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A bereavement journey, Part I: Grief beyond grief

30 November, 1999

Kevin describes how counselling helped him to get to the bottom of his grief after the sudden death of his wife – by getting him to deal first with a much older source of grief. For most of my life I was not at all comfortable with anything to do with death and funerals. I […]

Kevin describes how counselling helped him to get to the bottom of his grief after the sudden death of his wife – by getting him to deal first with a much older source of grief.

For most of my life I was not at all comfortable with anything to do with death and funerals. I was awkward and self-conscious whenever I had to offer people my condolences, and I’d withdraw from the scene as quickly as I could. I even had a little ‘arrangement’ with my wife, Carmel, whereby I’d get to die first as she was much better at handling funerals than me. But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. In August 1992, when we were both 59 years old and 37 years married, Carmel died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. I was devastated.

 

Critical situation
It happened on a Monday. At the time I was working in security at a hospital. Carmel saw me out the door that morning, as she used to do every workday. I walked the three miles to work, and when I got there one of the staff said to me, “Your GP has been ringing for you. Something serious has happened and he wants you to call him back”. I rang the doctor immediately. In a very grave voice he told me that Carmel had suffered a haemorrhage and had been taken to Blanchardstown Hospital. “I’m putting you on notice,” he said more than once, “that the situation is very serious.”

 

As I put down the phone I felt a wave of panic. “What am I going to do?” I thought; “How will I be able to handle this?” But then I pushed the chair back, got up, and went into action, so to speak. Over the following few days I did everything I had to do, and I did it efficiently. Nobody was more surprised than me to see me cope well – in practical matters at least.

 

After my GP’s phone call I went straight to the hospital. I found out that Carmel was on a life-support machine and that she was showing no sign of brain activity. The doctors told me that they intended to turn the machine off the following day, after the necessary certifications had been signed.

Organ donation

Incidentally, some time later I received a very nice letter from the surgical team working for the Kidney Association. They said that there had been two beneficial results from the transplants. What great consolation that was.

Death and funeral

 

From the moment I received that phone call from my doctor, I found myself rebelling against what was happening. “This isn’t fair,” I thought; “You can’t do this to me, God. You did it to me before, and this is just too much.” What I was thinking of was my mother dying in childbirth forty-six years earlier, when I was just thirteen. Carmel’s death was a repeat performance, the way I saw it, and it made it doubly hard for me to accept it.

Counselling

 

I’ll always be grateful to that colleague at work who gave me the name of a bereavement counselling service and suggested I contact them. I’d never heard of such a thing – they didn’t have any kind of back-up services for people in grief when I was growing up – but when the pain is acute you’re grateful for any suggestions and you’ll try almost anything. I talked to a counsellor a few times on the phone, and then we met up.

Down this road before

 

When I finished, the counsellor said to me, “I’ve got news for you; you haven’t been down this road before at all. You have the same problem that many Irish men do. You’re afraid of emotion and of grieving, and you stiff-upper-lipped military men are the worst of all. You have to grieve for your mother before you can grieve for your wife.”

 

“But that was forty-six years ago,” I replied; “I can’t do anything about it now.”

 

“Not only can you do something, but you must do it,” she said.

 

And she continued: “What you should do is find yourself a quiet beach and give yourself time there to deal with your mother’s death. You have to go back in your mind to 1946 and take on board all that happened then. You have to grieve for your mother, and then you need to let her go. When that’s all done we can deal with the current situation.”

On the beach

 

It was a fine summer’s day. I was playing outside in the garden with some of my brothers and sisters. There was great activity in the house, with neighbours in and out all the time. And then suddenly the atmosphere changed. Our next-door neighbour came out and said to us, “Your mother’s gone to heaven”. And that was it. Over the hours that followed relatives, friends and neighbours continued to come and go from the house, but we, the children, were kept well away from all this activity.

 

The only time we were brought centre stage was when our next-door neighbour lined us up in the hallway in order of our age and sent us, one by one, to say goodbye to our mother, who was laid out in a room on the right. I don’t remember much of that event, just that my mother’s hands were very cold. And afterwards we were sent off to be looked after by neighbours until the funeral.

 

Letting tears flow

What I found too, that afternoon on the beach, was that as soon as I had cried over the death of my mother I was able to remember her clearly, in a way I hadn’t done since her death. I recalled what she was like in the good times; I could picture her as she used to be around the house; and I remembered some trips I had made with her to some country friends of hers. These were great memories. My mother had been out of my life, out of my mind, for so long that I never expected to be able to recover any sense of her. But now I had got my mother back. It was overwhelming.

 

Yet it was also tough and exhausting. My counsellor had said to me, “Don’t be surprised if you are exhausted by the grieving process. It uses up massive amounts of energy, just as physical work does.” And she was right. I felt washed out, but very happy. I was beginning to understand that when it comes to death and bereavement, you have to face the matter squarely and let yourself grieve. That way you can beat a path through it. The grieving process is a journey. You have to walk that road and stick with it no matter which way it meanders. Eventually you’ll get to the end of it.

The road of grief has an end

As I said earlier, when my feelings of grief were at their worst everything looked grim and grey, whether or not the sun was shining, and I thought the world would never look bright again. With the help of counselling, though, I experienced a breakthrough of light. One day – I still remember it clearly – a little flicker of light appeared. It was like a lightning flash on the horizon, gone so fast that you wonder if you saw it at all. But later it happened again, then again, and I knew that I wasn’t imagining things. Gradually these glimmers of light began to disperse the greyness that had taken hold of everything. I don’t know what brought them about. Perhaps they were “grace moments” of a kind. There were no specific events which brought them about. It wasn’t like that. But day by day, week by week, things began to change. The darkness disappeared, the sun began to shine, and life began to look bright again.

 

Grieving for Carmel

 

“You had a life before you met Carmel,” I said to myself, “and you still have a life now. You have duties and responsibilities, both to yourself and to your family, and you have to get on with fulfilling them. Grieve and let go.”

 

It’s not as if you can ever fully lay your grief to rest, of course. Even a few years later I was still experiencing what my counsellor called “after-shocks”. I’d have come to terms for the most part with my grief and I’d be feeling fine, when all of a sudden I’d get ‘sand-bagged’ out of the blue. It never lasted for very long, and once I realised it was just an after-shock and to be expected, I’d get over it quickly. Like a dog coming out of a river, I’d give myself a good shake and then walk on.

This article was written up from an interview by Dermot Roantree and Alan McGuckian

One thing which brought this transformation about was, of course, that as soon as I had finished grieving for my mother I began to approach grieving for Carmel in the same way. I came gradually to face the fact that Carmel was dead and that she wasn’t coming back. I understood that I loved her, that she was a good woman, a good wife and a good mother. I knew, though, that I had to grieve her and then let her go, just as I had done with my mother. That, I think, was the big lesson for me – that the road does indeed have an end. The rage settles down as you begin to realise that death is a part of life. You’re not the only one on the road of grief, and many people have had much worse experiences than you. This is both a consolation and no consolation at all. It’s helpful to see your own experience as part of normal life, but in no way is this a short cut along the path of grief. You still have to go through the whole process as if you were the only person who ever felt bereaved.We were devastated by our mother’s death, of course, but we knew to keep quiet and not get in the way. I knew I wasn’t meant to cry. I couldn’t always stop myself, but I tried hard to hide my tears and appear strong. Now, on the beach, was the first time I could just be weak and let those tears flow. And flow they did. I cried buckets that day. I cried out against what had happened to me. I cried out against God. “Why did you do this to me?” I shouted, adding, as you can imagine, a few colourful expletives, “and why have you done it to me again now? It’s not fair!” And the response I felt I got from God was, “Well, I have done it, so you’d better get on with it”. An army response, perhaps, but it didn’t feel cold or indifferent. It felt like God urging me to accept his will and trust him. I was astonished. I’d never have thought that my mother’s death could still be an issue. I admired the way the counsellor didn’t beat around the bush or take it easy on me. And the advice she gave me was just what I needed. I took it. I went to Killiney beach and I began to recall the day my mother died. When she asked me, at that meeting, how I felt, I replied, “I feel lost. I don’t know where I’m at, so I can’t get started again.” And I added, “I don’t understand why I feel as bad as I do, because I’ve been down this road before. My mother died during the birth of her tenth child, my sister Anne, when I was just thirteen years old. My father was left with ten children to look after. Those were tough days. It was just after the Second World War, electrification hadn’t got to our part of the country yet, and there was dire poverty everywhere. People didn’t really have any time for self-pity. It was made clear to us children that we just had to accept our mother’s death and get on with things. And so we did. In any case, it wasn’t long afterwards that we began to split up as a family. Some of my brothers and sisters went to England, and at sixteen I joined the army, where I stayed for the next twenty-five years.”The days after the funeral were unbearable. I went back to work as soon as I could, in the hope that it would fill a little of the void and restore routine to my life. But all this time I had a deep feeling of desolation. It seemed to me that the whole world was grey. Even when I could see that the sun was shining, everything seemed dull and colourless, and I genuinely felt that the sun would never truly shine again.The machine was switched off on the Tuesday, after the doctors had signed their documents and after I had signed a paper saying that I accepted the decision. In a sense, there was something mechanical about the way I kept going that day and during the few days that followed. I did everything I had to do. The funeral was beautiful, and I was able to handle it. Beneath the surface, though, I wasn’t coping nearly so well.I stayed there with Carmel all night. At one stage an ICU sister came to me and asked me very gently if I had considered donating my wife’s organs. I told her I’d only permit it if I had the unanimous approval of my family – my three daughters and my son. So I got them together and asked them what they felt. One of my daughters told us that Carmel had seen her organ donation card and commented that she’d have to get one herself. That clinched it. We were in full agreement and I passed our decision on to the nurse.

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