The Story of my Brave (Step) Dad’s Passing and How he Inspired Me


I am not sure what to believe these days about the after life but this quote reminds me very much of the lesson I learned from the emotionally harrowing post you are about to read. It comes from a pretty lame film called Evan almighty (a rubbishy sequel to Bruce Almighty). The quote is made by Morgan Freeman who plays God:

Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?

On Good Friday a couple of years ago, I went to visit my Mum and Dad in France where they lived… Mum still worked in the UK at the time and commuted home at weekends, and with my partner being away on business I decided to take a friend of mine (a newly single mum who was my neighbour of 6 months) and her children with me so that we could get away from it all for the weekend to rural France! (I had nearly lost my bio Dad a few weeks earlier following a stint on a life support machine, but thankfully he made it that time, and my friend was going through a tough split and mega other property stresses, so we both wanted to escape).

From here on in, the post is written in the present tense, and taken from an old diary entry I made at the time:

April 2010:

Dad rang me a few days before, to tell me that he had bought a ton of Easter eggs to hide in the garden for the egg hunt (my Dad’s ‘thing’, he gets a real kick out of playing the Easter bunny… He’s like a big kid). We left the house in the UK at 4am on Good Friday, and got to Dad just after lunch, my Mum was going to join us late since she had struggled to book a crossing with Euro-tunnel over the busy bank holiday. When we got here, I tooted the horn of the car, and Dad appeared from the vegetable patch of their large garden with muddy hands. He apologised, that his hands were dirty, he explained he was gardening, but led us in… He was in really high spirits, clearly excited to have all the kids there and have company.

He started the fire, and was chatting to us about our plans. I suggested that we nip down to the shop to grab some bits, then settle in… In that case he said, he would rotivate the soil in the vegetable patch and get on until we returned… He followed us out with a big smile on his face, and suggested I grab fresh milk whilst I was gone, since he had forgotten to get that himself. I backed the car into a bin, and he laughed at me as I looked worried, and shouted “alright! It’s only the bin!” He giggled, clearly amused at my mistake, and waved me off!

That was the last time I saw my Dad alive.

I am devastated. It was so sudden, and has come as such a shock to me, because Dad was as strong as an ox and only 64 years old. I am trying to be strong for my family, but I am really cut up. I was only gone for an hour and a half… We went to the shop, and then grabbed a quick bite to eat at a cafe. When we got back, the kids rushed in ahead of us. They ran back out, giggling, saying that Grandad had fallen asleep in front of the television (something he does a lot). I asked them to be quiet so that they didn’t wake him, since he must be exhausted if he fell asleep… As I walked in, I saw him in his usual sleepy position in the chair; arm on the arm rest, other arm on his lap, and head back against the chair…

I started unpacking the shopping and then my daughter told me she needed a weewee. I took her to the loo, and as I returned the phone started ringing. I picked up and it was mum, she was trying to leave my brothers place to catch her ferry but found herself locked in. She couldnt work out how it was possible to be locked in and was worrying that she’d miss her train crossing. She asked me to ask Dad what she should do (Dad is the fix it man of our family). I said she should ask my brother, because Dad was sleeping, but she said that my brother was not answering his phone and it was urgent… So I called to Dad, he didn’t wake… So I called louder, still no response… So I walked over and tried to physically wake him gently. He felt cold, then I noticed that he also looked rather grey. I panicked…

I remembered that when my other Dad was in ICU a few weeks back and he felt cold as he lay on the life support machine, that the nurse said that the body locks heat into the torso and the extremities got cold as a bodily defense mechanism… so I felt inside his top. His body was warm… I cried to mum that she needed to ring the ambulance that Dad must have had a heart attack and might be dead. She let out an awful cry like an animal in anguish and I hung up. I was in a blind panic. I didn’t know the emergency services number to dial in France, and didnt know how to find it.

Luckily my neighbour’s ex grew up in France, so she called and asked him… We got through, but in my panic, I struggled to recall how to speak French, my friend tried her best to explain. I had to give the address over… As soon as she got off the phone, I told her that we needed to get Dad on the floor. He is very heavy, so it was a tough task getting him down gently, but somehow we managed. His eyelids rolled open, and his eyes just stared up without emotion… I think I knew in my heart that he was gone then, but I refused to give up. I closed his eyelids, but they fell open again almost immediately because I had tilted his head back to clear his airway.

Moments later, a bilingual ex-pat friend of my parents arrived. Mum had called him, and he had raced over here… He took one look at Dad and said, “I’m sorry my love, but he’s gone.” I asked him to give Dad CPR, and he did a few chest compressions, but couldn’t bring himself to do mouth-to-mouth… I pleaded with him as I only ever learned infant resuscitation… But he repeated that my Dad was gone and said he was going outside to wait for the ambulance.

So I rang my partner’s mum (a nurse), put her on loud speaker and got her to talk me through CPR, and I worked on Dad until the medics got here minutes later, my lovely friend helped me with some of the chest compressions… Then when the help arrived, she got the kids upstairs and distracted them. The paramedics suggested that I join them, but I refused to leave Dad. They were quite insistent until I told them that I was more than aware that my dad may already be dead, but that I wanted to be there nonetheless… They were amazing… 12 of them turned up! I’m not sure why 12 were needed, or what they all did. In England you’d get 2 maybe 3 paramedics, and they’d have tried to stabilise Dad before transferring Dad in an ambulance to hospital as they worked on him; but here, they sent out huge numbers of paramedics and a cardiac specialist doctor, besides other doctors.

They gave him oxygen, defibrillated him, he had 2 shots of adrenaline, then an IV drip was put in with some other drugs and they were doing compressions… I was talking to him, since he doesnt speak French. I was telling him that he had to wake up and breathe for me… Unfortunately none of it worked… The coroner pronounced him dead right there on the floor, and as soon as they said it, I just lost it. I got down on the floor with him, hugged him and stroked his hair… I never did that before, and it was so soft. It really surprised me how soft his hair was. I cried and hugged his bare chest and told him that I was sorry he’d been alone when it happened… I just lay there with him… Its so weird; I dont even recall what all the paramedics were doing as I did that… It was like we were the only 2 people left in the room, and despite the buzz of activity, we were in our own little bubble of quietness together. I cannot remember why I got up. I think one of the paramedics told me that they wanted to move him to his bed (in the downstairs bed room).

My parents friend was busily talking to the coroner and the Mayor in French (in France the Mayor has to be present when someone is pronounced dead in their home, and when the undertakers come to take the body away). He asked me to find Dad’s birth certificate and passport and the medication that he was taking for cholesterol and high blood pressure. I didn’t know where any of it was, but luckily, Dad left them all in very obvious places.

Then he explained that with a sudden heart attack, decomposition was rapid, and that with the kids in the house, we could not wait to remove Dad’s body until mum arrived, we would have to call the undertakers immediately. I nodded, but inside I cringed. It seemed horribly insensitive to heat them talk in cold harsh terms of my father as a decomposing corpse that could pose a health risk to his grandchildren. They made the call, and said that they would be here in less than 2 hours. Then they asked me to pick Dad a nice suit so that he would look his best for mum when she saw him. I went into his room, and they had wrapped his body in their duvet like an Egyptian mummy. I struggled, going through his wardrobe right there in front of him as he ‘slept’ but somehow, through my tears, I managed to choose a nice suit, clean socks, underwear, a shirt and shoes. Then the coroner asked me to sign Dad’s death certificate… It was awful signing it. It seemed so wrong for them to ask me to do all those things when all I wanted to do was be with him and grieve.

One I signed it, I went to Dad and just lay there with my arm around him on the bed… After a few minutes, the cardiac specialist came in. He asked me if Dad had complained of any chest pains at all earlier? I said not at all, in fact, he had been off to do some rotivating in the garden as I left! He said that: because it was not a slow build up of pain, it meant that Dad’s heart attack had been extremely severe and sudden, and that it was highly unlikely that my Dad felt any pain, or even any awareness that he was having a heart attack… He said death was probably instant, and that even if I had been sat next to my father when it happened, it would not have affected the outcome.

It was very comforting to hear that. I like the thought that Dad was sitting in the chair watching TV, maybe had fallen asleep, and slipped away without pain of knowledge that it was happening. After the medics, Mayor and coroner had all left, mum and Dad’s friend asked me if I needed him there, and suggested that he give me his number and that he go home to be with his family who were also over for Easter, and that I could ring him if I needed anything translated. I nodded… I didn’t want him to go, but I didn’t feel that I could ask it of him to stay either.

He left, and my friend asked me if I wanted her to get the kids out of the house for me. Her face was streaked with tears, and she hugged me, and said that it reminded her of her own father’s sudden passing a few years back. As much as I didn’t want to be alone, I also wanted the kids to get out of the horrid atmosphere and agreed that she should get the kids out for a walk and some fresh air…

I waited in the house alone with Dad for about an hour and a half… It was awful… I went into the bedroom and lay next to dad on the bed stroking his hair and saying how sorry I was that I had left him and that I missed him already and couldn’t believe he was gone… I kissed his cheek and just spoke to him and told him how much I loved him over and over again as I sobbed into his shoulder. He looked so grey and felt so cold, and then I noticed that his shoulder was starting to look very bruised right up to his neck, and spreading down to his chest… I wasn’t sure if it was to do with his injury, his treatment or decomposition, but I couldn’t get that comment made by the coroner out of my head, and then I found myself unable to cope with close proximity of my face to his skin, and feeling that way made me feel guilty.

I walked away to the other side of the house, but as soon as I got there, I felt drawn back to Dad… It didn’t feel right leaving him there alone, so I would return for a bit, but then I would feel unable to cope with the scene of him laying there dead again… I started to view him less as Dad and more like a corpse, and would guiltily walk away and repeat the whole cycle again… This continued over and over until just before the undertakers arrived…

I struggled so much that I needed to speak to someone, anyone… I spoke to mum on the phone, who was beside herself with grief, and felt guilty for not being there, and powerless to do anything to help me… I asked her where Dad’s phone was, and she said probably in Dad’s pocket, could I retrieve it before he was taken away? I rang it, and followed the ring tone to Dad. I had to unwrap him from the duvet and retrieve his phone. Then I re-covered him… Sounds stupid, but with his bare chest exposed I was worried that he would be cold and wanted to cover him again so that he would be warm.

I was feeling so upset, and craving some support and human contact… I wished I could call my partner or have his support, but just as the last time I had an emergency in the family, he was on a long-haul flight, and would be out of reach for at least 5 more hours. So I started ringing people to inform them that Dad had passed away… It was so hard, but I was on automatic pilot, and it was like some weird coping mechanism to have a duty to fulfil. After a while, I felt I needed to stop… It felt disrespectful to be calling people whilst he was in earshot. It makes no sense really when I say it all back, but I think I was all over the place with my emotions (still am).

Just before the undertakers arrived, my parents neighbours came over… Mum and Dad’s bilingual friend had phoned them to tell them about what had happened. They had come to be with me and Dad… They don’t speak English at all, so communication with them has always been like a cross between my badly spoken French and charades… It was a mixed reaction seeing them, I didn’t really have the energy for it, but I was also desperate for support. I didn’t know what to say, but I led them to the room where Dad lay. She immediately had tears in her eyes and just hugged me tightly (which is what I needed) and he made a noise like he was going to be sick… I thought he was struggling to see a corpse, but it was actually a strong emotional reaction to seeing his close friend and neighbour so suddenly dead… I think he didn’t believe it until he saw it …

He wailed and sobbed openly and looked as upset as I felt. As it happens, grief didn’t really need words… They didn’t try to engage me in conversation, just hugged me until the undertakers arrived as I sobbed.

The undertakers, 2 of them, arrived with the Mayor. The Mayor led the undertakers to dad… They went back out and returned moments later having wheeled a trolley to the front door. Then they moved the sofa out of their way, and walked in with a body bag. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being put in a bag, but knew it had to be done. I could hear them shuffling around and struggling with Dad’s heavy weight… Then I heard them zip up the bag, and I waited to watch them carry him out.

I shouldn’t have watched really… I am not sure what I expected to see… Dad was overweight, and the three of them (mayor included) struggled out with the bag. They almost dropped him twice because of the weight, and I let out cries as I saw their clumsy handling of my father. I wanted to swing for them, as it seemed so disrespectful to see him being treated like a piece of heavy luggage. Thankfully, once he was out of the front door, they strapped him to the trolley, and it was a smoother ride for him there after… My parents neighbours stayed a short while longer, and then left as my neighbour, and the kids returned.

The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a blur. When my mum got home with my brother, they hugged me, and told me that I was very brave and level headed to deal with everything. I felt like a fraud accepting any praise. I had not known what to do, and felt that the whole situation was a mess. I know I did the best that I could, but it wasn’t enough. Silly, because I know I would say the same things to my brother in the reverse situation… But now that I have been here, I know that most people would do the same thing in my situation…

As awful as that experience was, I later came to appreciate that my father gave me a great gift that day-he showed me that I was courageous and that I had inner strength. Strength I would need to help my bio Dad through the months ahead… I would never have known I had the strength or courage to help my Bio Dad if my loved Step Dad hadn’t bequeathed me this gift.

I later learned that he did in fact know that he had a serious (likely terminal) heart condition and had chosen to protect his family from the knowledge of his terminal diagnosis; and that the bilingual friend who turned up and who had ‘coldly assumed my father was dead and refused to help revive him’ had in fact been the friend my father entrusted with the awful knowledge to, and who was selflessly taking my father to his cardiologist appointments (with his wife) and carrying the burden of the awful truth without our knowledge. He has too since passed away, too young, of pancreatic cancer… I am sorry I ever accused him of being heartless or cold in my head and my diary – he was not cold, he simply knew it was coming, a truth I had been spared until January 2012!

When I first learned that my Dad knew he would die, it haunted me and I initially sank into a depressive state of thinking, wondering if perhaps, he hadn’t passed as suddenly or as peacefully as I taken comfort in imagining, but instead, had perhaps bravely placed himself into that position to appear that way to protect us from the pain he was genuinely suffering, as he had protected us from the foreknowledge of his diagnosis. I tortured myself with that thought, until I decided that actually, by doing so, if that was the case, then I was disrespecting and undermining his courageous act of kindness. If anyone ever asks me who my hero in life is-I will always reply ‘my fathers’. Both my Dads inspired me, and in their own unique ways they both bravely faced their looming mortality with great dignity though their fear must have been great…

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4 Comments on “The Story of my Brave (Step) Dad’s Passing and How he Inspired Me”

  1. June 4, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    Thank you so much Emma for sharing this. I am in tears but so thafknul for this message in my life today. A reminder to live each moment and to not worry about the little things. I think I need to get pictures done with my kiddos!I hope it is ok to share this with my clients!

    • November 3, 2012 at 9:16 am #

      Thank you so much for your kind comment Nathy, I only just saw it… Of course you can share it. Definitely take lots of pictures with the people you love!

  2. Julia
    March 30, 2016 at 3:46 pm #

    Hi Emma! Thanks so much for your blog – I have been reading it over the last days and have found it really wonderful to read. I am writing my Masters Thesis about bucket lists and was wondering if you would available for a Skype interview (super informal!)? I would love to include your perspective if you are willing to share! Feel free to email me at j.l.widdig@gmail.com if you would be interested and I can give you more information. I look forward to hearing from you (and to continue reading!). Kindly, Julia

    P.s. Since I am eager to get in touch, please excuse the comments on multiple posts 🙂

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