It may seem strange to write a column about the experience of bereavement, but I learnt so much from it that I think it may be helpful for others. I want to describe some of the issues about which I should have been properly prepared, and so may remind others.
But I start by looking at the Almighty’s timetable. Three years ago we scheduled the great family party to celebrate our diamond wedding anniversary. It would be on Sunday, 31th July. But we were foiled: that turned out to be the weekend of the Prudential cycle race – which makes our local roads effectively unusable. So we had it on the Sunday before. Afterwards my wife remembered it in her diary: FANTASTIC! — yes, capitals and underlined. On the next Thursday, the exact date of our anniversary, three of our many grandchildren took us out to supper. It was a lovely evening. In the early hours of Sunday, the original day for the party, her heart failed. There was no sign of pain. I found her body when I brought her the Eucharist from early morning Mass. Her Requiem was on the only day easily available – the Feast of the Assumption. Try and think of a better day for a mother of five. Or rather, of six — she miscarried once at three months, but managed to baptise the child. All her life she looked forward to meeting it in Heaven.
Her bedroom remains the same as it was: her dentures are still in a glass, her spectacles are by her bed. No, I am not expecting her back. But every evening I spend a few minutes with her. Just as any saint to whom we might pray is present to us, so is she to me. Scripture may tell us that there is no marriage in Heaven, but do you think that 60 years of love is ever nullified? Mind you, it can be trying. I often ask her about decisions I have to make. Her guidance is always good, even when I am inclined to disagree. In the old days I would probably have argued, now I listen. She is still guiding my life.
Over time I learnt more things. One surprise for me was that she didn’t simply love her five children. She loved each child uniquely just as each child was unique: five different relationships. So I learnt something about motherly love that I hadn’t taken in before.
There was guilt too. I could think of many instances when I could have understood her better, or when I needed a deeper understanding of what she did and what she thought. And that was particularly clear to me because she had a habit of writing out her feelings, and how she understood my feelings. Finding these, stuffed in a desk drawer, and reading through them (perhaps I shouldn’t have) was painful and remains so. I noticed that in most cases she ended by blaming herself. I saw it differently. Nothing to be done or undone – just a reminder of how we so often fail. More prayers required.
We were from a generation where, on the whole wives did not go out to work, although my wife founded and managed a successful audiotape business for a Catholic charity, and was a highly skilled marriage counsellor. But her function was to run the household while my function, outside my business career, was to look after family money. I can scarcely imagine how complex that would have been for her if I had died first: virtually all our holdings were in both names. Even in this case it was a matter of months rather than weeks, and my good fortune in having a corporate accountant as a son in law. But of course I knew little about the many activities required to keep the household safe and working well. I didn’t know where the relevant papers were, or whether and when renewals were required. Nor did I know that little man around the corner who could fix this and that in the household.
So my advice here is to train each other. Have specific and recorded places for paperwork, and a diary list for renewals and anniversaries. And, from time to time, swap jobs under the other’s tutelage. There should be no task of substance which cannot be carried out correctly by either of you. The children, as was in my case, will strive to be helpful but even they cannot guess without the documentation.
I hope there is no need to remind anyone about having an up to date will, lodged with your lawyer. If you want to know why, google “intestacy”. The distribution rules for the intestate are common sense, but they won’t be right in many situations. I have given power of attorney with regards to finance to my children, and I am in the process of doing the same for health matters. That way, when I go, the children will know how I cared for them. They are my future.