A voyage with my father’s ashes
One day in June 2014 I finally ran out of parents or in the words I first spoke to my husband ‘I have just become an orphan at 50’. Becoming your own grown up is a funny thing. Losing both your parents can be cathartic; it is a one way street, a note in your own timetable of mortality. It seems that whilst one parent remains you can somehow cheat yourself of responsibility; there is always someone around more senior to you holding back the waves. So how do you approach the grieving process in these circumstances?
In my opinion all the theories on the process of grieving or books of personal experiences, can never really capture or anticipate your own deeply personal reaction. Sure enough there may be something that rings true, hits home, and is a reflection of your emotions or thoughts, but that would be to miss a vital element; your relationship to that person was individual to you and only you and therefore your grief will be a unique experience.
Finding a way to grieve can be difficult and can be dependent on a whole range of factors; the circumstances of the death, (sudden, unexplained, violent, slow) your relationship with the deceased (close, highly dependent, estranged, secret) your previous experiences of death, your economic situation, your spiritual and cultural beliefs and values and finally the attitude of society (family and wider community) around you to that death.
Being able to express your grief the way you want to has to be a positive thing. Having the right space and time (as little or as much as you need) is in my opinion a human right. It makes me wonder for example, about a society that believes having a week off work for the death of your father, husband etc. is ok. Sure enough you need that time to race around arranging funerals etc. but where is the acknowledgement of the time needed to grieve? The grieving process is therefore about finding your own way to miss that person, dealing with the initial shock, working through the emotions and ultimately finding a new way for you to be without that person in living form. It can be a process of exploration not only of yourself but of your relationships with other people. This need not be a bad thing but a moment of personal growth and life affirming.
When my father died then suddenly at the age of 84 I was completely surprised by my own reaction. The initial shock was a flood of speechless emotion. In a way I realise now that I was waiting for the call, had anticipated the practicalities of my father’s death but no one can anticipate the way you will feel. During the last few years of my father’s life he had begun to develop Dementia, but refused to acknowledge there were any difficulties. This created all sorts of practical problems as we lived more than 150 miles apart; from managing his financial affairs to dealing with the various people trying to help him who he managed to alienate to the decay of his house and his own person. This was an extremely intelligent and capable man wanting to disappear into his own cocoon and this is what he achieved with great aplomb. It did however, along the way build up a sense of tension between us and regretfully a sense of distance. He was not the father I wanted him to be with his family and especially following the death of my stepmother, we were not able to rekindle the sense of closeness we had had when I was a child. Whenever I went to see my father there was always a feeling of deep emotional pain, mixed up with a never expressed anger at the loss of the man I remembered.
Following the initial pain and shock of death I set my mind to the practicalities. Being an only child it fell to me to look after everything and I was glad to do it. It meant having control of creating the funeral I wanted to give my father, a celebration that showed the world who he really was not the recluse he had become. I trod the path of humanism and so was able to put together a celebration of his life, a ceremony that included no words of religion but words and music that gave a picture of his interests, achievements and beliefs. In going through this process I was able to revisit what I loved about my father and my early childhood, re connect with people who had known him and my mother(who incidentally died in my teens), find a new closeness with my family, as well as find out new aspects of my father’s character and life. This for me was the first step towards altering my relationship with my father; a revaluation of who he was by listening to other people who knew him and having the sort of honest and open conversations with family that you may rarely venture upon but in times of stress.
I decided then as my father had left no instructions, to have his body cremated. Throughout this time I was deeply conscious of some kind of internal conversation between my father and myself, I felt very close to the essence of him, as if he were telling me what he wanted to happen. I knew that he had always retained a huge fondness for the home of his birth and therefore part of my own spiritual journey had to be a trip back to that country with my father’s ashes. Practicalities intervened when I saw and felt the weight of a human body in cremated form, far too heavy to lug on a short haul flight!
It was then on a crisp autumnal morning that I found myself and my 18 year old son driving up to the Derbyshire Peak District to the family’s original home. The aim being to scatter most of my father’s remains in the river Dove in Mill Dale nr Alstonefield, a place of enchantment and memories of Cray fishing for me as a child and my family. Fate however has a strange way of intervening. Turning a street corner in Ashbourne I bumped into my cousin and his son. One lunch and one brilliant suggestion later found us all traversing the bleak but beautiful fields over the tops to Mill Dale chatting away. My father in a rucksack on my cousin’s back, enjoying a last walk in the countryside of his maternal roots. An hours hard walking found us hooting and shouting at my waiting Aunt and Uncle below, oblivious and sipping tea from flasks in the cold.
Clear in my mind then is the moment we self- consciously gathered in a small nook below the little pack horse bridge next to a rapidly flowing river and complete with curious walkers. Filmed by my son I can be seen shaking a large white bag repeatedly over the water, watched by my family, not in reverential silence but with a verbal curiosity regarding the flow of the contents or rather their refusal to disperse but rather to clump on mud and rocks. My father would have found this all hysterically funny, even my Aunt (my father’s sister) standing next to me peering quizzically. Then we do then what people do on these occasions; we chatted, looking at each other in the manner of members of the same tribe, drinking overly scorching tea from paper cups, hugging and saying goodbye in the setting winter sun. The long walk back to the car was brisk with the knowledge impending darkness and the need to keep warm.
This was my way of beginning to say goodbye to my father, it is my personal story and certainly as a counsellor and working with bereaved clients this has affected the way I view death. It did in fact take me over a year to go through the series of rituals I had planned as my way of paying homage to my father and for me to memorialise his memory.
The process of grief can be a complicated and entangled thing. Sometimes we need others to help us untangle and make sense of it, to listen to our story, sometimes we just need to create our own way of saying goodbye that is meaningful to us, even if that relationship was not a happy one. What we do all need to recognise is that we are all unique and this needs to be respected. That however long it takes to adjust to the space that person’s death has created in our lives we can as human beings find new ways to live and even flourish.
www.cruse.org.uk is a charity working nationally with bereavement and has trained counsellors.
Michelle Krethlow Shaw
Counsellor, Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist.