"His presence remains our spirit of Christmas, we know he is there with us, we find that comforting. We are happy, and people might find this odd, but our family Christmases have now become even more special."
By Dave Rogers, Chief Executive Officer of Midland Mencap
I guess the worst of days always start off OK. As a family our worst of days was Christmas Eve 1996, the day my father very unexpectedly passed away. My dad was Christmas, he loved the season and was the glue by which our whole family celebration was planned and enjoyed. In the days leading up to Christmas Eve he would spend his time delivering cards and presents to even the most distant of relatives and friends as well as come up with, sometimes the most ridiculous, ways of enhancing the Christmas spirit. Our Christmases were amazing, fun filled, family affairs and no sooner had one Christmas passed we’d all start thinking about the next one.
Then came that fateful day. We, my wife and four small children, were going to spend Christmas Eve morning at home before travelling to my parents for the festivities. Then wham! You just know that 5am phone calls never bring good news and I just knew something terrible had happened. Still full of sleep I struggled to comprehend the call, it was a neighbour, clearly distressed themselves, trying to tell me that my dad had been rushed to hospital, he was seriously ill, and I should waste no time in getting to his bedside. It took what seemed like an age to unravel in my mind what I’d been told. How could this be true? My dad was a bull of a man, fit, strong, and rarely ill. That was my abiding thought, he’s never ill. So, I set off to the hospital convinced that whatever had happened he would just shake it off and be home before you know it.
That illusion was shattered as soon as the consultant, who met me on the ward, said brain haemorrhage, followed by so severe there was nothing they could do, how sorry he was, and they would keep dad comfortable until the inevitable. I’ve never been slammed into a brick wall but emotionally that was my physical and psychological reaction. I couldn’t think straight, speak or even breathe properly. They showed me to a side room where my mum was sat in a state of absolute shock, whilst my dad, rather oddly it seemed, lay sleeping peacefully in bed. Again, how could what the consultant have told me be true, outwardly nothing appeared wrong.
Christmas Eve slipped into a blur of time. Doctors and nurses came and went, scans showed my dad’s circumstances steadily worsened, yet on he went, breathing gently but to all intents and purposes already gone from us. My brother lives in Germany and was now trying to get flights to the UK to try to be with us as we started to face up to my dad’s inevitable death. Other close relatives gathered but there are no words you can find that can form a conversation, just disbelief.
My mum, bless her, was convinced he would just wake up, and come what may she would nurse him back to health. I had one last conversation with the consultant who told me, in the kindest way possible, that he expected my dad to slip away by teatime. Thankfully my brother and his wife jumped on a flight and arrived at the hospital at 6.50pm. As I broke the grim news to him, a choir arrived outside our room and started to sing Silent Night. My dad breathed deeply, very deeply, and that was it, he was gone. It was 6.55pm Christmas Eve, just us and the choir. Looking back probably the most poignant moment of my life, so bitterly ironic, that our Father Christmas had slipped away on what was his day.
We took mum home, we were numb, desolate and grief stricken. Her house was full of Christmas but now devoid of meaning. I still had a young family to think about, children who would wake up in a few excited hours expecting Christmas to be delivered grandad style. What could I tell them? I don’t remember driving those 50 miles home, or what I said to my wife, or how we consoled each other. She adored my dad and was beside herself with grief, especially as she had stayed with the children and had not been there with us.
Christmas happened, we decided to tell the children the truth, and tell them that grandad would still want them to have their presents and play and be happy. Yes, try doing that when all the adults are muted in their grief. The kids were our salvation that first year, more able than us to express their feelings and tell happy grandad stories. We robotically did lunch, tea, supper but that was simply pressing the repeat button.
Those first few days, weeks, and for my mother months, were both hard and harsh, emotionally and physically. Our profound grief settled so very heavily. None of us realised to what extent we relied on dad. From the very simple things like borrowing his tools, to the more difficult stuff when I’d always been able to say “ask dad, he’ll sort it out”. Now it felt like everyone was looking to me and saying it’s your turn now. I felt neither ready nor up to the task of filling those shoes. On reflection I was the person everyone expected to get over it first, pull myself together, support others, organise and arrange things. Though people were kind no-one ever really asked me if I was OK, they simply assumed I was. I missed him so much but never seemed to find the time or a convenient ear to talk about it. In hindsight I really wish I had, I didn’t exactly bottle up my grief, but neither did I exorcise it either.
As that first desperate year drifted by, looming in our minds was the first anniversary. That first Christmas after dad's death came and went. We coped, and we tried to make it a Christmas like any other. We patently failed. We all knew that our main ingredient was missing. However, we did something that has become very meaningful, we started a tradition that has endured and ensures he’s there with us. A tradition that has helped us heal as a family.
It started as a simple act of remembrance, but those of us who can gather together at 6.55pm on Christmas Eve, light a candle and spend a few minutes reflecting. Then we each take it in turns to tell a husband, dad or grandad story. The first year or two these brought back nothing but deep grief, tears and pain. But as time has gone by where there were tears there is now hilarity as we recant stories, many of them never shared before, about dad’s life. This is important, we’ve been blessed with grandchildren who can now hear about funny old Christmas grandad too. Some of the stories that have come out not all of us knew, you never need to embellish a story about someone who was larger than life and after all, you can’t libel the dead.
They say time heals. In part I think that’s true. Yes, you get over that initial shock and despair, you grieve, and you go back to work and get on with the mundane. The raw emotion fades to a duller sense of loss. Deep down I don’t think you ever get over it, why should you? There is nothing wrong with deeply missing someone, suddenly finding yourself thinking of them and becoming deeply sad. The moment passes and you carry on again, but that memory is there, deep inside.
The devastating and unexpected sudden loss of a loved one at Christmas was very hard to understand and deal with. We were so unprepared, we didn’t really know what to do. People who cared about us didn’t know what to say or do either. What I would say now is find ways to talk about how you feel and what happened. Make it normal to share feelings rather than be afraid people don’t want to talk or hear. It was many years later that I finally got that opportunity, it was like a dam breaking. I finally had the chance to explore my feelings and quite honestly grieve.
Though he remains deeply missed, we’ve found a way of keeping him ‘alive’ in our Christmas celebrations. Our Christmases now are once again happy and full of laughter, fond memories and fun. We now all share the tasks of delivering cards and presents, organising fun and ridiculous things to do, arranging who’s staying with who and where are we eating. The things my dad did so well, for so long. I can see now that he was teaching us, laying down the ‘rules’ for a proper family Christmas. Of course, he expected still to be the centre of our celebrations but I suspect he also knew there would be a time that would not be the case.
From the absolute grief of Christmas Eve 1996 we are now looking forward to Christmas 2016. Twenty years have now passed, we still miss him so much, we will never truly recover, it was after all a trauma, but we have healed. His presence remains our spirit of Christmas, we know he is there with us, we find that comforting. We are happy, and people might find this odd, but our family Christmases have now become even more special. Who could ask more from their dad than that?
If you need to speak to someone about bereavement, the following organisations can help: