Ewan Aitken: Dad's death has helped me see what makes a good life
It's been a tough week following the death of my father, but the compassion of others has started the healing process, writes Ewan Aitken.
Last Tuesday my father died. He was 84. In July he fell, broke his upper left arm and it just wouldn’t mend; further investigation revealed inoperable cancer in his bones. He lived with cancer and a broken arm for the last eight months of his life. The last four months were particularly difficult as his quality of life deteriorated. Throughout those last months, the one saving grace was the extraordinary nurses, health support staff and doctors of the hospice ward in Queen Margaret Hospital, Dunfermline, who travelled the journey with him.
They genuinely lived compassion in the way they cared for someone whom in truth they had only met in December, when he was admitted for what we thought then were his final weeks. I saw them living life to its fullest in that compassion for him as death approached.
The business of death and its meaning for life was on my mind last week not just personally but with the announcement of the death of the brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking. He overcame incredible adversity to teach us not just about the universe and its origins but to be deeply curious about what is possible in life, how to seek our potential whatever the apparent barriers, how to dig deep, think hard and still to laugh, even or perhaps especially, at ourselves.
Along with the support I have had from my wonderful family, I have been deeply moved by my Cyrenians colleagues and friends from many parts of my life who have stepped up so quickly and with such gentleness and care to help me have the space to make sense of this experience. Their care has been profound and I’m healing already, even in these early times.
I am used to dealing with death. Though I am no longer a practising clergyman, I have conducted around 500 funerals over the years and have spent many hours listening to those grappling with grief as they remember the life of their loved one. Of course it’s very different when this is a personal not a professional experience. Probably the most important lesson I learnt from my professional engagement with death was the power of conversation, the gift of listening, the telling of stories and the recognition there is no “right way” to grieve or to find meaning and solace.
I remember one woman asking me if I thought she had failed her husband because she didn’t cry over his death until a couple months after the funeral when she picked up two chops in the supermarket, which was her husband’s favourite dinner. She realised what she’d done and wept buckets in the supermarket aisle, still holding the chops, unable to put them back on the shelf.
Another spoke to me of how she had faced her husband’s death with that Scottish stoicism which “doesn’y like to make a fuss” so she hadn’t talked to anyone about what she was feeling. It wasn’t until she was signing Christmas cards and seeing only her name below the greeting that she understood the enormity of what she had faced and the need to reach out to others to help her through.
The truth is every relationship is different, what shapes it, holds it, feeds it and nourishes it. How we each deal with the change which death brings to the relationships which make all of us who we are, will be different. And it’s often through honest and open conversation we can find our way through the tough times, not “the way”, but “our way”. This has been a tough week. But it’s also a week where I am rediscovering not just the fragility of our lives and the sharpness of death, but what makes a good life; compassion, curiosity, care for others, good conversation; and the seeking of truth and meaning in all we do; a gift for which I am grateful.