For last year’s World Mental Health Day, I wrote my first ever piece about the subject, for His & Hers, and it was a very personal one. My dad was in a hospice at the time, on the last leg of his journey in life, and I rushed over to see him. He loved me reading my words to him. When I got there, he was not in great shape. His physical and mental condition were deteriorating rapidly, but on this morning, he was not lucid at all, for the very first time. I held his hand, and he thought I was his mum. He asked me to take him to the park, and feed the ducks. He looked at me with such childlike hope: I cannot put into words what that felt like.
When he finally had a nap, my stepdaughter picked me up to take me for a coffee. As she went into a local restaurant, I asked for a few moments to myself. And there, in a busy car park, that led to an even busier supermarket, I broke down. I was simply standing, leaning against the car, with tears streaming down my face. Even in my distress, I noticed so many people walk past me. The irony was not lost on me: on a day when we were all supposed to all be reaching out to each other, I felt totally alone.
For this year’s World Mental Health Day I decided to get personal and talk about an emotion we all encounter: grief. It is not classed as a mental health condition in its own right, but if can certainly intensify a mental health condition which is already present, or can lead to illnesses like depression in some instances. I am not a therapist, or a psychologist and neither am I medically trained, but I am human, and can only tell my own story.
Grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience, and doesn’t just arrive when someone dies. You can experience it acutely when someone is ill, or if you lose them from your world in some other way. You can feel a huge sense of loss if your own physical and/or mental well-being decline, meaning you have to let go of a former existence. Today’s World Mental Health Day is placing emphasis on suicide prevention: I have never lost anyone directly through suicide but someone I knew in my younger years took their own life recently. Talking to a mutual friend, her sense of shock at losing someone dear, was palpable. To loved ones who lose someone through tragedy, my heart goes out to them. I know there will be many pieces written about this subject today: they will be informative, and heartbreaking, and important. We hear ‘mental health’ being talked about so much in the media but words like ‘suicide’ and ‘grief’ still have a taboo attached to them. That is why days like today are so vital, and the conversation needs to continue throughout the year.
I was lucky that I got to spend lots of wonderful time with my dad. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and given just three months to live. He lived for more than three years. During that time, he still got to go swimming, and walk me down the aisle, and go to the pictures, spend time with loved ones, and watch his beloved Everton. His humour never left his side, and I documented our little daily laugh-ins on my own social media. They are comforting to read now. I took lots of snaps after hearing Professor Green’s Photographs. We spent hours watching Dinnerladies on his iPad, and when I got in touch with actress and comedienne Kate Robbins, who played Babs on the show, she sent him the most amazing Tweet. I read it to him and he marvelled at the fact that Babs could send him a message on the Twit, as he so laughingly called it. Sometimes social media is an absolute gift, when it has such a positive and reaching effect.
He had great, regular visitors who not only lifted his spirits but also supported me. I don’t come from a huge family, but it was reassuring for both of us when familiar faces offered a fresh perspective, service, empathy and cake! My dad’s oldest friend, Jay, visited most days and his wife, Phyll, often popped in and also stood by my side. I lost my mum to cancer in 2012, and her good friends were steadfast. I often joke that I inherited my mum’s closest friend, from her, as an unexpected legacy. Ada has become like another mum to me, and she has been there every day since.
Not long before my dad died, one of my oldest friends came to the hospice to visit my him. He’s a media and film producer and was hot-footing it from a night of success at the Liverpool Film Festival. I left them together to share ancient jokes and warm memories, and my dad, ever the comedian, would now and again, have a slight change of tack. He asked my friend to encourage me to write more, and to do it for myself, and not just for others. I am penning this today with those words still fresh in my memory.
I was lucky that my dad was still able to talk to me. For the last couple of weeks he was here, he couldn’t answer his mobile phone, and so he would ask his favourite nurse to get me to call it when I was taking a break. He couldn’t pick it up. He would know it was me, though, and she told me afterwards that it was always in his hands. Before that, if I wasn’t with him we were never off the phone to each other. I borrowed and adapted one of my favourite lines from Frankie and Johnny, as we ended each call.
“I’m going to have to go now, as I’m expecting a call from you any minute.”
During the last few days of his life, when you never know what to do or how long you have with someone you love, I was going back to my house and I kissed him on the head and told him I was just popping home. These were his words to me:
“Don’t just go home, love. Go home and live.”
The day before my dad died he was very weak but we could still speak. The news was full of Brexit, and he smiled as I shouted a few, unladylike comments at his TV. He was in a beautiful room by then, overlooking autumnal leaves and peaceful grounds. He asked my husband if there was any chance of him getting home for Christmas, and decided there was as much chance of that as me cooking a delightful festive dinner.
This is what I wrote on Instagram that day, having no clear idea of what the next one would bring:
“I’m sitting with my dad again, just me and him. He’s fast asleep and very tired. There is so much almost-romance in these situations: heartfelt moments and meaningful memories.
But some days they just don’t happen. What you never get told is how scared you can feel, overwhelmed by the responsibility, and so much unable to look at someone you love so closely that you want to run, as fast as you can, into the fresh air. Into the light.
Sometimes on a bad day, it feels like a heavy load, but most of the time it still feels like a privilege.
The next day my dad woke for just a few minutes: it was just the two of us. My husband, David, waited outside but could still see us through the glass. I got to hold my dad’s hand, and tell him how much he was loved, and not just by me, but by everyone who was important to him. In a strange way, I felt I was representing them. I still managed to get a few of our old jokes in. In that room, in those few moments, I realised that anything that you can place a material value on is no use at all: it counts for nothing. It was a lesson that took me five decades to grasp, and one final piece of wisdom from a man who taught me about decency and kindness, perseverance and hope.
Afterwards, when the first few weeks were over, and the funeral had passed, I did speak to others about grief. Not everyone can be close when the person leaves. It is natural to feel angry and confused and just downright lonely. One friend, who had lost her partner and was left with small children to look after, told me about how hard it is when people said to call any time, or told her to ask if there was anything she needed. Her feelings were thus: I don’t know what I need, and I can’t find the words to ask.
Grief can also be a messy business. If it is uncomplicated, and you lose someone you love and then mourn that loss, and heal over time, then you are probably in a minority. Loss often brings with it discomfort and turmoil, family or relationship struggles, or a sense of guilt that you haven’t done as much as you could have done. It’s a huge and vast minefield at times, and one that sometimes needs professional help to negotiate it.
The hospice where my dad was looked after was the same place where my mum also passed away, and they were so supportive. My dad had been lucky enough to have a volunteer there, called Michelle, who spent lots of time with him, and she kept in touch with me, too.
For their first game of 2019, Everton Football Club had a poignant display on one of their media boards devoted to fans who had been lost in 2018. I watched on proudly as I saw my dad’s name and photograph appear. Since then, I have been sorting through two lifetimes of possessions and mementoes and if I find myself looking for clues, I put on the Carpool Karaoke edition featuring Sir Paul McCartney. He speaks candidly about his own mum visiting him in a dream after she had passed away. Her words to her him were to let it be. He made very good use of that advice.
I still miss the phone ringing, every single day.
Today, we all have our own stories to tell. Whatever your situation and circumstance, you will be going through something. And even if you feel you are flying high, if you know someone who is struggling in any way, or suspect they may be, then contact is absolutely vital. So choose, whenever you can, to put down your phone and turn up both physically and emotionally. Try not to worry about the outcome: I can guarantee the effort will be worth it.
And if you are the person who feels alone and is possibly isolating themselves, then sometimes it is just as valuable to sit in quiet contemplations with a trusted companion, if talking feels too much.
But perhaps make this small step. If a friend or relative turns up unexpectedly maybe these following words, offered not by me, but Mr. McCartney himself, will help: do me a favour, open the door, and let ‘em in.
To speak in confidence to someone if you are struggling you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 and go to www.samaritans.org for further information
If you are experiencing a crisis you can also get support by text go to www.giveusashout.org
www.cruse.org.uk specialise in bereavement care
For NHS support and advice got to www.nhs.uk
This article is dedicated to the memories of my parents, Tom and Doreen Buckland.
Image courtesy of Henshaw Photography.
From the archives: Nancy Buckland Kirk’s feature for World Mental Health Day 2018.