The death of a parent never crossed my mind growing up.
I’d imagined our whole lives together; how proud they’d be at my graduation, what they’d be like as grandparents and the embarrassment I’d be subjected to by my dad every step of the way. (Think breaking into impromptu dance every time he heard his favourite songs – usually by Coldplay – on the radio.)
That changed when I was 15 and my dad was diagnosed with a very aggressive brain tumour. Before this, he was the picture of health: he’d never smoked, ran five times a week, only started drinking in his late 20s and was training for his second sprint triathlon.
Yet, he died at 46 from cancer.
It didn’t make sense to me and I didn’t see it coming. I spent a long time processing the shock of his diagnosis and death, which were only 10 months apart. I was overwhelmed by the thought of a future without him.
After he passed away, when I was 16, I went to counselling where I was advised to focus on the present, rather than think too far ahead. At the time, it was a practical tool to tackle my waves of grief and was helpful as I got on with my revision for my A-Levels, rather than thinking about moving away for university without Dad being around.
But as time went on, this mindset became problematic as I couldn’t think beyond each moment. So, when I became depressed at 18 at university, I didn’t see myself getting better; I couldn’t visualise a future.
This thinking is typical with depression and was likely heightened by my grief and the thought patterns I’d been using to deal with it.
At that time, I needed to be able to believe that I had a future where I wasn’t lonely or sad and, as I couldn’t, I spent longer in turmoil than I needed to. I believed that I would always be a shadow of who I was before my dad died; a depressed apathetic version of myself.
I’d spent so long putting off thinking about my future that when it arrived, I didn’t know how to handle it or how to confront my trauma and emotions.
So when I graduated at 21 in 2018, I was overwhelmed by the abyss of adult life I’d fallen into. A lot of decisions had to happen at once and I hadn’t given any thought to what I wanted – I hadn’t planned this far ahead.
So I did what was easy: I moved home and worked in my home city.
It was safe and I was in a very privileged position to be able to do it, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I just didn’t dare to start dreaming of another future that could be taken away from me, as I didn’t know how I’d deal with it.
It feels like a naïve indulgence to assume I’ll live for another 20 years, let alone 40
In December last year, I became self-employed as a writer, content creator and social media consultant, and had all the practicalities in place in a matter of days – except a pension. I haven’t had a pension since I was automatically enrolled in one in my first job years ago, and I haven’t ever started another as I can’t imagine I’ll reach retirement.
It feels like a naïve indulgence to assume I’ll live for another 20 years, let alone 40. I’m 24 right now – just over half the age my dad was when he died. I can’t imagine outliving him and growing old.
I’m reluctant to save for a house too – reaching the point where I can buy seems too far into the future.
But I know that I will probably want those provisions at some point and that I’m threatening my financial security and future life by failing to prepare. I’m limiting my future possibilities, which I don’t want to do.
Bianca Neumann, head of bereavement at palliative support charity Sue Ryder, stated that this is a common thought: ‘Individuals may have feelings of guilt for the life experiences and events that they have had that their parent didn’t.’
This is my problem. But the difference between me and my dad is that I’m still alive. I’m letting the fact that I lost him jeopardise the future I might have by not preparing for it.
This avoidance of thinking about the future also means I don’t invest in my long-term improvement. I could be in a much better place with my mental health and eating habits now if I’d committed to making the changes as a teenager.
I don’t fear death; I fear time running out and having my life cut short, leaving half-baked ideas, unfulfilled potential and half-finished stories behind. So I hold myself back to save myself from that sadness.
Yet, the things that really matter to us – our mental and physical health, relationships, homes, careers – all require consistent, long-term dedication to sustain and improve them.
While my mentality of thinking only about the here and now did have benefits – shielding me from painful emotions and making me grateful for what I do have – I want to find the balance.
I want to work through my discomfort and embrace the future – as well as enjoy the present. I realised I’d rather live in hope that I’ll have a long life and try to work on things like my mental health and career than bury my head in the sand.
It feels scary, but time passes regardless – it’s now almost eight years since my dad died – so I’d like to be conscious of it and make the most of my life.
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