6 min read

The really annoying thing about dying

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

In his first Notes from Solitude, the death of his dad causes Roger Bretherton to reflect on the relationship and the strange emergence of 'father’.
A pocket watch rests next to a black and white photograph of a father lying beside a new born baby.
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.

The death of my dad was sudden and unexpected. I don’t know why it is that, from the moment he died, I have had to fight the almost irresistible urge to refer to him as father- a term of address I never used about him or to him during his life.  

Perhaps in some psychotherapy session at some point my therapist referred to my ‘father’, and I may have followed suit. And maybe occasionally when socialising with those who seemed a cut above my largely lower-middle class background, I called him father so as to avoid the flat northern vowel sounds that would expose me as an interloper. But that was just to fit in- on all other occasions he was decidedly not father and definitely just good old plain, dad.  

At death he became a classic, a museum piece, a part of history, not the dad who taught me how to ride a bike.

But for some reason the moment he died, it felt like dad wasn’t enough. I now had to call him father - those were the rules. At death he became a classic, a museum piece, a part of history, not the dad who taught me how to ride a bike by panting and sweating my five-year old self round the block, but the father who taught me to be… a man, or something like that.  

The F-word has gravitas, presence, authority. Dads are human, often bewildered, occasionally pissed off, eminently huggable, easily taken for granted - just there. Admittedly, Freud would have lost significant gravitas if oedipal theory had considered common-all-garden dads and not cigar-smoking brandy-swilling fathers. And no doubt the climactic scene of The Empire Strikes Back would have lacked considerable pathos had Darth Vader casually quipped, ‘No Luke, I’m your’re Dad’.  

The curse of the martyr, write Albert Camus, was to have other people tell their story. The principle doesn’t just apply to martyrs, it’s true of all those who die. To be dead is to become a character in other people’s anecdotes. That’s the really annoying thing about dying, we become a topic of gossip, people get to talk about us without the courtesy of ever having to talk to us. We become object, no longer subject. I think that’s why I resist calling my late Dad, Father. It objectifies him, makes of him something that he wasn’t. It, most definitely fails to do justice to all that he meant to me. 

She simply said, ‘It’s your Dad’, and held me tight in a hug that lasted longer than usually permitted in polite company. 

I say he died suddenly. It was a Sunday morning. I was in church at the time. Actually, worse than that, I was on stage speaking to a church. As a psychologist working in academia, I teach and train all kinds of people in every kind of organisation imaginable, but every now and then I get to speak in churches.  

On this occasion I was talking about character, the positive qualities of being – like love, gratitude, hope, wisdom and so on – that make life worth living. When I stepped off the stage my wife was waving to me from the back of the room, which was weird given that we don’t go to that church and she hadn’t come with me. When I wandered to the back of the auditorium wearing my ‘what are you doing here?’ face, she simply said, ‘It’s your Dad’, and held me tight in a hug that lasted longer than usually permitted in polite company. For someone who prides himself on social insight, it shames me to say that it took a while for the penny to drop. We were in the car with the engine running before it finally dawned on me what she meant. 

I try not to make too much of divine timings or fate, but there was something odd in the timing of getting that news. In that month I had addressed church congregations three Sundays in a row- which, as someone who is generally lazy and prefers not to work weekends, is an unusually intense frequency. But over three successive Sundays I had reflected aloud with those congregations that there were prayers that had accompanied the various stages of my life. Prayers that I found myself praying, almost as if they were prayed through me, as if they had chosen me rather than I they.  

In my twenties I had found myself praying as regularly as a heartbeat, ‘God do whatever you need to do with me, to make me into the person you would like me to be.’ It was a radical invitation for God to put me through whatever was needed to become who I was meant to be. But then the prayer faded. Its visit was over, it had done its work and it moved on. But as I addressed the congregations on those three Sundays I mused aloud that while the prayer of my twenties had departed decades before, I found a new prayer stirring in my forties. Now as the father of teenage boys, my new prayer was, ‘God do whatever you need to do with me to make me the father you would like me to be.’  

In the weeks that followed, people asked me whether I had had a good relationship with my dad. The most accurately answer was: we had the best relationship of which we were both capable. We both tried in our own ways to deepen our connection, but we were like the lovers in a romantic comedy; we always managed to miss each other. When he tried with me, I didn’t want to know. For several years, he left a book lying around at home that he wanted me to read. I never saw anyone touch it, but it moved around the house under its own steam. It was by my bedside, in the toilet, on the dining room table…  Macavity the Mystery Cat would have been proud. It was called, Things We Wish We Had Said. We may have wished, but we didn’t say. I never read it. Years later, when I tried with him, he was too flustered to respond. Both of us in our own ways lacked the courage to connect any deeper. But I was never in any doubt that he loved me, and I him. 

When he was alive I was most aware of how different we were. I defined myself in opposition to whatever he was. If he was gentle, I was assertive. If he was indecisive, I was ambitious.

He died of a heart attack on a Sunday morning asleep in bed, while my Mum was at church. Almost immediately his absence prompted a profound change of consciousness in me. When he was alive I was most aware of how different we were. I defined myself in opposition to whatever he was. If he was gentle, I was assertive. If he was indecisive, I was ambitious. If he was inexpressive, I was articulate. If he was like that, I was like this. And yet, almost at the very moment of his death, a reversal of awareness occurred. I started to see just how very much like him I was. His gentleness, his uncertainty, his scepticism, his care, his humour, were all mine. 

There is a rule in family therapy, that adult children relating to their parents should set their expectations to zero. We never truly see our parents until we stop viewing them through the lens of our own desires; what we wanted from them but never got. Until we do that our lives don’t really work, we sit around waiting for an impossible transformation, a payday that never comes, the moment our parents become exactly how we would like them to be, not as they are. For me, that moment of acceptance for dad only came when he was gone, I accepted him as he was when there was nothing left to accept. I don’t write this with any great sense of guilt or regret at opportunities lost, more with a sense of gratitude for what was given but often taken for granted.  

Oddly though, in the shadow of that seismic shift in my interior furniture, I detected the stirrings of an answer to my own prayer to be a better father. No longer compelled to define myself in contrast to what he was, I was freed to be what I was- both like and unlike him, and to be fair, more like him than I cared to admit. At some visceral level I came to appreciate how much of myself originated with him. I came to accept myself as a dad and my dad as a father.

4 min read

Benefiting from the many facets of beauty

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

A jewellery start-up is challenging what Belle TIndall perceives as empowerment and agency.
Three women stand, two lean into each other sharing a joke, while the other laughs too.
Members of Zena's Launch Pad team, Kamuli, Uganda.

I have a conundrum. I’ve started and re-started this article four times now. And I’m surprised that I’ve settled on this opening. But alas, I have a deadline to adhere to and a cold coffee to warm back up. So, this will have to do. I’m struggling with this opening paragraph because when it comes to writing about Zena - the female-led, non-profit, environmentally friendly jewellery and accessory brand - I simply do not know where to begin.  

There are too many facets of Zena that deserve to sit front and centre in this article; too many details to revel in, too many stories to tell, too much success to pick at and analyse.  

Where do I possibly start?   

How about with the delightful fact that the brand is named after a beloved pet goat who makes appearances on their TikTok? You know, kick things off on an endearing note. Or perhaps the fact that there are playlists curated for all occasions, dance challenges, and even a recipe for tequila lollipops on their website? That would certainly alert people to how seriously this team takes the art of having fun. Or maybe I should open with the fact that they’ve both challenged and refined how I perceive empowerment and agency. I could explain how they have alerted me to the importance of investing in female entrepreneurs as a means of tackling extreme poverty and profound gender inequality.  

Yes. I think that’s it. Let’s start there and work our way backwards, shall we?  

These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction. 

In which case, here’s the heartbeat of Zena, here’s what you need to know in order to understand everything else about them: women living in rural poverty are currently facing two major barriers when it comes to business opportunity and entrepreneurship, and Zena are tackling both head on.  

Firstly, female entrepreneurs in these settings have little to no capital with which to launch their business ventures. To combat this, every single product offered by Zena, whose HQ is in Kamuli (Uganda), is hand-crafted by women who were previously living below the poverty line. Through the Zena apprenticeships, these women are able to support themselves and their families while also earning/saving the capital they need to launch their own businesses once the short-term apprenticeship comes to an end. These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction.  

Secondly, as well as a lack of capital, these women are battling a lack of education. And so, through a multi-phase entrepreneurship programme (The Zena Launch Pad), Zena are giving their apprentices both the theoretical and practical tools that they need to launch and sustain their own businesses. Women are graduating from this programme with literacy and numeracy skills, a viable business plan, industry-specific knowledge and skills, as well as leadership and development.  

Because here’s the bottom-line, the foundation upon which Zena stands, the deep conviction of both Caragh and Loren, the co-founders and CEOs; agency matters. Widening one’s understanding of success to encompass these women’s agency, for better or for worse, matters. Empowering these women to earn their own capital, to see the unfolding of their own ideas, to know that their decisions matter, it makes all the difference. No dependence, no hand-outs, and no debt. Just the kind of empowerment that is laced with agency.  

It’s bold. But it’s working.  

There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation.

So far, time-stamped at this moment in time, Zena’s hybrid and holistic approach has led to 67 female entrepreneurs, over 150 children in school, and nearly 500 lives lived above the poverty line. Women are hiring other women, businesses are birthing more businesses, education is generating more education.  

Pretty special, isn’t it? Pretty Jesus-like too.  

I had the immense joy of chatting to Caragh, one of the co-founders and CEOs of Zena; she reminded me that multiplication is one of Jesus’ most classic moves. Just as the people sitting around Jesus with wide eyes and numb backsides witnessed one humble lunch feed tens-of-thousands of mouths, so are Caragh and her team witnessing jaw-dropping multiplication happen before their very eyes. There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation. Compassion is contagious and innovation spreads. Although Zena is by no means an enterprise that squeezes itself into a religious box (empowering women of all faiths and none), it is easy to see how Caragh and Loren’s faith in a God who wrote generative goodness into the fabric of reality, informs their mission to write it into their business model.  

Something else that is woven into the DNA of Zena, much to my delight, is an unabashed celebration of the female consumer. 2023 may well be remembered as the year when an economic earthquake was caused by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. According to Forbes, it is likely to be regarded as the year where people began to take seriously and analyse the power of 'the female dollar'. And Zena, with their penchant for all things pink and glittery, have been sitting ahead of the curve for a little while. Their products, as seen in Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harvey Nicholls (as well as embellishing the looks of numerous celebrities), seem to have been made with this cultural moment in sight. Their aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the resurgence of female playfulness and the reclaiming of ‘girliness’ as something to embrace and revel in. As I have already referenced, joy is something that this team take incredibly seriously.  

The celebration of women infiltrates every layer of Zena’s existence, that much is clear. While their products delight the female gaze, their profits sow into female entrepreneurship. Both of which display how working toward gender equality, particularly in contexts such as Kamuli, is a means by which we can wage a war on extreme poverty. 

Women serving women, who are serving women, who are serving women. And on it goes – so beautifully circular. So intriguingly God-inspired.  

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