Bereavement

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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10 Responses to Bereavement

  1. Nektarios says:

    Quentin

    Not so much a topic this time from you, more of sharing with us, not always easy, so thank you.

    You posed the question: “Scripture may tell us that there is no marriage in Heaven, but do you think that 60 years of love is ever nullified?”
    There are a few ways of looking at that question, but I would definitely say. ‘no’, it is never exactly nullified, changed, and glorified, certainly, where true love has been born in us, has grown and flourished between two people, such love is of God and can never be lost, rather all other relationships in heaven will be as splendid as that one, glorified and fulfilled after the pattern of the love within the Holy Trinity.

    As my wife comments, ( and she should know); when you are young, the love puts the vow in place; in the middle years, the vow keeps the love in place; and in our elderly years, we find to our delight that the love and the vow live happily together.

  2. milliganp says:

    My most intimate memories around death and life were provided in caring for my mother after my father died. My father was a retired postman so there was no financial legacy to worry about, just getting the widows pension for my mother.
    After his death I used to sit and chat with my mum, the conversation I remember most was her saying “I hope there will be some of his bones still in the grave so I can give him a hug when I die”. We also discussed the general resurrection and mum would say, “I hope I get a better body” to which I replied “perhaps in heaven we will recognise what is beautiful in the bodies we have”.

  3. ignatius says:

    My own Dad died eight months ago at 93, A fairly standard ugly death after two weeks in an NHS hospital ward not especially well geared up for dying in. He had spent much of the year before dismayed by his own dwindling and in complete denial of his gathering illness. My dad had no personal hope of Heaven that I could identify. He told me once though that he did believe in God because human beings were not clever enough to make birds.

    On the evening of his death, which I could see approaching, my dad became agitated and I was beset by the sense that something needed yet to be done. My dad never set foot inside a church unless I dragged him there, but nevertheless my parish priest agreed to come and give dad last rites. After the priest had gone I sort of knew that whatever needed doing was done so I said to my now unconscious father: Ok Dad its finished now, you can go if you want. He died two hours later.

    I was left with probate to sort out for my mum, who lives next door to me. There was no power of attorney or anything like that in place because my Dad didn’t trust anyone. I took the funeral and waded through the paperwork which is less onerous than it seems but its really helpful to have someone who’s already been through it alongside you..in my case a family friend.

    I only write this to give a different and starker picture of bereavement. The thing that I was really surprised and taken unaware by was the sheer force of emotion that the next few months came to my small family. Its worthwhile mentioning this because anger, aggression, sadness, guilt and resentment may well flare in all kinds of unexpected ways. Not all of us go gently into that good night.

  4. galerimo says:

    Please accept my sympathy, Quentin, at the sad loss of your wife after 60 years of marriage.

    Raising five children together and navigating your way through marriage, both of you, over the past 60 years of our time could not have been easy. Even though it is clear, it truly was an amazing and rich journey.

    I sense a deep feeling of pride in your expressions of grief and loss. And you both have something wonderful and generous of which to be proud indeed.

    Such a long time together leaves a big hole in the heart and even the satisfaction of a life well lived and shared, with all its ups and downs, hardly makes up for the longing to be together again with each other.

    I love how you work so creatively through your grief. Keeping the place as it was, sitting close in the way that you used to, chatting and interacting – it truly is a masterful way of cultivating that new way of being present to each other. And I honour you for it and for the tears it brings too. So graceful and so blessed.

    I love how you are able to describe the circumstances of your dear wife’s dying just before you brought communion. You must have thought as you were on your way how you were bringing such a great gift to her and as it happened she left you with the greatest gift of all, a presence that will always include her now too. And I think of “How precious in the eyes of the lord, is the death of his faithful”.

    No doubt it was a great sadness to lose a little one at just three months. And I venture there would not have been as much enlightenment to help in early pregnancy loss then, as there is now.

    Your dear wife would certainly have carried that sadness in her own way; I love your description of looking forward with the anticipation of meeting in heaven. I have no doubt her hopes are realised now and way beyond her expectations.

    We celebrated our Ruby anniversary in July and you will be happy to know are on board with all the advice you kindly give here. But I have to admit I am a bit slack and even though I have made lots of notes, we still tend to be masters of our own separate domains of responsibility. You provide a wake up call. Thank you.

    I have always admired your work here, Quentin. Your cultivated background, your insightful scientific knowledge and your insightful, broad views on things. You are clearly a man of deep faith and one that is very much alive and vigorous today.

    You have much to draw on that will make you resilient.

    Most of all you know (and I know too) that we will all rise again one day, and we will he united in Him who died for all of us. When we do, then pain will be no more and every tear will be wiped away.

    Until then, we still have lots of eggs here that we need to teach each other, how to suck!

  5. Nektarios says:

    Bereavement is different with everyone, and most will go through it, some for a short while days, weeks, months and in some cases years.

    Bereavement is always a sense of loss, a wife or husband, brother or sister’ or a close friend.
    There is no one way of dealing with it.
    Perhaps this little song called ‘My Old Man’, an Irish song written by Finbar Furey of the Fureys a well-known Irish group worldwide and Catholic, sums up something common about bereavement and mirrors what Quentin has written of his own experience. It can apply to both sexes.
    One can Google it up: The Fureys/ My Old Man, and hear Finbar singing it if you would like to.

    MY OLD MAN

    The tears have all been shed now,
    We’ve said our last goodbyes,
    His soul’s been blest and he’s laid to rest,
    It’s now I feel alone.

    Chorus
    I never will forget him, for he made me what I am,
    And though he’s gone, memories linger on,
    And I miss him, my old man.

    As a boy, he’d take me walking, o’er river, field and stream,
    And show me things not known to kings, a secret between him and me,
    Like the colours of a pheasant as he rises in the dawn,
    And how to fish and make a wish beside a holy tree.

    Chorus(repeat)

    We thought he’d live forever, he’d seem so big and strong,
    But the minutes fly and the years roll by for a father and a son,
    And suddenly when it happened, there was so much left unsaid,
    No second chance to tell him thanks for all the things he’d done.

    Chorus (repeat)

  6. Nektarios says:

    I suppose talking together about bereavement, makes one dwell briefly considering our own mortality. I remember someone once saying, if we want to know how to die well, one should know how to live well.

    On bereavement, as an orphan, not know either of my parents, the issue of a normal bereavement process for such as I, is one of a sense of loss periodically rising in me. A looking for parents I never knew, longing for them, their voice, their love, their embracing and holding me. Such longings that will never be met, a bereavement that never goes away, but is in the background.

    When tired, we often entertain gloomy thoughts about that loss and all that has meant and means arises with no closure.

    I often think about other orphans some of whom I have known, their searching, longing and hope of finding their parents alive.
    I think of millions that have been made orphans through war, through selfishness, lovelessness or not being able to take responsibility.

    I think of orphans who were shipped abroad to Canada and Australia
    to be little more than slave labour. I found several orphanages were emptied at such times of war and economic depression.
    We know about the abuse of those little ones and it still goes on.
    It led many an orphan to have lives full or sufferings and to commit suicide.
    So many people are responsible and added to their suffering and loss.
    Whether we are an orphan or not, I repeat what I said earlier,
    “if we want to know how to die well, one should know how to live well.”

  7. ignatius says:

    Oddly enough one also hears the saying spoke the other way round,in other words we can only live well if we know how to die. I guess the two maxims imply fundamentally the same thing, that death and life are a part of one another.

  8. Martha says:

    We are all so different, and being prepared in a practical sense does not suit everybody, even those who belonged to the Scouts in their youth. Some prefer to live in terms of sufficient until the day is the evil thereof, though taking this too far and not even making a Will can be very selfish.

    The same is true of grieving. I was amazed sometimes when I helped in a charity shop to see people bringing in clothes and belongings very soon after a spouse’s death, much too soon I thought, but that was their way of coping perhaps. I remember finding some comfort in snuggling up to my father’s coat still in the hall after he died when I was fourteen.

  9. John Nolan says:

    My mother died shortly before my 23rd birthday. It was not unexpected; she was only 54 but had been diagnosed with terminal cancer two years previously. She died at home, surrounded by her family, and as we used to say, fortified by the rites of Holy Church.

    It was my first encounter with death, forty-five years ago, and for a strange reason dispelled my fears of it.

    Quentin, I found your post both moving and inspiring.

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