My wonderful father, Ben Doyle, died on 7 May 2005. He had been treated for cancer in the last six months, but towards the end his heart gave out and he passed away quickly.
I was so lucky to see him the evening before he died, as I had come over for the weekend to celebrate my nephew Connor’s birthday. So I got to kiss him goodnight only hours before he passed away.Nothing prepares you for hearing the words that somebody close to you has died, but I was amazed to discover how many reserves of courage we all have inside us.
My mother was a superstar. She bore the loss of her husband of 51 years with grace and dignity, and gave me even more to feel proud of. Friends and the wider family came out of nowhere to support us, feed us, comfort us while we cried and share with us when we laughed (and we did, even in the midst of the sorrow).
Over 250 people came to pay tribute to Daddy on the two days of the funeral. As we sat in the front pew of the church on the Tuesday night a seemingly never-ending line of people filed past us, each shaking every family member’s hand, or hugging us if we knew them well. Many didn’t know what to say. Some were crying themselves. But all looked us in the eye, touched our hands and told us in words or in gestures that they shared our sorrow.
Now I understand why it is important to pay your respects like that. In the past I never quite knew whether to approach a family where, for example, I only knew one person. But we had groups of people I had never met before, explaining who they were (colleagues of my brother, co-workers of my mum, people who played bowls with my dad) and every single person meant so much to each of us. The family drew a lot of strength from these people who came to mourn with us.
Similarly, others who could not be with us in person sent messages in many ways. Some called on the phone. Neighbours stopped us on the street. Sympathy cards and mass cards came by hand or by post by the dozen – we received over 150 cards from all over the world. We got emails and even text messages. Every one of the words we heard or read gave us strength and comfort.
Some people didn’t know what to say; we got a lot of standard lines like “I am sorry for your troubles” and “our thoughts and prayers are with you” and “my condolences” and simply “I don’t know what to say”. One neighbour, an old sparring partner of my dad’s, stopped me on the street to shake my hand and offer his sympathies but couldn’t say a word to me as he was crying silently as he stood there.
None of it mattered – all that mattered was that another human being was trying to connect with us, to say that they loved our dad, to say that they were sorry for our sadness, to sympathise and to let us know we are not alone. We remember every face in that crowd of people who came to the church. We pored over every word and every picture in the cards we received. I saved every email and even text message I got. It all mattered so very much to us.
If you are ever concerned about doing the right thing in a situation like this, the right thing to do is to make contact in some way and say you are thinking of the person who has been bereaved. Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say.
Don’t worry if you don’t think you can call – you could send a card or email or even a quick text message. It’s not impersonal at all – in fact it was good have the support coming through in lots of different ways.
For example, sometimes I couldn’t bear to talk either but a quick one-line text from an old mate or work colleague just asking “How are you doing?” or “I am thinking of you” at the strangest times of day gave me a little more strength to get through. Believe me when I say you will never say the wrong thing. All that will be remembered is that you cared enough to make contact.
I wouldn’t recommend this death business to anyone. Now, more than ever, I understand how it feels to have my heart broken. But death is a part of life and I was amazed to discover I had the strength and resilience to survive it.
If you get one message from my experiences, though, it is this: go now and tell the people closest to you that you love them. I am so very fortunate to know that my father heard those words from me before he died. Of course he know I loved him, but it is really comforting for me to know that I told him, many times over, while he was still with me. He was the most wonderful Dad in the world. I miss him.