I’ve been navigating empty spaces lately. Tracing the outlines of where someone once was, wearing their clothes and sifting through paper trails. Grief of this kind is akin to shuffling around in a pitch-black room, feeling the contours of unknown furniture with outstretched hands and piecing together a mental map of the new confines of your life. This task has been made all the harder by how unprepared I was, where I’ll forever be left longing for a goodbye or a good reason for what has happened. Like an impossibly large number, it’s hard to grasp the fact that I’ll never see my dad again.
The grief I’ve been dealing with is a messy knot made up of many different strands of emotions. Life tends to play out in primary colours – happy, sad, excited, disappointed – yet grief is the careless brushstroke across the palette. The ugly mixture it leaves behind ruins the neatness we’re comfortable with, and starkly reveals how reliant we are upon it to draw sense from chaos. As I’ve come to terms with this, somehow I feel my new reality represents not a change from before but a realisation of what was true all along.
Trapped in the full beam of grief’s awkward spotlight, a menacing self-awareness takes hold. I’ve struggled to write anything I’ve deemed worthy of sharing. I’ve found it difficult to place my true feelings. Some days I want to spend time at his flat just to come to terms with it again, where a vacant space once occupied by my father helps me to absorb the fullness of his absence. On other days, I want nothing else but to tune out. However I feel, there’s always the questioning judgement of a mind that doesn’t know its own location. How am I supposed to feel? The constant doubt seems to draw me back to an emotional limbo where I’m not welcome to stay but also not free to move on.
Grief is universal, and yet even between people mourning the loss of the same person grief divides and can’t be said to be a shared journey. Relationships are unique, so it should make sense that the experience of loss would be too. Now that my dad’s gone, I contemplate all that we never got round to sharing with each other, what he meant to me, what I meant to him, and yes, the occasional unresolved conflict that hardened into unspoken grudge. Perhaps we would never have gotten round to papering over those cracks anyway, but it feels cruel that we’ll never have the chance to now.
For a long while after the funeral, I felt so much contempt for myself at the tears that never came. I do think though, that when we talk about tears ‘welling’ up, this speaks to an undercurrent of sadness that is always there even if it is not outwardly shown. A bit of self-compassion goes a long way. When I stop trying to pick them apart, the bundle of tangled emotions I’ve been carrying around unravel all on their own and allow me to breathe once more. This loosening off affords the space to take in all that has happened, the good and the bad, the black humour and the tragedy of what has passed sitting side by side and held in equal measure.
I wanted to share something deeply personal from a time when things were up in the air, and when grief was still a strange acquaintance to which I had only just made my introductions. It didn’t feel right to post this before now – not at least until I’d had the chance to reflect on how far I’ve travelled down this road, or on my troubled relationship to my new companion Grief. What follows are the words I spoke at my Dad’s funeral: a eulogy.
You would think that given the events of the last few weeks I’d be searching for tell-tale signs in the last dinner conversations or fixating on my regrets – the should’ves and could’ves – about my dad’s final few days on this Earth. Maybe those will one day come to eat me up from the inside out, but for now I have found myself drifting far back into the past on a slow-moving current of grief. Here is where the haziest of my memories reside, so hazy I’m not entirely confident that they aren’t fiction.
Perhaps the earliest memory of them all is on my third birthday, just after midnight. Dad wakes me and tells me to come through to the spare room at Wellbrae Terrace. Looking out at the easterly skies from the window is suspended a big, reddish moon that looks like a bright chocolate button above the apple tree. Dad wishes me a happy birthday and tells me that he sent spacemen up to the moon to turn it into chocolate just for me.
I remember other things from that house. Catching my mum and dad trying to switch a baby tooth under my pillow for a two-pound coin, dad harvesting raspberries and peas he’s grown in the back garden, putting my shoes on to meet Ellie for the first time, bedtime stories that dad tells me from off the top of his head that help me drift off to sleep. And I remember milestones: riding a bike at Hazlehead Park for the first time and learning how to swim.
I’m terrified of the water without my armbands on, but Dad coaxes me in on the promise that he will hold me all the way. We wade into the deep end together, and while of course I’m scared I trust that I’m safe in his hairy arms. Yet without warning, he lets me go. Cruising with an effortless backstroke he laughs as I paddle panickily after him, wailing with fear of my impending death as my own father watches on and finds the whole thing funny. Sure enough, I learn to swim even if it does leave me slightly traumatised.
Looking at pictures and watching home videos of him from around that time, I’m struck by just how young he looks. There can’t be much more than 10 years separating me now from him then. His hair is a rich, dark brown with the grey yet to colour his sideburns, his back-bite smile not detracting from his sharply handsome features. To me then he is my idol Father: the man who wears a tie to work and carries me on his shoulders when I get tired, who knows the answer to any question I could think of asking and how to cook the perfect lasagne.
When you’re younger your parents are infallible, and you take them as they are. You don’t know of their pain or the baggage that they carry around – and my dad bore the heaviest of baggage at a time when so little few understood what that baggage was. As Ellie and I grew so too did our awareness that he wasn’t well. It was only a little at first. He would stay up awfully late watching war films on full volume, and for weeks at a time could not be separated from his Blackberry which tethered him to his work.
A little soon became a whole lot more on our return to the UK. He made reckless decisions; he spent long spells in bed with the blinds down. The pendulum of his emotional state would wreak havoc with his life as it swung to-and-fro, but in the middle there was always Colin: desperately trying to keep his life together at the mercy of mental tides that could wrench him to places he didn’t want to go – tides that nobody could make sense of, not even him.
But this isn’t the story of my dad’s illness. It’s the story of my dad, and he was far bigger than that which tormented him. The manifestations of his ill health were sometimes where the beauty of his soul could be found. So many of my dad’s thoughts were tied up in catastrophising over the smallest of things, but this only reflects the other side of the double-edged sword that was his remarkable attention to detail (something that certainly fitted his niche in contract law). He was a tremendously rigorous man, holding himself to high standards and inspiring others to do the same and reach for great heights.
He also possessed a thoughtfulness unmatched by anyone I know, or ever will know. I’ll never forget when my own mental health was in a state of disrepair during a rough patch at university; I had mentioned my troubles to dad in passing only to later receive in the post a card addressed to me with Charles the 1st on the front, and a speech bubble saying “Sorry, lost my head a bit there.” It was an unabashedly geeky yet sentimental message that plucked me up out of the darkness, making me chuckle and cry all at once in a way only he could know how.
With his passing also goes a treasure trove of knowledge that I have mined over the years but never come close to exhausting. I feel great sorrow now at the insights left unshared and the passionate political discussions never to be had again, yet I can only be grateful for ever having had the proximity to a rich intelligence such as his in the first place. He has taught me so much of what I know, shaped the way I think and provided words of immeasurable wisdom at exactly the right moments. He nurtured in Ellie and I fair-mindedness, patience and a principled sense of right and wrong. He has now passed us this torch for us to carry onwards, and carry it we will.
These words may or may not resonate with you, the people gathered here today. The truth is that we all knew a different Colin to each other. To some he has been a faithful friend, to others a respected colleague, to a handful an adored member of the family, and to a lucky few a romantic partner. Between all of us together we each hold the fragments of a man in his completeness, and we should cherish his memory for time eternal.
They say taking your own life doesn’t destroy pain, just passes it on to others. If this is true, we should each take our share of the burden that my dad shouldered all on his own for so long. Together we can share in his pain, work to alleviate it, work with it, heal it. The important thing is my dad is finally resting in peace, relieved of unseen agony, safe from further suffering.
Truth be told, I’ve never felt more alone in this world than this moment. He was more than just my rock; he was my whole reason for being who I am. Just as I have felt myself drifting into the past, so too has my grief spun to a future spent without him. No father to share in the pride of my accomplishments, no grandfather to love the children I may one day have myself.
But we are here, and this is now. We are in that pool again, me and him. And he has let me go, without warning. I am panicked. I am frightened. This water will surely consume me. I am frantically trying to stay afloat, but I don’t know if I can. But he will always be here for me, even if he isn’t holding on like he once was. And he has let me go because he truly knows that I can swim. It will be hard for a long while. I will swallow water, struggle to breathe, wish I had my armbands on and him to hold me when the going gets tough. But swim I must. And he’s just ahead, I can see him still. I believe in his belief that I will be okay. After all, I will always have him to guide me on my way.