“You never get over losing a child, but you have to put it behind you”
Eric Pemberton has battled the loss of a daughter and a wife, as well as serious heart problems. He tells Sarah Brealey how he has stayed strong.
Eric Pemberton had a heart attack and bypass surgery while he was dealing with his daughter’s terminal illness. He was so distraught over his daughter that he hardly cared about himself.
But he survived and, despite the loss of his daughter, aged 21, and then his wife, plus his own serious health problems, he manages to keep a positive attitude to life.
He says: “I feel young at heart and delighted I survived. I am 83 but I feel about 53.”
Dealing with loss
Eric’s youngest daughter Gayle was in her second year at university when she came home feeling unwell. When she was diagnosed with acute leukaemia, she was told she might only live for a few days. In fact she carried on for 18 months and Eric, who had been made redundant from his job as a television engineer, nursed her during that time.
He says: “My daughter’s death was the biggest tragedy ever. She was so alive. She was a determined young lady, she had three jobs and was doing well at university. She could have done so much and it is a loss to society that she is gone.
The person who has passed on would want you to carry on and live life to the full
“I still suffer from Gayle’s death. I still shed tears for her. I don’t think I will ever really get over it, but you have to put it behind you. You have to understand that the person who has passed on would want you to carry on and live life to the full, because they loved you so much.”
It was during Gayle’s illness that Eric had his heart attack, in 1994. He said: “At first, I didn’t really know what was going on. When I was told what had happened, I wasn’t scared. I just thought ‘this is life’.
“I was in hospital after my heart attack when my daughter was extremely poorly. She visited me when she herself was too ill to walk up the stairs. The terrible thing is that I survived and she did not.
“I would gladly have given up my life if it would have meant that she survived.”
Gayle died in 1996, and in 1997 Eric was told he needed bypass surgery. He says: “I was still shattered from the loss of Gayle and I didn’t care whether I lived or died. But I survived and I went home to my wife.
“I just focused on following the instructions the doctors gave me. I tried to put everything that happened behind me and live my life.”
Life is worth living
Living life to the full
A decade later, Eric’s wife Trish died, after 48 years of marriage. He says: “She was a fantastic wife. I am so sad that we didn’t make it to 50 years. She was very ill at the end. One of the last things she did for me was buy a card for our anniversary, and she wrote in it ‘I love you immensely’. That meant a lot to me.”
Eric mourned his wife, but he says the loss of Trish, 72, was easier to deal with than that of his daughter at such a young age, because at least Trish had enjoyed a full life and seen her children grow up.
Eric believes in making the most of what life has to offer, especially if you have a heart condition. To him, that means enjoying hobbies and interests, and having new experiences.
“I think sometimes people who have heart problems just sit by the fire and wait to die,” he says. “You have to not give up, but go out and do things. If you want to go on holiday abroad or whatever you want to do, then do it. If you fancy playing football, or sailing (as I do), or flying a microlight (as I also do) then why not?”
Eric learnt to sail in the RAF as a young man, and never forgot how much he enjoyed it. So when he was 50, he borrowed money to buy a boat so he could take it up again.
He sold that boat when he lost his job but, after his wife died, he realised he needed another interest. So he bought another one, which he now sails with his son John (pictured right with Eric). “It is a fantastic pastime,” he says. “There is so much freedom when you are out at sea. You can go as fast or as slow as you like, and no one tells you what to do.”
He was in his 70s when he decided to learn to fly a microlight, having been inspired by an airfield near to his new home in Lincolnshire.
Eric also enjoys gentler pastimes, and takes pleasure in small things. “I live ten miles from the coast and I walk along the beach and see the waves come in and out. I take pleasure just in looking out of the window and seeing all the birds. Life is great.”
He’s a firm believer in doing things with other people, and having new experiences. He spent 20 years as a local independent councillor. “It opened up a new world to me,” he says.
I take pleasure just in looking out of the window and seeing all the birds
“I was able to help so many people with their problems. Then in 1994, I became Mayor of Solihull. It felt very daunting, especially because I had my heart problems. I felt like I couldn’t do it, but I decided to put on a mask and play the part of being mayor, and that is how I got through it. I even met the Queen and Prince Philip. It was a great experience.”
Eric’s heart attack left him with heart failure, and he also suffers from an irregular heartbeat, prostate and thyroid problems, and asthma. But he says he feels “fit as a fiddle” despite all this, and is full of plans for the future.
“There is so much more I want to do. I want to complete my microlight training. There are so many places I haven’t visited in my motorhome. I want to carry on sailing with my son.”
Eric recognises that he’s far from alone in going through difficult times, and is keen to offer encouragement to others. He says: “Whether you have a heart attack, bypass surgery or a bereavement, the point is to not give up. I grieve for both my wife and my dear daughter, but neither of them would wish me to live a life of grief and solitude.
“Life is worth living. I see some people who are much worse off than me and it is amazing what they can do. I take hope from that.”
Eric’s tips for happiness
- We cannot avoid loss, but remember our loved ones would not wish us to continue to grieve throughout our lives.
- Do things you take pleasure in, and try to have fun.
- It is so much better to share experiences with someone else, to do things together. Even if you don’t have a partner, do things with a friend. Try joining a club or society where you will meet people with the same interests.
- Accept what is happening to you, but live your life to the full as much as you can. Do as much as you can, when you can.
- Don’t look at heart problems as the end of your life – maybe this is just the beginning.