‘Hi kids, following some blood tests the doctors suspect I may have advanced prostate cancer. Things should be clear next week but the outlook is not good’, read the text message on my phone.
The matter-of-fact tone of this declaration as well as its impersonal medium of delivery was perhaps more appropriate for a more trivial development, such as a booked holiday. But this was characteristic of my father, a man born and raised in 1950s Northern Britain into a generation of pragmatism, stoic facades, and understated emotion.
I had left him only two weeks before for my new life in Bangkok, Thailand. The inevitable stress, anxiety, and trepidation one feels when changing country, home, and job all at once was only exacerbated by his visibly deteriorating physical condition as I left him alone in our family home one cold, dark autumnal evening in London.
This was my first taste of the darker side of expatriate life, coming far sooner than I had expected. Two weeks of blissful escapism, fuelled by exotic sights and sounds, were brought to an abrupt end by the complex array of emotions battling for supremacy, as my grief-stricken mind struggled to comprehend my father’s potential mortality with so much distance between us.
A profound sense of guilt came initially. Facing an instinctive desire to care for the man who had diligently provided for me throughout my life, I grappled with the frustrating reality that I could not alleviate his suffering in any meaningful way, having chosen to place 10,000 km between him and me.
With this realisation and feeling a sense of duty to return to the city I had just fled, guilt would give way to an irrational anger and fear, aimed at nothing and no one. A reluctant resentment crept into my consciousness as I contemplated my father’s illness as threatening my newfound independence.
Inevitably, with self-focused thoughts came further shame and guilt. I should not be thinking about my own interests right now, I would berate myself, as though scolding a selfish child. Intuitively, I concluded if I were a good son—a good person, even—then I would, without hesitation, place my father above everything else by eagerly returning home. This was the self-imposed weight that I bore for weeks, and it was a stick with which I eagerly beat myself following any moment of happiness in my new home.
But through introspection, I’ve become very aware of the flawed logic at play here. The dynamic of a parental relationship suddenly being flipped on its head is a deeply unsettling experience for the child. It is hard to accept that our once impervious parental figure is now gone and with it the unshakeable sense of protection, solidity, and confidence that they inspired in us. Adjusting to a new role more akin to caregiver is difficult, with our behaviour so often clouded by thoughts of what we think we should be doing, feeling, and saying.
We should be grieving; we shouldn’t ever be happy; we should sacrifice everything to support them; we shouldn’t be concerned with our own life and issues. When we inevitably fall short of these lofty standards of optimal grieving, there comes a surge of self-contempt.
But can I show my father that I truly love him, care for him, and want to support him through phone calls every other day to ask how he is and how his day was? Absolutely. Will it contribute to his morale and well-being to hear that his son is thriving in his new home and career? Without question.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no correct or incorrect way to illustrate your love for someone. The reality is that in tough situations of grief, we all simply manage as best we can under the circumstances. By not dropping everything and returning home, I am simply acknowledging that my life and responsibilities do not cease to exist despite the melancholy both he and I feel.
This is a sentiment as pragmatic and stoic as they come and one that I’m certain my father fully endorses.
Alastair McCready is a British journalist.