Grief made me the man I am

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A hand holding fairy lights

Mark Woodward lost his dad many years ago while he was still at university. 33 years later, he can still recall the phone call that changed his life forever. But as a husband and father himself, he knows that there can be love, joy and happiness after grief.

One thing in life is very certain, cannot be changed and we all experience it. Our own mortality and that of those we love with all our heart and soul are inevitably part of life, which makes it even more important that we treasure every moment with our loved ones, live life positively, laugh endlessly, look to make others’ lives better and have no regrets about opportunities missed or feelings left unexpressed.

The cold January

January is the month that brings this home to me. As a child, taking down my Mickey Mouse Christmas lights on January 6th was only made better by the very distant thought that the cricket season was not so far away. That month never really felt like a new start; in fact January was always cold, desolate and decayed – a month of negatives.
As time went on, the month was cheered by three birthdays to celebrate in my wife’s family, but those have always been balanced by the death of both my parents.

When my mother died in 2010 on my wife’s birthday, it just added to the hurt that I’d felt since my Dad died on 11th January in 1984. I remember receiving the note asking me to ring home one night after returning from a university table tennis match. Hearing my mother’s sad news was devastating and almost impossible to understand. A lot of
me died too that night, but most clearly that shock instantly defined my life philosophy. As an only child, it was the day I properly grew up.

My dad, my hero

A few days earlier, I had returned to university for my second term at Exeter University. Over Christmas I had spent the first extended period of time with my Dad who had recently retired. It had been a wonderful holiday – I had been proud to talk to him about my growing independence and we had shared warm conversations about the woman who would be – albeit 10 months later – and still is the love of my life.

“I wanted to spend so much more time with him”

I had spent my childhood shyly in awe of my father’s cheery nature – he was my hero, a brilliant rugby player and cricketer, who had fought for his country as a Spitfire pilot. He was the neighbour everyone turned to when they needed a practical hand, and, with time for everyone else, he was always the life and soul of any party. I wanted to spend so much more time with him, but in a January phone call, he was gone. He had collapsed suddenly and died in the bathroom of our family maisonette, while my Mum had been putting the washing out. In that moment, there was a massive hole in my life, but I had to deal with it.

In a crisis, I have always been able to act objectively and see positives. In January 1984, I went into overdrive, writing to friends, calling relatives, helping plan his funeral, reading at his service and then returning to university. My university friends were phenomenal and I still recall the flowers they sent me soon after the news.

All these years later

33 years on, I can say time does not heal – and I can still vividly recall the bathroom where he was found – but you find ways to cope just a little better when you visit a place he took you to as a child or when you hear a piece of music from your childhood that reminds you of him. I have missed being able to share significant moments in my life with my Dad – a wedding, two amazing daughters, a career and more – but have taken comfort in living my life like him – putting others first – and in his honour. Maybe he has been able to watch it all!

“Death has taught me to treasure every moment with friends and family, to keep my glass full, to laugh in adversity and be grateful for every second”

I would love to think he would be proud of my actions. Like him, I have tasted life’s greatest gifts as partner to someone special and as a father myself to two amazing daughters. I have been so lucky to share so much with my own daughters that I never had the chance to treasure with my own Dad. I wonder if they know just how proud I am of everything they have done and just how much they have made me laugh and cry for joy over the last 20 years.

Death has taught me to treasure every moment with friends and family, to keep my glass full, to laugh in adversity and be grateful for every second. Others have suffered far, far worse than me and I have been so fortunate to have had an amazing father-in-law to share those moments with and mentor me. I find it amazing that I have known him almost twice as long in my life as my own Dad!

“His death told me life is precious and you should tell those you love what you really feel”

Just occasionally, my Dad appears in a dream and those moments are so special, moments you don’t want to end. His world was obviously one without video footage, social media and digital footprints, but he is there in my memories and items connected with my childhood.

There is so much I still want to know about him and his own life, but his death told me life is precious and you should tell those you love what you really feel. He made me the man I am and still does. It is a privilege to live my life as he would have wanted me to and who knows where his spirit is – but it is in me every day.

Mark Woodward

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