Losing my family caused a tsunami of grief, but also taught me how to live

On my 30th birthday I realised I was totally alone.

My father had died five days earlier. My mother had died nine years previously, and my brother 21 years before.

I’m still living with the grief, but the journey I’ve been on since that day 18 months ago has taught me to seek joy; it has taught me strength; and in the end it has taught me how to live.

The death of my beloved older brother, Ian, had been my first experience of loss. Ian was my best friend, confidant and guardian. We did everything together, from playing the violin to cycling around our village. He died after a family holiday in Spain, five days before my ninth birthday.

I was sitting on his bed when it happened. Ian was vomiting. He seemed confused, so my mother asked him some simple questions. We knew something was seriously wrong when he couldn’t remember his age. Sixteen, he said. Ian was 13. His eyes rolled back. I sat on his bed in shock. Paramedics arrived.

I couldn’t mourn Ian at the time. My nine-year-old self was convinced he would return soon. My mother’s Japanese stoicism and my father’s Glaswegian grit meant we soldiered on as best we could. These cultural barriers to grief were helpful in the short term, less so in the long term.

The Japanese have the Zen Buddhist term “gaman”, which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”. This was used after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, when it was seen in the resilience of the Japanese people. It is how my mother dealt with the loss of her child.

The Christmas after Ian died, my father took an overdose. He had bottled all his grief inside, and it just exploded. When a child dies, Christmas seems worse than pointless. Juxtaposed with open, raw grief, the joy, the lights, the festivities seem like a cruel joke.

Days, weeks and months passed, and I realised that Ian was gone for good. Yet it wasn’t until my teenage years had passed that I truly grieved for him. I wish I had done so sooner, but denial is a potent drug.

When I turned 18, my mother’s cancer arrived. It marked my entry into adulthood; I was no longer just a girl but a young woman with a terminally ill mother. When your loved one is given a terminal diagnosis, you start grieving long before they die. The last Christmas with my mother was tranquil. My parents and I would snuggle up on the sofa together and watch Band of Brothers and The West Wing box sets. We knew this Christmas would be our last together; we just didn’t want to say it out loud.

I asked my mother in her final week who I might talk to when she was gone. She pointed to her heart.

It was when my mother died that I started to feel my long-dormant grief for Ian. I found his clothes, which she had kept for all these years, unknown to me. I held them and smelled them to try to catch anything that could remind me of him. I kept his school rugby jumper, scarf and teddy bear, and donated the rest to charity.

My father and I dealt with my mother’s death as badly as anyone could deal with a thing like that. My father, unable to bear the intense loneliness, became depressed. For me, the stress brought on many years of mental ill-health, sometimes so severe it included hospitalisations.

Research from the Childhood Bereavement Network has shown how long-lasting the negative consequences can be for someone bereaved as a child: increased risk of depression, substance misuse, lower self-esteem and academic performance. On the flip side, there is evidence that a high number of those bereaved in childhood become highly successful adults, possibly because of the strength and self-sufficiency they learn at an early age. Certainly, my father – who lost his own father in the second world war when he was just eight years old – fell into the latter category. His was a success story, though he also suffered from bouts of depression – which shows that these situations are not black and white.

Looking back, I wish I had not inherited the Japanese stoicism of my maternal family. Stoicism can only get you so far; sometimes you must seek support. I wish too that my father and I had leant on the local community more after my mother’s death instead of shutting ourselves away from the world. And it would also have been helpful if I’d been able to recognise the difference between grief and depression.

Despite everything we went through in the decade after my mother’s death, my father and I got better and became much closer. We received help from friends and professionals and began to rebuild our life together. As I approached the end of my 20s, I would visit my father, now in a nursing home, taking him crosswords, Scottish tablet and Jeffrey Archer books. We would talk for hours as he told me about his wartime childhood in Glasgow, and laugh and reminisce about my mother and brother. We found a new sort of peace together. For those nine years, my father was everything to me.

In 2020, as the first national lockdown began, my dad, then 83, rang me from his nursing home. He complained that another resident was coming in and out of the home without taking any precautions to prevent spreading the virus. “Why are you so angry?” I asked. “Because I want you to have a father still!” he replied.

He was right to worry. Shortly after this phone call, my father caught Covid. Like more than 10,000 other people in care homes in Britain, he died from complications caused by the virus. I visited him in hospital wearing full PPE. He just looked as if he was asleep. I held his hand and whispered in his ear, telling him how much I loved him and thanking him for being the most incredible father. He looked so peaceful.

My father’s death caused a tsunami of grief in me. I was unable to push it back. It was as though 20 years of emotion came flowing out of me all at once, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

Many things helped at the time, but one thing saved me from despair. My psychologist would call me at the same time I would usually speak to my father. His calls were the tonic I craved. I needed someone to know how badly I was hurting inside, how desperately I wanted to speak to my father, and how severely the loss of my family had suddenly hit me two decades later.

I wish I had sought therapy, specifically bereavement counselling, earlier on. Perhaps it would have helped.

I had an epiphany shortly afterwards. I was drinking too much, smoking too much and eating too much. It suddenly dawned on me that my family did not waste a single minute of their lives; they lived and loved fiercely every single day. I needed to do the same. I went back to my studies at university, curbed my vices and started to live rather than just exist. After all, this is what my family would have wanted for me.

Grief will always come and go, but the tide is less strong and I can now reach the shore. All I feel now is gratitude to have had such wonderful parents and brother, and to have spent precious time with them. My family is my past, but as my mother expressed to me, they will remain for ever in my heart.