It is hard to write about grief and loss because they are private and individual experiences, even in a world where most things are public. Occasionally grief becomes public, as in the reactions to Princess Diana’s death which ended up expressing people’s sorrow at their own losses. The sudden death of a young person is always heart-breaking and shocking- Any man’s death diminishes me, as John Donne put it. Ways of coping are individual: what helps one person may be anathema to the next; one person’s words of comfort can be a red rag to another. I write as a parent who lost a daughter, Aoife, who had a severe disability; I’ve also lost my own parents and several friends. This piece is based on my own experience and is not generalisable.
Our secular world pushes death away, its main goal is as long a life as possible, using all medical means. I am a Christian and I think the loss of a general Christian worldview of God and a hereafter makes loss more difficult to accept, than it was in my youth. When I’m a sympathiser, I’m not sure if I should mention God and faith, in case it antagonises the bereaved person; yet if my words don’t reflect my feelings and beliefs, they seem fairly meaningless.
As a bereaved person, I found the sympathiser’s words, whether secular or religious, less important than their presence, their willingness to share sorrow. I was touched by the number of people who came to my daughter’s funeral. I was particularly touched by the presence of the manager of my daughter’s service at the hospital mortuary the Sunday she died. The following day when I opened my hall-door to her carers and her day-centre friends, some in their wheelchairs, and saw their grief, I knew Aoife had been a person and a companion to them, not just a job. In the following months I had to deal with others’ shock when I told them the news for the first time. Sometimes I felt guilty at not being sufficiently moved myself- Mostly, however, I was numb to other people’s opinions.
What I did find difficult in the months (and years) following Aoife’s death was the silence around her; people didn’t mention her much. Perhaps they thought they would upset me; perhaps it pained them too much. But when you lose a child, for a long time you inhabit the land of upsetness. And because Aoife wasn’t able to do much—she was a lily of the field, into being rather than doing—there were fewer actions to remember her in. Also, when someone who needs a lot of care dies, all the routine things you had to do for them vanish as well—your way of life as well as the person. The words of the song: Since you’ve been gone, I can do whatever I want… kept going through my head, but there was nothing much I wanted to do. As the song’s chorus said: nothing compares to you. Very occasionally I met someone who suggested that Aoife’s death might be a relief to me and I roused myself to resentment and told him/her how the mystery of her life had brought so much to me.
But usually if I mentioned Aoife to others, there was a respectful silence followed by a quick change of subject. The dead are not part of the conversational menu. People were supportive, but they wanted me to ‘move on’—one of my unfavourite terms. I remember with gratitude one friend whom I met casually the summer after Aoife’s death and who said directly: You must miss her terribly. It was so good to be acknowledged.
Life moves you on whether you wish it or not—along with your obligations to others. But a degree of grief remains constant, though I recognise now how merciful Aoife’s death was in forestalling some of the suffering likely from her progressive condition. I remember my grandmother praying for ‘a happy death’, and with the insouciance of youth, I thought her a bit morbid. Now coming to grandmotherhood myself, I understand. A phrase from an Addison essay I read at school remains with me: When I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tombs of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow. I didn’t know then that grief comes anyway, even if vain, even with awareness that all lives are short.
Some people find help in counselling and psychology, but I didn’t go that route, even though I had sensitive offers. The over-positive ethos and the bounded nature of such relationships put me off; I didn’t want to be an ‘interesting case’ for another professional, or to subscribe to some plan with goals. I did read books—psychology, novels. The ‘stages of grief” approach interested and irritated me—I felt it was far too linear and prescriptive. Novels about loss helped more. I wrote about Aoife, I made a photo album of her life, I visit her grave.
Each year I arrange a Mass for Aoife (though if anyone’s soul was without stain, it was hers) and family members gather at Bayside church and my house and talk—mainly of their own lives today. Yet I’m touched by their faithfulness to this ritual and the occasional presence of friends who would have known Aoife. I believe in God’s providence in her life and mine, and I hope—with fluctuating amounts of faith—for Aoife and all who loved her to be reunited in the life to come. On her gravestone we put the quote from the Psalms: I will never forget you: I have held you in the palm of my hand. Perhaps that’s the grief duty: not to forget.