I attended my first funeral at the age of 15, and it was horrendous.

Before that experience, I had been largely immune to the confusion and sadness that comes from loss.

My uncle passed away when I was 11 years-old but it all felt very detached. We were living in Berlin, Dad was RAF, and mum had gone back home for a fortnight to be with her brother in his final days.

The only real sign for my brother and I that something was seriously wrong was when dad took that fateful phone call. He was in the hallway and we heard a quiet whimper, a sound we had never heard before from our dad.

There was great sadness for the loss of my uncle at the relatively young age of 52, but what happened a few years later rocked the entire extended family to its core.

We were back in the UK but still hundreds of miles from our roots in the South-West when news came through that my 21 year-old cousin had died. He suffered terribly with mental health issues, largely brought on by drug use, and he jumped from the top of a multi-storey car park.

It was a tragedy beyond my comprehension at the age of 15 and the funeral, which took place on Christmas Eve, was extremely difficult.

My abiding memory from the service was the powerful voice of the Priest. It was a voice that filled the room and, while I don’t remember any of the words, I do recall the comfort we all took from his commanding, yet compassionate, presence.

The wake was back at his parents’ house and only now, as an adult, can I appreciate how traumatic that must have been for everyone. For my part, I was in my younger cousin’s bedroom – he was my age and obviously in shock at his brother’s passing.

He played the song ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum on a loop and that started a trend for me, where a song is forever linked to the people we have lost.

The passing of my cousin, 30 years ago, left a trail of devastation that obviously still resonates with his parents and younger brother today but, sadly, when you get to your 40s, grief and loss become familiar emotions.

My nan passed away at the age of 89 and, while there was sadness, it was more a sense of farewell to a life well lived. Born in the 1920s, she came through the wartime years and brought up five kids on her own.

The final years of her life were spent in a nursing home and toward the end it felt like she was ready to go. Vera Lynn: ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is the song that reminds me of nan.

From the utter trauma of my first funeral experience, this was more a celebration of life. The grief experience was very different and far easier to deal with.

My next meeting with bereavement left a hole that will never be filled.

Like many people in their late teens, I was blessed to form some amazing friendships that still endure today. We had a core group of four lads, all obsessed with football, all painfully hopeless when speaking to girls, all making our own way in life.

One of us went to University in Cardiff, another went to University in Cheltenham, I went off travelling in Australia before joining my mate in Cardiff, and one, our dear friend Dave, stayed local, working in sales.

As we progressed through our 20s, trips to the pub became less frequent, working life more demanding and one of the group even got married. It was a wonderful wedding in the Somerset countryside, we all had the honour of being ushers and paid tribute to the happy couple by getting blind drunk!

Three weeks after the wedding, on a Saturday morning, I was walking to the shops with my future wife when we were met by an unforgettable scene. The older brother and partner of my friend Dave were stood outside a pub, completely bereft.

“David’s dead!”

Those words hit me like a truck that has never fully reversed. Dave was just 27 years-old, he woke up on that Saturday morning, suffered a massive heart attack and died in his mum’s arms.

This was a new level of grief, a level none of us could understand. Over those first few days, we all just sobbed without any filter, it was uncontrollable sadness.

We drank to dull the pain, it didn’t work. We spent time with Dave’s family to provide support, we tried to find solace in our own family units, we visited Dave in the funeral home but there was no remedy.

As a group of friends, we were tasked with writing a eulogy for Dave, I still don’t know how my mate delivered those words at the funeral. We acted as pallbearers, carried Dave to his final resting place, and it took many months before any semblance of normality returned.

‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits became the song that reminded me of Dave. However, unlike those I had lost previously, it was a song I couldn’t listen to without crying. Only now, 18 years later, can I sit through the song and maintain some level of peace.

But that is the point with grief, it is beyond our control.

We all experience this worst of emotions in our own way and there is absolutely no right or wrong way to grieve, just our own way.

My son was born 18 months after Dave passed away, a daughter and marriage arrived soon after, and life continued its rollercoaster journey.

My kids were still young when dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 67 years-old and, as a lifelong smoker, there was immediate concern that the cancer had spread.

He was very lucky, the cancer was in one place and very treatable. Dad went through radiotherapy, the cancer was confined and he returned to a fairly normal life.

His PSA levels were regularly checked, which basically tells the doctor if the prostate cancer is under control, and dad lived with his illness under control for a few years.

His situation and prognosis changed during Covid. It wasn’t medically linked to lockdown and the changing world we all lived through but, as a family, we do feel the enforced confinement to home was damaging to his overall health. That’s not a moan, it was just a consequence of a crazy experience for the whole world.

Dad’s treatment was ramped up but the cancer had taken a fresh hold, spreading to his bones. He was placed on a specialist course at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, which meant a long drive every month for him to be zapped with something nuclear.

We knew dad was declining, it was obvious he was in pain, even though he rarely complained. It was a stoicism that is generational, I call the Air Ambulance after stubbing a toe, but dad was from a different time.

His main doctor at the local hospital was fantastic, she answered every question with compassion and honesty. I even emailed her once to not be so honest, as I didn’t want all hope taken away.

I know now it was a naïve request.

Dad was mentally sound and when he asked, ‘how long have I got?’, she was obliged to give an honest answer. We left that meeting with the knowledge dad had around six to ten months to live. As it turned out, he passed away eight months later.

Over the course of last summer, we knew dad was running out of time, he knew it as well, but remained totally engaged when hearing stories from the grandchildren.

Suddenly, daily doses of morphine were part of the routine. It felt like we were at the front of the queue for every trip to the chemists, hospital or GP. I don’t know if this is fact but I’m guessing dad had been given special status as a man living his final weeks.

The pain reached a point that he even volunteered to check-in at the local hospice, something we never imagined would happen. Although never discussed, it was always assumed dad would die at home.

He did return from the hospice but we could see there was nothing left in the tank, his candle was flickering in the wind and there was a heartbreaking inevitability when mum rang one morning to say she couldn’t wake dad.

He was given end-of-life medicine through something called a syringe driver. Incredibly, dad did come around for a few days but his words were gibberish, he appeared to be having hallucinations and couldn’t take in any food or water.

It was horrible to watch your dad, the man who shaped your whole life, slowly slipping away. It almost felt cruel that he couldn’t get any fluids but the amazing nurses gently explained that his body was shutting down and didn’t need any sustenance.

My brother and I got the final call at midnight on September 6 last year, the day before my birthday. We arrived five minutes later and it was clear dad had gone.

The initial grief was more a welling of the eyes, a quiet and sad acceptance that our hero had moved on to another place. Dad was gone and, even now, I have moments of disbelief that he’s not around anymore, and never will be.

The funeral was a beautiful occasion.

Dad was 78, and the picture loop at his service, with ‘Greensleeves’ played as the music that I now attribute to my grief for him, showed a man who had a great time in his life. It wasn’t perfect, he had ups and downs like all of us, but he enjoyed 55 years of marriage, had two kids, two grandkids, and generally had a bloody good time.

The grief for dad is a quiet one.

I know many people who have experienced loss say things like ‘I wish I could have one more hug, one more chat’. I try not to have that wish because it will never come true, I’m just grateful for everything given to us by the people we have loved and lost.  

For the first couple of months, it was the first thought every morning, and then you get through a morning coffee and toast before dad comes into your mind, and then you feel guilty.

But there should be no guilt or expectation when it comes to grief, it is the ultimate personal experience, just like music is the ultimate personal choice – we all do it differently.

Please leave your comments on our social media pages or you can email them to me on tim.herbert@newsquest.co.uk