Talking about bereavement and loss

by Mary de Paor


November is a special time for remembering, maybe because of the falling leaves and dying vegetation along the roadside—and the feasts of Halloween and All Souls’ Day. Because each of the members of the Saoirse Independent Advocacy Group in Castleisland, Co. Kerry, had lost a close family member or friend, they decided to organise a special event of remembrance.

The Saoirse Independent Advocacy Group has six members. They are people with intellectual disabilities who attend different residential and day services; some live at home. They have been meeting for two years, in venues of their choice. To date, they have attended one protest march, lobbied Kerry County Council successfully on issues of access, and written letters on issues affecting them. Over the past year they designed and organised a meeting called ‘Talking about bereavement and loss’, which they held on 18 November in An Ríocht Health and Leisure Centre in Castleisland. More than 50 people joined them, and Frontline was honoured to be there too.

The members of the Saoirse Advocacy Group group sat together at the top of the room. Mary Nelligan greeted everyone, before Margaret Enright, Chairperson, officially opened the meeting—cutting a ribbon in front of a table with a display of photographs. Noreen McGuire lit three large candles to symbolise all the people being specially remembered. Saoirse advocacy officer Deborah Birmingham was asked to chair the proceedings, on their direction. Eileen Dukes, psychologist with the Kerry Parents and Friends Association, had been invited to set the scene by talking about the human bonds that endure beyond death, and the different ways people deal with grief and loss. There is healing power in remembering, she said, and people need opportunities to talk about their feelings and to share their memories.

Michael O’Leary read a speech in which he remembered his friend at Glebe Lodge, John O’Sullivan, who had died earlier this year. He spoke about John’s funeral in Cahirciveen. Margaret talked about how important it is to be included in the grieving process. She and the others at Oilean Beo (Castleisland day service) had been able to join with their friend John’s family after he died. Eamon O’Brien asked Noreen McGuire to read his speech for him. He shared memories of his father Robert who had died 27 years ago. In his memory, he played a recording for the audience of ‘A bunch of thyme’. Noreen also read her own story, saying how important it is to have somewhere to talk about one’s loss, and thanking those who had helped her over the difficult time after her father died a year ago. She lights a candle for her father each evening, and she finds that his dog Max is a great link to his memory.

Father Moynihan read prayers from the church liturgy for the dead, and Michael read a prayer the members of the group had composed. Everyone was invited to light a votive candle in memory of someone they had lost. These were placed on the memory table beside a beautiful cake designed by the group, and provided by the sister of John Griffin, who had died in 2008.

Deborah invited people in the audience to tell about someone they had lost. Mary took a microphone to them, and several people spoke emotionally about their loved ones and showed a photo of them.
The Saoirse Independent Advocacy Group members created the ideal atmosphere for the meeting, and all those who attended appreciated their respect and sympathy. Along with the sadness, happy memories were also shared. Once again it was proved that ‘it’s good to talk.’

The group had engaged the help of many others—advocacy officers Deborah Birmingham and Joanne Nelligan, Oilean Beo staff Seán Hanly (cameraman and candle.lighter) and Lisa Cronin, and Phil O’Mahony and Betty Walsh and the other women in the Castleisland Parents and Friends Association who served tea, sandwiches and cakes at the end of the meeting. Before they left, everyone was given a piece of the celebration cake to take home—where they would hopefully have another opportunity to talk and remember.

The Saoirse Advocacy Service, Castleisland, which is funded by the Citizen Information Board and which has supported the Saoirse Independent advocacy group, finishes in December 2010- A new National Advocacy Service will begin in January 2011. (For further information, contact can be made through the Citizen Information Board in Dublin.) The new service will be a one-to-one representative advocacy service and will not be supporting group advocacy. This will present new challenges in accessing skilled supports for small self-advocacy groups around the country in 2011. The Independent Saoirse Advocacy Group has written to the Citizen Information Board concerning their worries about this.