I was a confident, happy, outgoing, 48 year old father of three before getting the phone call that every parent dreads on March 2nd 2008.
It was the day everything changed. We were preparing a special Mothering Sunday lunch for the family. Little did I know what was about to happen. When my mobile went it was Eric, Rachael’s partner, wailing incoherently trying to tell me Rachael had suffered a heart attack in the Tenerife apartments’ swimming pool where they were on holiday. My wife Sandra froze. Rachael was dead.
I fell to my knees sobbing and punching the floor in grief and disbelief – how could my beautiful 24 year old daughter be gone? My youngest son, Nathan, came to the top of the stairs and I somehow told him Rachael had died. He was unable to comprehend what had happened and returned to his bedroom.
When my older son, Martin, and his wife arrived, Sandra told them Rachael had suffered a heart attack – she could not bring herself to say she was dead. Her face had a look of blank utter disbelief which I had never seen before in 26 years of marriage. I wailed, “How are we going to get through this, son?” whilst we just held each other and sobbed. Family and friends took the news with quiet disbelief. My mother found it very hard having recently lost my father and brother. Now she had lost her grandchild, but she tried her best to support us.
Rachael had died from a cardiac arrhythmia and there would be no post mortem as this was due to “natural causes”; but I was required in Tenerife. My sister-in-law, Kay, bravely volunteered to support me as Sandra was unable to travel and we found the flight over, bursting with the happiness and expectation of holiday makers, almost unbearable. On my return flight, having identified the body, I got a tight horrid feeling in my stomach realising that I now had to prepare sharing in everyone else’s grief. Up to then I only had
my own to deal with.
It was a relief when the coroner confirmed Rachael’s death would be investigated and a post mortem required. We needed to know why she died because we had to think of our sons’ and future grandchildren’s health. Sandra said that CRY could help with these tests and Rachael’s heart was sent to Dr Mary Sheppard at the CRY Centre for Cardiac Pathology.
We had no idea what she wanted for her funeral but were helped by Eric and her heart was buried when it arrived after the funeral, with her ashes. As far as possible we made sure all the immediate family were involved in Rachael’s funeral arrangements. Nathan wanted as little involvement as possible and was very withdrawn leading up to the funeral, which we delayed until the day after his imminent 16th birthday.
We had the music she loved entering and leaving the church and crematorium, and finished with “Thank You for the Music” by Abba, the first tune Sandra heard when given the news she was pregnant with Rachael. I found the funeral surreal. The church was packed, the service beautiful and the poems and eulogies heart-warming – but it was really just a blur. Someone commented about the huge sense of love felt in the church that day. Friends, family, work colleagues and even Rachael’s playschool and primary school teachers came.
After, we gathered at the local Liberal club where she went to playschool and it hit me that we had to somehow get used to life without Rachael. I didn’t think this was possible. I found it so difficult that the world kept getting dark at night and light in the morning and was just carrying on – when our world had stopped.
We elected to have a closed inquest as the coroner agreed with the (Spanish) cause of death. Our GP explained the findings but it was hard sitting through our child’s post mortem and hearing how she had died. Immediately after we had so much support but as time went by people returned to their lives and hoped we were over it. Some seemed to view it like an illness that we would recover from! I don’t believe any parent ever gets over the death of a child.
It is awkward for outsiders though. People I meet ask, “How are you doing?” and “How are the kids?” but I can only talk about Rachael in the past tense and want to say, “How do you think I am doing?” When I hear people talking about their child’s milestones, university, weddings, grandchildren, I feel so sad for what my child has missed. Since her death I have learned that men and women grieve differently, which can put pressure on relationships and lead to misunderstandings. It might seem like I am fine but of course inside I am not. I want to shout at times, “Who elected me as the strong one?” and
“I have lost my daughter too!” When one of us has a good day the other one doesn’t want to bring them down, so avoids talking about their feelings. Also, Sandra has been thrust into an all male household, which she is unused to.
As parents we recognise the loss of a child to be the worst nightmare, but I was unprepared for the complete change in my family’s dynamics. We are a tight-knit loving family but if there were issues Rachael was the go-between who advised her little brothers when they didn’t want to talk to us. If the boys were annoying Mum she would diplomatically get them to see Mum’s side. We don’t have this now and at times small things can seem so much larger. Things that would have seemed so insignificant before Rachael died seem to grow arms and legs. I think this is possibly down to the heightened awareness you feel after such a tragedy.
It’s strange that, depending on your mood, large events can seem trivial but trivial things can make you so angry. These thoughts and feelings have to be worked through and it is not easy. We forget the grief of siblings – our sons not only lost their sister but also the strong dependable parents they were used to and now in some ways feel they have to be the supportive ones. They knew we were feeling vulnerable and we needed them to be strong when they were feeling vulnerable too.
Rachael was my only daughter, my first born. She was the most beautiful, loving, talented, level-headed daughter any man could wish for. She had a small group of loyal friends but could not be bothered with the crowd. She loved her music and was a regular at Glastonbury. She was taken from us just when it seemed everything was going right for her with her own home, a new partner and doing really well at work. It still seems so cruel.
I look at the material things we have and would give everything to wake up one morning in a bus shelter somewhere, the five of us (plus daughter-in-law and the two grandchildren now) with just the clothes on our backs, to have her with us again.
I think I have become used to losing Rachael ‘the woman’ but will never get used to the loss of my little girl. I will never get over not hearing her requests for “give us a cuddle daddy bear”.