It is five years since my father died. I thought I would get over it, but I haven’t. This is not a plea for sympathy — I’m fine, all’s well — but simply an observation, a report. Unusually for a man of 54 I had never, before Dad’s death, lost anyone close; and I had no idea what to expect.
I guessed, though, that the experience would not differ from other violent emotional traumas: first the shock, then a blank aftershock; then busy-ness — displacement activity; then perhaps a relapsing into grief. And after that and over many years a slow but steady process of what sensitive people might call ‘healing’ and the rest of us would call getting over it.
The shock, it turned out, though expected, was the phone-call. At the bedside of a dying man I expected no theatre, and found none. Just as I’d supposed the immediate feeling was only bleak, banal — no trumpets or violins, no wailing or floods of tears, but a kind of bleakness, a grey hour in a grey dawn. And so it proved: the rain coming down softly (I remember) outside in Catalonia. Blank.
Then (I thought) might follow a few weeks’ false-normality: still numb, but with arrangements of a practical nature to busy myself with. One would have too much to do to mope.
And so this proved, too: there’s plenty to fill close relatives’ days when somebody dies, and hardly time to miss the deceased. And it rained at the funeral too, and there were hundreds of Catalan and Spanish mourners to air-kiss at the door of the little church before Dad’s coffin was borne away in the hearse: red tail-lights in the rain. And I still wasn’t feeling much.
But waiting, I suppose, for the lapse into grief: a month or two of wallowing.
This never came. I went back to England and back to work. Ordinary service was resumed. There was no time of quiet, after-the-event confrontation with what I had lost, no delayed grief once I had, as they say, ‘time to grieve’. There we are, then, I thought. One down — and how many more to go? The waters had closed over my father’s head and the ripples subsided. I missed him, of course, but from now on, with each month that passed, I would surely miss him a little less. Time heals all wounds, etc. So now, I thought, begins that famous healing process.
I thought wrong. At least a year after Dad had gone, I started waking up in the night, missing him. Silly, because it’s not as though we were together much after I’d left home, and anyway Dad found all of us — all mankind — intermittently irritating. But I’d lie there and think of the things I might have organised for him; the ways in which his last years might have been made more comfortable. Should he have moved to the seaside, which he loved? Should I have taken him to the opera again? Should I have tried harder to persuade him to accompany me on one of Concorde’s last flights?
It took me perhaps a couple of years to begin fully to understand, with an intensity that grew, that the world had changed when he died; that there was still a big gap where he had been; and that it was not closing over.
And now, five years later, I see clearly that it never will. Now never a week passes — hardly a day — when I do not remember him: see a shoreline and think how he would have liked to walk there; hear some Brahms and remember that he liked Brahms; spot an ocean liner and recall how he would have wanted to take a pointless photograph of it; read an item of news about technological innovation or some new advance in engineering, and think how interested he would be to know of it. Not only in the night, now, but during the day, even at busy times, and at happy times, he enters my imagination, a welcome guest.
Quite simply, he has left a space that will never be filled; therefore he is, paradoxically, still here because the space is still here, and I can feel it all the time. The gap Dad left is not a vacuum, a void, a soft area of low pressure to be filled. The gap is hard-edged, chiselled by him into my life, measured by his worth, and ineradicable.
With this realisation has come another: that this sorrow is not itself a cause for sorrow. Regret is not a cause for regret. We ought to be sorry. We ought to regret. Death is not a ‘wound’ to be ‘healed’ or a ‘scar’ to ‘fade’. Once someone has been in the world, they have always been in the world; and once they have gone their absence will be in the world forever, part of the world; in Dad’s case part of mine. This is a good thing.
How foolish, then, is all this talk of ‘getting over’ death. How empty, how wrong-headed the exhortations we make to those who love us that they should try not to miss us when we’re gone. Why not? You do miss someone you love, don’t you, when they’re gone? How self-negating is the wish that others should not feel sad when they remember us. Of course they should feel sad! They can’t talk to us any more.
It is right that we make an imprint on the minds and lives of others, right that we should be needed while still alive; and therefore right that the imprint remains and the loss hurts, and continues hurting.
So I’ve decided that I don’t want to ‘come to terms’ with Dad’s death. It’s bloody awful that he isn’t here. It still cuts me up, and this is a fact of love. I’m perfectly capable of keeping things in proportion, as Dad always did, but I don’t want to ‘get things into perspective’, if by that one means wanting them to grow smaller. It’s a fact; his life is a fact; the gap now is a fact; it’s not getting any smaller; I’m sad, but I’m happy that I’m sad.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 15, 2009