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Revisited: Good Grief! Del Hughes gets the kitchen roll out for a bereavement breakdown

11 Nov 2023 12 minute read
Barney and Tim at Rhossili image by Del Hughes

Following Del’s success at this year’s Wales Media Awards as ‘Feature Writer/Columnist of the Year’, we are delighted to republish one of the articles which caught the eyes of the judges. 

Del Hughes

Right now I’m ugly-crying, the bin’s brimming with sodden kitchen-roll (Regina XXL), and my eyelids are so swollen I can barely see. I’ve eaten crap all day. . . Wotsits, French Fancies and a sharing bag of Revels, which I certainly didn’t share.

There’s a pain in my chest that I’ve never felt before and which, given today’s diet, might well be an imminent coronary (but my left arm feels fine so I’m discounting that, for now).

I’m currently in the middle of a full-on bereavement breakdown.

Of course, anyone who has ever lost someone ‘near & dear’ can empathise with the emotional toll that death rains down upon us. At times like this, we surround ourselves with sympathetic family and friends, and ride out the shitstorm as best we can – until we are, cautiously, able to remember our departed without disbelief, guilt, or tears.

I’m clearly nowhere near that yet!

If you’ve read any of my Nation.Cymru articles, you’ll know that I’m on a life-enhancement regime, officially starting several weeks ago with a witchy, nocturnal ‘Release/Affirm’ ritual on Gower.

Though I’m not convinced that the ceremony has, as yet, wrought any perceptible changes, my key takeaway from it was to get up off my arse and start living. And I have, merrily filling in my calendar with a variety of lovely activities.

But what I didn’t expect, was to be adding coffin emojis alongside the pot painting, zip-lining and afternoon tea. Ironically, it seems that late spring is a blooming great time to die.

On the bright side, if you shelve the ‘someone’s died’ aspect, funerals, for me, come with positives: I enjoy belting out a hymn or two with gay abandon, it’s a great way of catching up with family (well, the breathing ones), and after you’ve raised many glasses to the dear departed, you leave, awash with drunken promises to meet up soon, ‘hopefully under better circumstances’ – and, sometimes, you actually do.

Plus, if like me, you’re on the chunky side, you’ve gotta love any opportunity to wear head-to-toe black.

And, for those of us left behind, funerals do help draw a line under the whole sad, sorry business. They frequently mark that point where the weight of grief starts to lift and the normal rhythms of everyday life, gradually, fall back into place. And that’s probably as it should be.

Explicit instructions

When Mum died last year, in her final week of life, she had enough breath to give explicit instructions on her funeral proceedings.

Firstly, she didn’t want one.

She opted instead for ‘direct cremation’ – no service, no one attends, and a few weeks later, you get a text saying your ashy relation is ready to be collected. All very modern and minimalist.

The one concession to the traditional was that my step-dad and I were told when she’d go up in smoke – so at 8:30am on Wednesday 17 November, I popped a bottle of her favourite fizz, lit a candle and quietly blubbed my way through half a box of Kleenex as I updated her on the arrangements for her ‘death party’.

Because that’s what she wanted money spent on – not undertakers, orders of service, coffin, hearse, cars or flowers.

Nope, rather a ‘bloody great party with good food, good music, booze, dancing and, definitely, no tears. . . or black.’ (Bummer!)

And she arranged it all too:

Venue – ‘Our local.’

Music – ‘There’s two playlists on my iPad – Sad Funeral & Happy Funeral. Play Sad first.’

Food – ‘Gold Buffet option, but nothing spicy because the older ones might get heartburn.’

Timeframe – ‘Start around 2’ish, stay til last orders. And don’t forget to toast me then.’

Attire – Step-dad = chinos, pink shirt; Me = sparkly top (I don’t have one!), smart trousers, best boots; Tim (my partner) = tweed trousers, green sweater, brown brogues.

Unfortunately, she even had time to give me one last bollocking regarding my appearance, instructing me to: get a haircut, get my teeth professionally cleaned, get a facial, get my nails done, get my eyelashes tinted and permed, get professional makeup done on the day. . .  oh, and buy said sparkly top!

Steph attending her own send off – images by Del Hughes

This was nothing new; Mum has always been a bit disappointed that I favour the natural, low maintenance look. But I acceded to her wishes. . . though I swept her very last one – ‘I want you and Tim to get married’ – well under the Axminster.

She also made us promise that she would be there, in a ‘suitable’ urn.

So, given that Mum was an effervescent and bubbly woman to the last, I picked up a Moët Methuselah, which seemed totally appropriate.

We plastered her face on several hundred beer mats, finished them off with ‘Have a drink on me!‘, ordered a champagne-themed balloon arch and we were ready to kick off the festivities.

It was all Mum to a tee, we were still dancing at midnight and, that day, she certainly put the ‘fun’ into funeral.

Since then, I’ve lost quite a few people and I’ve cried for them all. As a gauge of grief, you can’t go far wrong using the K-rS (Kitchen-roll Scale).

So, neighbour (1 sheet, Plenty), old friend (3 sheets, Co-op own) and gorgeous Uncle Terrence (10 sheets, Blitz).

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Aunt & Uncle Bevan popped off within twenty-four hours of one another, and I dabbed at my damp eyes with a couple of Fiesta 2-plys – well, I hadn’t seen them for ages, and they were very old.

Snot and sorrow

But now I’m broken, totally crushed, and I’m actually embarrassed to confess that this ongoing outpouring of snot and sorrow lies firmly at the furry feet of one, medium-sized, scruffy dog called Barney.

He was put to sleep this week, 7:19pm Wednesday, to be exact. . . and I’ve barely stopped sobbing since. I know he’s just a dog, and in the scheme of things, a shaggy lurcher, euphemistically, crossing the ‘rainbow bridge’, will cause nary a wrinkle in the fabric of life.

But my fabric’s in tatters and I finally understand what ‘heart-broken’ truly means. This isn’t normal.

I know this isn’t normal because I’ve lost pets before.

Three cats, Oliver I, II & III (no, I’m not that imaginative when it comes to names).

But when each Olly passed on, though I was sad and teary, it wasn’t like this.

Then came Tommy Zoom (TZ), clearly named by someone other than me (Grandson #1) and he was an impeccable starter dog – handsome, affectionate, well-adjusted and well-behaved.

He died last spring, and Tim and I wept like children, holding his paws while he drifted away.

But though I was devastated for a long while after, my reaction then was nothing to now.

With all those deaths, animal and human, my grief seemed more manageable, controllable enough that I could choose to indulge my melancholy when, and where, I saw fit – generally when I was alone.

But this is different. It’s irrepressible, wild and raw.

I had to cancel two lunches with friends because I couldn’t sit, gulping with grief, while trying to stomach a cheese toastie.

Barney on the beach. Images by Del Hughes

Love at first sight

Tim thinks it’s because Barney was ‘like a needy toddler’ and that’s definitely part of it. He was ‘special’. And, before I explain why, let me just say that I don’t believe in love at first sight, or for that matter, fate!

But, twelve years ago, when I first saw Barney sitting with his ‘mum’ outside a supermarket in Ross-on-Wye, our eyes met, my world tilted and something passed between us.

Sounds ridiculous I know, and you’re probably thinking I’ve lost the plot but truthfully, that’s what happened. And though Tim thought Barney looked rather ‘ill-favoured’, to me he was simply perfect.

Long story short, his owner wanted him gone there and then, so we squeezed him in the boot with the shopping and took him home.

TZ, content with ‘only dog’ status, was grumpily underwhelmed by the interloper; he did the canine equivalent of an eye-roll before sighing heavily and heading back to his sofa, while we took Barney for a well-needed bath.

He stood, quiet and trembling, as we rinsed away the dirt and grime, horrified to see that beneath the fur, he was simply skin and bone.

When we fed them, Tom delicately nibbled his way through beef, potatoes and kibble, whilst Barney inhaled his within thirty seconds. It was clear he had ‘issues’.

The vet gave him an MOT, said he was severely malnourished, otherwise in fair health, but recognised that he was a ‘very stressed dog indeed’.

He suggested training classes, so I signed us up and off we trotted.

Fuelled by fear

I was so proud. Every command we tried, he excelled! When the session ended, Sarah, the trainer, called us over for a chat and I was buzzing, expecting us to receive verbal, and literal, pats on the back. But no.

Turned out, Barney was only responding so quickly because he was ‘terrified of the consequences if he didn’t.’ He was fuelled by fear, and it was going to be a very long road to train that out of him.

We must have been the only ‘parents’ who applauded when our dog didn’t obey a command.

And he was riddled with phobias too.

His terror of a full moon, combined with the ability to expertly flush rabbits from hedgerows, spoke of an early life of lamping. But then, add in clouds, trees, hot air balloons, planes, kites etc.

Every walk saw Tim and I scouring the skies for anything that might send him fleeing in fear. He was damned hard work. . . but we didn’t begrudge a moment of it.

Barney after his stroke image by Del Hughes

Frantic drive

Eventually, he settled down, but just when he was, almost, as level-headed as TZ, he had a stroke; we’d only popped out for a coffee, coming home an hour later to a completely paralysed dog.

Cue frantic drive to vets, then frantic drive to a specialist vet (two hundred miles away) where we consigned our whimpering Barney to the care of experts.

They said that if he didn’t regain feeling within a week or so, it would be best to have him put to sleep. Well, bugger that!

Twelve days later, we brought him home, still paralysed.

To move him outside, we devised a number of inventions, converting my travel wheelchair into a toilet transporter (with ‘crouch feature’) and putting his basket on wheels.

We even set up a series of pulleys on our silver birch, which raised a few eyebrows in the neighbourhood – until I explained to Vicky next door that, no, it wasn’t a sex swing!

For the next fourteen days, I massaged his legs, applied heat pads and dabbed ice cubes on his toes, waiting for a twitch. Nothing.

Nothing, until day twenty-six when. . . as Tim played ball with TZ, one throw went astray and Barney, somehow, struggled to his feet and tried to chase.

Okay, he immediately collapsed, but he wouldn’t stay down; he was a canine combination of that fight scene in Cool Hand Luke, and Bambi on ice, but it was a start.

And that moment was, without question, one of the best of my life.

In the five years since, he, and we, have dealt with the ramifications. Apart from his awkward, skipping gait, all his old anxieties flooded back, with many new and unwelcome additions, and his craving for cuddles, and reassurance, increased tenfold.

But he still loved life, and us.

And so, Wednesday evening. He just couldn’t settle, couldn’t get comfy. He’d been slowing for weeks, had become grizzly and vocal and, despite increased pain medication, was clearly an unhappy chap. It was time.

Haystack of heartache

Tim reckons my massive mourn-fest is ‘a culmination of everything that’s happened since your Mum died. Or, most likely, that you loved Barney more than anyone else, ever!’

And Tim’s right – Barney probably is just the last straw in a six-month sized haystack of heartache. But yes, I loved that dog, a lot.

And so maybe it’s not ‘normal’ to experience such anguish over just a dog, but I’m realising that, whatever truly lies at the root of my misery definitely needs to come out.

So, pass me another roll of Regina ‘cause he’s my Barney and I’ll cry if I want to.

And, though I don’t often use Facebook, I did put his obituary on my page, and one friend posted the following comment: ‘Oh Barney, the best thing anyone ever brought back from Morrisons.’

She’s not wrong.

Sleep tight old pal.

Catch up with Good Grief 2 and Del’s other articles here.

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8 months ago

Congratulations Del. Well deserved award. 🌟

8 months ago

It’s easy to see why you won the award Del! Well done!

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