Dad’s Death Somehow Gave Me Life

by Cate Reddell

I was just twelve when I was told how I would respond to my father’s death. My mother told me that I would completely fall apart and she was worried at that point how she would cope with me when he died. At this point, it’s important to say he didn’t die for another 33 years, but I ‘knew’ from then on that his death would destroy me. So I was warned, anyway.

Dad and I were always close. While I had two older brothers, I was the only daughter, and from early on he was my hero. My mother could see this and it worried her, particularly at the point when Dad went overseas for six weeks for work, when I was twelve. I can remember sitting in the car bawling my eyes out on the way home from the airport. I was desperately trying not to cry, because no one else was upset. But as my mother quite rightly decided, I was a mess.

In the meantime, I had left home at 18 and had my own life living away from my parents. Dad and I continued to be close, perhaps even more so when I became depressed at the age of 28 and slipped into a nightmare of mental illness including depression, Anorexia Nervosa, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and eventually was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). That journey went on for nearly 19 years and included many long, and short, hospital admissions, several major suicide attempts, repeated self harm, alcohol abuse, three separate series of Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) and a broken marriage. It wasn’t a pleasant journey for anyone, including my parents who watched mostly from a distance.

I was never very close to my mother, but Dad was one person that I could mostly talk to. That said, at one stage my doctors falsely accused him of having sexually abused me as a child. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the doctors were overly keen to put what had become a treatment-resistant illness down to something concrete. I was very unwell at the time and was having a round of ECT so don’t remember much of it, but enough to know that my father was completely devastated by the accusation. If it did anything it strengthened our bond. I knew how much he loved me and I knew how this accusation was so wrong and unfounded.

Over the years, Dad became the one stable influence in my life that I felt able to reach out to. Even though I held very little hope for my own recovery, I knew he believed in me. I knew he had hope and for some years his hope was the only reason I stayed alive, the only reason I started to work toward recovery through psychotherapy.

I now live in Christchurch, New Zealand, the city that has been bombarded with nearly 12,000 earthquakes in the past two years including one on 22 February 2011 which killed 185 people. My now elderly parents also lived in Christchurch and on that day they lost their home to the quake, along with most of their possessions. They immediately moved in with me, living in a small badly damaged home, but at least one we could exist in. I also had a brother and his family living on the outskirts of the city, and their business was virtually destroyed by the quakes.

It was an incredibly stressful time for all of us. The stress from the quakes that had been now going on for five months significantly changed the personalities of both my parents. That’s hardly surprising when you consider how much they lost. Not only had they lost their home and possessions, they were worried about the rest of the family, their church (in which they had been involved all their lives) completely collapsed and was destroyed, and the city they had known all their lives was in tatters. The grief for them in all of this was enormous, and while we were in survival mode for some time (and continue to live affected by what happened) it was difficult to come to terms with what had happened to us all.

Six weeks later, my parents were still staying with me. Dad, who had medication-controlled heart disease, became a different person. Actually, since the heart disease had been diagnosed a few years earlier his personality had begun to change and while he had been a very compassionate, caring man always interested to help the next person, he became irritable and, at times, seemingly irrational. Sometimes it was hard for him to see another point of view. While I have no medical training, I understand that this type of personality change is often seen in people who develop heart disease. Of course, the stress of the earthquakes and the loss he had incurred just added to that.

On 8 April 2011, I argued with Dad over the need for us to use a portable chemical toilet (something that was necessary in my part of the city for a number of months because of the earthquake damage to pipes). I also refused to give him something of mine that he wanted because I felt he had treated me very badly the day before. Dad was very frustrated that he felt I wasn’t seeing his point of view. He took a breath to reply to something I had said, and collapsed. His heart stopped.

For 20 minutes I did CPR on my father, waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Usually it would take 10 minutes at the most, but so many roads were earthquake damaged and/or closed. My mother stood and watched, talking to the emergency services on the telephone. I have no idea what was going through her head, as she’s not the sort to talk about her feelings, but I am fairly sure she assumed he would be ok. At that point I don’t think I stopped to consider what might happen. I was completely exhausted from doing the CPR and was simply desperate for help to arrive. Shortly before the first paramedic arrived, I heard one of Dad’s ribs crack under the pressure I was applying. I remember thinking he wouldn’t thank me for that.

The paramedics continued to work on him for another 20 minutes but were unable to revive him. In a moment of harsh words, my Dad was gone, and I knew this was the moment I had been dreading for 33 years.

Because I was the youngest child, and the only girl, I think I always assumed that my brothers would deal with such a situation. And of course I was expected to completely fall apart, so in that case I never expected I might have to do anything, let alone try so desperately to save Dad’s life.

Actually, I didn’t fall apart. And there in lies what seems like the miracle of my life, after it having been forecast otherwise for so long. What happened was that I had to take control and take care of my mother. I had to ring my brothers and let them know, as well as close friends. I had to identify Dad’s body for the Police. This was required because even though I had quietly wondered whether all this stress would end in the death of someone, it was still regarded as a sudden ‘unexplained’ death. I had to be the adult, perhaps for the first time in my life.

And in between that I cried, but mostly I looked after my 83-year-old mother. It was difficult for me to express how I was feeling because while Dad and I had both been quite emotional people, Mum was not. I don’t think she understood tears, and that might sound harsh but not if you knew her. It just isn’t who she is.

My brother, Chris gave me many hugs in those days. Usually it had been Dad I would turn to for hugs but thankfully Chris stepped in. With him I was able to cry, and I guess that was the way I made sure there was space for me too.

Dad’s funeral couldn’t be at his church because it had completely collapsed in the quake. Dad had been a Baptist Church minister for most of his life, so to not be able to have the funeral in the church was difficult for everyone. I struggled at the funeral to contain my grief. I didn’t want to be the mess that my mother had predicted all those years earlier, and with no one else in the family showing much emotion, I fought to hold it together. That was until outside afterwards when we watched the hearse, containing Dad’s body, drive away. I suddenly hit me that Dad had gone and would never be back. The tears flowed and thankfully my brother was there again for me, as he has continued to be in the coming months.

The months that followed were incredibly difficult. Mum was still living with me and, I struggled to understand what seemed on the surface to be a lack of grief. Of course, I know she was grieving for her husband of 53 years but she had a completely different way of handling it. They had walked out of their damaged home six weeks earlier with only the clothes they were wearing. They had lost so much, and there was so much uncertainty because the quakes continued to roll on. And now, Mum had lost her husband too. How much more could one woman take?

Eventually, we arranged a new home for Mum, and I took on the responsibility of all the insurance claims and sorting out as much as I could for Mum. I had my home back to myself, but I could still see that spot on the floor where I had worked on Dad to try to revive him. When I went into the bedroom that they had used, it was now their bedroom and not just my spare. Some of my furniture went with Mum, so that she had furniture until we were able to replace what had been lost. Everything had changed.

Life was completely different and it would never be the same. Remarkably though, I had this thought inside me that I hadn’t completely collapsed like predicted when I was a child. And it wasn’t a matter of denial. The times I started to cry I worried that I would never stop. The times I felt lost without my Dad, I was scared I would plummet into depression again.

But instead I grew stronger. With the support of my brother and a psychotherapist I had been seeing for some years, I had my grief, felt sad, but somehow knew I could get through this. I needed to accept what had happened and, actually to my surprise, I was able to forgive myself for the argument I had with Dad and know that we still loved each other, in spite of our final harsh words. Not everyone was so ready to forgive the argument, but I somehow held onto knowing that Dad would have been at peace now, and that’s what mattered.

While Dad’s death was supposed to destroy me, it didn’t, and I think Dad would be very proud of me today.

In time, the hope that Dad had for me was something I could take on myself. I began to see there was hope for me. An amazing discovery! That not only brought recovery from my grief, but also recovery from my mental illnesses which had plagued me (and Dad in his concern for me) for so many years. I still wish Dad hadn’t died because I miss him so much. Because of the journey through it, I am in a much better place than I had been. Dad’s death was supposedly meant to destroy me, but actually it gave me my life again.

About the Author: Cate Reddell is  a forty-something kiwi woman from Christchurch, New Zealand. She has a history of chronic mental illness and nowadays focuses on recovery using a tool she has found most helpful… hope. Cate hosts online support groups for people with mental illnesses in an effort to show them that there is hope, and secondly, that they are not alone in their suffering. She is  interested in sharing her recovery as well as management of some chronic physical illnesses. Visit her blog. Infinite Sadness… or hope?