Empty Spaces

20 Sep 2023

Last Thursday, my elder daughter left to go back to university for her final year. Later that same day, my Father-in-law died.

Both events leave empty spaces in our lives. With my daughter I know it’s temporary; she will return at Christmas. The loss of my Father-in-law is permanent.

It will take some time for it to sink home. For now, there are all the necessary things to do: registering his death, informing his friends, clubs and societies – even Who’s Who, but eventually we will feel his loss.

We couldn’t wish him back. At 96, with no quality of life, and in frequent pain, it was time for him to join my late mother-in-law, who died in April 2021.

For now, it is a relief to be free of the thrice weekly visits to the care home. We feel we are drawing a line underneath his life. For the past eighteen months we have felt sure he couldn’t last much longer. “He won’t see Christmas,” we said. Then, “He won’t make Easter.” He hung on however, and it was increasingly painful to watch the decay of a once brilliant mind, along with his body. He did not reliably remember who we were and would mistake my husband for his son-in-law and me for one of his carers. I will never forget his distressed telephone call one night telling us pathetically that he had forgotten how to write.

My husband must now adjust to being the head of the family; he is now the oldest generation and its patriarch. This is a difficult role for such a humble and self-effacing man.

Expecting a death, even hoping for release to come sooner rather than later, does not soften the grief. For now, my husband and I too, are keeping busy. Once the immediate formalities are done, there is his estate to deal with. It won’t be that complicated but it is still a chore, with so many government forms to fill in and, all the time, the fear of getting it wrong.

It is only after all these things are sorted that the empty space begins to make itself felt. Father and Grandpa have gone forever. He cannot be replaced, and we must adjust to his loss.

The letters of condolence have been lovely, His assistant at the British library from thirty years ago when he retired, remembers him fondly as a great mentor and a very kind man, if a little scary to begin with: my Father-in-law never suffered fools at all, let alone gladly. My mother remembers his kindness and consideration to her. I remember that our elder daughter had the tact to take her first steps in his presence, and how delighted he was. He feared he would not live to see his grandchildren grow up, but he did after all.

It is these memories, and the many my husband has, that help to fill the space left behind. There is a phrase which rings so true: gone but not forgotten.


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