Jack Rooke: There’s nothing funny about grief

But, says stand-up comedian Jack Rooke – who lost his dad to cancer then his best friend to suicide – openness, honesty and lots of happy memories will help you smile again.

Around the age of three or four, you could have asked me about my family and I would have told you that I had two wonderful parents, Chris Evans and Vanessa Feltz. My extended family included glamorous Aunty Pat (Butcher), my northern Uncle Les (Battersby) and my various cousins Zippy, Dipsy and Wellard the German shepherd. This is what I earnestly told people on the bus in the mid-1990s, during a childhood spent obsessed with television.

In reality my parents were my dad Laurie, a curly-haired black cab driver, and my mother Josie, a fellow curly-haired multi-grafter who did any job she could get. I had two brothers who were 21 and 13 years older than me, but these two curly-haired lovers from Mill End in Hertfordshire created in me the most curly-haired chubby white kid you’ve ever seen.

Jack and dad Laurie
Proud dad Laurie meets Jack for the first time, July 1993. Image: @Instagram/Jack Rooke

I was like Roald Dahl’s Matilda – a bit of a misfit. I loved reading, talking and irritating everyone with incessant lines of questioning. However, unlike Matilda, I was incredibly loved by my parents.

I loved pop music, the Spice Girls, various gradients of the colour pink and magic. But one man never made me feel as if I wasn’t enough of a boy. Even though he loved his cars and his pubs, he always seemed to accept me purely for me and didn’t care what anyone thought. My dad Laurie.

I was a mini him and spent the vast majority of my free time as a child out and about with Dad. He would drop me off at school on the way to Heathrow Airport. At weekends, we would stop off to see my nan before going to do our other favourite pastime: driving into London in his black cab and misusing his ‘waiting to pick up elderly passenger’ sign as a way to nab free parking so we could walk around and explore.

Then our black cab adventuring days came to an end because Dad started to suffer from back pain. He had numerous appointments with doctors, specialists and nurses. He lost a bit of weight. Then some more weight. He complained about the pain again. He saw his GP again. He was getting really quite sick. When I look back, that spring and summer of 2008 was the last time I see myself as a child. I was 14. I was in Year 10 at school, devising plays in the drama hall and going into Watford with my friends to loiter.

Jack and dad Laurie
Jack’s parents created ‘the most curly-haired, chubby kid you’ve ever seen’.

As the weeks went on, it became clear that Dad was bedridden and was not about to get better any time soon. One night, in early September, I saw him tucked in bed with the heating on and under a duvet but unable to stop violently shivering. I ran downstairs to tell Mum that it was frightening me but we didn’t have a clue what to do. I would give so much now to be able to hug that frightened teenage kid who just wanted to fix things but felt so out of his depth.

On 18 September, my cousin Amy and a few friends took me out for some relief. I had a nice night: we went to an in-store gig in london and watched some bands. But when I got home I walked into the living room to find everyone sitting in a semicircle, in a way that you only ever see on Eastenders when some bad news is about to be given.

I remember Dad turned his head; he couldn’t look at me. My best friend in the whole wide world couldn’t look at me. And I just knew. In that moment I knew what was coming. I felt all the hairs on my body rise to the ceiling. I felt all the adrenaline in my arms, legs and chest start pounding. And all I said was: ‘I don’t want to know.’

I ran upstairs to my room and slammed the door. My middle brother Dean, who I’d never really got on with, came up. He knocked on my door. I didn’t answer. He walked in and sat next to me, putting his arm around me. I asked, ‘Is it the C-word?’ Dean nodded. It was kidney cancer. There was a tumour and it was big. I very much feel my childhood can be split into three – before Dad’s cancer, during Dad’s cancer and after Dad’s cancer: the bereavement years. During Dad’s cancer was such a short period but it transformed me. It turned me from a boy to a man. From a child to an adult. Someone who had something vital cut short – the ramifications of which cannot be fully understood or easily articulated. To be the young child of a dying person.

Jack and dad Laurie
Jack with his dad Laurie – ‘I was a mini him’. Image: @Instagram/Jack Rooke

Mum and I had ten days of knowing Dad had cancer. Nowadays I flip back and forth in my mind about whether or not his late diagnosis was, in a way, a blessing in disguise. He wasn’t suffering for long but, then again, ten days was never enough time to even begin to process what was happening. The questions come thick and fast, leaving you chaotically dizzy and, at the same time, violently numb. You realise that you really have no control of the situation.

Dad went into a hospice. Mum and I would sit there beside him, chatting away about nothing, trying to make sure he knew we were with him. Any time I wanted to cry, I would leave his room because I didn’t want him to see me upset. I’d slide down the walls of the waiting room and fall in a pile, sobbing till a nurse or a relative came and picked me up again. I felt like the loneliest 15-year-old in the world.

That day when I left, I hugged Dad, who was drifting in and out of consciousness, and said, ‘I love you, I love you so much.’ He had just about enough energy to lift his head upwards and kiss me on the lips. That was the last kiss I ever had from him. I’d decided that was my goodbye. That was it for me. I was ready. Half an hour later, Mum returned home. Standing at the front door, she said, ‘He’s gone.’

Jack, Alan and niece Charlotte
Jack with brother Alan and niece Charlotte in 1998.

I have to say that the first feeling I had was relief. A sense of calm washed over me that the horror of the past ten days had ended. Dad drifted off to sleep at eight minutes past eight, with Mum right beside him, holding his hand, telling him to just let go. Telling him she loved him with all her heart. That she’d look after the boys. That he didn’t need to fight any longer. In a way, I’m happy – almost proud – that among all the tragedy, fear and sadness, his final moments were surrounded by nothing but love.

******

I went to the University of Westminster, the first person in my family to go to uni, to do a BA in journalism. It combined my dream to study in the media capital of the world with being affordable (thanks to a scholarship) and close to my mum.

The student station, Smoke Radio, was run by a committee of elected second-years and a guy called Olly was its head of news. On the surface Olly was a Jack-the-lad type. He was 24, a second-year journalism student who had a good five years on everyone else in his year and mine. He was always surrounded by a similarly good-looking bunch of second-year boys who I found intimidatingly fit.

Jack and Olly
Jack with his best friend Olly in 2012: ‘we kept an eye out for each other and turned our adversity into determination’.

I had been volunteering with the charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and told him I wanted to make a radio package about its suicide prevention campaign and magazine for the station. Olly loved the idea, wanting to know more. He very sweetly and openly told me he’d dealt with some of his own mental-health issues and so the cause fully resonated with him and he’d support anything CALM and I were trying to do.

There was something about Olly. It felt as though we’d agreed we wanted to spur each other on to succeed. We kept an eye out, rooting for each other in turning our adversity into determination and, ultimately, happiness.

He was the one who, after I performed at a fundraising gig for CALM called Save the Male and got my first standing ovation, ran up and gave me the biggest hug. I will always remember him saying, ‘That was you, Jack! That was you on stage. This is what you should do – it was career-defining. You should be so proud. I’m so proud of you.’

Quite honestly, it was the first time I’d heard the words ‘I’m proud of you’ said by another man since Dad.

But after he left university, Olly struggled to find his feet. He just wasn’t wearing himself very well, if that makes sense. Instead, life was wearing him. Olly had a more complex mental illness than any of my experiences with anxiety and depression.

We last spoke on the phone on what would have been Dad’s 62nd birthday. We had a good hour-long chat, beginning with how we both had gyp with our radiators then how we’d both been having a bit of a bad time. We ended the call with him making plans to come to see me, and me promising I’d come to him in spring. I would like to believe that they were genuine plans. Plans that Olly meant to keep. But sadly neither of those things ever happened.

Jack promoting Good Grief
Jack promoting his award-winning stand-up show about coping with his father’s death. Image: Lewis Simpson

It was the day before my final Edinburgh fringe pitch for my show Good Grief – my last shot at getting a slot for the festival. I saw two good-luck texts, then noticed a few missed calls from my friend Claire. There was an answerphone message from her: ‘Hi Jack. Can you call me, please? We need to talk.’

I immediately thought: it’s Olly. I panic-called my mum. And, bless my mum, she told me I was being completely stupid, to calm down and focus on what I needed to do.

So that’s what I did. And afterwards, I took a deep breath and rang Claire back.

‘It’s Olly. He’s died. Last night. He took his own life and I’m just calling to let you know.’ Then she burst into tears and I was just numb.

As I hung up the call, I could feel my legs turn heavy, like sandbags. I couldn’t walk. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I was in absolute, total shock, yet at the same time devastated because I felt like I’d seen it coming. I felt like I’d heard Claire’s phone call in my mind before, telling me his demons had won and he’d done it.

Jack with Gemma Cairney
Jack with radio presenter Gemma Cairney at 2018’s Costa Book Awards. Image: Edward Lloyd/Alpha Press

The suicide of a loved one can often feel like a series of failures. The what-if questions run races around your head at night. ‘What if I’d just…’ ‘How did I fail to notice…’ ‘Why didn’t I say…’

Suicide highlights the failures in our society, our media, our government, our health services and all the ways in which we effectively try to protect the people who are the most vulnerable. And in the hardest moments, suicide feels like a failure of the love we have for those we care about. But what I’ve learnt since Olly’s passing is that this failure isn’t true.

It’s so important to understand that no one is ever solely to blame. There is never one specific reason why someone has felt so low they have taken their own life.

A suicide is one of the worst tragedies of the human experience but I promise the happier times do start to come back. No matter how hard it can feel for someone to accept a suicide, life goes on and people adapt and grow.

I still try to live my life in the belief that Olly really did want to live. That Olly was trying hard to get better. I had so badly hoped it was a mistake – an attempt he didn’t want to succeed – but when I discovered there was a letter and a coroner’s conclusion that it was intentional, this made me want to continue trying to support CALM as best as I could. I needed to focus on spreading awareness of suicide prevention and to make myself feel like I was doing something positive in his memory.

Ultimately, it’s important that we collectively make sure we don’t see suicide as this massive failure but as something that we can tackle, accept and educate people about – and to prevent it from feeling like a valid option to the people we love in times of crisis.

This is an edited extract from Cheer the F*** Up by Jack Rooke, price £16.99, which will be published by Ebury Press on 30 July. Order a copy for £10.99 until 9 August at whsmith.co.uk by entering the code YOUCHEER at the checkout. Book number: 9781529108231. For terms & conditions go to whsmith.co.uk/terms.