Three years ago yesterday, my wee dad, Charlie Robertson, passed away. It was sudden and (relatively) unexpected, but given that we all survived the heaviest grief, not the worst way to go out: having a lovely dinner with a friend in London, officially the most internationally convenient place for his three kids to fly from around the world, convene and sort out the funeral arrangements. So I guess my stance in retrospect is—could have been worse.
What followed the news of Dad’s passing was maybe a weird month of peace—shock, probably. I even tried to go into work the next day but they made me go home. I said, “I just want things to be normal.” They said, “Leo, this is not normal.”
Which didn’t make any sense to me. What’s more normal than a person dying? And what was I supposed to do at home anyway: feel really bad without distraction?
But I had no energy to debate, as you can imagine. I couldn’t be at work but I couldn’t be at home. I didn’t want to be anywhere at all, but there was no solace to be had. I get that. I was familiar with it, in fact, having already lost Mum. When I got the news about dad I thought, “Well, say goodbye to a year at least.”
After the month of peace came minutes upon hours upon days upon weeks upon months of excruciating pain, with the occasional eye-of-storm peace again—if only to ensure I stayed alive so the pain could keep feeding off me the next day. “When grief starts, it’s so big,” someone told me once, and I saw her looking up at it, the grief, as I once had. A big boulder of it crushing me into the ground. I’d get off the couch or bed and lie on the floor, where I found it comfiest. The place of least resistance.
You become the worst version of yourself: instantly embittered and blind to almost all good. People will kindly tell you, “No, you weren’t like that.” To which I think, “Oh yeah I was. But it seems like I managed to spare you from it, thankfully.” And at what cost? Perhaps I should’ve raged more, for what good it might have done.
You might do things while bereaved that scare you, that are unexpected or out of character. But this is emergency mode: the point is not, currently, to build a good life but to get to tomorrow. You would have to do something pretty bad for me to judge you.
I’m aware I’m not holding anything back, here. But this is par for the course of any standard grieving experience, and the bereaved don’t have energy to care how hard it is to hear. The least we can do for the grieving is listen without judgment. That it’s scary to others is far from the point. Besides, it shouldn’t be. This experience might have been unbearable—seemed unbearable, since it evidently wasn’t—but I don’t think there was anything special about me for having survived it. You could do it too.
When I lost my mum, I started writing, because she was an English teacher and loved books. My dad loved films, so I started a filmmaking club. I didn’t have any skills, but that hadn’t stopped me writing. I had a smartphone and nothing to lose. Success was being alive. Anything else was a bonus.
Eventually, once I was far enough away from being in so much pain I thought it would drive me mad, I wrote about it. This became Burnt Portraits, which I made over last Christmas with a newly developed skillset and, more importantly, new friends. (And it recently premiered at the Dead Northern Film Festival!)
Dad would be so proud. But if Burnt Portraits was written because of losing my Dad, then he and that work cannot by definition coexist, just as there’s no coexistence of my mum with the books of mine she would be proud of. But it’s nice to think you’re doing positive, rewarding things for yourself and others that you wouldn’t otherwise have done if something tragic hadn’t happened. It means you have managed what once you probably thought impossible: forging meaning out of apparent meaninglessness.
There is still a rawness close to my surface that has not yet dissipated. Like falling accidentally into cold water, that first gasp, and then you stay like that for years. If you want it to go, you just have to wait. And the way out is not back to how things once were but forward into something new, whatever that might be and no matter how tiresome it is to find.
I remember this from losing my mum, and I remember that it fades. But that takes time, and then some more time on top of that.So much of life is spent grieving and mourning. For paths that didn’t pan out, lost relationships, people you used to be that you liked being but can’t be again.
But because I know this to be a fact, I no longer find it sad. Most people have ten fingers, two eyes and spend a lot of time grieving. These are facts about humans. Why get mad that the sky is blue? It just is. Do you really like blue, or have you learned to like it because you had to? If you’ll never know, have no choice in the matter and have found a way for it to please you—what’s the difference?
When I die, in my honour I want you to go create all those things you kept talking about doing one day. Write that novel, start that company, call that loved one. Or whatever. You know what to do, you just pictured it. Then again, now would be the time to do it. All of us have limited time, but given the above, I have none at all for excuses!