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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Don't Leave it too Late. Guest Blog by Alan Bedford

I am delighted to post another guest blog from my dear friend Alan Bedford.  Alan speaks of something that we all do, we leave telling others how much we care, until it is sometimes too late.  Thank you for your contributions Alan, I know this is something you have given much thought to.

Don’t leave it too late

I am very grateful to Antonia for asking me to contribute more to her site. I hope I can live up to her mastery of the blog!  I want my offerings not to be random, but fitting in with thinking about dying and relationships. This piece is about valuing each other, and not waiting til it’s too late to do so.

In extreme cases, it is too late as someone has died before hearing how they are valued by those close to them, or the dying person has had the chance to say things they perhaps should have said before to those they are leaving. In other circumstances, a relationship might die as things that should have been said were not said, or if said, not heard.

My father was a Methodist Minister, and good at death as he held hundreds of funerals with associated pastoral support, was a hospital chaplain throughout his ministry, and visited the elderly nearly every day. When he had bowel cancer, he wrote a diary which charted his developing illness and prognoses and how he felt about the world, his church, my mother and my brother and me. He was, like I was to become, very work focussed and even whilst he cared for his flock superbly, he wasn’t one for small talk or saying warm and cuddly things to Mum or us. Mum, as the minister’s wife, of course devoted her life to supporting his ministry as they did in those days – but she often missed out on the little things or a sense that she was sometimes put first.

When we found Dad’s  diaries after his death we read in the most moving terms how much he adored Mum, how much he appreciated her devotion to him and his work- but she didn’t hear it herself and  I know she was sad about feeling other things came first. I, his son, also made the same mistake in not saying enough how he felt about someone very special. Thinking it doesn’t have the same impact as saying it. I try and make up for it now, but getting it right first time is better

I don’t want to sound too critical as I had wonderful parents. They were both supremely kind, and thousands of people have a huge debt to them for the care given to them in various churches. But they were products of their time and upbringing, dominated by the protestant ethic and puritan beliefs and expectations. Most of my life I was always thought to be not trying hard enough, or as about to let the side down, or having too many holidays, or not dressing up warmly enough , or even for not wearing pyjamas! I have had very successful careers, and been pretty good at sport, but the abiding memory is of being found wanting. I know it’s because they wanted the very best for me- but that feeling sticks.

One illustration that stemmed from me being  known as a naughty child: one day –when I was about 8 the family was playing Chinese Chequers with an old family friend. I did one of those whizzo plays where you jump over a dozen pegs in a crazy zig-zag for a phenomenal move. Rather than praise my genius it was assumed I had pulled some crafty fast one. A never to be forgotten moment that still hurts over 50 years later.

In the last 3 years of her life I visited my ever frailer mother every Sunday to take her to church and out to lunch. She took a phenomenal interest  in everything I did, or indeed anything anyone did- and was the perfect Minister’s wife  - but it was only then, in my 50s , when she spent so much time with me that she could actually say very positive things about me, and acknowledge  that I was really a very good egg. It was great to hear.

My Dad died 24 years before my mother- and in those diaries I described above he wrote in the most moving way imaginable about how he was looking forward to visits from me and my family, how proud he was of me, and how sad to the point of tears he was when I left after a visit. I had absolutely no idea he thought this as it was never said.  I wonder why he couldn’t say it?  I did know he was proud as he kept the newspaper cuttings of my appointments etc, but not that he was emotionally moved by my arrivals and departures.

Whilst I have to accept responsibility for my adult foibles,  my not actually hearing positive things- or sometimes being judged as not being good enough- had an impact on me at work and outside work. Over-sensitivity to being misunderstood (or thinking I was being misunderstood) . Being thought to be doing the wrong thing when actually I was doing it right, or where my good motives were impugned. Not handling rejection well etc … although the commitment to fairness which came from a sense of being unfairly judged has made me a great investigator, manager of complaints, and so on.

But worse- I can see how I treated my son Chris in a similar way. (He is keen I write this blog, so not betraying private stuff). We mutually worship the ground the other walks on (although I bet I haven’t told him quite like that!), but as he was growing up I always wanted him to do better. He was when young probably the most skilful footballer I have ever seen, but if he scored 4 I wanted to know why it wasn’t 5. If he was talented at writing (he later got a first, then an MA distinction in creative writing) then why wasn’t he doing better at school, and if he had so such talent why wasn’t he fighting to be top dog, and so on.

I wanted him to be like that as I am competitive and I was brought up with the expectation of being the best and being told off if I slipped.  But fortunately he is not me, and he is the nicest kindest, put other people first, creative person, in a way that puts me to shame. He has got there despite my attitude of always wanting more from him, not because of it. And in his 30s, he has a vulnerable side stemming from not hearing enough praise from me, and if he was praised there was always the caveat about now do more.

So what are the conclusions? They are simple, obvious, but very hard to get right

  •   Say positive things to other people – don’t just think it     
  •   If they don’t hear it, keep saying it
  •    Don’t spoil praise by demanding more at the same time
  •    Don’t wait til you are dying or a loved one is,  before saying what you always wanted to say
  •  And if enough has not been said as death approaches then make those last months/days/hours count, and as I said in my last blog- it’s the relationships that count. Reconciliation is reconciliation whenever it happens, but it’s hard to do after death has intervened.

Alan and his son Chris.