Within a month I have lost both of my grandfathers. Three weeks ago my dad’s dad (“granddad”) gave up a difficult struggle against a chest infection. We buried him and grieved and everything was getting back to normal. On Sunday morning my mum’s dad (“grandpa”) died. It was, unlike granddad’s death, with which everyone had a few weeks of varying degrees of critical hospitalised illness to get used to the idea, shockingly sudden and unexpected.

My parents had tried to reach me on Sunday to let me know but we were out all day and, even on Monday morning, had not got round to checking our phone messages or emails. Dad phoned me at work on Monday morning at maybe around 10am. “Bad news mate. You won’t believe this but grandpa’s died”.

Grandma and grandpa had moved from London to Dorset when he retired at 50. Their house gradually went from being a lovely new-built home for a newly retired couple to being, 25 years later, a very unsuitable place with a staircase they couldn’t really climb and in a town with a hill they couldn’t really face. In 1998 (soon after I had left home) my parents bought a house with a garden big enough to support an amazing idea. Between them they designed and built a purpose built bungalow where there had once been a double garage. The two houses had their own entrances (and even their own separate utility bills), so everyone had their own space, yet they were so close that my grandparents had the security of the family being literally on the doorstep. As they became increasingly frail and old, and occasional illness meant they needed extra care and attention, the benefits of this arrangement were demonstrated many times over. The other rather obvious effect was that my parents and my brother and I remained incredibly close to my maternal grandparents.

Terrible news tends to sink in slowly. The worst news seems to make me laugh when talking about it. Not a funny, enjoyable laugh but an irrepressible nervous grin that is made even more worse by the idea that the other person might think I’m finding this funny. As I took in what my dad had told me, and retold it to friends passing in the office, things gradually dawned on me. The first (which I had known while still on the phone but had not acted on at the time) was that I wanted to be there with my family. A few emails and phone calls later and this was sorted out. By 2pm I would be on my way back to Dorset.

It was an emotional afternoon for everyone. When we got to my parents’ house my mum’s brother R was already there and my own brother was on his way. Grandma looked vacant and numb. It was not until she and mum started recounting how he had died that I realised how traumatic it had been.
(Please do skip the next couple of paragraphs if you don’t want to know.)

Through Saturday night and Sunday morning he had had migraines and diarrhoea and had needed help from grandma in getting to the bathroom. Eventually, she became so worried by his odd symptoms (including seeming to find walking very difficult) that she went across the drive to get help from her daughter. She, in turn, went to call a doctor, and by the time she returned to the bungalow grandpa had pitched forward and crashed into the side of the bath. He proceeded to bleed heavily and slowly gasp while dad (and later an ambulance crew) tried to resuscitate him. If it sounds disturbing, imagine hearing it from a helpless old woman who is telling you how she saw this brutal thing happen to her husband of 60 years and it was so horrible, so horrible, and that she’ll never forget it. Well I didn’t see it but I’ll never forget being told about it. Talking about it, even for me writing about it now, is hard but I think it helps, so I’m glad to have been there to help comfort her.

His death certificate says “cerebrovascular accident”, which seems to mean a stroke. Everyone holds on to the idea that the end would have been quick – probably even before he hit the floor.

On Monday afternoon I helped move grandpa’s bed up to my parent’s loft and rearrange grandma’s bedroom. I’m very proud of her; after just one night in with mum and dad she returned to her own place to sleep. She is still a little way off being able to clear out his clothes. She keeps seeing his teeth in the bathroom and wants to throw them away, but can’t because it feels like he’ll be back soon and will need them. She did start to talk about charity shops and people who might need pillows though, so she seems to be doing amazingly well.

On Tuesday I took the day off work and showed grandma how to use the TV and VCR. It was something that grandpa had always done so now she’ll be in charge of it. She has also turned the thermostat down to the level she’d always wanted. This makes everyone smile.

In the afternoon the minister who will lead the funeral came over to discuss the arrangements for Friday. I sat with mum and grandma as they discussed flowers and donations and hymns for the short service. They decided what the minister should say about grandpa. That was hard, but only because he was such a good man and he is missed so badly. When grandma was talking about their old flat in London, I kept expecting to hear his gentle interjections, adding some interesting historical point or other. I think everyone felt the same thing.

The grieving process seems to demand lots of tea and tears.

Since you won’t be there on Friday, you’ll want to know a bit more about him. It’s not exactly a eulogy but it’s a few of the important points with my own memories thrown in.

During the war he was in signals, where he tapped endless morse. He was very proud of relaying a message which signalled the ceasefire and effectively ended the war. He kept a copy of it. He was fond of Guinness. While working at Shell, much of his business was conducted on a barstool. As a result, they gave him one when he retired. After retiring he kept a grey cat called ‘smoky’ very fat for many years. He loved the countryside – flowers and bird spotting. He wore a tie, even after retiring, until quite recently. He had three children, one of whom died before him. He always carried two handkerchiefs – a spare one in case a woman needed to cry. As a result he has given a great many away. He was a charming man with an enormous sense of fun. He tried to find something at which he could have a good laugh every day. He was enormously generous and spoilt his wife whenever he could. He was a gentle man and a gentleman.

Later we built a bonfire and burned twigs and leaves. Driving home, I wondered when I would next cry. I still feel a bit sick with shock and grief. Today and tomorrow I’ll go to work but really I’m just waiting for the funeral on Friday.