It was November 1967. A police car drew up outside the business I managed. In slow motion, the older sergeant – someone I’d known for several years – and a young constable stepped out, placing uniform caps squarely on their heads. A feeling of concern grew within me. Then, as the sergeant approached and I could see his eyes, concern became chill.
“Son,” he said, removing his cap, his voice thick, strangled. “Would you sit down, I have bad news”.
That morning as I left for work, Gay, my wife of not quite seven years and Sarah, our four-year-old daughter, had been in the kitchen. Gay and I’d had some silly little domestic disagreement. For the first time ever I left without giving her a kiss and a hug. At least I planted a smooch on top of Sarah’s head as she busily prepared a bowl of cereal for herself.
“Bye, Daddy”. A smile, a hug and I was gone.
I drove the 40 minutes to work feeling like crap. As I unlocked, I heard the phone ringing. It was Gay, phoning with an apology. I said, “Sweetheart, I was about to do the same”. We spoke for barely a minute, with Gay saying she and Sarah would drive across so we could have lunch together. Belatedly, although separated by a city and a river, we told each other, “I love you”.
Back in those days, I enjoyed a particular Australian orange juice, available only in a tin. Gay decided to stop and buy one for me to have with the lunch she’d prepared. The road that brought her across town was the main highway. Back in those days, it passed through suburban streets. Gay found a suitable spot to park around a curve in the road. She popped into a shop, came back out and sat in the car just as a huge truck lost control and landed on top of them. As the sergeant explained, my girls would have known neither fear nor pain.
I mentioned a little earlier the chill I experienced, sensing something sinister in the arrival of the sergeant. On hearing his words, that chill turned to a block of ice. It lasted nine days. How I survived that time I have no idea but it may have been the ice within that brought me through. The death of the two people most precious to me in this life occurred on a Tuesday. It took until Thursday the following week for the ice to melt, for the flood to begin. Then my whole being shook. I wept such as I had never wept before, and never since. Grief finally hit home. It took two days for that to pass and, once it did, I became a living being again.
There are a lot of people who talk of the five or six stages of grief, including such factors as disbelief, questioning, realisation, guilt, almost as a mandate. I dislike generalisations. I find them patronising. In my case, at least, there were two stages:
The block of ice was my shield, a means of protecting me from the reality of what happened. It helped me through the official investigation, the essential police questioning, family, funeral arrangements, funeral service, burial and, worst of all, dealing with all the “I’m so sorrys” associated with such an event. People mean well, of course, and you know they feel for you but it would be less stressful if they could only find the courage to converse. The warmth of human contact – verbal as much as physical – is an essential part of the process. The flood was my understanding… and my release.
It took me seven years to find the courage to remarry but I knew, from the first day of meeting Elizabeth, that we were meant for each other. The pain of earlier loss was something I discussed with her. I carried no baggage, but it was only fair for her to know; only right and proper for her to understand a pre-existing pain, albeit one diminishing with time.
That pain has never gone, any more than a newer pain, the loss in recent years of Elizabeth. Her death was a long, suffering affair, not the sudden taking away as with Gay. The new pain is different and, I have to admit, tinged with some amount of frustration, this last brought about by the knowledge that the new love of my life had an irreversible disease, and the knowledge there was not one thing I could do to prevent it taking her all too soon.
So you see I have loved twice and twice I have lost the one I loved. Even with that behind me I remain unable to think there must be five or six stages of grief. I firmly believe that everything in this life is predestined. (No, I am not a fatalist. I won’t step in front of a speeding truck to prove a point!) Death is inevitable. It is the one certainty for all living things. Accept that and the disbelief, the questioning and the guilt need never be. The grief and the sense of loss will remain but hopefully not impact as hard.
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