How We Do Death

Four years ago today, I lost my dad.  A veterinary pathologist his whole working life, the doctors knew better than to try and fob him off with the white-coat-god-complex bullshit they usually reserved for their patients.  He was given his pathology reports, indicating cancer of the bowel and offered his treatment options.  He decided to do everything – surgery, chemo, and radiotherapy.  It was an ordeal as these things always are, not least because he hated the boredom of being stuck in hospital.  He’d always hated being bored.  He was used to days spent single-handedly renovating derelict buildings, working on his land rover, and heading off to the west coast for a spot of his late-found pastime, sea kayaking.  They weren’t to be spent sitting in a hospital bed waiting to be allowed to go home.  The treatment worked, though.  Within a few months he was given a clear CAT scan and told the cancer had gone.

Then, at Christmas, he started to feel ill again.  Investigations showed that the cancer had come back in his spine and abdomen.  My mum kept all this to herself, only telling us when it became clear that he might not be long for this world.  The fucking bastard disease, as my mum called it, had come back.  Unwilling to go through treatment again, he decided not to have it.  His time here was drawing to a close, but he didn’t mind – it was just the next stage, he said, and he’d see us all again soon.  He was only going to go sit on the hill with his dog, Archie, and have a dram and a cigar while he watched the sun set.  He would never be far away.

I moved back to my parents’ and two of my mum’s sisters and her mum came to stay so they could keep the house running while my mum and I spent all our time with dad.  I sat in bed beside him and read to him.  “If I don’t say much, it’s because I don’t have much breath, but I am listening,” he said.   I brought my first rats, Texas and Carolina, in to see him and, always a rat-lover, he scratched their heads and smiled at their big eyes and out-stretched whiskers, sniffing all over him.  He’d always felt an affinity with all things Greek, travelling to Mount Athos to meet the monks, so my mum and brother arranged for a priest to visit and receive him into the Greek Orthodox Church.  One night his breathing grew so slow we thought he was going and gathered round him.  He kept us waiting until my brother came in to measure the windowsill to see if the coffin he’d built would fit on it.  At the sound of a tape measure, he opened his eyes.  “What are you doing?” he said.  My brother tried to appear nonchalant.  “Oh nothing,” he said.  We’d talked amongst ourselves about funeral and burial plans, but weren’t sure whether we should tell him.  My mum decided she would – she told him Alex was going to dig the grave in the garden, line it, and build a sarcophagus we would all help to shift into it to support the coffin.  The Greeks were going to perform the funeral.  “What do you think?” she asked him.  “A deep sense of joy,” he said and managed a bite of cauliflower cheese and a sip of red wine to celebrate.

A few days later, he died.  My brother’s last conversation with him had been about preparing the grave.  “Make sure you put a damp course in,” dad told him.  Then my mum, granny and I sat by him until, with my arm around him, he took his last breath.  We made a circle around him – my aunts, granny, mum and I – and sent him off, telling the heavens that here was a good man.  He lay in his coffin in my parents’ bedroom with oil burning beside him until the Greek Orthodox funeral a few days later.  The priest said he had lived his life in a state of grace and he had.  We kissed him – “god speed, dad,” I whispered – and my brothers and uncle carried his coffin up the garden to lay him in the grave Alex had refused to dig until he died.  It overlooks trees and a field with the path up the hill where he walked his dog behind it.  My aunts had made posies which we placed on him and my brother filled in his grave.

That night we toasted him, ate chocolate cake, and sang songs, most of which we had to look up online because – a few glasses of wine too many – we couldn’t remember the words.

It was a graceful and close passing.  Death – in a Western culture, at least – is taken from us and made clinical and clean.  People die under fluorescent light, with tubes, wires, and beeping monitors around them.  We can hardly touch them and only see them when visiting hours allow.  Bodies are taken from the hospital bed by the undertakers to the funeral director. The only say we might have is the material with which the coffin is constructed.

It was a privilege to care for my dad until his dying breath and to know that his body lies close while he sits on the hill. That is how death should be – it is a privilege to be beside someone and to care for them til they take their last breath and we should be allowed to regard it as such and be given the help to make it so.  There is little in life that is more personal than death.

Now my nephew sits by his grave and chats to him when he visits.  He says hello to Archie as he walks past his grave.  It’s as natural to him as chatting to his mum and dad.  He tells his grandad about the naughty boys at school, his troublesome sister, his thoughts about the world – anything he thinks might interest him, nattering like they used to with cups of tea in hand and matching dressing gowns.  “I’m sad in my heart for grandad,” he said at first.  Then he called his granny to tell her “I was sitting at home feeling worried and sad about grandad and Archie then I thought about Winnie the Pooh getting stuck in the hole by his bum and I laughed.”  Suddenly he realised “my daddy doesn’t have a daddy” and set about trying to find him a new one.  He asked his granny how she was without grandad and told her it was alright – it was just the world and grandad was happy sitting on the hill with Archie and he’d see them all again so not to worry.

We let off sky lanterns at New Year to float above him. Rather than attend the Greek Orthodox service held to mark a year since his passing, I made up my own remembrance day.  I lit a yellow candle (his favourite colour) and sat it on the windowsill, then sat outside on the bench he made, eating chocolate chip cookies and knitting a bit more of the angora hammock for Texas and Carolina that they refused to sit in but were delighted to unravel.  I went to the seaside with my mum and had fish and chips.  She went to the service while I watched something funny on tv.  It was a day he would have enjoyed.

I don’t have any plans for today other than to light a candle at half two to mark the time he died.  I just had to wrest it off a rat who’s now climbing up the inside of my jumper and have another giving herself a wash in my tea.  My dad had pet rats rescued from laboratories when he was a kid.  When I first got mine, he answered my barrage of questions (roughly 20 a day).  He found me a rat health site online ( when I’d exhausted his veterinary knowledge.  It didn’t answer the more existential questions (‘do you think my rats like me or am I just a food source’, ‘do you think they’re happy’, ‘are you sure they’re not capable of abstract thought – I mean, look at this picture of Texas, you can’t say she doesn’t look contemplative’) so he still got those and, though it’s four years on, I still go to text him whenever I have a question.  It’s a cliche, I know, but it’s true – the little things are what you miss the most.  No one can answer the existential fancy rat questions quite like your dad.

3 thoughts on “How We Do Death

  1. Kate, this has made me so sad but also brought a smile to my face thinking of your happier memories and of course little James and his comments. I hope Texas and Carolina are bringing a smile to your face today. Thinking of you. Lots of love…Emily xxx

  2. That is so lovely Kate. And so befitting of the memories of your dad. He was and is still a very special man. This brings back memories for me too of my grannys final days.

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