On grief and kindness

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My dad with my eldest son, Edward.

 

Two weeks ago my dad died. It was very sudden and unexpected: he was only 56.

Just three days into his holiday in the Caribbean with my mum, he was rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack but, following tests, was sent away reassured that it was merely indigestion. My dad had a tendency to be a bit of hypochondriac so when my mum joked that he’d had an ambulance journey for mere indigestion I wanted to make sure that she was being sympathetic all the same. The last I knew before going to bed that night was that he’d gone back to the hotel and was enjoying some lunch and a drink at the bar.

The next day, Sunday 30th October, was the day before I was due to return to work for Term 2 – my second term as a new Head of English in a new school. I was up early when there was an unexpected knock at the door. As soon as I saw through the decorative glass who was at my door, I knew. That moment plays in my mind like a scene from a movie – opening that door broke the threshold between the world in which my father lived and the world in which he did not.

My mum, who was with him at the time he had the massive heart attack that killed him, not only had to experience that trauma but has had to endure the inevitable delays associated with repatriation. A lack of any sense of urgency from the island officials combined with international bureaucracy means that she is home now and he is not. We are in that awful liminal time between somebody dying and their funeral.

I’ve never experienced the death of somebody so close to me before. I’ve lost grandparents and other relatives but I’ve never felt a loss like this. I now understand those clichés about grief hitting you like a wave. In the days that followed the news of his death I felt swept away by that wave; felt cast adrift from stability and security; felt I might drown. As time has passed I’m feeling less overwhelmed by my grief and have found returning to work a positive distraction and a step back towards a new normality.

From the moment I informed my school of what happened I have been overwhelmed by the support and kindness I have received. I’d like to think my experience isn’t unique, and that all workplaces manage these situations equally well, but I suspect I’ve been very fortunate. I can’t thank everybody I work with enough for the way they have been with me and, although I’ve only been here a term, I feel very lucky to work in the school that I do.

My Head made it clear that she expected to me to take a certain amount of time off work. I’m so thankful that she did that because, had she not told me that she didn’t expect to see me for a number of days, I’d have been worrying about when I should come back and would likely have returned too soon. I think I briefly contemplated coming in the next day to lead a breakfast revision session I was in charge of. It would have been a massive mistake but one I would have made had I not been told that I was expected to take that time.

Whilst I was off work I received messages and cards from colleagues, as well as a beautiful bunch of flowers, that let me know they were thinking of me. It didn’t matter if the messages were brief or people struggled to find the ‘right’ words to say, knowing that people care how you’re doing is enough. I’m also thankful to my colleague who text me with the words that seemed to sum up what it feels like to lose a parent too soon – you know who you are and I thank you.

It was reassuring, though not at all surprising, to know that my department had everything in hand in my absence. All of my team took on some responsibility for arranging or providing cover work and I can’t thank them enough for taking that burden off me. For the first time in my life I really couldn’t concentrate on work – I didn’t have the headspace to think about or plan cover for all of my classes. I thank them for not only managing everything but for reassuring me that everything was under control. I’m lucky to work with such a fantastic and supportive English department.

I was nervous about returning to work this week after the longest stretch of absence in my career. I was nervous about adjusting back to the working day after more than a week of listlessness and tears. I was nervous about how my students would have got on with a series of cover lessons. I was nervous how people were going to be with me (not one for public shows of emotion I was wary that I might end up crying in school). Despite my nerves, however, these past few days have been really positive.

I feel I’ve been given the right amount of support and space this week – a difficult balance to achieve. A few senior leaders have sought me out to check in with me and I’ve really appreciated the time they’ve given me and the reassurance that, if and when I need it, there is support available. My team have welcomed me back without much of a fuss which is just what I needed – the playful jokes at break and lunch have returned and I’m grateful. I’m also thankful for the number of people who’ve taken the time to say how sorry they are about my loss and those who’ve given me a smile, or touched my arm,  and told me they’re pleased to have me back or that they’ve been thinking of me. These small kindnesses take on huge significance at a time like this.

I know that there are more difficult times ahead when my dad is finally flown home and, later, when we have to adjust to life without him. I know that it’s not going to be easy but I know that it’s going to be made easier than it might otherwise be because of the people I work with. Thank you to everybody at my school for being wonderful, kind, supportive and thoughtful.