real life

'It's been a year since I lost my friend Robert. His death taught me 5 rules about living.'

It’s been more than a year since I lost my friend Robert, and the words I’ve kept trying to say to remember him.

I’ve spent hours upon hours trying to write something that will do him justice and feel like I’ve already failed.

Write. Backspace. Delete. Over and over, the pattern repeats.

Because this stuff is heavy. It’s real.

As a writer, I’m not used to being lost for words. I spend my days setting scenes, assembling facts, telling stories. Why am I paralysed by… a feeling?

Grief is strange like that. It takes time to process what you’ve really lost. It can’t always be summed up in a tweet or Instagram caption.

The world just keeps on going and you do too. A thought randomly crosses your mind; “I wonder how [insert friend’s name here] is going?”

You catch yourself. They’re no longer a phone call away. They have no more Facebook updates. They are a memory only you can keep alive.

My loss was a loss of a friend. He was my brother-in-law, but he almost wore a bit of a ‘life coach’/mentor hat for me.

I can’t compare my loss to what his wife has felt. But I can speak from the perspective of a friend.

And I’m ready to share what I’ve learnt.

1. Friendships can start where you least expect them.

With 37 years between us, we were obviously at very different life stages. I first met him at a family get-together. We were both the outsiders – me as the boyfriend to my partner, him as the boyfriend to my partner’s sister.

For more than 12 years, I watched as he and my sister-in-law built their own special life together, just as me and my partner were doing it too in our own different way. In that time, we developed a friendship outside of the family.

He was training as an energy healer, and offered to help with my chronic hip and leg pain. I didn’t know what to expect – I’d already been through physio, osteo and was religiously doing yoga to alleviate the pain.

During our treatment sessions, we’d chat about life. Work. Stress. People. Places. Things we liked. Things we didn’t.

I’d often leave the sessions crying because he’d released so much of my physical pain, which as anyone who suffers from chronic pain knows, is tied up with mental health as well. My left leg would pulse with pain as it left my body, and a weight had been lifted.

In hindsight, the pain I felt was minimal compared to his own. Over these years, Robert’s health was deteriorating, but he did not want to dwell on it. He had found peace and meaning in helping others.

2. The small moments are actually the big ones.

The last time I saw Robert was a few weeks before his death, at his home. He was in his comfortable leather chair, having a laugh as we ate his wife’s home-cooked omelettes. I was showing him how to access podcasts on Apple so he’d have something to listen to during his long days at hospital. Months earlier he had a very close call, so we felt lucky to still have him here.

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Robert and my sister-in-law were talking about how hard it was to not be able to plan their life. Who knew how long there would be left for him? All that we could do was try and find those little moments of solace, joy and pure love you can only feel if you live in the present.

Those were my favourite moments – the small ones.

This interview features the best advice I’ve heard about grief from one of Australia’s most respected grief counsellors, Petrea King, on No Filter. Post continues after podcast.

3. Take comfort in signs.

Robert turned 69 on November 5, 2018, which would be his last birthday.

A few weeks later, I was speaking at his funeral. I knew what I wanted to say about Robert and our friendship. It felt clear to me.

And then, as I stood up at the lectern and took my first breaths looking at his coffin, so beautifully decorated with flowers and a carefully selected book on healing, a presence came over me.

It felt like the room could see my heart beating out of my chest. My left leg started shaking and pulsing. It was the same sensation I had felt during our energy treatments. Once again, a weight had been lifted.

I’m a skeptic at heart, but this moment felt like a sign – a piece of communication from Robert. Another friend of his wrote on Facebook that they heard a kookaburra laughing outside, feeling that it was a sign of what he would’ve wanted to hear – laughing to celebrate his life.

From now on, I’m more open to signs and how they can bring you comfort. Months later, I had another one while taking a walk with my parents and partner down to the water, very close to the hall where Robert’s funeral was held.

On the way back up the hill, Mum started to struggled with her breath and broke into tears. We sat her down on a rock halfway up the hill and I took her through some slow, deep breathing techniques I’d learned in yoga and meditation. Within a minute, she was calm.

I looked up. We were sitting right opposite the hall where I last said goodbye to Robert, my healing friend.

4. You’re so bloody lucky to be here.

My dad is exactly the same age as Robert. In fact, their birthdays were two days apart.

One week after Robert died, my dad went in for quadruple bypass surgery. It was my second brush with mortality within weeks, but I just couldn’t face the idea of linking the two together.

I had to believe Dad would be OK.

I tried to be stoic for my family. He didn’t want us to worry about him. He played down the operation as just a little thing – he didn’t even say ‘quadruple bypass surgery’.

But, after being deemed high risk of having a heart attack, it was the most important surgery of my dad’s life.

We held our breaths that day. I tried to steel my emotions and be strong for my mum and sister. And maybe for myself, too.

When I first saw my dad in hospital, he was hazy but he was there. I felt an extraordinary sense of relief, but also knew he had a long road ahead.

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His recovery took months. There was physiotherapy, dietary changes, and as a keen scuba diver and instructor, he had to slow down and embrace indoors activities… like doing puzzles.

A year later, Dad turned 70. He’s done a motorbike course and bought himself an electric scooter.

He appreciates every second of being here. And I’m beyond lucky to have him.

5. Be grateful for birthdays. Each and every one of them.

Birthdays seem to come around faster each year. We get terrified of getting older. But we’re lucky if we get to.

I thought of this when a photo of Robert on his final birthday popped up on my Facebook feed.

His wife was remembering what would’ve been his 70th birthday.

robert
Robert's last birthday. Image: Supplied.

This photo made tears roll down my cheeks as I sat at my desk at work, trying not to be noticed.

It was the second time I'd cried that week. The other time was at my dad's 70th birthday dinner.

With tears in his eyes, he spoke of being so grateful for his family and his life. When it came time for me to say a few words, I once again felt lost for them.

At that moment I realised the gravity of what's happened over the past year.

Robert may be gone, but I have not lost his friendship. I have found the deepest gratitude for it.

A gratitude that has found its way onto this page, from heart and head to headline.

A gratitude that I can keep him alive in memories, and make more memories with my dad and others who I love.

Thank you, my friend.

Feature image: Supplied.

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