Do it while they're alive

In a second article on stress ahead of Men's Health Week, Jim Pollard remembers some advice and writes a letter.

Last week I wrote about football, the stadium of hate. The article was to set the scene for Men’s Health Week which this year is all about stress.

Now some might argue that football is a sort of fake stress – a displacement activity for men who haven’t really got anything to worry about. I’d disagree with that – there’s a lot of male identity tied up in our tribal loyalties to our favourite sports team – but nobody could argue that the theme for this article isn’t real: there hasn’t been a person on Earth who hasn’t stressed about death at some time or another.

Death comes to us all but that doesn’t make it easier. In fact, that’s what makes it so difficult. Common as daisies but every death is different and with it each confusing package of emotions. Trying to rank bereavements by which sort is worse and for who is meaningless and certainly not the point of this article. I can only talk about this from where I’m standing.

Talking about feelings

Last week, I went to the funeral of my mate Phil, one of the best teachers I've known (and I've known a few). We hadn’t seen much of each other for a while. Family, work, reduced consumption of intoxicants and 500 miles between our homes were all factors. But in our 20s when we both lived in London we were, I think, close. Phil was a dry northerner so you could never be entirely sure of that. Once his then fiancée Sandra, a special needs teacher, roped the pair of us in to trial a game that she wanted to play with her pupils, a card game designed to get reticent kids talking about their feelings. Phil drew a card which obliged him to pay me a compliment. He nodded slowly, stroked his beard, knocked back his beer and said that he liked the fact that I, like him, liked a pint. Then he presented me with his empty glass.

So when a mate dies, we remember them – and ourselves – in happier and, by definition, younger times. And when we cry for them, we are crying at least in part for ourselves and what we have lost (and it’s more than just a friend). There’s no shame in that. We’re human.

Meant a lot

There’s a similar strand of self-interest in what I am now going to tell you. I wrote Phil a letter just before he died. A proper letter with a pen. I told him some of the qualities that I admired in him and thanked him for some of things he’d done for me. I did it because I thought it was what I’d like someone to do for me if I were in the same situation. I haven’t got a clue, obviously, since I’ve never been in Phil’s situation. But not knowing about something doesn’t, as perhaps it should, always stop me having an opinion on it – and that’s true of most men.

But I remembered when I had cancer myself 20 years ago – a lot less aggressive than Phil's. There were a couple of cards I’d had that I hadn’t expected, thoughts from people I didn’t really know. One of them, a religious poem from another dour individual (Northern Irish this time), touched me. Even though the sentiment meant little to me, I knew it meant a lot to him and that it had cost him more than just the price of the stamp to send it.

Helped then and helps now

Now, I don’t know what Phil made of that letter. I talked of my respect, of his quiet determination, range of talents and self-assured competence. It certainly wasn’t pub banter. But I do know he read it and I like to think that it meant something to him even if he did perhaps think I was a southern softy for sending it. 

The selfish point is that it made me feel a teeny bit better about what was happening too. It helped me get a little perspective – not a lot, but enough to feel that life wasn’t all a big fat waste of time. It helped then and it helps now. Ideally we’d not wait until someone was dying before telling them how much we like them. But we are blokes so I’m not going to ask for the moon.

Phil once took me pot-holing and as we were entering the cave he said it was a good idea to look behind you every so often so that you’d recognise the route again on your way out. That wasn’t particularly reassuring at the time as I’d foolishly assumed he already knew the route out but it turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me. I still follow it when walking or cycling in the country. When you look behind in this way, you’re looking to really see, to fix it in your mind and prepare yourself to see it again in the future. If only – clunking metaphor coming up – we could do that more in life in general: look back occasionally, see the patterns and be wiser.

I sometimes think I learned nothing from having cancer. But looking back perhaps what I learned was that sending that letter to Phil would be OK. 

Who's behind you?

So go on, take a look behind you. Who do you see on the route you’ve travelled? Someone who has helped you in your life or meant something? Write them a letter. Thank them. Do it while they’re alive.

And if you want to learn something from Phil, as I and so many others did, there’s some good advice for all men in the article he wrote for the site earlier this year: go and see your bloody GP.


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MAIN IMAGE: Pre-potholing – Phil's the one who looks like he knows what he's doing; I'm the one who looks like he's wandered in from a building site.

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