image by Joe Roberts
Friday October 26th 2012 - a psychic reading that would change my life. When people talk of a “life-changing” event or moment, they rarely talk about the real life changing event; death. When the psychic told me that my father didn’t have long, that he wasn’t enjoying it here on earth anymore and was ready to go, I must say I was surprised. He was not ill, though he had long term illnesses he suffered from, and he was elderly, yet someone had just given me a warning that perhaps, sooner rather than later, Papa’s life would be coming to an end, and I was shocked.
My father had been an ardent alcoholic for all my life, and for most of his, and for a man whose staying power could be regularly questioned, in this department he was more than committed. Papa was born in Sri Lanka to wealthy parents where, apart from a well concealed low self-esteem, he led a charmed life. One day he got on a boat to England where his plan was to open a business and become a millionaire. As plans go, to my father It seemed fool proof but fifties racist Britain was one hard nut to crack and his ‘Don’t belong’ and ‘Don’t be important’ and ‘Don’t succeed' did their bit along the way.
But what did the psychic mean by Papa was ‘ready to go’? My Adult knew it meant he was tired of this life. His body was tired and his heart too. He had suffered with depression and not found the answers to his questions. I had felt the hot potato sadness of my father’s life acutely, the disappointment he tried so hard to mask but my Child didn’t understand. How could Papa be ready to leave a life that had me in it?
That evening I went to the home where Papa lived. I watched him cook dinner and potter around his one bedroom flat where red emergency cords dangled like modern art in every room. Oblivious to the true reason for my constant crying I told him it was because of the onions he’d been chopping. I kissed him at the end of the night, told him I loved him and hugged him, probably harder and longer than he thought necessary. On Saturday and Sunday we chatted, nothing important, TV discussions on Superman (my father was the king of magical thinking) and cookery.
On Monday I am on the bus with my two children and we are on our way to the Tate on the first day of half term when I get a call from my aunt who normally never calls my number. She starts apologising, ‘I’m so sorry Anoushka, I’m so sorry.’ I ask her what she is sorry for and she realises at this point that I have no idea my father is dead. She starts apologising for apologising and now I am demanding she tells me why. I want to hear her say it out loud. She hangs up.
When I got to the hospital Papa was lying on a slim hospital bed against the wall of a small room, completely silent, completely still. A blanket covered his body so only his face was visible. I wanted to believe he was sleeping. I told myself I could do this, that I could pretend, I was good at that, but when I got closer I noticed his face looked different. It was rounder and fatter than normal. Had the hospital given him something? Was this some sort of medication they had administered in a failed attempt to keep him alive? I touched his cheek with my hand. He was so cold. No, I wouldn’t be able to pretend on this one.
I didn’t know it then but I had begun a new chapter of my life and it started with Abandonment. From that moment, I was catapulted into an abyss where it didn’t matter that I had a wonderful husband, two children, great friends… all I felt was abandoned. I was to discover later that abandonment is considered a primal wound. An early separation pain that can arise while a baby is in the womb or when the child and the mother do not form a secure attachment. Almost immediately the cracks in my small but remaining family began to surface. All the fractures that my mother, my sister and I had spent a lifetime papering over were suddenly exposed and laid bare and the deluge of grief gave none of us a place to hide.
All this abandonment was too much. I had to drive past Papa’s house every day on the school run and sometimes I couldn’t even see the other cars on the road for the tears. For some weeks the colour left my sight and I saw the world in washed out sepia. I didn’t even consider going to the doctor because I simply didn’t care. I hoped my sight would go completely and then maybe I would go too, anything to stop the pain.
The family changed shape. I was always the black sheep with ‘too many feelings’ but with Papa gone, now it was official. Stop the grieving, life continues. But I didn’t know how to do that. I wished I could have wailed beside his body for forty days the way they do in some cultures but it was all over so quickly. A cremation, no headstone to lay by, nowhere to go, all alone.
So, I withdrew. I abstained from Christmas and the accompanying Christmas spirit. Birthdays were similarly meaningless. All these special days gave me were opportunities to know for sure that life would never be the same. It can be healing if a family grieves together but this was not the case in mine and slowly the new familial landscape became barren, hostile and frightening.
Fear had me experience my first panic attack. My hair started falling out and headaches became debilitating. I had absolutely no idea how to exist in a world without my family as I recognised them from the old world, the one uninfected by death, and I was terrified. One day, in complete desperation, I made a call to a therapist. I was scared he would refuse to see me, but he didn’t. Then I was scared he would tell me I was too damaged for him to see me, but he didn’t.
Anger walked alongside my fear. Every slight and injustice had my anger stamped upon it. I cried all the time and the therapist helped me to realise that despite the sadness of my father’s death and subsequent breakdown of the family, I deserved to be happy. So I began the journey to find what could possibly make me happy given the extreme and new circumstances and I discovered Existentialism and Transactional Analysis.
I found there was a group of people out there who, like me, were not scared of death, because of a fundamental commitment to searching their life for meaning. An obsessive need to rake over our existence with a fine tooth comb and unearth every emotion, every feeling, every motivation, every drive, in an effort to understand the purpose of our existence. Suddenly, my grief had meaning…
Why are we shocked by death? Is it because there is nothing more shocking than the impermanence of human life? Death puts an end to all those questions we spend a life asking ourselves and each other. The two biggest contenders: ‘Do you love me?’ and ‘Why don’t you love me?’ In its necessity death is shocking. Either it doesn’t matter anymore or the time has run out. Death takes away the sand timer and puts nothing in its place.
Nothing except the chance for growth in a new direction. In this hostile and barren desert, I have grown, the way that nature grows in the most unlikely conditions. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talks of the seven stages of grief. It has been seven years since my father passed away and I have journeyed through my own seven stages of grief: Abandonment, Pain, Withdrawal, Fear, Anger, Therapy: Transactional Analytical Existentialism and Growth, the stage I am in right now. I have read books I would never have read, I have enrolled on courses and learned things I didn’t know, I have made friends I hope I keep for a long time because they have seen me at my lowest. I also found a very special part of me I had never met before. She is the part of me that tells the rest of me to carry on going even when it looks like the lights are off and nobody’s home.
Finally, a stage of grief I am happy to stay in for a while.
Anoushka offers psychotherapy in primary care at an NHS surgery in Lambeth and long term psychotherapy in the low cost counselling service of The Awareness Centre. She is also a freelance writer and published novelist of the ‘The Good Enough Mother’.