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Journey to Mental Health Recovery

My Dad’s Death and the Chaotic Early Stages of Grief

Published 20 days ago • 7 min read

I sat in my parent’s bedroom. It was deathly silent apart from clocks ticking — 6 of them, to be precise. All at different, maddening intervals. My mind was in a tormented spiral, and the out-of-synch clocks seemed to reflect the chaos.

Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick.

I looked after our dog Wags, and even he wanted to escape. But important work was going on outside the room. My dad lay dead on the floor, and the paramedics and police went through their procedures.

The phone call that changed the world.

Before this devastation, I was sitting at home, about to eat a Chinese takeaway. Life was plodding along. My dad had been ill with heart disease for some time, but I had no reason to think today would be THE day.

I heard my girlfriend Amy’s phone ring, followed by the panicked words, “Oh no.” I jumped up, expecting to hear there had been a setback and my dad had gone to the hospital. The reality hit me like a sledgehammer.

“He’s dead,” Amy told me. I couldn’t speak or even close my mouth. My legs buckled with shock.

My dad had been to the hospital several times before. I thought I’d prepared for his death. But as the reality sank in, I realized I hadn’t prepared at all. I don’t know if grief can ever be anticipated.

A glimpse of everyday life amid the madness.

We drove round to my mum’s house. I saw two ambulances and a paramedic response car as we pulled into the road. It gave me flashbacks from my police career, where the whole street lights up with emergency lights. Pretty in a macabre way.

A couple of paramedics chatted outside, and one of them laughed. I felt rage until I remembered this was just their job. Life is normal for them. That was me in my old career, treating horror with disdain. I cut them some slack. If they didn’t laugh, they would crack up and be no use to anyone.

Like me.

Why was I compelled to look at my dad’s body?

I hugged my mum, and she said something to me. I don’t know what she said because my mind was on autopilot. A paramedic said they were sorry for my loss, but I forgot to acknowledge them.

My dad was in the living room, with a curtain covering the doorway. My mum didn’t want me to see him — she knows I’ve witnessed enough death.

But I couldn’t resist looking. My dad was there every day of my life, and to accept that that was no longer the case, I had to see him for myself. So I moved the curtain.

He lay flat on his back on the floor. The paramedics had moved him to perform CPR but decided to stop. My dad had been dead for enough minutes that he would’ve had a brain injury if they’d revived him — his worst nightmare.

I recently saw a man on tv with locked-in syndrome. The man could only move his eyes, but his wife was excited that they’d kept him alive. She fed him breakfast between carrying him to the bathroom and wiping his backside. Most of his breakfast was dribbling out of each side of his mouth.

Yes, some fates are worse than death.

Unlike all the other dead bodies I’d seen, my dad looked peaceful. He’d died at his computer trying to finish writing his final book. My dad still had his hand on the mouse when he took his last breath.

But I didn’t feel relieved that I’d seen him. I felt worse. His image had been added to my internal gallery of corpses after I’d hoped to get through the rest of my life without any more bodies. He’d also managed to die on the anniversary of the incident that led to my PTSD.

Of all the days…

The saddest sound I ever heard.

The paramedics had to do paperwork and advise my mum what to do next. The police had to attend and ensure my dad hadn’t been murdered. Against this frenetic background, me and Amy were asked to look after our dog in the bedroom — and I was driven insane by the six ticking clocks.

I never knew my dad was a hoarder until I heard those clocks. Over the coming months, we found he kept old TVs, bits of carpet, and even parts of an old toilet. His sheds were full of broken junk that he couldn’t bear to throw away because “one day it might come in handy.”

One sound rang out above the ticking of the clocks. The sound haunts me even now. My dad's body bag brushed against the wall as they carried him out.

That was it. The last sound ever related to my dad. Thirty-nine years with him being there almost every single day. We played together and went on vacations. He made every Christmas magical even though he hated the hypocrisy of that holiday. Even our arguments played in my head with affection.

My dad — often cantankerous, a unique sense of humor, prolific writer who never tried to get anything published, and a man of contradictions.

Now gone, as marked by the gentle whoosh of his body bag against the wall.

What happens when everyone else leaves?

As suddenly as they arrived, the emergency services left. The living room was in disarray, but it was all down to us now. I thought I was strong enough to enter the room but began crying uncontrollably. I could still see his image lying on the floor.

I couldn’t console my mum because I had to be helped to the car and taken home. My sadness had turned into a flashback, and all the dead that haunted me in my dreams were now invading my present.

I worried I’d never be able to return to my mum's house. But not returning wasn’t an option, so I forced myself. My knees would buckle every time I tried to enter the living room, but I got over it.

As Amy and I arrived home, the Chinese takeaway sat on the table. A memory of a different time. Where things were ordinary, and grief was absent—a sign of everyday life when things would never be normal again.

I calmed down, ate the Chinese, and prepared for a torrent of agony.


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Journey to Mental Health Recovery

Leon Macfayden

Schizophrenia and PTSD survivor sharing my journey to recovery. Join over 800 subscribers learning to improve their mental health. Every week, I share personal stories and effective tips to help you and your loved ones live the life you deserve.

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