The first of a series of blog posts describing a do-it-yourself well being recovery programme
Constantine Tsoflias 20/11/1957 – 21/10/2017 – my beloved brother Tino
This series of blog posts is the story of my brother’s death, and how I coped with the first year of grief. Thirty-seven years ago, my mother died of breast cancer at the age of fifty-one, so I had experienced tragic loss; and it had taken me years and years to get past the early phase of bereavement back then. I wondered if I could maybe be more resilient this time round, especially as new wounds re-open old ones: the first cut is the deepest, as a friend reminded me, and this shocking tragedy re-awakened painful memories of Mum’s death.
I decided to experiment, to try to find healing ways through the dark days of sorrow. I didn’t expect to eradicate grief: that would be impossible. I did hope to find ways to soothe, to take new perspectives, to remember the happy times, and to eventually learn that I could sometimes forget, and put my sadness to one side. I offer them to you, not as a prescription or a method, but as suggestions and possibilities that may help you find your own ways through when you are bereaved.
This is how it began, on October 21st2017, a bright autumn Saturday morning. My husband, Paul, and I were driving to visit my father in Barry, my hometown in South Wales. We’d spent the previous evening staying with our best friends in Cardiff; we were carefree, laughing about an amusing conversation we’d had over dinner with them.
My nephew, Alex called. As I pressed the respond button I thought, fleetingly, Strange. Alex has never called me before.
Alex: Auntie Vou, it’s my Dad. He’s had a heart attack.
Me: Oh no! What… where is he?
My mind raced: we must get to the hospital quickly.
Alex, choking: He’s dead Auntie Vou. My Dad’s dead..
My chest felt smashed. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I would die, too. I could hear my own long, keening wails. The sounds of Alex struggling not to breakdown with me penetrated my shock. For him, I breathed, stopped: OK, listen give me ten minutes I’ll call you back. We’ll be at Papoo’s soon, we’ll have to tell him.
Paul, driving and unable to pull over, bore witness to this unfolding horror. Dad was home alone for a few weeks, my stepmother visiting family abroad; we were going to spend the weekend with him, to keep him company. Aged eighty-eight, Dad had survived a near fatal heart attack a few years earlier. Now, his only son, his youngest child, his baby, had gone out running and didn’t make it home, felled in the woods by a fatal cardiac arrest.
I called Alex back. My shock and disbelief were so deep that I actually asked him: are you sure he really is dead? His shock and disbelief were so deep that he didn’t find the question strange: He’s in the woods, Auntie Vou. They’re going to move him. He’s definitely dead.
Quickly, we made a plan: the goal, to inform all close family members as quickly as possible before social networks could spread the news. 21stcentury problems.
We had ten minutes before arriving at my Dad’s to try to pull ourselves together. Paul and I feared his reaction. He opened his front door and his welcoming smile fell instantly as he saw our ghostly pallor. What’s happened? He said. Come Dad we said. Come and sit down.
We sat either side of him, very close, on the sofa and held his hands, literally trying to hold him together (as if we could…), as we told him the devastating events of the last half hour. I feared he would die too. The incomprehension, shock, disbelief. Why didn’t God take me? he said. It should have been me. Take me to him, I want to be with him. Broken hearts, breaking again.
We spent an hour making distressing calls to sisters, stepmother, aunts and uncles. Telling my children. My daughter sobbing. My son: what do you want me to do Mum? I told him: go straight to Tino’s house. Roger, Mum, he replied, his soldier language returning in this deathly crisis. Then we made the long journey back, from Barry to Bromley in Kent, collecting my sister along the way. Paul drove, a steady rock for us all, despite his own grief about Tino and his pain as he witnessed such distress in those he loved.
Tino died, in Bromley at around 11am. Within hours the family had gathered at his home, a fact still frequently remarked upon with wonder by Alex, so relieved at this instinctive tribal gathering; his brother Anthony arrived back from Thailand the next day, leaving behind his nine-month pregnant wife; my sister arrived from Rome, unable to stop weeping. My sister in law Pat, utterly stunned by shock and grief, wanted us all to stay. That two-day wake, of crying, takeaway pizza, a flow of tea and coffee provided by our younger generation, lots of wine, some singing, rivers of tears, and even some laughter, will be one of my most precious memories forever.
Our beloved Tino, such a big character, unique, funny, warm and joyful; my Dad’s longed for son, brother to his three older sisters, husband to Pat, father of Anthony and Alex, and soon to be grandfather to Ella, his first grandchild, born ten days after his death.
It had honestly never occurred to me that I would witness the death of my brother. Somewhere in my mind was the belief that we would all die in the order we were born; if I had ever worried about losing a sibling, it was my older sister that I focussed on.
At work, I was in the middle of an ambitious, six-month long project, a leadership development programme for 150 international executives, that had absorbed me, mentally and physically, since July. On the day of Tino’s death, I was one week away from the delivery of two three-day residential programmes.
As those immediate weeks unfolded, and I was obliged to continue the work project I was committed to, life took on a surreal sense, as though I was swimming slowly through a cloying unfamiliar fluid. My client, my team and my husband got me through that time, finding lots of small but crucial ways to protect me and keep any unnecessary pressures away. I can hardly believe I was on my feet presenting the neuroscience of leadership to a group of fifty execs in the days immediately before my brother’s funeral and again in the days immediately after. It was helpful to be still in a state of shock: it was easy to convince myself it was a nightmare that had never really happened.
In mid-December, on completion of the final leadership programme, I pretty much imploded, hit by the reality of all that had happened and the exhaustion of the project completion, without the elation that would usually accompany it.
Could I ever gather myself back together?
I knew I needed a rest. And I knew that that alone wasn’t going to be enough. I knew what I needed to recover and how to provide that for myself. I decided to take several months, (or maybe forever), off work, so that I could rest, repair and reset my brain. I decided to design for myself a comprehensive well-being programme to prepare myself for a different way of life going forward. My brother’s death has taught me many things, but at that early point, the big lesson was: don’t put off things that matter, to some future time. You have one life. Do the things you want to do and do them as soon as possible. It was clear for me: for decades I had wanted to spend more time writing fiction. Now was the time to have the writing life I had dreamed of. But first, I must recover and reset my brain: create a new mindset for a different way of living. I also wanted to re-connect with my own natural rhythm, to find out what I enjoyed and how I liked to spend my time. Decades of professional and family life had imposed a schedule and an order of its own, one that I had responded to gladly. But what if I could do pretty much as I pleased, when I pleased? What would that be like?
During those early dark days, three things gave me strength:
- My desire to be a good sister, by doing everything possible to support my sister-in-law and nephews, as Tino would have wanted.
- An intensely comforting phrase from a school friend: “Don’t allow yourself to be unhappier than you need to be.” I interpreted this as meaning: you will be sad, but try not to make yourself feel even worse by wallowing.
- And finally a poignant poem, offering imagined advice from beyond the grave…
If I should die, and leave you’re here awhile
Be not like others sore undone, who keep
Long vigils by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake, turn again to life, and smile,
Nerving they heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort weaker hearts than thine,
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.Mary Lee Hall
…. which strengthened my resolve to complete my brothers unfinished tasks and try to help his family and mine to turn again to life, and smile, for Tino’s sake. I absolutely knew that is what Tino would have wanted.
I think it’s probably what most of us would want for our loved ones when our time is over.
Tino, five days before his death; with his son Alex on his 30th birthday.