Sakura Masthead

Each and every day since…

Heather Wallace

I wrote this just after Julia Gillard’s father died, and that event is reflected.

At the end I refer to what was then the upcoming 20th anniversary of my dad’s death. Last year was the 22nd anniversary, I have now lived longer without him than with him, it was so hard and contributed to the severe depression I experienced for many months last year. I still miss my dad, I always will. I love looking at the photo of him from when I was the baby, that is how I remember him. 

On the 9th February 1964the 9th Winter Olympic games came to a close at Innsbruck, Austria.

On the 9th February 1969 the Boeing 747 made its first commercial flight.

On the 9th February 1971 Apollo 14 returned to Earth.

On the 9th February 1986 Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to the Sun.

And on the 9th February 1993 David Wallace died from a massive heart attack. He was 61. He was my father.

Unlike those other events his death didn’t make news headlines, even though his wife and four daughters had their world shaken so hard gravity didn’t seem to exist anymore.

When the first night fell on a world without him, I looked at the stars and thought in fury, “How can they be up there? Didn’t anyone tell them the most important person in the world is dead and the universe isn’t the same anymore?”

Ever since I heard about Julia Gillard’s father passing I’ve been thinking about my dad’s death and what my family experienced. The Prime Minister had to fly home from Russia to be with her family and soon she returns to public office with the eyes of the country on her. I only had to get up every day and keep taking breath into my body. That was enough of a challenge, I can’t imagine having to run the country on top of it. She’s asked for a few days of privacy to mourn and it makes me think of how my mother and sisters had to cope.

I was 21 and had just started my final year of an honours degree, my professors were very understanding when I was tardy or distracted. Yet after only a week my three sisters all had to go back to work. One of my sisters is a nurse and had been on duty when the ambulance arrived with our father. After only a week she had to walk along the same corridors and into the room where her colleagues had tried so hard to revive him and failed. That’s just as brave as running the country.

Over the past few decades the theory of the five stages of grief has taken root in popular thought and become part of our lexicon. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance-all the emotions that make up the Kübler-Ross model.

Developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book Death and Dying, the theory is based on her experiences of working with terminally ill patients. Like many psychological and medical terms the concept has entered public consciousness without a full understanding of what they mean. Kübler-Ross wrote that the stages are not meant to be complete or chronological but they’ve become interpreted in pop culture to represent a linear pathway for dealing with grief, with expectations that mourners progress from one stage to another.

I’ve seen it discussed this way in TV shows and in novels to drive a narrative, and it can be misunderstood by grieving hearts. I’ve known people I care about think “well I’m sad so that’s the depression part. I must have been in denial without realising it and yesterday I was really angry, so next will be acceptance and then it will be over.”

I understand why it’s appealing. When sadness is with you every single moment you need something to give you hope it won’t last. Moving through five stages seems logical, and ticking each off becomes an action you can plan for and control.

The problem is grief isn’t a board game where you advance around a neat square, stopping at stations along the way. You’re more likely to be playing snakes and ladders, moving forward, climbing a ladder and thinking you’re doing okay until a snake comes out of no where and sucks you back down into despair.

There’s a good reason why many cultures used to observe a full year of mourning. In some, like Victorian England, this was taken to extremes with rules imposed, different colours worn to indicate the period of mourning you were in or the relationship you had to the deceased: black at first, then grey, then lavender. Gloves would even be trimmed in the ‘correct’ colour to indicate your status.

But even these complex and seemingly ridiculous rules recognise the same thing, that when you have suffered a loss you need time to cope. In those 12 months there are many firsts: their first birthday since they’ve been gone, your first birthday without them, the first Christmas when they’re not there. All those firsts can make you feel desperately alone. Communities rally around when someone first dies, and a funeral is a time for people to come together and join you and support you in your grief. But after the funeral they go back to normal and you can’t. How can you when normal doesn’t exist anymore?

Those are the days when you can feel so isolated. Mum found that in the small country town where she and dad where well known people would cross the street rather than have to ask her how she was coping and hear anything other than, “fine thanks.”

The months after the funeral is when you need the most support. It’s hard to ask for it though because no one wants to feel vulnerable. In the years since I lost my father I’ve seen friends I love dearly experience grief. If they need to scream the anger they feel, I tell them to scream it at me, it’s not personal and my shoulders are broad enough to take it.

If they need to be distracted, I’ll make them laugh and then hug them when they feel guilty for forgetting for even a second what they’ve lost. There’s a Crowded House Song, Fall At Your Feet, that strikes a note with me when I think about helping a friend through grief. “The finger of blame has turned upon itself and I’m more than willing to offer myself. Did you want my presence or need my help? Who knows where that might lead.”

Even now certain dates are hard to face. The anniversary of my father’s death is the same week as both my grandmother’s birthday and the anniversary of her death. Mum, who adored her mother, dreads that week and every year just tries to get through it as best as she can.

I’ve found I measure time from the day dad died, I always seem to know how long it’s been. 19 years and seven months. Soon I’m going to be facing another challenge, on the 9th February 2013 it will be 20 years since he died. The year after that it will be 21 years and then every year after that I will have lived longer without him than I did with him.

I don’t remember much about my father’s funeral, I was in shock. I remember insisting that I had to see him one last time to say goodbye, despite everyone told me it wouldn’t help. I don’t regret seeing him, even though it wasn’t really him anymore. I saw him before the funeral service, I kissed him on his now cold brow and lay the white roses he loved so much in his arms as a final present.

I remember Amazing Grace was sung at his funeral. Eleven years ago I was overcome once more when I heard it, being sung by a Gospel choir in New York after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I was at work and like all my colleagues was quietly watching the devastating aftermath on TV. The coverage switched to the choir singing.

I’d been subdued all day but hearing that song I ran out of the communal area where we were gathered and locked myself in the toilet cubicle. Locked away I cried for the people who’d died and the families who’d lost their loved ones. And despite just turning 30 three days before, inside I was a scared little girl, sobbing and wanting her daddy to make the world safe again.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see…Yet when this flesh and heart shall fail, 
and mortal life shall cease, 
I shall possess, within the veil,
 a life of joy and peace.”

I didn’t lose my father to violence or to the malevolence of another person, something that can only make grief so much worse. It was my father’s own body that betrayed him, he had cardiomyopathy, or in lay-terms, an enlarged heart. I always knew he had a big, beautiful heart, I experienced it every day in the love he gave me. In the end it was that big heart that took him from us.

What I didn’t expect to feel was resentment buried in my grief. Resentment because his death meant my life took a different path and left me with responsibilities I had never expected. There was a childish petulance to my sadness, a certain amount of foot stamping of the soul for what I’d lost, what had been taken from me, what the effect had been on my life.

I’ve always described the 9th February 1993 as the worst day of my life, and thinking that not so long ago I heard a sardonic voice in my head, rather like my father’s own dry tones, saying, “well he probably wouldn’t rate it up there as his best day either!”

And I knew then that he’s been with me each and every day.

If this is striking a chord, I hope you can find comfort in a final thought. I won’t lie, life won’t be the same, but one day you will be able to breathe without having to remind yourself, you will smile spontaneously again, you will laugh without feeling guilty and eventually you will find a new normal.

My thoughts and heart are with you.

user

Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

Marian Leaderboard