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A bereavement journey, Part II: Redeeming the past

30 November, 1999

Kevin continues his bereavement story by recounting the positive impact his experiences of grief had on his whole family and on others.

All the time that I was grieving for my mother and for my wife I read extensively. I would read anything which I thought might help me to understand my situation. In particular I loved C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Another book that impressed me was Courage to Grieve by Judy Tatelbaum. But the book I kept on returning to was Scot Peck’s The Road Less Travelled. I even attended a workshop on that book for a year. Also, at this time, I was helped a lot by attending a series of classes on philosophy and anthropology. And later I did a two-year diploma course in counselling in Maynooth College.

My intention wasn’t to become a counsellor. I simply wanted to learn more about what’s involved in counselling. It had been of huge benefit to me in dealing with my family and with other people I knew who had suffered death in the family. I have never been an active counsellor.

Better at offering condolences
Shortly after I had begun to come to terms with Carmel’s death I learned that an old army friend of mine had died suddenly one morning while waiting in the doctor’s surgery. I was able to deal with it in a way that I’d never have believed in former times. I went down to his house and met his wife and his family. Later I gathered a number of his old comrades from the army and we formed a guard of honour at the funeral. A few years earlier I would never have done any such thing.Remembering times past

I remembered how my father had been left with ten children to look after. The oldest children were working at that stage, but the rest of us were still at home, and a number of us were very young. As a consequence, as soon as any of us come to an age when we were employable we moved on. For some, that meant going to England, usually to Leicester where one of my brothers was working and had a base. For the girls it meant going into domestic service. As for me, I wasn’t at all keen on going to England, so when I was sixteen my father put me on a train in Enniscorthy and sent me to Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin.

Army life was good for me. It was tough, tougher in those days than it is now. There was order and discipline, but it wasn’t intolerably harsh. Conditions weren’t great, but at least you had accommodation and regular meals. As I saw it, this was the hand I had been given, so I just had to play with it. I signed on for three years, then for another three, and so it went on until, before I knew it, I was up to the pensionable number of twenty-one years’ service. And during that time I had got married and had four children, three girls and a boy. Life was relatively routine until the fateful day of Carmel’s death.

Preparing for the anniversary
It struck me that our mother’s fiftieth anniversary was just two years away. So why not try to get the family together, I thought, to mark the occasion and help them to come to terms with our mother’s death and all it brought about. To find some kind of closure, perhaps, if they needed it.

I had five siblings in England and five here in Ireland. On top of us ten, there were two other half-brothers from my father’s second marriage. These two tend to operate as a separate family, but they are close relations and we all get on well together. I found out that 13 July on the anniversary year, 1996, was a Saturday, the same day as it had been in 1946. How good it would be to gather the whole family together on that day.

Road trip
My brother then sent me to another brother, and from there I went on to a sister in Leicestershire. Before long I had talked to all my brothers and sisters in both England and Ireland. Each of them received me well, but it became clear to me that if I didn’t organise the anniversary event myself it wouldn’t happen. So I took the whole job on myself. I arranged that we would all meet up on the anniversary back in our home town for a Mass and a get-together.

The anniversary
Later we went to a pub where we had hired a room for a family get-together. You can imagine how warm and moving our conversations were. At one stage the barman, in his innocence, switched on some music for us, but we told him straight away to turn it off. It wasn’t a party in that sense. But it was indeed a celebration of a kind, and it was a marvellous experience for all of us. We had a photograph taken that day, the only one ever taken with all of us in it! Each of us has a copy.

Present reflections
How could I have told, on the day when Carmel died, that the grief process would enrich both me and my family so much? But that’s what happened. It brought me closer to my mother, closer to my family, and closer to God. My relationship with God has never been as good as it is now. I still hear him saying, “Well, I have done it; now get on with it”. Not “put up with it”, but “get on with what you have to do”. And insofar as I have got on with what I had to do, I have had extremely rewarding experiences. Extremely difficult, it’s true, but equally rewarding.And that’s exactly what happened. It was a great day, appreciated by each and every one of us. The Mass was beautiful. The priest was excellent and he entered into the occasion very well. And the cathedral organist played beautifully for us, finishing, I remember, with ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’. Among the liturgical readings we had that terrific passage from Ecclesiasticus about there being a season for everything under heaven, and it was very moving. And after Mass we went to visit our mother’s grave. We had a simple ceremony there, organised by ourselves. It included some readings which I had chosen from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Altogether, it was a very poignant occasion.Initially I thought of writing to each of my siblings in England, but after a few failed attempts I gave up. Instead, I packed a bag and went to Busáras, the central bus station. I took a bus to Birmingham and visited one of my brothers. I told him of my plan. I also let him know of my recent experiences with grieving, especially how I had discovered, after forty-six long years, how much I had been affected by our mother’s death. I had only recently faced this fact, I told him, and I thought that he and my other siblings must have been similarly affected. As all these memories came to mind, I found myself thinking that the aftermath of my mother’s death had been unsatisfactory for all of us, both as individuals and as a family. We, the children, had never been all together since those days. I said to myself: “Things shouldn’t have ended that way”. And I felt a kind of inspiration to do something about it.But where my experience of dealing with grief had its greatest benefit was in relation to my own siblings. When I had come through the worst of my grief after Carmel’s death and had begun to see the light again, I used to go down occasionally to my relations in Co. Wexford. One evening I was in my sister’s house and I saw a photograph of our mother on a wall. It was a very old photo, quite fuzzy and unclear. I began to think about her and about her children and about what happened to our family after her death.As I said in the last article, for much of my life I avoided funerals when I could and I hated any involvement in situations in which people were in trouble. It’s not that I find it easy now, but I can do it. I don’t find it too difficult to go into a house where people are bereaved and offer my condolences and any practical help I can.

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