My dad died five years ago. I’ve learned it’s better to talk about death imperfectly than not at all | Owen Jones

I didn’t have a proper vocabulary to talk about loss, but discovered that breaking the taboo was vital for healing

Did my father know that his death was imminent? After he was wheeled back to my parents’ flat in Edinburgh for his last Christmas five years ago, delusion seemed to prevail. He was getting better, he reassured me; then aged 72, he insisted would make it to his 80s. But his eyes seemed to suggest otherwise: there was something about how they welled up as I blared Edward Elgar’s Nimrod from the living room speakers. He loved that variation. My mother hasn’t been able to listen to it since, because it’s one of those emotional landmines that grief lays after a bereavement. Why stand on it, if you have the choice?

Just over two weeks later, he was dead, but he wouldn’t have felt disappointment in that moment of finality. Sometimes I wonder if he could hear his family in that hospice, whispering their love, or the baritone notes of the Bruce Springsteen songs we played. Before he fell ill, he used to loop around his armchair, clicking his fingers and roaring out the chorus as he listened to the Boss. His eyes seemed to moisten in those final moments, too. But was this a silent emotional response to his family wishing him farewell, or just another symptom of a human body shutting down for good?

It’s half a decade since my father died, and these questions have clearly gnawed at my subconscious. For a long time after his final breath, he appeared in my dreams dreading death, panic-stricken, warning that he was going the way of my grandfather, who had died six months earlier. He was nothing like that in reality – in front of me, at least, he appeared upbeat, perhaps because despite being given a terminal diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer, and consistently responding poorly to treatment, he never really believed it would happen. Did my dreams hint at how I thought he should have felt, or what I really believed was going on in his head? Or would Sigmund Freud conclude that I was projecting fears about my own mortality?

It seems difficult to believe that it has been five years since that moment, because – even now – I haven’t abandoned that childhood self-deception that parents are immortal deities. Having a dad just seems a permanent part of life’s architecture. Now, with every passing year, he becomes more of a historical persona, something belonging to the past, predating the sorts of grand upheavals that he would have yearned to discuss, like the pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine.

Owen Jones’s father with Owen and his twin sister in 1985.
Owen Jones’ father with Owen and his sister in Sheffield, 1985. Photograph: Owen Jones

Yet he also remains disconcertingly present: his scraggly combover, pale Celtic skin peppered with brown freckles, and silver-capped teeth as vivid in my mind as if I’d seen him an hour ago. My mum’s home number remains “Folks” in my phone. It’s his mannerisms and habits that remain seared on my brain more than anything else: snoring in his armchair with a book about the American revolution on his lap, bellowing as he suddenly lurched forward on the sofa when Everton missed a goal, muttering a profanity when a can of bitter that he tossed at the wastebasket missed.

There’s nothing exceptional about losing your father as an adult. Some of my friends lost theirs as children, a searing experience. That applied to my dad, too: his sailor father had survived Nazi bombs but succumbed to a heart attack and was buried at sea somewhere near Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa. At the age of six, my dad was briskly informed by his mother and packed off to school. That loss defined his childhood; in truth, his death doesn’t define my adulthood, long independent from my parents. But I’m still struck by how, years after he was cremated and his ashes were planted beneath a tree in Sheffield, I don’t have a proper vocabulary to talk about it. Whatever angle I take to address this lack – that it’s been 130,000 years since the first human burial; that I have several friends who’ve suffered bereavements; that my vocation is writing – it seems as though the universal experience of loss should be easy to describe, and yet it isn’t.

We avoid talking about death, of course, for understandable reasons, but that doesn’t make it a healthy way of dealing with it. We fear it for ourselves and for those we love. Loss is painful, but irreversible, so expending energy may seem like inviting hurt for no reward. For me, it’s become clearer why I’ve needed to process his final moments: so they don’t become the defining memory of who he was. With time, that moment of terminal decline has given way to the man who energetically sang along to the chorus of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young, or wolfed down a curry on a Saturday night, or wagged his finger as he denounced Tory and Labour politician alike (like father, like son).

But it’s clearer to me than ever that our culture needs to be far more accommodating when it comes to opening up about loss. Five years on, I’ve come to understand bereavement as a running theme in life that takes many forms, and not just with death. It’s felt when relationships end, or careers are terminated. Loss transcends cultural divisions and class distinctions, even though different circumstances mean its impact varies wildly. It does invite hurt to talk about it, but such pain is more corrosive if it’s suppressed. Perhaps the lack of vocabulary isn’t the problem: just saying something, anything, breaks a taboo that hurts us the most.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist


Owen Jones

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