Irish Stylist Cathy O'Connor on losing three brothers in tragic circumstances: 'It can be hard to not let it consume your Christmas'
Having experienced the great loss of her three brothers by the time she was 19, stylist Cathy O'Connor has advice for people like her who find Christmas difficult
It's the most wonderful time of the year, when chestnuts are roasting on an open fire and faithful friends gather near to us once more. Or so the songs blasting out on Christmas FM and the supermarkets' picture-perfect TV ads would have us believe. One person who isn't buying into Christmas being the happiest season of all is fashion stylist supreme, Cathy O'Connor, who feels that there is far too much pressure placed annually on everyone in the face of a relentless onslaught of idyllic pictures of bliss and togetherness.
"It's a really hard time of year to dance to your own rhythm," she says. "The picture projected to us is the beautifully decorated home, three generations of a perfect, healthy family, and lots of food to be enjoyed. If ever the expression 'compare and despair' kicks in, it's at Christmas time. I can't think of any other occasion where the anticipation starts two months beforehand, and where we're bombarded with the countdown, the food, the presents and 'What are you wearing?' It's everywhere you turn - the shops, the streets, the newspapers and radio and TV."
For Cathy, 56, the ghosts of Christmas past weigh heavily on her because all three of her brothers and her dad have passed away. Three anniversaries fall on November 30, December 8 and December 17, just as the country is ramping up the seasonal festive factor to the max.
Cathy had a lovely childhood growing up in Clonskeagh as the only girl in the family, and her parents had a pharmacy in Ballsbridge called O'Connor's, which is still there, but under new ownership.
When she was 12, her youngest brother John was born. There were complications and sadly he died at six weeks old. As a teenager, she had a great relationship with her older brother Gerard and younger brother Kevin, whom she describes as lovely people. Kevin was very bright and entrepreneurial, but he died aged 16 in a motorcycle accident. Seventeen-year-old Cathy was heartbroken, and that grief was compounded two years later when her brother Gerard, who was passionate about music, died in a car accident aged 20.
So much grief and loss seems like too much for one family to bear, and Cathy says that losing her brothers changed her "completely and utterly". Her parents, phenomenally strong, kind and decent people, supported her and each other through it all, and she tried to do the same for them. Cathy's "gorgeous" dad John died from cancer 10 years ago, and she is grateful to still have her mum Stephanie, to whom she remains very close." All you can do in that situation is put one foot in front of the other and try to get through each day," she says. While the grief becomes that bit more acute at Christmas, when the happy family idyll is rammed down our throats, Cathy tells her story not in a self-pitying way, but to remind others that everyone is on their own journey. "I'm like so many other people who experience grief at Christmas time," she says. "It doesn't have to be around death. There are parents who won't be seeing their kids because of a relationship breakdown, or maybe they live abroad. Then there are couples who thought they would have had children by now and haven't. We had that classic family Christmas with a full house growing up, and all of our friends would come and go. We all got on very well, so it's the memories of what was, contrasted with what is now, that causes difficulty."
Anyone who meets Cathy couldn't fail to notice how serene and thoughtful she is. Unfailingly kind and inclusive, she is always mindful of the feelings of others. She thinks that the pressure put on people to be part of the mania and hype that surrounds the season of goodwill is unfair, because the collective consciousness around Christmas dictates that we should all be toasting marshmallows and carolling out in the snow. She met some young women at an event recently, and they simply couldn't understand why she wasn't a fan of the holiday season.
"They said, 'Bah humbug, to me'," she recalls, "and I wanted to slap their lovely faces. If someone says they don't like Christmas, try to have a bit of compassion and leave them be. You don't need to challenge them or ask them why? Christmas shouldn't be forced down anyone's throat, because many people have very valid reasons for finding it hard and are not just being a Grinch. This time of year comes with heightened emotions, between the music, the memories and trying to make everything perfect. People who find it a hard time of year carry a wound with them, and the more you call them a Grinch, the further you push them into a corner, so try to be kind and compassionate."
With the trademark white streak in her hair that developed in her 20s and her impeccable style, Cathy is a familiar face on our TV screens and at stylish events. Her career developed in television, and she spent five years working for an independent production company. This was followed by five years at RTE, where she worked on lifestyle shows like Off the Rails, Head To Toe and The Movie Show.
She went on to be a magazine fashion editor and is now freelance, styling features for television, writing features and blogs, producing fashion shows, personal shopping, and hosting style workshops. Ironically, she will have worked on many Christmas-style features in the past few weeks, but she doesn't mind that aspect, because Cathy loves making women look and feel good about themselves.
She will spend Christmas with her lovely mum Stephanie, whom she describes as, "the best mother in the world," she smiles. "She is so engaged with life and always in good form, and is kind, enthusiastic, interested and a really positive force."
Cathy is also very close to her cousins, and there will be 11 of them sitting around her mum's table for dinner on Christmas Day. She is aware that because the memories of previous Christmases are so poignant and heartbreaking and the sense of absence can be so great, the danger can be missing out on the people who are actually present on the day.
"Christmas Day itself isn't actually that sad for me for that reason," she says. "It's a time to look at all the lovely people around me and realise that mum and I are lucky to have my lovely cousins, who are always there for us. My advice is not to think about who isn't there as you sit around the table. Feel happy with the people who are present, and look at the love around you." One person who won't be there this year is Marc Flanagan, whom Cathy started dating over Christmas 2009 and became engaged to in 2013. Marc is an American father-of-two, and is the double Emmy award-winning writer of The Tracey Ullman Show. They were unusual as a couple in that Cathy had never been married and didn't consider herself the "marrying kind" until she met Marc. He had been married three times, and had initially come to visit Ireland as his parents both had Irish backgrounds. He and Cathy met and dated for several years, but unfortunately it wasn't to be. The wheels came off the love cart, and the relationship ended quietly and amicably earlier this year.
"This is the first time I have been single at Christmas in many years, so that's a change," says Cathy, whose late dad always told her that she had great strength. "I'm absolutely fine though, because it's a marvellous thing to have lots of possibilities in life." While she doesn't have children, Cathy loves them and feels lucky to be at peace with not having become a mother. She has great compassion for the people who are having difficulty conceiving and will find Christmas hard because they thought they would have a baby by then. "It's not my personal wound, but I completely understand it," she says. "I also feel for families who are tight for cash, because kids' expectations around presents are so high. The pressure for Christmas to be perfect is huge, even the pressure around making the dinner, because it's almost as if the day isn't perfect if you haven't made it from scratch. There is no variety in what Christmas should be like, because all the ads show the same thing. In real life, the whole family may not get on, and you will probably have a drunk uncle in the corner."
The thing about grief is that it's a shape-shifter, says Cathy. When she was younger, her grief was around losing her brothers and the ache of missing them. As she gets older, she thinks about how the family would have expanded if things had been different, and she grieves for the nephews and nieces she might have had. "Family is a different word now and it hits you in various ways," she admits. "You can't just put it in a box as it presents itself in different ways, so it can be hard to not let it consume your Christmas."
Of course, grief is not the only thing that can make people feel they're not at the party when everyone else is having a ball. Illness, loneliness, financial worries, work difficulties and feelings of inadequacy or anxiety can all conspire to make you feel that you don't measure up. For some people, this can become particularly acute at Christmas when people are all back home again and they listen to others describe their roll of achievements and accomplishments throughout the year. It's also a time of heightened romance and people getting engaged, so those disappointed in love can find that the happiness of others brings gaps in that area of their lives into sharp relief. New Year is another time that can be difficult for people. Cathy used to go away for much of the festive season and New Year, and says that the great thing about doing that is you get to do it all on your own terms. You can make as much of it or as little of it as you want, which she prefers. "A challenge of being at home is that if you don't participate, you're not part of the party," she says. "I still hate the idea of New Year, with everyone reviewing the year before and then making all of these resolutions. Also, people think that what you do on New Year's Eve is a huge reflection of who you are, so you have to be at the best parties with the best people." When it comes to the girls who called her a humbug, Cathy knows they meant no harm, and obviously hadn't the life experience to help them understand why Christmas can be difficult for others.
"Kindness is one of my favourite qualities in others, because it can really make a huge difference to people's lives," she says. "When you have gone through any sort of trauma, you try to find some way of making peace with it within yourself." As someone who has had many years of practice around getting through Christmas, Cathy has some advice for people who are experiencing loss or sadness and disappointment at Christmas. "You should try to get to know your thoughts and recognise the dangerous and negative ones, because they're the ones that can kick you down the rabbit hole," she says.
"Try to control the thoughts before you let them get the better of you. Nip it in the bud and go and take time for yourself and go off and do something nice. Or if you have too much alone time, make an effort to be around others."
Sunday Indo Living