My dad died nearly two years ago, following a very short illness. He lived a long way from me and my two sisters after his second marriage, which lasted 18 years. His divorce from our mother left bitterness with her, but my two sisters and I were supportive and visited when we could.
When he was very ill, we visited and tried to be as helpful as we could. Dad had a stepdaughter and son and I always thought we got on, though I did not see a lot of them (for some years I lived abroad). The night he died, I travelled down with one of my sisters. My stepmother phoned and said we could be with him for a while, but then go as she wanted to be alone with him when he died.
I felt devastated by this and felt no one had different rights over Dad at this time. The worst part now is that my sister, to whom I am close, felt we should say nothing and did not help me to stand up for us. She seemed too interested in appearing “nice” to a woman who had no interest in us or our feelings.
My stepmother had always been a very strong, domineering, jealous woman, and my father preferred, at times, that we phoned instead to avoid a tense visit. We did not oppose her ever in any way, and always felt we got on. For her to say we should leave Dad at the end was terrible, and I find myself still going over it. I still feel aggrieved that my sister acted as she did, though neither of us felt we could cause trouble as it was a quiet hospice.
To make matters worse, at the funeral, I found out that my stepmother called her own family and they were with him at the end. We have no contact with her now, and none of his possessions. Some have said to me that she was out of her mind with grief, but I feel she knew exactly what she was doing.
I’m very sorry that your dad died. I would like to know more about why these feelings have cropped up now – not that they shouldn’t have, but sometimes the process of grief means that things get thrown up many years after the actual death. But I wondered if there had been a specific trigger recently.
I spoke to Cruse Bereavement Care (cruse.org.uk, 0844 477 9400) to talk generally about grief.
The way your stepmother behaved was not seemingly loving, helpful or empathetic. But, to be absolutely fair, we don’t know how she felt or what was going on with her.
One of the things that can happen when someone dies is that those left behind, once they have got over the initial shock, can then think about all the things they could have done differently. Given that we can’t control death, what we hope for is the “perfect death” for the people we love. I don’t know a single person who has lost a loved one who doesn’t have some regret, because death is so final – there’s no going back and fixing things. That can be really hard to deal with, which in turn brings guilt, and guilt can cause us to blame others (rightly or wrongly).
Everyone grieves differently and if someone grieves in a very different way, it can lead to further misunderstanding and alienation.
Even if his whole stepfamily was with him on his deathbed, that does not replace what you meant to him
The other thing to remember is that your father was about more than just his death. You had a full life with him. Could you allow yourself to zoom out a little bit and see the whole picture with all the times you spent time with him and when things were good?
When emotions are running high, it can help to break things down to practicalities. Realistically, what could you have done differently? I think if you really look at it you will see that you couldn’t. You didn’t make a fuss at the hospice to be respectful to your dad – not to appease your stepmother, for him – and that is a valid reason. Even if his whole stepfamily was with him on his deathbed, that does not replace what you meant to him or your place in his life.
Cruse explained that grief is a continuation of love, which is a rather lovely way of looking at something none of us can avoid. I feel you would benefit from talking to someone. Cruse has a great helpline and local groups or you may want to find a private counsellor who specialises in bereavement.
I know you might feel that talking is painful – and that you have talked to someone already, but I think talking to someone outside the family will help you to be heard – which is what I think matters here. I’ve put some links to useful further reading below, which you may find helpful.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 27 November 2015.