A post on childhood bereavement and its legacy for World Mental Health Day
“You’re the man now”. The words had haunted me for much of my life, though I couldn’t even remember who it was that said them to me in the days following my dad’s sudden death in May 1975 – a month before I’d turned eight.
I have a vague recollection of standing in the hallway of our home in Edinburgh, a couple of days after Dad succumbed to a massive heart attack on the morning following my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary celebrations.
In a brutally harsh lesson about the unfairness of life, and the shit timing of loss, we’d gone from a home filled with laughter and light, to one that was muted and monochrome.
There had been an endless procession of relatives and well-wishers to the house since the morning he’d died. When I wasn’t clinging to my mother, sobbing, and feeling as if I’d been punched in the guts, I moved between the dark suited legs of our visitors, catching bits of whispered conversations about “Davey”, as my dad was known. I tried – and failed – to focus on my toy cars, but it was like I was watching a film of myself playing with them.
A bespectacled middle-aged man I didn’t know was talking to my mother in our hallway. He saw me approach, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “You’re the man now. You have to look after your mother.” I nodded, the heavy weight of responsibility dragging my already overloaded mind further into a deep well of confusion and despair. Numb and nauseated from my loss, I now had something else to worry about – being the ‘man of the house’ – at seven-years-old.
It became my mission that day, however, to take care of my mum and make my dad proud, although I had no idea how I should go about any of it. Fundamentally, I just wanted my dad back and hoped he’d walk in the door saying his death had all been a huge mistake. Indeed, it was several years before I stopped thinking I’d glimpsed him in crowded streets or, bizarrely, in the background scenes of films or TV shows.
I was also subjected to regular nightmares involving his funeral, which I hadn’t actually attended, with the mystery around that day – I’d been packed off to a relative for the duration – only serving to fuel my vivid imagination.
I’m in a cemetery and it’s dark and raining. Some of my relatives are there, unspeaking. They’re watching me as I try to dig a grave in the mud with my hands. I’m sobbing as I dig, but nobody is helping me or saying anything to me. Then the scene cuts to the inside of a church and I’m trying to help my relatives carry my dad’s coffin, but I collapse to my knees and begin crying again. I am, after all, only seven.
I had to take the day off school after that one, which came three years after dad’s death and during a period of change at home with a move to a new community and school. I felt sick and cold and unable to express what was troubling me. Eventually, after hours of half-heartedly playing, I burst into tears and told my mother the whole story of the funeral dream as we sat in front of our open coal fire.
She listened and tried to comfort me, telling me my dad hadn’t actually been buried, but had been cremated instead, like a warrior in a Viking funeral. The nobility of that image helped me for a second or two, but then the brief relief that dad hadn’t been stuck in a hole in the ground turned into the awful realisation he’d instead been fed into a fire and reduced to ash.
I stared at the coal fire, all manner of new demons emerging from the flames in front of me.
From then on, nightmares about crematoriums became a regular occurrence, even though I’d never been in one, nor seen one.
The childhood nightmares were combined with a nebulous phobia about school. I’d do pretty much anything to get out of going, though I could never fully explain why I didn’t want to be there. I understandably disliked being away from my mother in the immediate aftermath of my bereavement, just in case something happened to her, but I also found the smell and atmosphere of schools unsettling.
In the mornings I’d feel sick and teary, exhibiting genuine physical symptoms that were, on reflection, almost entirely generated by my own troubled mind.
Changing schools six times in the years following my dad’s death probably didn’t help either with the nebulous discomfort I experienced being away from home for the day, but my mother’s own quest for a sense of belonging drove a process of regular relocations that lasted between 1978 and 1986.
My non-attendance at various schools ultimately saw me ‘pink carded’ by Edinburgh’s education authorities, in the early eighties – I still don’t know that classification meant, but I was on their radar and, presumably, there was a pink card with my name on it in a file at Education HQ. As a result, I had several home visits by a tall, undertaker-like education officer, who wore a beige raincoat and carried a briefcase. He sternly warned me that I had to go to school otherwise I’d end up somewhere ‘special’ with the bad kids. I couldn’t explain to him, or anyone else, why I didn’t want to go.
In retrospect, I’d simply been severely traumatised by my bereavement. I was in the bedroom next to my parents the morning my dad had died and therefore exposed to an intensely distressing soundtrack consisting of my mother’s increasingly desperate phone calls for an ambulance (it took an hour to arrive) and my eldest sister’s attempts to save him with CPR. Family members ran back and forward along the hallway in front of my open bedroom door, while I sat bolt upright in bed, the blood draining from my face and my life changing forever.
It being the 1970s, there seemed to be few alternatives to coping with such a loss as a child other than toughing it out, crying a bit and eventually finding some kind of uneasy peace with it all. Or at least I thought I had…
“If you take these, you’ll be grounded,” said the doctor. “You understand you won’t be able to fly?”
At that point, I didn’t care about flying anymore. All I wanted to do was to feel normal.
Tears welling up in my eyes, I nodded. The doctor signed the prescription for antidepressants and I took it from him. I thanked him for listening to me and left his office, my head spinning. I wanted to cry as I walked out of the surgery into what was a perfect day for flying, but I tried to contain my surging emotion as I drove out of the car park and headed in the opposite direction to the airfield.
It had all come to a head that April morning in 2002. Numbed, I’d driven almost automatically up the motorway between Edinburgh and Perth, knowing I was approaching some kind of meltdown after weeks battling an unstoppable slide into a deep, dark hole.
As I’d pulled into the airfield car park, I felt like crying. Parking up and removing my flight case from the rear seat, I started to walk towards the commercial flight school where I’d been studying for a professional pilot’s licence and Instrument Rating since the previous December.
I took a detour around one of the large airfield hangars to give myself more time to find some composure before I had to enter the flight school. I stopped for a second to take a deep breath, my mind in turmoil, but then found I simply couldn’t walk any further. My legs refused to move forward.
Panicking and sweating, I swung around and started walking rapidly back towards the car park, conscious that I was about to press the destruct button on this chapter of my life – one that had seen me quit a well-paid career in local government PR, sell the family house and borrow an eye-watering amount of money – but also aware that I absolutely had to get some professional help.
Hoping none of my fellow flying students had spotted me, I drove out of the car park and airfield as fast as possible, heading for the nearby village where I knew there was a phone box – this was 2002 and the mobile phone coverage in this rural area of Scotland wasn’t fantastic.
Pulling up alongside the phone box, I entered it and began flicking through the pages of its phonebook, looking for a doctor’s surgery in the area. The first one I called was in Perth, a short drive away. I asked if they had a doctor who was qualified as an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME), explaining that I was a student at the flight school a few miles away and was feeling very unwell. The receptionist said they had an AME on staff and, perhaps hearing the anxiety in my voice, made me an appointment that morning.
The doctor listened intently as I explained my predicament – weeks of disturbed sleep, bursting into tears, my continual tiredness. I assured him I didn’t feel suicidal, just absolutely burned out and utterly miserable.
I didn’t tell him about the dreams and nightmares I was having. In addition to a recurrence of the themes familiar from childhood – funerals, enormous crematoriums, urns, you name it – I was also experiencing regular dreams relating to my separation from my wife and son. In most of them, I’d see them waving at me from a distance, but I’d be unable to get to them. In others, my son would be in some kind of jeopardy and I couldn’t help him. None of it involved me crashing an aircraft and leaving him fatherless, but I was waking up drenched in sweat most mornings.
“You’ve got depression,” the doctor said. “I can give you something for it, but you’ll have to inform the Civil Aviation Authority and it’ll be three months after you stop the course of medication before they’ll consider reinstating your medical certificate.”
Later that morning, I’d called the flight school, summoning all my self-control to breezily tell them some family stuff had come up and I’d have to take some time off. I was a week away from my commercial flight test, the culmination of a dream that had started in 1991 when I’d taken my first flying lesson and realised I’d found my ‘thing’.
Although surprised, the flying instructor listened, wished me all the best and told me to let them know when I was coming back. She reminded me I’d have to cancel the commercial test I’d booked for the following week. I did that five minutes later, calling the CAA. I also told them about my changed medical status. There was no going back now.
I then called my wife, Shona, and the floodgates opened. I cried and told her I didn’t know what was wrong, but I couldn’t continue with what I was doing. I remember apologising a lot for letting her and my son down. Typically, she was a rock, telling me it was ok and almost instantly booking us a week’s family holiday in a remote Highland cottage. She’d come down with our son and join me soon. In the meantime, I was to relax and not worry about anything.
I drove back to Edinburgh feeling a sense of enormous relief, but it was also tinged with huge amounts of regret and embarrassment. Four months earlier I’d left my job at the local authority in Orkney with a sense of excitement that I was finally about to become a commercial pilot. All of my former colleagues and all of my flying club friends expected me to return home a professional pilot, but suddenly I was a jobless former journalist and PR officer, apparently having a nervous breakdown.
For the previous two years I’d spent countless hours studying for the Air Transport Pilots Licence examinations – 14 in all – that were required for a professional licence. I’d forgone family holidays, using all my local authority leave to attend pre-exam training fortnights in Oxfordshire. I’d then used more holidays to fly to London to sit the actual exams, gaining a full set of passes by June 2001.
To fund all of this, and the flight training that would take me from private pilot (I’d amassed a couple of hundred hours of flying experience since gaining my licence) to professional aviator, we’d sold our house, moved in with my mother and borrowed a very large sum of money.
I’d handed in my resignation from my post at the local authority shortly after securing my final exam pass, but the flight school in Perth where I planned to undertake the commercial training was fully booked until December. In my eagerness to progress with my plan, I agreed to start my training then, though in retrospect, I should have realised a Scottish winter wasn’t perhaps the ideal time to be undertaking flying training.
As it turned out, the weather did become something of an issue, ensuring I spent a fair bit of my time on the ground, in the flight school lounge. When we did get flying, it was enjoyable enough, though the school’s lack of a complex single engine aircraft for my commercial training – the normal type for this level of training – meant I immediately had to learn how to fly a twin-engine Piper Seneca which was normally reserved for the post-commercial licence Instrument Rating course. It was a steep learning curve and I frequently found myself behind the aircraft in terms of the workload for the first few weeks. But, by the end of December, I was flying to an acceptable standard, largely thanks to a period of more settled weather.
After returning to the flight school after the Christmas break, I found myself battling with increasingly severe homesickness. I was also waking each morning absolutely soaked in sweat, after the unexpected recurrence of those funerary nightmares from childhood, and new dreams relating to my inability to look after my wife and son.
As I became increasingly drained by the lack of sleep and my shaky emotional state, I decided I needed to take action to try and knock what I thought might be the cause of some of this turmoil on the head, once and for all.
One cold Sunday morning in January, I nursed my ancient and temperamental Vauxhall Astra into life and spluttered across Edinburgh to the crematorium where my dad’s funeral had taken place in May 1975.
I’d never been there before and, such was my lifelong phobia about the place, I absolutely hated to pass it on a bus, or in a car – even as an adult. It had high sandstone walls surrounding it, which only added to the mystery and terror I experienced when passing it as a child. Despite my best efforts not to look, I occasionally glimpsed the top of a chimney, a sight that only served to add more unwanted detail to my dreams.
Pulling into the crematorium grounds, my heart was pounding and I was sweating. It was a beautiful morning – crisp and calm – and the place was deserted. Seeing the building for the first time made me shiver, though it wasn’t the huge, gothic towered and multiple chimneyed structure that filled my nightmares, but a fairly plain looking 40s era building. The chimney was also a fairly modern, business-like affair, thankfully inactive and smokeless.
I parked up, stepped out of the car and marched at speed straight towards the place, vision narrowing and feeling as if I was charging down hoards of demons. It being a Sunday, the crematorium was open for those wishing to come and contemplate or mourn. Had there been anyone inside, they’d have thought the building was being stormed by the SAS, such was the force at which I threw open the doors.
Panting, with my brain overloaded by expectations, I was stopped in my tracks by the soundtrack of the 80s Michael J Fox film, The Secret of My Success. I actually owned the soundtrack album – its cheesy, upbeat main theme had been included on a mix tape I’d made for playing during warm-ups at athletics competitions – though the crematorium was piping in the album’s only sad instrumental.
Rather than the cavernous, marble halls of my dreams – always illuminated by some unseen inferno and painted with flickering shadows – I found the interior to be more akin to a modern church. Shaking my head at the music choice, I sat down and tried to calm my nerves, though my heart was still hammering. My greatest fears about discovering the machinery of cremation sparked up in the middle of the place were, of course, unfounded, though I was unnerved by the low background hum of some unidentified equipment.
Reassuring myself that, it being a Sunday, I wasn’t likely to witness an actual funeral, I focused on thoughts of my dad and forced myself to relive the highlights – for want of a better word – of the trauma of the day he’d died. I also tried to imagine all the family and friends who would have sat here to pay their respects to him. Tears filled my eyes and, growing increasingly sick of the soundtrack, I got up and left, taking a wander around the garden of remembrance where, apparently, my dad’s ashes had been scattered.
This itself was a major step, given the fact much of my phobia related to the aftermath of cremation – piles of ash and enormous urns also peppered my nightmares – but I still treaded very carefully around the rose garden, lest I step on someone’s relative.
Satisfied I’d turned a corner, I then wandered around the adjacent cemetery for a while, discovering – by complete chance – my grandfather’s headstone. Until then, I’d had no idea my father’s father had been buried there. He’d died in 1968 and, like my father, was called David. Seeing his name, and by default my own, engraved in bold letters on what was quite a large black headstone, was a slightly odd experience. My grandmother was in there too – she’d died in 1950 – so this was all proving to be something of a family reunion, as well as clumsy therapy session.
Convinced that would be me well and truly sorted out, I got back in the car and returned to my friend’s flat, ready for the next batch of flight training. I felt an enormous sense of achievement at having actually entered the place that had haunted me for the best part of 30 years. The following day, I gave myself a ridiculously short crew cut in a symbolic shedding of the old me, returning to the flight school looking as if I’d escaped from a high security prison.
Heading through January, the weather worsened. That meant less flying, more sitting around and more time away from home. The separation I felt from my family only increased, though at least I was experiencing fewer crematorium themed nightmares. Instead, I was plagued by dreams about something happening to my son, of him being alone and upset. If he wasn’t falling off his bike, then aliens were kidnapping him – and I was powerless to comfort or rescue him.
I tried to articulate what I was feeling in a notebook, failing to unravel it all. I even bought several books on childhood bereavement in the hope they would open the door on how my own loss was now impacting on my life as a parent. I didn’t find the answers I was looking for and continued to feel as if part of me was missing.
Cocooning myself in my friend’s flat on the days I wasn’t flying, I stopped exercising, fearing I might injure myself, or use up mental energy I just couldn’t spare. Instead, I ate biscuits, crisps and industrial quantities of Dime bars, rapidly putting on unwanted weight. I also took frequent breaks from flight training to return home and see my family, which wasn’t helping my progress, or my separation woes.
Meanwhile, in a bid to accelerate my progress, the flight school decided to start my Instrument Rating training, running it concurrently with the last segment of my commercial licence. The bills therefore increased and my carefully planned budget – already under strain from the length of time my training was taking – began to look even shakier. My old wreck of a car kept breaking down too, ensuring I was frequently unable to get to the flight school on time.
I kept ploughing on towards my goal, while sinking into deeper and deeper levels of depression. My Dime bar addiction wasn’t helping with my sense of self worth either and I spent my days off looking out of the flat window at life passing me by, unable to force myself out the door.
And then, when externally it looked as if it was all finally going to plan in the air – I was deemed ready to sit my commercial test and was, somehow, flying at IR test standards too – I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
“That’s fascinating,” said the psychiatrist, barely concealing how much professional interest had been piqued by the details of my story. “I’d never heard of anything like this before.”
I’d been referred to him, three months after completing the course of anti-depressants prescribed by the doctor on the day I’d – temporarily at that stage – pulled the plug on my aviation career.
Returning home to Orkney, I’d gone to see my own GP – a thoroughly understanding guy – and he’d recommended I undergo a session of cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, with a psychiatric nurse.
I’d done that, crying my way through the initial sessions with the nurse, rather baffled by what was happening to me but unable to stop feeling so awful. After a few weeks of talking though, I was starting to feel more normal again and confident I could return to flying at some point soon. I’d also stopped taking the anti-depressants, disliking the fuzziness they’d imposed on my thinking.
My GP, satisfied I was well enough to continue with my planned career, had written to the CAA and shared the supportive report from the psychiatric nurse. I knew I’d have to undergo a consultation with one of the CAA’s psychiatrists, but figured it would be a rubber stamp job.
In a bid to save me the hassle of travelling all the way from Orkney to CAA headquarters at Gatwick, the authority arranged for me to meet a psychiatrist based in Aberdeen. He’d conduct the assessment on their behalf.
So, a few weeks later I was sat in the consultation room of the psychiatrist in Aberdeen, recounting the full details of the day my dad had died, my subsequent nightmares and how I’d spent much of the time away from home, worrying about my wife and son.
I assured him the actual flying part wasn’t the problem, although endless weather related issues had extended the time I was away from home and, by default, worsened my separation issues.
I explained how much I loved flying, how it contrasted with my profession as a journalist. I earnestly told him how I’d enjoyed the feeling of being in control of a piece of machinery, up in the air. It was a tangible, practical activity, one that called on a different skill set to that required for writing newspaper articles, or pestering people for pictures of dead relatives.
He read the report from the psychiatric nurse, along with the equally supportive report from my GP. But he wasn’t having any of it.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but I can’t recommend that you get a commercial medical certificate back. You pose a very small risk that’s not acceptable for commercial aviation. Whilst I don’t think you have post traumatic stress disorder, there’s something going on there and you might want to consider consulting a trauma specialist.”
I was crestfallen, but sat there and accepted his findings, rather than challenge him on exactly what kind of risk I posed. This was post 9/11 and perhaps he thought I was going to become a bereavement terrorist and fly a Cessna into a crematorium in a fit of depression.
Oddly, he then started to tell me I should stop going ‘against the grain’ and return to journalism, as that was clearly something that suited me better than flying. How he came to this particular conclusion escaped me, but I was so numbed by his words, I just nodded and left.
My GP was equally surprised by the report he received shortly afterwards but agreed to set up a consultation with a leading Aberdeen based trauma specialist. This guy was a professor and the go-to psychiatrist for those unfortunate enough to have experienced some horrendous, near death event.
“If you keep looking in the rear view mirror, you’re eventually going to crash,” said the professor when I did ultimately meet him to recount my life story. He was incredibly pleasant and listened carefully to what I told him, assuring me I didn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder. His advice to stop going over my dad’s death was probably sensible, but I still wanted to hear a professional tell me it was directly linked to how I felt when separated from my son. Instead, he reckoned I’d just bitten off more than I could chew in terms of my ambition to fly professionally. I didn’t agree, but he was convinced I’d set the bar too high and had burned myself out a bit trying to get over it.
At that point, with seemingly no hope of getting my commercial licence, I had to initiate Plan B and return full-time to journalism or PR, a world I thought I’d closed a door on. It was easy enough to open again, but what was a much harder proposition was explaining to everyone at home in the islands why I wasn’t a pilot. A couple of trusted friends knew the truth, but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone else what had happened, blaming my return on a lack of money. The flight school had, in truth, neglected to incorporate VAT into the all-inclusive price they’d quoted for my training, though we’d come to a satisfactory arrangement. However, I seized on this as the main reason for my lack of funds. I assured anyone who asked that I’d be returning to training as soon as I’d earned enough cash through freelancing.
In reality, I wasn’t sure I wanted to return to it. Even when, as a matter of principle, I underwent another assessment by a CAA psychiatrist in London – who disagreed with all the previous findings, decided I’d just pushed myself a bit too hard and agreed to reinstate a medical certificate – I didn’t feel as if I could put myself, or my family, through another period of long separation. In my heart, I knew I still had some issues I needed to wrestle with and sort out, though for now I’d just concentrate on being a good dad and husband.
What I did do was return to the gym, realising it formed a stable foundation on which I could rebuild my life, vowing never again to shelve training, for whatever reason. When fit again, I undertook a series of martial arts courses – most of which involved having the shit kicked out of me by angry Israelis and huge doormen from Yorkshire – and emerged from that particular process with a good deal of self-esteem restored, a refreshed unarmed combat skill-set and some instructor qualifications.
Making a living, however, was going to be a harder challenge than dropping a bit of flab and toning up my biceps. The amount of debt the flying venture had amassed was considerable and we were still living with my mother.
Unqualified to do anything else, I registered as self-employed and began to write – mostly feature articles, with the odd bit of news reporting and PR thrown in. It took a very long time to make a reasonable living from freelancing, but along the way I learned to surf and returned to skateboarding, both experiences which formed the catalyst for my first book, Board. That exercise proved life changing too, forcing me to explore, once again, the father-son dynamic and overcome the many hang-ups relating to my loss that I was surprised to discover I’d still possessed.
Yes, it’s taken me until my 50s to gain an objectivity and understanding over my bereavement, but midlife brings perspective and peace. I was forged in the fire of those nightmares but also found growth in the darkness.