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Grief and the search for nightingales: How being in nature can bring comfort after the loss of a lov

photo by Joel Holland

I’m writing this two weeks after my father passed away. Everything is crystal clear and I hope my experience can bring comfort to others. I am a Human Givens Practitioner based near Dorking, Surrey and this method of Counselling has helped me many times and has helped my clients

My Dad, Beverley Russell, was 83. He had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Attrial Fibrillation (AF) and had had at least three mini strokes. The past five years had been tough for him and for Mum and I with many trips to different hospitals, travelling far and wide. He had broken ribs (contracting pneumonia) and a hip amongst other issues of this time. Sadly this is repeated time and again amongst our elderly population who often have serious multiple health difficulties.

When Dad was well I took him to Bluewater as he loved shopping and we would stop for oysters and Dad’s favourite tipple, a glass of champagne. We’d visit Wakehurst Place and he and Mum came over often for our roast lunches and sumptuous Christmas feasts. Dad loved his family and friends and as the sole organizer of all his Estate and the funeral, his family and friends loved him very much too it seems.

Dad had told me on different occasions that he didn’t want to live anymore. This is difficult to hear as his child. Dad and I had a tempestuous relationship part love, part hate. An excellent rewind dealt with the demons that had plagued my life making it a joy to help Dad in his final days. In fact the past 2 years had been good while Dad was ill as he didn’t have the strength to be mean and just wanted lots of TLC which I was happy to give.

From Easter Dad started going down hill. He lost quite a lot of weight. His swallowing was bad and all his muscles had wasted. He slept about 20 hours a day. When Mum called me to tell me Dad had a temperature she may as well have said, “ Sally, your Dad will be dead in seven days”. She called be back in an hour to say he had been taken to hospital and I left home immediately to meet him there.

This time was different. I was escorted to A & E resus and sat on a plastic chair outside for what seemed ages. Every time the swing doors opened I thought a doctor would come out and say “Please can you follow me to the family room” but this didn’t happen. My heart was heavy and my stomach slowly turned over. Was this it? Was this my Dad’s last day? Horrible.

Eventually a nurse appeared and took me to see Dad. He was sitting up in a bed asleep with his mouth gaping open. I hate seeing this on wards with many poor old souls lying open mouthed, so undignified. I know now it is their way of getting in more oxygen. I sat with Dad for a while. His obs were not too bad and as Mum and my brother were coming soon I left to go home. I visited with my family over the next few days. Dad was poorly and a little vacant but he knew who we were.

On the Thursday evening at 5pm Mum called me to say Dad had taken a turn for the worst and probably wouldn’t last the night. I called the hospital and I asked if he could be moved to a side room. He could, thank God. If this had been winter there would have been no chance.

The room was lovely as it had a big window and we could see clouds and trees and two pigeons courting on the roof opposite who we called Bev and Tina. They were around for the whole time we were there. I stayed with Dad for the night, a camp bed next to him. I held his hand and chatted about everything and nothing. I played him Barbra Streisand and The Commodores and read Harry Potter and then sat and watched him struggle to breathe. In the morning the doctor took me to the side and said the pneumonia could not be shifted. His x-rays showed lungs completely white.

I knew Dad wanted to go so I asked the doctors to let Dad pass away as quickly as allowed. All tubes were taken out and palliative care ensued which was incredible and caring and I am eternally grateful for all the staff who made sure Dad was as comfortable as possible.

Mum and I took turns to sleep or wander about the hospital and Dad was never alone for the final four days. Sometimes it was very hard to hear Dad’s lungs fill up but he didn’t look like he was suffering. On the Saturday night Dad squeezed my hand really hard then he opened his eyes and looked straight at me. He was grinning from ear to ear as if he had just had the most amazing news or scored a hole in one at golf. Must have been a dream. That image will stay with me always.

The final morning after the chaplain had left I went for a walk around the corridors. I normally headed towards the maternity wing, loving the gift of life arriving mixed in with the knowledge death was near along the way. When I returned Mum was standing over Dad. She told me Dad had stopped breathing a couple of times. His skin had changed colour a little and I had read all about the process of active dying so I went over to the door and closed it, gave Mum a hug and told her it looked like the end was near.

Mum held Dad’s hand on one side of the bed and I held his other hand opposite. I don’t know what led me to do this but I felt the need to feel Dad’s pulse so gently held his wrist with my other hand. Dad’s breathing slowly and over fifteen minutes I could feel Dad’s pulse fluctuate and begin to slow. I whispered in his ear, “Dad, your Dad and brothers are waiting for you up the St. John Barleycorn with a pint of ale, they’re all smiling. It’s time to go. We love you, bye Dad. His heart slowed more and finally he took a small sigh and his heart stopped. It was a beautiful end and I felt honoured to feel the life leave him. Mum and I left shortly after, calm and relieved and not too upset.

By the end of the week I needed to go out into nature. Near us in Sussex is the Knepp Castle Estate which is a 3500 acre farm that has been returned to the wild, a magnificent re-wilding project with a small campsite. They had kindly allowed me to stay with their compliments.

Having erected my little pop up tent I went out into the evening wilderness, birds singing all around me. My heart leapt as I could hear cuckoos calling from one end of a field to another and the sound of longhorn cattle lowing in the distance. Like Watership Down there were rabbits everywhere.

Eventually I stopped, sat down on a grassy knoll and waited as I heard a sound and the reason I had come to Knepp. In the branches of a tall oak tree next to me came the unmistakable song of the nightingale. I had never heard one before in the wild but I recognized this from hearing it on Youtube before I came. It was uncanny, technically brilliant and the song changed constantly. For an hour I listened. Other birds joined in and the sunset was magnificent. Nature is my higher power and I was in its heaven.

At 5am the next morning I went out into the mist and was delighted to watch fallow deer and a beautiful dog fox and many, many more rabbits as well more singing from the cuckoo. I left Knepp having put my feelings where there needed to be and ready to return to the many arrangements to be sorted, a job I relished.

When I do guided imagery with my clients I often recommend finding somewhere in nature. It doesn’t suit everyone. When it does I enjoy asking them to really immerse themselves in their environment, using all of their senses and this definitely bodes well for a deep trance where great work can be done.

If I hadn’t become a Human Givens Practitioner I can truly say this experience may have been very different. I could have had unresolved issues with my father, felt very anxious and extremely depressed. Today, one week from the funeral I have a moment here or there but generally I am calm and sorting through Dad’s photos and communicating with many loved ones. I’m now looking forward to seeing so many people and standing in front of them to tell the story of Beverley Russell.

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