Written by Jack, a Winston’s Wish Content Creator
“Who are you?” To most people, a simple question that we may hear many times throughout our lifetime, but to me, it was three words that would haunt me for over ten years.
Christmas had just passed with a strange feeling hanging over our family – dad wasn’t as strong as he once was. After a late diagnosis, he died on a freezing cold, wintery night in February. The last time I saw him, was my first taste of trauma. My strong, heroic dad was now covered in poisoned yellow skin, bones prominent and eyes sunk into the back of his head. I was crying enough tears to fill the hole left in my heart. I told him I loved him more than life and would never forget him; a promise I would break every day for the next ten years. His response, under a cloud of confusion, chemotherapy and weakness, was, “Who are you?” The tragic final words I ever heard from my hero.
Before that question, I knew exactly who I was: I was the luckiest boy in the world, a kid born with the best parents I could ever ask for. After that moment, I had no idea about anything.
“I pretended everything was ok”
Less than 72 hours later, I was sat in a classroom full of 30 children trying to pretend everything was okay. That was until I was asked the question, “Jack, why didn’t you do your homework?” My head dropped. I tried to think of a lie… I failed. “My dad died,” I responded with a twitch of the face. The teacher took me outside and hugged me. I walked back into the classroom embarrassed, ashamed, and lost. To this day, I often think of that teacher and feel so guilty that they had to hear my answer. It was never their fault, they didn’t know.
Life carried on with a performance of normality at school, followed by nights of frustration, sadness, and questions to dad of, “Why did you have to leave? I need you.” Night-time was my only escape from the deep pit of loss that remained inside. At school, it was a time where boys didn’t openly show emotion at the fear of perception and consequence. Also, I couldn’t expect any of my friends to know what I was going through. At home, I didn’t want to make my mum sadder, and so, I pretended everything was okay. The only eyes that saw my regular tears, were two furry cats who I cuddled every night waiting for the morning.
“Everything that I enjoyed seemed tainted”
I had experienced grief before with grandparents, pets, and other family members, but this was different, this was my dad and my life. At 14 years old, dad was my world. He was there when I woke up, he was there when I went to sleep. He was there on holidays, and he was there at weekends. He was there at my football games, he watched TV with me, and we played video games together. I had never experienced any separation, I hadn’t gone to university, I hadn’t moved in with a partner or friend, I hadn’t gone out and got drunk with friends. I hadn’t spent more than 0.01% of my nights away from him.
Losing dad was the worst thing I ever could have dreamt of, but losing my life and routine, hit hard too. It led me to hating things that I once loved like football, because every time I looked at the touchline, I felt an intense feeling of hurt that he wasn’t looking back, and so I stopped trying. I couldn’t focus on my education, and everything that I enjoyed seemed tainted. I was at a delicate age, and I didn’t know where to turn.
“I buried my grief and I buried myself”
I struggled to ease the thunderstorm that was showering over me. The internet barely existed, support wasn’t easy to find, and no one I knew could guide me through it. I didn’t want to worry family, and I didn’t want to tell my friends. And that led to one thing, I closed out my feelings, closed out my memories, closed out my dad.
For the next ten years I did exactly that by turning on autopilot. I buried my dad. I buried my grief and I buried myself. I stopped caring about my progression, my health, my happiness. I’d take the blame. I’d take the pain and I’d accept hurt as a normality because I didn’t care about myself anymore.
A few years later, we went to spread his ashes, but I wasted that moment to say goodbye because I was focused on stuff that I didn’t need to deal with. Wasting that moment to feel close to dad once more, will never leave me. As for dad? His memory had long gone from my mind. If I didn’t need to say the word ‘dad’, then I certainly didn’t need to think of him. By closing out the sad moments, I closed my happy ones. I lost myself, and I fell into a world that I hated. But that world, was about to change.
“Suddenly, after ten years, grief was hitting me”
I fell in love with a girl from the north country. It was the beginning of the old me, but this time I was stronger, smarter, and most importantly, happier. I started to feel real emotions again after a decade of supressing my life. However, from being loved and cared for, it opened me up to a scary amount that I had closed off. Suddenly, after ten years, grief was hitting me, and it was hitting me like a wrecking ball because as a kid I couldn’t process what I needed to.
In one moment, for reasons I will never know, I became incredibly anxious. One second, I was fine, the very next, after seemingly no event, everything hit me and I found myself trying to process my suppression, my childhood, my dad, and his last few days, being asked “Who are you?” and “Why didn’t you do your homework?” The moments where I had lost myself, the moments where I accepted hurt as normality, the guilt that I had lied to my dad about never forgetting him, and everything in between.
My anxiety skyrocketed to a dangerous amount, I didn’t know what was happening to me, where I was going, and how to deal with a million emotions and memories at once. It was strange. The only way I can try and justify it to myself, is that I finally felt happy enough to let the trauma into my life.
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“I found singing and writing as an outlet to talk about how I was feeling”
Thankfully I had someone who, despite my inability to talk about it, would let me be me. And that allowed me to grow as person and look for support, whether that was a quick hug, or just some reassurance. I was building myself back up, and this time I wanted to build back stronger than ever.
Even though everything hit me, I still found it very hard to explain and talk about my mental health. I didn’t want or even know how to talk about dad, but I found outlets. For about five years before, since hearing the singer Bob Dylan, I had been teaching myself the basics of acoustic guitar. My girlfriend, and now wife, suggested I write about how I was feeling. And I wrote songs poetically, metaphorically and on occasions literally, about the difficult years that followed after dad.
These songs ended up being supported by BBC Introducing with international airplay, one was turned into a play, one was showcased at a grief exhibition, and I played gigs all around the country. I had a short play commissioned and studied a masters at writing. I found singing and writing as an outlet to talk about how I was feeling without actually talking about it. It finally felt like I had a release, a comeback, and a place to show my side of the story.
“Experiencing that level of hurt, taught me I could take on anything”
Writing was great for my mental health, but I still lacked the physical side. And after running about ten runs in ten years, I signed up for a marathon. Feeling like a special goal, I decided to raise money for Winston’s Wish, a charity that until then, I hadn’t heard of. From hearing their amazing stories and goals, and the support and encouragement they gave to me, I started to tell my story over social media to help raise money.
This was the first time ever I had spoken about dad and the challenging years that followed. I was honoured and emotional seeing people donate, and those who told me that dad would be proud of me, and hearing support such as ‘I never understood how hard it must have been’.
Seeing the love and support that followed made me realise how lucky I was. I went from thinking that no one got me, to finding old school friends, new friends, and family, who said the sweetest things to me, and it made me feel like my old self. Everything was falling into place, but there was one thing missing, trying to remember the good memories of dad without it hurting too much.
And as I fell deeper in love, as I felt more comfortable in who I was, and as I started to love my passions again, I came to remember how lucky I was to have my dad. My running then developed and took a life on of its own, I kept getting quicker, faster, better. I think experiencing that level of hurt, taught me I could take on anything.
And I reached a level most would think impossible given my late start to running. I started winning races, breaking course records, qualifying for elite championships, and suddenly running had made me healthy both physically and mentally. I would do my long training runs and throughout the run, I would think of why I am so happy with my life, all the good things that are going for me, and of course, what a legend my dad was. From the time he held me when I cut my knee open, the time he got me to go on a rollercoaster, the time he told me that he’d always be there no matter what, the time we watched the Rock win the WWF title, the time he let me beat him at tennis, the time I saw the American flag blowing in the wind as he drove a boat on our last holiday together in the USA… all these little moments that just seemed normal, now felt like the best memories I could think of.
“I realised he is always with me”
Now, at 33 years old, I have a son of my own who I couldn’t imagine having to leave. It makes dad, if possible, even more of a hero in my mind that he had to experience and care for me even when he knew his world was ending.
I have had to live with a lot. The guilt of ignoring my dad’s memory for so long, the pain that my son and wife will never meet him, the hurt that he will never see me win a race, the fact I will never be able to share a pint with him. But once I accepted his loss and faced my grief, I realised he is always with me.
He is with me in my son’s blue eyes. He’s in the curly dark hair of my wife. He’s in the warmth of my mum. And he’s there when I look into the mirror. I see him in the Irish flag. I see him at the end of every race. I see him in my parenting and being the best husband that I can be.
“If you are struggling, I hope my story can help”
My story is not for sympathy, not to make you sad or not to make you scared about what might be. It’s the realities of a 14-year-old boy losing his dad and not processing his grief. In the years that I supressed my dad, I nearly gave up because I hated my life. When grief finally hit me, it came at me all at once because I never took the time to talk about it or process it. That suppression sent my anxiety to dark amounts that I never want to experience again.
If you are struggling, I hope my story can help. Try stuff earlier than I did, try something new – write a song or a poem if you are struggling to talk. Try a new sport to challenge yourself. Go for a run and clear your head. Speak to your loved ones, and don’t waste your time with people who make you feel worse because you need to be selfish sometimes. Most importantly, welcome new loved ones into your life. These may not all work, but that’s why it’s important to find what does work for you.
People fall when they are pushed. But no matter how strong we are, you can only get back up through support and love.
How to speak to Winston’s Wish
If you’re struggling with grief right now, Winston’s Wish is here to help and here to listen. Winston’s Wish provides support for grieving children and young people (up to the age of 25). We offer one-to-one and group support sessions. We also have lots of online resources and a Helpline, email and live chat service where you can talk to bereavement professionals.
If you need urgent support in a crisis, you can contact the 24/7 Winston’s Wish Crisis Messenger by texting WW to 85258.