Remembering my dad: the politics of grief and death at work

It’s father’s day and I don’t have a dad any more. I am not alone in this, there are others in my age bracket who have also lost a parent, some who never had one and a few who have lost both through some deep awfulness. Despite that, we are ahead of the curve – most people our age will not lose their parents for many years and so much the better; the grief and trauma of losing a parent will come sooner or later but it is never easy. There are times though when people can be thoughtless in how they talk about their parents, a taken-for-grantedness which you cannot understand until they are simply not there. This is the stuff of everyday conversation – talking about seeing them last weekend, what it will be like when they retire and so on. I wouldn’t ask anyone to stop talking about this because of me, but it is difficult. Grief and the sweet-bitter joys of remembering are generally an everyday process, sparked by a memory, a discussion you can no longer have or a question you can never ask.

For me father’s day is not a time of fierce emotion, it digs at me because of the personal unfairness of it in a way which is hard to explain. There’s nothing wrong with having a day to focus on mothers/fathers and all the rest, despite the consumerism which is often associated with it. My dad’s birthday, the day he died and international worker’s memorial day on the 28th April each year are more powerful for me personally. The latter remembers all those who die at or because of work, the TUC puts that figure at 20,000 each year and my dad was one of those. I wanted to publish this then but it was simply too difficult and painful. Similarly attending a memorial event is not something I have felt able to do since 2012. My mum said that she didn’t want to go there and remember in reverence but to scream with anger and grief.

Far worse than any of the feelings I have on father’s day is the personal anger I feel about deaths caused by work. There are few more crass forms of insensitivity than the comments of David Cameron back in 2012 that he wanted to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.” He simultaneously succeeded in being extraordinarily offensive to victims of work-related illness, whilst quietly framing greater physical and economic violence against working people amongst a “common sense” argument for less “red-tape”. He thus trounced once and for all the unintended insensitivity of father’s day.

My dad, Simon Pickvance, died in November 2012 of Mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos which he was exposed to in the building trade in the 1970s. He spent his working life fighting with working people for the right to health at work. Initially this was with Sheffield’s steelworkers and builders in the early 1980s, but occupational health or workers’ health goes far beyond this. Links between long-term night-work and breast cancer amongst women are just one example and the UK has a poor record within Europe for de-regulation and inertia in taking steps to improve health at work. For me personally, his death was and still is a deep personal loss. His generation was wrapped up in how the personal is political, and in many ways my grief is no different. Below is the text for a speech which I wrote for a memorial organised by his friends and colleagues in November 2014 on the second anniversary of his death.

This week I’ve been planning a lecture on 1968 as my second supervisor is away (another 68er, though somewhat more ‘angepasst’ – conformist – than dad ever was).[1] Whilst I’ve been planning the talk, right through the process (looking for references, reading, writing the slides), I’ve missed him. Most of the time I’ve wanted to cry. It feels like a fuzziness around your eyes which dips down to the back of your throat and comes back up, burning your face around the edge. My body feels heavy and I sigh. That’s all I do mostly. I have to carry on. But now and again, and now, the tears come.

This is grief. Missing… the missing that doesn’t stop but comes and goes. One day a quick thought of him stabs you but passes quickly. Other days he’s there most of the day because you just want him there. That’s what it’s been like today, reading all this stuff about workers struggles in the 1960s and 70s because you know that if he was still here you’d be talking to him about it.

For me, just now, these autumn days are full of him. It’s partly the time of year – cycling through the park on my way to work with smells of wet leaves, like family walks in the peak district as a kid. It’s also because these were the last terrible weeks of his illness. But it’s the politics, the politics which has really got me today.

I remember talking to dad once about ‘being political’ and what it meant. I can’t remember who said it, me or him, but we both agreed that he was quietly political. I said I was too and he said ‘No you’re not, you’re passionately political.’ Or loudly political. Anyway it’s true, I quite like speaking (and shouting) about politics when I can. Today’s an example really.

What I wanted to say today was really something about politics, about my dad’s politics and about yours – not that I claim to know lots about it. Today I’ve been sat reading about worker’s self-management in France and Italy. So much of what my dad, Sue and John Lawson, Martin, Naomi and many of you were trying to do was about extending that process. About giving working people control over their lives, starting with their own experiences and using that to try and empower them to gain some level of control over their health. Workers’ health.

(I always thought it sounded better than occupational health – I’ve spent about 10 years trying to explain what an occupational health worker is and I always get a confused face).

I was telling a friend recently though about what my dad died of. Of asbestos, used in the building trade, she said to me: ‘But that’s terrible, he was killed from what he worked and fought against.’ My dad never talked about that much during his illness, but she was right.

It is terrible.

And this is where I want to talk about politics. You could call it the politics of grief, but it’s the politics of work as well, and your work in particular. When we first found out about dad’s cancer, when mum and dad told us what had caused it, that it was asbestos, I said ‘They knew, they fucking knew that stuff was poisonous.’ And I was furious, absolutely furious and totally fucking distraught.

That feeling faded, but it never went away. Sometimes it comes back and I kick something – I make sure it’s something soft. More often it hits me like a punch and I wince, suck the air in through my teeth and sigh loudly. Because what it feels like, what it is, mesothelioma and every other work-related illness.

It feels like theft. It is theft.

It’s theft for my dad who lost years that he should have had. It’s theft for us – our family and you his friends and colleagues. And it is theft for all the others who have come before him and will go after him.

People that die at or because of work, they die for no other reason than a fundamental indifference to people’s needs and their basic, basic, right to live a healthy life. Often it’s worse than that, it’s not indifference, it’s pro-active lying. Hiding the evidence, producing corporate-funded academic lies about the safety of asbsestos or lobbying for the de-regulation of working conditions.

My dad spent his working life fighting with you against that. He suffered the same theft of his life that so many others have done.

But I don’t want to get caught up in grief or self-pity. My dad had very little of that during his illness. (Though he did make the most of doing basically no cooking and no house-work and finally letting someone buy clothes that made him look actually quite stylish.) [2]

And I’ll end on this. He was adamant at his retirement do that there was still the same need now to struggle for worker’s health, as there was in the 1970s when he moved to Sheffield. I’m glad that today part of the day will be about current research and progress because there is no greater honour that you could do for my dad than to carry on fighting for worker’s health.

So let’s remember my dad – a partner, a father, brother, friend and colleague. And let’s take our grief and use it to keep fighting.

[1] I’m a PhD student in London.

[2] My dad was a pretty staunch feminist, which is partly why I have my mum’s surname, not my dad’s. The housework was always shared, but my dad’s illness changed that and so much else in my parents’ everyday lives.

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