THERE’S NOTH­ING FUNNY ABOUT GRIEF...

... but mem­o­ries can make you smile again

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - EDITOR’S LETTER -

Around the age of three or four, you could have asked me about my fam­ily and I would have told you that I had two won­der­ful par­ents, Chris Evans and Vanessa Feltz. My ex­tended fam­ily in­cluded glam­orous Aunty Pat (Butcher), my Un­cle Les (Bat­tersby) and my var­i­ous cousins Zippy, Dipsy and Wel­lard the Ger­man shep­herd. This is what I earnestly told peo­ple on the bus in the mid-1990s, dur­ing a child­hood spent ob­sessed with tele­vi­sion.

In re­al­ity my par­ents were my dad Lau­rie, a curly-haired taxi driver, and my mother Josie, a fel­low curly-haired multi-grafter who did any job she could get. I had two broth­ers who were 21 and 13 years older than me, but these two curly-haired lovers cre­ated in me the most curly-haired chubby white kid you’ve ever seen.

I was like Roald Dahl’s Matilda – a bit of a mis­fit. I loved read­ing, talk­ing and ir­ri­tat­ing ev­ery­one with in­ces­sant lines of ques­tion­ing. How­ever, un­like Matilda, I was in­cred­i­bly loved by my par­ents.

I loved pop mu­sic, the Spice Girls, var­i­ous gra­di­ents of the colour pink and magic. But one man never made me feel as if I wasn’t enough of a boy. Even though he loved his cars and his pubs, he al­ways seemed to ac­cept me purely for me and didn’t care what any­one thought. My dad Lau­rie.

I was a mini him and spent the vast ma­jor­ity of my free time as a child out and about with Dad. He would drop me off at school on the way to the air­port. At week­ends, we would stop off to see my nan be­fore go­ing to do our other favourite pas­time: driv­ing into town in his taxi and mis­us­ing his ‘wait­ing to pick up el­derly pas­sen­ger’ sign as a way to nab free park­ing so we could walk around and ex­plore.

Then our taxi ad­ven­tur­ing days came to an end be­cause Dad started to suf­fer from back pain. He had nu­mer­ous ap­point­ments with doc­tors, spe­cial­ists and nurses. He lost a bit of weight. Then some more weight. He com­plained about the pain again. He saw his GP again. He was get­ting re­ally quite sick. When I look back, that spring and sum­mer of 2008 was the last time I see my­self as a child. I was 14. I was in school, de­vis­ing plays in the drama hall and go­ing into twon with my friends to loi­ter.

As the weeks went on, it be­came clear

that Dad was bedrid­den and was not about to get bet­ter any time soon. One night, in early Septem­ber, I saw him tucked in bed with the heat­ing on and un­der a duvet but un­able to stop vi­o­lently shiv­er­ing.

I ran down­stairs to tell Mum that it was fright­en­ing me but we didn’t have a clue what to do. I would give so much now to be able to hug that fright­ened teenage kid who just wanted to fix things but felt so out of his depth.

On 18 Septem­ber, my cousin Amy and a few friends took me out for some re­lief. I had a nice night: we went to an in-store gig and watched some bands. But when I got home I walked into the liv­ing room to find ev­ery­one sit­ting in a semi­cir­cle, in a way that you only ever see on EastEn­ders when some bad news is about to be given.

I re­mem­ber Dad turned his head; he couldn’t look at me. My best friend in the whole wide world couldn’t look at me. And I just knew. In that mo­ment I knew what was com­ing. I felt all the hairs on my body rise to the ceil­ing. I felt all the adren­a­line in my arms, legs and chest start pound­ing. And all I said was: ‘I don’t want to know.’

I ran up­stairs to my room and slammed the door. My mid­dle brother Dean, who I’d never re­ally got on with, came up.

He knocked on my door. I didn’t an­swer. He walked in and sat next to me, putting his arm around me. I asked, ‘Is it the C-word?’ Dean nod­ded. It was kid­ney cancer. There was a tu­mour and it was big.

I very much feel my child­hood can be split into three – be­fore Dad’s cancer, dur­ing

Dad’s cancer and after Dad’s cancer: the be­reave­ment years. Dur­ing Dad’s cancer was such a short pe­riod but it trans­formed me. It turned me from a boy to a man. From a child to an adult. Some­one who had some­thing vi­tal cut short – the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of which can­not be fully un­der­stood or eas­ily ar­tic­u­lated. To be the young child of a dy­ing per­son.

Mum and I had ten days of know­ing Dad had cancer. Nowa­days I flip back and forth in my mind about whether or not his late di­ag­no­sis was, in a way, a bless­ing in dis­guise. He wasn’t suf­fer­ing for long but, then again, ten days was never enough time to even be­gin to process what was hap­pen­ing. The ques­tions come thick and fast, leav­ing you chaot­i­cally dizzy and, at the same time, vi­o­lently numb. You re­alise that you re­ally have no con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion.

Dad went into a hospice. Mum and I would sit there be­side him, chat­ting away about noth­ing, try­ing to make sure he knew we were with him. Any time I wanted to cry, I would leave his room be­cause I didn’t want him to see me up­set.

I’d slide down the walls of the wait­ing room and fall in a pile, sob­bing till a nurse or a rel­a­tive came and picked me up again. I felt like the loneli­est 15-year-old in the world.

That day when I left, I hugged Dad, who was drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness, and said, ‘I love you, I love you so much.’ He had just about enough en­ergy to lift his head up­wards and kiss me on the lips. That was the last kiss I ever had from him. I’d de­cided that was my good­bye. That was it for me. I was ready. Half an hour later, Mum re­turned home. Stand­ing at the front door, she said, ‘He’s gone.’

I have to say that the first feel­ing I had was re­lief. A sense of calm washed over me that the hor­ror of the past ten days had ended. Dad drifted off to sleep at eight min­utes past eight, with Mum right be­side him, hold­ing his hand, telling him to just let go. Telling him she loved him with all her heart. That she’d look after the boys. That he didn’t need to fight any longer. In a way, I’m happy – al­most proud – that among all the tragedy, fear and sad­ness, his fi­nal mo­ments were sur­rounded by noth­ing but love.

H H H H H H

I went to univer­sity, the first per­son in my fam­ily to do so, to do a BA in jour­nal­ism. It com­bined my dream to study me­dia with be­ing af­ford­able (thanks to a schol­ar­ship) but still close to my mum.

The stu­dent sta­tion, Smoke Ra­dio, was run by a com­mit­tee of elected sec­ond-years and a guy called Olly was its head of news. On the sur­face Olly was a Jack-the-lad type. He was 24, a sec­ond-year jour­nal­ism stu­dent who had

‘EV­ERY­ONE WAS SIT­TING IN THE LIV­ING ROOM IN A WAY YOU SEE ON EASTEN­DERS

WHEN BAD NEWS IS GIVEN’

‘NO ONE IS SOLELY TO BLAME FOR SUI­CIDE. THERE IS NEVER JUST ONE SPE­CIFIC REA­SON’

a good five years on ev­ery­one else in his year and mine. He was al­ways sur­rounded by a sim­i­larly good-look­ing bunch of sec­ond-year boys who I found in­tim­i­dat­ingly fit.

I had been vol­un­teer­ing with men­tal health char­ity CALM (Cam­paign Against Liv­ing Mis­er­ably) and told him I wanted to make a ra­dio pack­age about its sui­cide preven­tion cam­paign and magazine for the sta­tion. Olly loved the idea, want­ing to know more.

He very sweetly and openly told me he’d dealt with some of his own men­tal-health is­sues and so the cause fully res­onated with him and he’d sup­port any­thing CALM and I were try­ing to do.

There was some­thing about Olly. It felt as though we’d agreed we wanted to spur each other on to suc­ceed. We kept an eye out, root­ing for each other in turn­ing our ad­ver­sity into de­ter­mi­na­tion and, ul­ti­mately, hap­pi­ness.

He was the one who, after I per­formed at a fundrais­ing gig for CALM called Save the Male and got my first stand­ing ova­tion, ran up and gave me the big­gest hug. I will al­ways re­mem­ber him say­ing, ‘That was you, Jack! That was you on stage. This is what you should do – it was ca­reer-defin­ing. You should be so proud. I’m so proud of you.’

Quite hon­estly, it was the first time I’d heard the words ‘I’m proud of you’ said by another man since Dad.

But after he left univer­sity, Olly strug­gled to find his feet. He just wasn’t wear­ing him­self very well, if that makes sense. In­stead, life was wear­ing him. Olly had a more com­plex men­tal ill­ness than any of my ex­pe­ri­ences with anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

We last spoke on the phone on what would have been Dad’s 62nd birth­day. We had a good hour-long chat, be­gin­ning with how we both had gyp with our ra­di­a­tors then how we’d both been hav­ing a bit of a bad time. We ended the call with him mak­ing plans to come to see me, and me promis­ing I’d come to him in spring. I would like to be­lieve that they were gen­uine plans. Plans that Olly meant to keep. But sadly nei­ther of those things ever hap­pened.

It was the day be­fore my fi­nal Ed­in­burgh fringe pitch for my show Good Grief – my last shot at get­ting a slot for the fes­ti­val. I saw two good-luck texts, then no­ticed a few missed calls from my friend Claire. There was an an­swer­phone mes­sage from her: ‘Hi Jack.

Can you call me, please? We need to talk.’

I im­me­di­ately thought: it’s Olly. I panic-called my mum. And, bless my mum, she told me I was be­ing com­pletely stupid, to calm down and fo­cus on what I needed to do.

So that’s what I did. And after­wards, I took a deep breath and rang Claire back.

‘It’s Olly. He’s died. Last night. He took his own life and I’m just call­ing to let you know.’ Then she burst into tears and I was just numb.

As I hung up the call, I could feel my legs turn heavy, like sand­bags. I couldn’t walk. I just didn’t know what to do with my­self. I was in ab­so­lute, to­tal shock, yet at the same time dev­as­tated be­cause I felt like I’d seen it com­ing. I felt like I’d heard Claire’s phone call in my mind be­fore, telling me his demons had won and he’d done it.

The sui­cide of a loved one can of­ten feel like a se­ries of fail­ures. The what-if ques­tions run races around your head at night. ‘What if I’d just…’ ‘How did I fail to no­tice…’ ‘Why didn’t I say…’

Sui­cide high­lights the fail­ures in our so­ci­ety, our me­dia, our govern­ment, our health ser­vices and all the ways in which we ef­fec­tively try to pro­tect the peo­ple who are the most vul­ner­a­ble. And in the hard­est mo­ments, sui­cide feels like a fail­ure of the love we have for those we care about. But what I’ve learnt since Olly’s pass­ing is that this fail­ure isn’t true.

It’s so im­por­tant to un­der­stand that no one is ever solely to blame. There is never one spe­cific rea­son why some­one has felt so low they have taken their own life.

A sui­cide is one of the worst tragedies of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence but I promise the hap­pier

times do start to come back. No mat­ter how hard it can feel for some­one to ac­cept a sui­cide, life goes on and peo­ple adapt and grow.

I still try to live my life in the be­lief that

Olly re­ally did want to live. That Olly was try­ing hard to get bet­ter. I had so badly hoped it was a mis­take – an at­tempt he didn’t want to suc­ceed – but when I dis­cov­ered there was a let­ter and a coro­ner’s con­clu­sion that it was in­ten­tional, this made me want to con­tinue try­ing to sup­port CALM as best as I could. I needed to fo­cus on spread­ing aware­ness of sui­cide preven­tion and to make my­self feel like I was do­ing some­thing pos­i­tive in his mem­ory.

Ul­ti­mately, it’s im­por­tant that we col­lec­tively make sure we don’t see sui­cide as this mas­sive fail­ure but as some­thing that we can tackle, ac­cept and ed­u­cate peo­ple about – and to pre­vent it from feel­ing like a valid op­tion to the peo­ple we love in times of crisis.

This is an edited ex­tract from Cheer the F*** Up by Jack Rooke, price €20.99, which is pub­lished by Ebury Press and out now

JACK WITH HIS BEST FRIEND OLLY IN 2012: ‘WE KEPT AN EYE OUT FOR EACH OTHER AND TURNED OUR AD­VER­SITY INTO DE­TER­MI­NA­TION’

PROUD DAD LAU­RIE MEETS JACK FOR THE FIRST TIME, JULY 1993

JACK WITH HIS DAD LAU­RIE ‘I WAS A MINI HIM’ – AND, LEFT, WITH BROTHER ALAN AND CHAR­LOTTE NIECE IN 1998

JACK’S PAR­ENTS CRE­ATED ‘THE MOST CURLY-HAIRED, CHUBBY KID YOU’VE EVER SEEN’

JACK PRO­MOT­ING HIS AWARD-WIN­NING STAND-UP SHOW ABOUT COP­ING WITH HIS FA­THER’S DEATH

JACK WITH RA­DIO PRE­SEN­TER GEMMA CAIR­NEY AT 2018’S COSTA BOOK AWARDS

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