It was in the early hours of Sunday 14th October, two years ago, that I lost my father. The time following was an undiscovered country. I entered a world that looked and sounded and acted just like the world I'd been in the day before, but it was a different place. At times it was just a fairground facade, with all the glitz and shine of normality, smoke and mirrors hiding the dark spaces behind. Other times it felt offensively normal, causing the same pangs of guilt I get when I first enjoy an episode of a TV series that recently bumped off my favourite character.
But as with all things, every step was a learning experience. This is what I've learned.
We like to hide in cliché, where it's safe. But time doesn't heal grief. It changes the shape of it inside you, smoothes the edges of the hole left in your life. But it's a splinter covered over with new skin: out of sight, but painful when jabbed.
The truth is that only you can heal your own grief. And heal probably isn't even the right word. You take it on, make it part of you, and discover what person comes out the other side. Two years on, do I still wake up thinking of Dad with a stab of grief and guilt every morning? No. My brain has grown used to those feelings and they don't intrude quite so sorely into my daily life now. But do I still dream from time to time of the last day I saw him, wondering why I'm unable to warn him of what's about to happen? I think, perhaps, that will happen forever.
I realised that I didn't really know what kindness was before the aftermath of October 2012. Donating to charity, for instance, isn't kind. It's a morally and rationally good action, entirely praiseworthy, but not necessarily driven by that special, elusive mix of emotion and action. Kindness is a silent declaration that another person is more important to you than yourself. It's seeing someone you know, or someone you don't, in need and devoting your most precious resource, your time, to making their life better.
And people are kind. My father's friends, my own friends, friends to our whole family, each suffering with their own particular shade of grief, showed amazing, heart-rending altruistic kindness. I came to realise that grieving people have a numbness of the brain that makes it difficult to make decisions and plans. And our friends knew that an offer of 'anything I can do' wasn't truly going to help. And so instead they simply started helping, sorting out funeral arrangements, asking us out for dinner, or dealing with some of the horrific bureaucracy that follows a death. For those precious moments, there was slightly less for us to deal with. There is no way to express how grateful we felt for those moments of not being alone in difficult times.
Grief makes people unpredictable. We worry that saying the wrong thing will send them spiralling into unhappy tears. Or we worry that once they're crying, we won't be able to come up with the right words to bring them back to happiness.
But in truth, tears come when they want to. A griever's triggers are likely to be more obscure than you think. I've found myself reacting to flashing blue lights, the smell of coffee and hearing songs on the radio about break-ups. Talking about my father has never made me unhappy, nor have my tears always been caused by sadness. Talking about a lost loved one is often what a grieving person most needs to do, and yet people tend to avoid the subject out of fear that they'll upset them.
To my surprise, I found that in most of my day-to-day life, the time that involved other people, I was able to continue in a very normal way. I didn't find it difficult to go to work, to joke with my colleagues, to take part in the acting I do as a hobby. And so people forgot. Of course a death in my family will never be so important to anybody outside it, but it meant that work became an oasis where these tragic events couldn't reach me. When I was there I was fine, and so everybody thought I was fine. Coming home to an empty flat, that was when the emotion would catch up with me. That was when I wasn't fine.
Just because someone seems normal when they're busy, it doesn't mean they're fine. They may still need your support in the quiet times.
"He'll always be remembered." A lot of people said that. Sadly, in the grand scheme of things, it's untrue. Eventually, remembered experiences fade, friends and family pass on, and all memories are lost in the river of time. In fifty years, with any luck, I might still be kicking around and I'll remember him. But any children I may one day have won't ever have met their paternal grandpa. The memories of him will die with my generation. So how can any of us continue to exist beyond the next generation or two? We can't all leave behind great works of art, or earn pages in the history books.
But in the two years since people were saying that phrase to me, I've found myself returning to it with surprising frequency. I think it's because it really means much more than it says. Because it isn't really about memory at all.
As we live, we affect those people whose lives we touch. Inspiring by example, motivating by competing, cautioning with our mistakes. In small ways, we change people. We learn from each other, from these myriad snippets of interaction. I've been forged from the personalities and experiences of my parents, but my father, in his time, has also influenced school-mates, friends and colleagues. As we all do, he changed the shape of the world he lived in simply by passing through it.
His empathy, his quiet kindness and his gentlemanly nature have all helped to form my own personality and are things that I try, only sometimes successfully, to imitate in my own life. Those traits affect the people I meet in my life, who are in turn changed in small ways and go on to change others. The essence of what it meant to be Peter Laurence Wood has been disseminated into the DNA of our civilisation. That's the legacy that we're all challenged to leave behind us. And the legacy of a good man is forever.