The Death of a Loved One

dad, death, funeral, Wes Little

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As many of the readers of this blog will know, my dad (Wes) died earlier this year. 4 weeks ago tomorrow in fact. He was 61, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the bowel and liver, and the 2 years the doctors had estimated that he had left turned into 2 months. So it was a bit of a shock when he went so soon.

I want to share my reflections on my dad, death and the effect of grief, partly as it’s cathartic for me but also because I hope it will give some of you guys an insight into something you’ll go through at some point in life.

For me, the important thing through all this has been to look after my mum (and sisters). It’s a role I naturally took on when dad went so I’ve found it OK but you sometimes feel a little bit lonely being the only man left (although I do have 2 great brothers in law (well, one’s still pending)).

When we first found out that dad had cancer I think I fairly soon came to terms with the fact that my dad was gonna die. Sure, a miracle was possible, but being someone who tends to focus on the future rather than the past (I can’t remember much of my childhood at all), I found myself in places like the shower working out who would carry the coffin at his funeral. So when he died I accepted it fairly quickly – my coming to terms with him going being helped by the fact that he hadn’t really seemed himself anyway since he’d been diagnosed – he’d liven up when friends came round to visit or he was around church, but I guess we as a family saw him acting very quiet and exhausted, watched him getting so thin, and so there was an element of relief (for me anyway) when his passing brought an end to all the pain and tiredness he’d been enduring.

There are lots of stupid little things which keep setting me off crying again. Thinking of doing any DIY from now on without him. Having family meals without him sitting to my left, laughing at my jokes. Singing anything and not hearing his voice singing exactly the same part. The prospect of moving house again without having him gladly drive across the country to help me pack and load up.

Here’s a picture of a newborn me with my dad. Yes, he had mad sideburns.

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This is an important picture for me. You can see the glint in dad’s eye as he’s holding me. Later, when I grew up, he didn’t seem to be that affectionate with me. I think that was a lot to do with his dad having shown a similar restraint in showing emotion. And I know that a lot of people of my generation have experienced the same thing with their dad. So, I had a few things to actively work through in my relationship with him, but in the end I could say with conviction that I loved him and I knew he loved and was proud of me too. My relationship with dad was in no way bad, but the way God sorted things out is one of the reasons I believe in God so strongly. So, a little encouragement to all who have ‘issues’ with their dads (which I guess is most of you reading this): be proactive and do something about it. I’d count it a genuine privilege if you want to talk to me about it.

It’s been interesting to observe the range of my friend’s responses to the news of dad dying. I won’t mention any names here, but here are some of the responses and my reactions:

  • Some said that if I needed them, they’d drive across the country/get a plane to be with me. And I knew that they weren’t just saying that.
  • Some wrote cards to my mum (even though they don’t really know her) and some wrote cards to me with great messages inside (who I didn’t expect cards from)
  • My colleagues at one of the places I’ve worked with extremely briefly sent me a huge bunch of flowers the same day; whereas, bar 3 of my colleagues/friends, I’ve heard nothing from any of the people at one of the places I worked at for ages.
  • I’ve found out so much about my dad from people I’ve never met. So many of the comments we received in cards/Facebook/emails (there must have been about 250) highlighted similar things.

Seeing a dead body is weird. I saw dad’s twice – first in the hospital the day he died, and second, the day before the funeral at the undertakers’ chapel of rest. I’m a touchy-feely person and it didn’t feel weird to see and touch him the first time because he was still warm. The second time… well, I’d recommend you don’t touch someone who’s been dead for a few days unless you’ve got a good stomach. The icy coldness of their skin is quite a shock and leaves you feeling nauseous for the rest of the day. Sorry – that’s probably a little too much information.

The funeral day was truly excellent – I’ll remember it forever. It’s a little strange that other people probably cry more than you do even though it’s your family member. Carrying a coffin is odd. Having someone faint as the coffin disappears in the cremation lift is funny. Seeing Bromley hall packed so tightly that people are having to stand in the foyer is incredible. Hearing those hundreds of people all singing at their top of their voices is powerful. Hearing so many comments, all positive, about your dad gives you a lot of pride and gives you a great example to follow.

The first time I cried at the celebration service was when my little sister Janine was giving her tribute (I have this hard-wired reflex that makes me cry whenever someone else is getting upset). As I blew my nose with one of dad’s handkerchiefs, having forgotten that I’d turned my tie-clip microphone on for my own tribute, Janine was struggling to say that one of the little things she’d miss about him was his ‘extremely loud nose-blowing into his handkerchiefs’, and so the comic precision of the sound of me blowing my nose amplified through the PA system, and my subsequent look of genuine surprise, provided the perfect moment of relief for the hundreds of people there who were trying desperately to hold back the tears. My dad would have howled with laughter. If there was any moment of the service (even the last year) that I felt God’s presence, it was then.

I sang a song at the funeral, which seemed like the only way I could give dad my tribute. It finally came to me the day before. Here are the words:

The sky is grey, and the rain-clouds loom
I never thought you’d have to leave us quite so soon
I never got to say the half of things that I meant
So I hope that you can hear my heart and see my intent.
Life from now on will be bittersweet,
You’ll jump into my head when I’m just about to eat
And other normal things will make me recollect
But I’d rather hold onto my grief than try to forget:
You’re home, at rest
And God knows best
Cos you’re home, you’re home, you’re home
You were the glue that made us stick
The insides of the watch that makes the pieces all tick
So constant, never-changing from my moment of birth
So I’ll try and be a rock for your three angels on earth
I know you’re fine, cos you’re face to face
With the one who pours upon me his generous grace
Your pain is gone, you’re heartache free
But would you have a word, and send some healing for me?
You’re home, at peace
Where strivings cease
And you’re home, you’re home
You’re home, at rest
And God knows best
Cos you’re home, you’re home, you’re home.