When Words Won’t Do


Sometimes Death leans on the door so that you know it’s lurking. You know it’s not going to be long. I don’t know if that helps.  I don’t know if the anticipation, the spectre, of the Grim Reaper sharpening his scythe serves as some preparedness.

I only know what it feels like when Death wheels in like a dust devil so that you don’t see it coming until it’s whipped your world up, tossed it about and vanished before life collapses as leaves and dust and debris. And you’re left winded.

See my morning  was quite ordinary. There weren’t any shadows to darken my sunny June day; I was 19; of course there weren’t. And then the phone rang and I was told, just like that: ‘Your dad has had an accident’. I didn’t imagine, not for one moment, that I was in the eye of a storm and about to be buffeted about and left black and blue and bruised.

He’s dead, they said.

That was a long, long time ago. A lifetime. I am more than twice the age I was then.  But you don’t forget the hollowness that follows. The cold. The utter, utter disbelief that that person will never ever appear at breakfast again. It’s the interminableness of death that is so painful.  And I am not sure that reality begins to dawn until long after the fact.

A dear flat mate said to me at the time, ‘your dad died once for us’, once on that single, fateful day when they all rallied, ‘but for you it’s going to happen again and again and again’. And he was right. For me Dad kept dying. Day after day after day until with time and as life, my life, picked up its heels again and began to move hesitantly on, some small corner of the wound began to stitch itself together and the gaping hole his going had left shrunk a little.

You imagine that the experience, that knowing Death the Dust Devil which whips into your world and cruelly throws your life into disarray when you least expect it, when you still have dreams and plans which include the person you’ve lost, would render me better able to offer some words of solace when it happens to somebody else.

But it doesn’t.

See my friend, who is beautiful and young, with children the age of my eldest (old enough to be leaving school but not old enough to be losing a father) was roughly shoved from happily married to widowhood in just minutes. Her husband, who had the wickedest, warmest smile and whose eyes really did bear a proverbial twinkle, was gunned down by ivory poachers whilst on a game drive with clients.

How can that happen? How can life be suddenly so cruel? How can it greedily snatch so much in one abbreviated instant.

And steal such a huge, huge, enormous and important and vital and flamboyant part of my friend’s life?

And so I sat down to try to find the words to tell her that as desperate and as hard and as hollow as life is this week, it will get easier. That fairy step by fairy step she will gather up some of the bits of her world that has been blown to smithereens and she will put them back together again. She will never be able match the shape, and there will always be cracks. But she will find the glue to mould some semblance of what once was together.

But it is very hard to find words big enough to fill even a tiny part of the cavernous void that losing her husband, her children’s father, has gouged.



22 Responses to “When Words Won’t Do”

  1. Jemma Says:

    Oh my, what a heartbreaking post. I came here after clicking a link on another bloggers blog roll and I don’t think I’ve ever read your blog before but I had to comment on this post. I am so, so sorry to hear of your friend’s recent loss and your past loss. I am struggling for words despite being one of those who has experienced ‘Death the Dust Devil’. I too was 19 when it happened but it wasn’t my Dad, it was my boyfriend. You’re right: words won’t do but I’m thinking of you both.

  2. janelle Says:

    beautifully written anthea…god it’s sad hey…les was so so brave on sunday…man it was hard. xx j

  3. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you Jemma, to have lost your boyfriend at 19 must have been very hard: love is felt so fiercely then. i can’t find the words for my friend. yet i do remember – at the time – that the letters we recevied were helpful in themselves, a tangible proof that dad was widely loved. an endoresment of our pain. i know my friend will have had lots of those letters and i know that – no matter the words – they will count.

    • Jemma Says:

      I used to read the letters and cards that people sent me over and over and over. I think it was comforting to read something that was about him but not about his accident.

  4. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you janellabella, she is a brave, brave girl and her children will be brave for her and bolster her. i think children do that and she will see and hear him in everything they do. and that will be very precious. well done for playing so beautifully on sunday xx

  5. Sabine Says:

    This is very moving and so beautifully written. Thank you. Yes, I had a similar phone call many years ago and this moment will stay with me. I know what you mean.

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      Thank you Sabine; that’s kind. They are earth shattering, life changing telephone calls. You don’t imagine there will ever be recovery. But there is. I want my friend to believe that – I did not understand the ‘one day at a time’ advice until I was older. I did not understand its significance in terms of being about to tiptoe away from the pain.

  6. Helen Says:

    Memsahib, I lost my soon-to-be husband in 1978 on the road just past Mtito Andei on our way back to Nairobi to announce our engagement. The pieces did not knit well for a long time and I still miss what we had. You have done your friend justice in your piece. Please tell her that there are people now everywhere thinking of her and willing her all the comfort and care we can.

    And for you Memsahib, I am 54 now and both parents are still alive. I am petrified of receiving that call. Thank you for preparing me even just a little bit for what will come.

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      Oh Helen, how heartbreaking. I am so sorry. Long after Dad died I spoke to a wonderful counsellor at Cruse (Bereavement Counselling) in the UK – I had not, I told him, reached ‘Closure’. He didn’t believe in ‘Closure’ and told me that grief is a scar that you carry for life, it might fade, but it never disappears. It lingers below the surface, just as my appendicectomy scar does beneath my clothes. I am always aware of it but occasionally – when memories surge forth – I am struck by its still raised and tender discolouration.

  7. muummmeeeee! Says:

    That was truly the most beautifully written and heartbreaking post I’ve ever read – I really can’t say more than that x

  8. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you very much x

  9. nappyvalleygirl Says:

    I am so sorry about your friend. I know what you mean about the phone call that changes everything – 13 years ago I was at work and had that call about my mum…..

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      I am so sorry nappyvalley; it’s so painful isnt’ it. I am not sure those things should be delivered over the phone; though in the end it makes no difference of course, they still aren’t coming back.

  10. daisyfae Says:

    so very sorry for this loss. as always, your words both tear at my heart and comfort simultaneously.

    a little over a month ago a friend lost his 16 year old son to suicide. try as i might to ‘be there’, i have had to accept that there simply isn’t enough i can do for this family… gentle reassurances that the sun will rise tomorrow, life will go on – and that they will all smile and laugh again.

    he assures me that my continued ‘ears’ and ‘shoulders’ are welcomed. but it never seems enough…

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      daisyfae – your poor poor friend. I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child, and to suicide. I know your support is welcomed, especially so, for the death of a child and suicide are outside the remit of what is accetable or expected: they turn life’s order on its head entirely.

  11. Leilani Lee Says:

    A little over a month ago I walked into a room and closed the eyes of our son, who had just died a few moments before I got there. Even though we knew he was going to die, we were still shocked by it to the core. Your post is so poignant. I re-live that scene frequently, and probably always will.

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      I am very sorry Leilani. Our children are not supposed to go before us. It is always difficult to expect and prepare for the death of a loved one. But the death of a child reverses world order entirely. I cannot imagine the pain. x

  12. R. Sherman Says:

    My prayers for you and your friend during this time. I don’t think words can provide any more than simple silent companionship and solace of a held hand or offered shoulder upon which to rest a grieving head. I know you’ll do the right thing.

  13. Mud Says:

    Stunningly captured. The rawness and the confusion of trying to get your head around something so wrong, so sudden, so final. Death isn’t something to be forgotten and to turn one’s back on, but learning to live with loss is one of the hardest things to do.
    My thoughts are with your friend.

  14. 3limes Says:

    So sad but you have written so eloquently and hopefully some comfort can be drawn from all the love and compassion close at hand. A terrible tragedy and his death has now touched so many people far and wide.

  15. HappyHomemakerUK Says:

    It is hard to even imagine.

    I am so glad to have stumbled upon your blog – it is fascinating!

    I’d love you to join me for my Expat Linky Party on March 19th 🙂

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