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A star far away: grieving the loss of a son

30 November, 1999

Patricia O’Neill’s world fell apart when her 12-year-old son drowned in Wexford’s Kilmore Quay in 1998. But it was also the nightmare that guided her back to her faith, as Deirdre O’Flynn reports.

Christy O’Neill loved the beach and the sea near his house in Wexford’s Kilmore Quay. And it was that sea which claimed the life of the bright 12-year-old on July 9, 1998, throwing his family into a maelstrom of grief.

“We think he was dead only a few minutes when we found him,” says his mother, Patricia, recounting the day every parent’s worst nightmare visited her seaside home. But it was also the nightmare which guided her back to her faith and to a heightened sense of self-awareness.

“I just knew straight away that he was going somewhere where all the things he’s ever wanted would be there for him,” she says, “and that someone far more powerful than I was going to help him now.”

Her faith is reflected in her pleadings and questions to God to help get her through the journey of her grief in letters she wrote to Christy after his death. Those letters formed the basis of a book, A Star Far Away: Letters to Christy, a heart-rending outpouring of grief as she stumbled some way along the road to a new life without her youngest son.

Patricia charts, with some rawness and anguish, the grief felt by her husband and family, and her own re-discovery of her self. “I love the role of being a mother, but you tend to forget that you’re somebody else also,” she says. “Christy’s death made me realise I had the right to those feelings and emotions that I told my children to express. I am far more conscious now of my needs as a person.”

That realisation did not come easily, however, as Patricia was torn apart by grief after Christy’s death. “I seemed to go through the different stages of the grieving process all at once – there was a madness to it and I was disturbed by the things I thought,” she says in her soft London accent, still present after 17 years living near the scenic port of Kilmore Quay. “In a way, the practical act of writing them down made them OK.”

It also allowed her to reflect on how her despair led her to briefly consider taking her own life, lining up pills on the table one night and being tempted to take them. “I felt emotionally dead and that I might as well combine the two and be physically dead. I felt I had nothing to offer and couldn’t bear the thought of waking up tomorrow and feeling the same.”

Her hesitation saved her life and infused her with anger later when she thought of the pain her actions could have caused her family. “I was quite calm at the time but afterwards I felt so angry at myself that I could add to the pain of my husband and our family. I had felt so absorbed by my own grief.”

Desperate struggle

He also found some comfort in his painting again, even if unable to acknowledge its role in his healing. For a recent birthday, he painted Patricia a watercolour of a boy playing on the beach, his hands raised in joy towards the brilliant blue sky. “I asked him if the boy was Christy and he said, ‘No, it’s just a boy.’ It’s like it’s too hard to admit that it might be Christy.”

In the same way, it is taking time to adjust to the loss of the young boy, with his interest in dancing and books, playing on the beach and music. “The older children miss having a younger brother to keep them in touch with the latest craze. We’ve become witnesses to what children are buying and not buying, instead of us buying things for Christy.”

Instead, the family have focused on each other. “I’m more conscious of the children, especially when they’re away, because I’m always conscious now of what can be taken away.” That feeling was devastatingly hammered home in the year following Christy’s death as a friend’s baby died, another friend’s son went missing and yet another friend died in a car crash.

Instead of being crushed by the desperation of that year, Patricia and her family have seen the light at the end of the tunnel and learned to laugh – and love – again. “I’m conscious of the love Christy had been shown as a child. That’s what he has left me with – an overwhelming feeling of love for myself and the people I share my life with.”

A Star Far Away: Letters to Christy

This article first appeared in Reality (Jul/Aug 2001?), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.

, by Patricia O’Neill (Marino), £7.99. That absorption was matched by her husband Kevin’s equally desperate struggle with his emotions. A talented painter, he turned away from his art, unable to reach inside himself past his pain to express his feelings on canvas. Separately, the couple battled, trying individually to shield their grief from their remaining children, Eugene, Alice and Sinead. “I had great faith in Kevin. In small ways, by his silence and torment, he helped me to grieve.”