The Latin phrase ‘De mortuis nihil nisi bonum’, loosely translated as, ‘Of the dead, say nothing but good’, or, more commonly in Western society; ‘Do not speak ill of the dead’ is an aphorism I take issue with. In a society that is finally recognising the importance of transparency around mental health, the continued use of such a phrase seems to me to be a huge area of oversight. People are not perfect; a concept widely accepted, so why is it that as soon we die, our flaws must never again be mentioned?
My father passed away on November 12th 2019, at the age of 60. He suffered from Dilated Cardiomyopathy; a condition that weakens the heart and affects its ability to pump blood round the body. He was admitted to hospital in July of 2019 awaiting a heart transplant. Whilst in hospital the lack of blood circulating his body weakened his vital organs and he was placed onto ECMO life support (Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), of which he never came off.
As the first anniversary of his death approaches, I realise now that my personal experience of grief over the last twelve months took a totally unexpected form. Some days I experienced the sadness and anger I had anticipated, but on others I felt relaxed and happy. Prior to the loss of my dad, I’d not experienced death of a loved one, and so the basis of my understanding of what it is to grieve came primarily from popular culture. My expectation was that the initial period after his death was going to be the hardest, that as time went on it would become easier and I would move through the so-called ‘Stages of Grief’, eventually reaching some form of acceptance. Unfortunately, real life is not like the movies; in reality grief is far less linear. A year on from his death and I mourn him more now than I ever did in the immediate aftermath, but not without its complications.
As I began to navigate life post dad’s passing, my gut reaction was to carry on as normal, publicly at least. Whilst doing so, I quickly realised that assumptions had been made by those around me as to how I might behave, or even be feeling. I received a lot of “You’re being so strong”, “You’re so brave” or, particularly troubling, to me, “No one would be able to tell”. No doubt well-intended, what these comments actually communicated to me was that my grief was insufficient, and I should be behaving more upset than I outwardly seemed. I was left feeling guilty, as though I had failed my dad in some way, purely for behaving as I always did. As bad luck would have it, guilt was already a very prominent emotion for me, both in the lead up to, and following, dad’s death. The comments from those around me only further added fuel to the fire.
The unfortunate truth is that my relationship with him was not always a good one. I, of course, have happy memories of my dad, and when my sister and I were young he was particularly in his element as a father. He loved us dearly and I have no doubt in my mind that we were, until his dying day, his proudest achievement.
However, though my dad had been a very kind man, he was also an extremely ill one. As he grew older and his health worsened he began to withdraw into himself. He developed selfish tendencies and became disengaged with life. He wouldn’t join in with family events; even on Christmas day, he would choose to sit alone in the kitchen whilst the rest of us were opening presents.
When he passed away I wanted to feel able to talk about the strained relationship we shared, and not whitewash the memory of who he was. Sadly, aside from incoherently blubbering to my boyfriend about it, I didn’t feel there was a safe space for me to do this.
Phrases like ‘Don’t not speak ill of the dead’ have created a climate in which if I were to voice my grievances of dad, I would appear insensitive. But arguably it is far more damaging for me to pretend that my relationship with him was something that it wasn’t, to delude myself that I had an exemplar father, when the reality is far from that. I felt forced to bottle up feelings that I so desperately wanted to be heard, because after all, I was confused, and I wanted to talk it through to help decipher the mix of emotions I was experiencing.
I have tremendous gratitude for my dad for everything he did for me and I cherish our happy memories, but the undeniable truth is that those memories, whilst celebratory, became few and far between. Rather than blindly worshipping him on the basis that he has now passed, I instead want to remember my dad for who he really was, faults and all. Talking openly about those we have lost, even if this includes the more challenging aspects of their personality, shouldn't be stigmatised. It doesn’t mean we are glad they are gone; far from it. It is simply a recognition that to ignore a person’s imperfections is to diminish who they really were and the relationships they shared.
Hopefully, my experiences can in some small way contribute to the discourse around grief and may shed light on the complexities of losing someone with whom you had such a difficult relationship. There is no right or wrong when it comes to grief and every person’s experience will be unique, but it is theirs and it is valid. We must begin to listen without judgement to those who have lost.