where I had worked on Dad to try to revive him. When I went into the bedroom that they had used, it was now their bedroom and not just my spare. Some of my furniture went with Mum, so that she had furniture until we were able to replace what had been lost. Everything had changed.

Life was completely different and it would never be the same. Remarkably though, I had this thought inside me that I hadn’t completely collapsed like predicted when I was a child. And it wasn’t a matter of denial. The times I started to cry I worried that I would never stop. The times I felt lost without my Dad, I was scared I would plummet into depression again.

But instead I grew stronger. With the support of my brother and a psychotherapist I had been seeing for some years, I had my grief, felt sad, but somehow knew I could get through this. I needed to accept what had happened and, actually to my surprise, I was able to forgive myself for the argument I had with Dad and know that we still loved each other, in spite of our final harsh words. Not everyone was so ready to forgive the argument, but I somehow held onto knowing that Dad would have been at peace now, and that’s what mattered.

While Dad’s death was supposed to destroy me, it didn’t, and I think Dad would be very proud of me today.

In time, the hope that Dad had for me was something I could take on myself. I began to see there was hope for me. An amazing discovery! That not only brought recovery from my grief, but also recovery from my mental illnesses which had plagued me (and Dad in his concern for me) for so many years. I still wish Dad hadn’t died because I miss him so much. Because of the journey through it, I am in a much better place than I had been. Dad’s death was supposedly meant to destroy me, but actually it gave me my life again.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

―    Rumi


18 thoughts on “My Journey Through Grief

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your father. I miss my dad every day he, like your dad, was my rock, my safe place to fall. Thank you for sharing this and reminding me of how much my dad loved me. xxx

    1. Thanks for that. I know now that father’s like the one’s you and I had were rare gems. I find that I realise that even more now that he has gone. I’m glad my post could give you the memories of your dad. That actually makes my writing worth while to me. 🙂

  2. Cate, you have outdone yourself. What a beautiful way to remember your father and all he means to you. I am so impressed with how open you are over something that could serve to keep so much hidden.

  3. A well written story and how strong you really are. What a great honour to be asked to write for the Newsletter site. Well done! I miss my Mum still 5.5 years later after she passed away. I dont know if it will ever go away. Kat 🙂

    1. Hi Kat. Thank you. Every day I miss my Dad is some way, and actually I have found the second year worse for that than the first. Somehow I don’t think that will go away either, and in some ways I’m kind of glad. It’s important to me that I carry him in my heart still. That way it’s like he is still with me, and in some way still looking out for me. Maybe your mum is too.

  4. John Richardson

    Thanks for sharing Cate. My grandmother was 9 when her dad died. He had punished her that morning before he went to work and she remembered wishing that he was dead. He was killed in a mining accident later that day and she lived with guilt about her father’s death for the rest of her life even though his death was clearly not her fault. There is no blame in this for you Cate. You didn’t cause your father’s death. Your dad was with someone he loved when he died. We should all be so lucky. God sees around corners we don’t even know are there and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his death saved him from a great deal of grief and pain. Your dad trusted God and so should you. Again, thanks for sharing and God Bless!

    1. Thank you John. Your words mean a lot to me. You grandmother must have carried such a dreadful burden with her, and I admit I suspected the day Dad died that I would carry that same burden. I am quite sure now that Dad’s death that day saved him, and probably his family,a lot of grief and pain, both physically and emotionally, and for that I can be thankful that he passed so quickly. Actually I do trust God in my own quiet way. It’s not something I talk about often but after many years of fighting it, my Dad taught me something very important… that I could trust him and that I could trust my God. I don’t always understand either of those things but I know in my heart they are real. Thank you.

  5. I’m so sorry about your Father! He sounds like a great man 🙂

    I was maybe maybe around 9 years old when my Aunt died from cancer at 32. A woman I saw almost every day was gone. Her two children, my cousins, went to live in the USA with their father and I don’t think they’ve visited since the early 2000’s. I didn’t realize until I was 20, and I had to do a social work simulation with classmates and actors on cancer, how my Aunt’s death effected. I left the classroom crying in the middle of my turn at the simulation and later explained to a friend that at 9, when you hear someone is going to the hospital you think they’ll get better. It’s the hospital, there’s doctors! But that didn’t happen.

    Sorry, I don’t talk about that often!

    1. No need to apologise, and actually I appreciate you sharing it. At nine that would have been a powerful message you took on board. It is no wonder that it impacted you so deeply. I wondering do you have any contact with them now? Is that a possibility? I imagine at this stage it would be good to re-connect.

  6. This is beautiful, Cate. I’m in tears from reading this. To me the tears are wonderful, though, because it shows just how much you loved your father and he loved you, and you are able to share that with all of us. From what I’ve learned about your father in past posts and in this one especially, I know he’s smiling down on you.

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It’s such a wonderful post. I’m sending huge hugs your way!

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