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  • Writer's pictureAdrian Bethune

Dying to be happy

Updated: Jun 16

This blog is about grief and happiness. I want to signpost that early as a trigger warning. What an earth do grief and happiness have to do with each other? Over the last year, I’ve learned that they are intimately connected. This blog is about how we need to regularly remind ourselves that our time on this planet is finite and we have no idea when our last moments will be. It’s about waking up and making the most of our lives whilst we have the opportunity. It’s about savouring the people, places and past-times that make our lives worthwhile. Doing this is the key to a happier life. What ancient philosophers might have referred to as living ‘the good life’.


Grief

About this time last year, my dad had quite a big heart attack. It was me that called the ambulance for him and when I followed behind in my car, I sat by his bedside in the resuscitation ward holding his hand. Dad wasn’t in any pain, according to him, but he was clearly unsettled and uncomfortable. You know the situation is bad when two different doctors take you into the family room to explain that your loved one is in a very precarious position and the sickest person on the resus ward. We didn’t expect dad to make it through that night but, miraculously, he did.


Dad was then transferred to an intensive care ward. The strange thing was, throughout everything, he was conscious and able to talk to us. He looked like dad, he spoke like dad but he was seriously ill – his body being kept alive by the various drugs and machines he was hooked up to. On his third day in intensive care, one of the hardest moments was when an ITU doctor asked to speak to me and my mum and explained that dad’s heart was so badly damaged, he wouldn’t make it back home. They would continue to care for dad as best they could but now was the time to plan to say goodbye.


My mum, my brother and I sat by dad’s bedside and we cried. Dad was able to tell us what he wanted to happen when he was gone. He wanted to be cremated, he wanted some Motown classics played at his wake and he wanted my brother and I to do our best to care for mum and her Parkinsons. It was a very surreal and difficult experience, grieving for someone that was alive but dying.


Bonus months

Three weeks later, dad returned home. Weak, unable to walk without a stick but somehow, by some miracle, he had defied the odds and left hospital. He was on more medication than I’ve ever seen (one of my most important jobs was making sure dad took the right amount, at the right times of days), and required dialysis three times a week but he was where he wanted to be more than anywhere else - in his own home. One of the physios, explained to me when dad left hospital that dad was not to use the stairs and to set up a bed for him downstairs, which I did. Dad being dad, he ignored the instructions, rejected the less comfy bed downstairs and on day one at home, crawled his way up the stairs just to enjoy a sleep in his own bed! Despite being initially annoyed at him for doing this, I couldn’t help but admire his determination and strength.


Over the next three months, I did a lot of caring for dad and mum. Shopping trips, taking dad to various hospital appointments and helping him get upstairs to bed every night as he still refused to sleep downstairs. My family were extremely grateful to have dad back. His grandkids absolutely adored him and to have him around meant they got to spend more time with him and enjoy more cuddles. But dad’s heart and his body had taken a real beating as a result of the heart attack. He ended up on the resuscitation ward two more times and each time his body got weaker. Sadly, my dad died on 26th September 2023, the same day that my eldest son turned eight.


Finding happiness in difficult times

A definition of happiness I keep coming back to is Prof Paul Dolan’s – ‘happiness is your experiences of pleasure and purpose over time’. When dad was ill, understandably my sense of pleasure decreased. It’s hard to feel joyful when someone you care about is dying. However, my sense of purpose went through the roof. Caring for dad became such an important thing in my life and I felt very grateful that I was able to do it. When dad was in intensive care and extremely weak, he couldn’t even raise a glass of water to his mouth. Being able to put a glass to dad’s mouth and help alleviate his thirst felt like the most profound thing I could do. It’s hard to explain, but that simple act felt like one of the most important things I have done in my life. And the same was true of helping dad get upstairs to his own bed, tucking him in, cooking for him and mum… all of these simple acts took on a new sense of importance and my life felt enriched by being able to use my strength to help my parents who needed me.


Beautiful moments

The other things that happened whilst dad was ill and dying was that life suddenly and viscerally felt extremely precious. You start to see ‘normal’ things differently and appreciate them more – they became ‘beautiful moments’ to me. I’d be driving my mum to go and see dad in hospital and the sun would be shining and we’d be chatting. I just felt this immense sense of gratitude for sharing those moments with mum. And then when we got to hospital and my brother was there and we’d hug each other – that hug felt like the best hug in the world and that I’d never felt closer to my brother before. Another time, I’d be walking into town and I’d see a dad walking with his young son, holding his hand and I’d well up with a sense of love and happiness for that father and son. It was as if I was revelling in their love for each other – genuinely really happy for them that they were sharing that precious, beautiful moment together. Grief and death made me notice and appreciate life’s beautiful moments.


Self-care

I don’t want to give the impression that I skipped gleefully through this experience happier than I’d ever been. There were many dark moments, and it was a very stressful time where I found it very hard to switch off – constantly worried about dad and mum and often on edge waiting for something to go wrong. Because of this, my self-care routine became even more important. Despite being busier than normal (I was still trying to work, look after my own two sons and care for mum and dad in the day and evenings!) I never stopped doing the things that I knew were good for me. I meditated every single day. My meditations set me up for the day with a sense of calm and equanimity. I exercised every day. Mostly walking but I got my steps up and made sure I used physical activity to process the stress and cortisol that was building up in my body. I talked to people I trusted. My wife was a huge support and helped keep me sane. My best friend, Joe, my brother, my mum, my wider family, other friends, colleagues – my support network became more important than ever. I made sure I didn’t bottle things up. I also went to see a grief counsellor after dad died and I cannot emphasise how important it was having an impartial professional to speak to about the things I was experiencing at the time. I also, in the words of psychologist, Tal Ben Shahar, gave myself ‘permission to be human’. In other words, I cried. A lot. I expressed my feelings and allowed myself to feel what I was feeling. Taking care of myself well meant I had enough in the tank to care for my family, work and stay mentally and physically healthy.


Life is fragile and unpredictable

Like many people, I was saddened by the recent death of Dr Michael Mosely. I was a huge admirer of his ability to translate health and wellbeing research into ‘just one thing’. His death made me think about dad. At 75, people kept telling me that my dad was young when he died (that really isn’t a helpful comment, by the way). But, I really don’t think it is. Michael Mosely was 67. He was on holiday with his wife one moment. And the next moment he was gone. My friend’s brother died at 19. Just last week, our neighbours who were expecting to welcome their baby to the world had to say goodbye to him before he even had a chance to be born. During the writing of this blog, in the last few days two more people we know have suffered bereavements. And these stories happen every day. In fact, every minute of every day. The more we turn away from death, the more it shocks us when it inevitably appears. But death is part of life in the same way that sadness is part of happiness. You cannot have one without the other.


I think we need to wake up to this fact more. We need to realise that, for most of us, being alive is a precious gift. It can help us savour those small, beautiful moments that happen every day but which we normally take for granted. It can help us appreciate our loved ones whilst they’re still here and savour their quirks and foibles (rather than get irritated by them – this is still a work in progress!). It can help us wake up and realise that our time is precious and so how we use that time really, really matters.


I’ll leave you with the wise words of Mattieu Ricard from his book Happiness: ‘Accepting death as part of life saves us from wasting our time… We do not need to live haunted by the fear of death, but we must remain aware of the fragility of our existence… Someone who has used every second to become a better person and to contribute to others’ happiness can die in peace.”

 Adrian Bethune is a part-time teacher and his new book Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom 2nd Edition is out now.


If you’re grieving, or know someone who is, and need some extra support, then check out Cruse Bereavement Support.


If a child in your school needs support with grief, Winston’s Wish have some very useful resources.


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