Saturday 22 November 2014

Coping With Loss: Love and death and marriage

Losing his wife to cancer was a devastating experience for sociology professor Tom Inglis. He tells Ciara Dwyer how he brought his experience of grief and his professional skills to bear in a new book about love and coping with his loss

'I WAS madly in love with Aileen. When she died in 2005, it was like going towards the end of a precipice. Suddenly she fell off the precipice and I was left behind. I think I was in deep shock for the first two years." As I listen to Tom Inglis utter these words, I am at a loss for a response. What do you say to a man who has lost his beloved wife? Or is it simply that all you can do is listen to his tale of grief?

Tom Inglis is a softly spoken man. Neatly dressed in a shirt and jumper, he cuts an unassuming figure when I meet him on a wet Friday afternoon in The Merrion Hotel in Dublin. The 61-year-old Dubliner is an associate Professor of Sociology at UCD.

Sociologists are accustomed to analysing the individual in society and coming up with answers but when Tom's wife, the artist Aileen MacKeogh, died of breast cancer he felt adrift. He needed some succour, and to try to make sense of it all, if that were possible.

"I began to read about death and grief and love, and not just in terms of romantic literature, but that didn't say anything to me about what I'd been going through. Then I started reading sociology and that was even worse. It was so dry and academic.

"When you lose somebody you love, the idea that you will never see or hear from them again is the really hard part. Aileen and I became so entwined. We were like ivy growing together and when she died, it was a slow unravelling and I was left with nothing to hold onto."

When they first met at a dance in Stella House, Mount Merrion in 1969, it was love at first sight.

He spotted her standing alone and wrongly assumed that this good-looking girl had a boyfriend who was either in the toilet or had left her. As he walked past her, they looked at each other. Eventually he summoned up the courage to approach her. They stared at each other and finally he said the only word which came to mind -- "woof", to which she responded "meow". From that spark passion flared.

"Stella House was the ballroom of romance of south Dublin, where young people were suddenly involved in a culture of pleasure and the excitement of erotic dreams but also really vibrant Sixties' music," Tom explains.

"Just being able to have a kiss would send you home delirious with excitement. It could have been a complete coincidence that at the end of the evening Aileen and I were in the same headspace but there were also a lot of similarities. We were from the same class, same age group, white, middle-class Catholic background."

One of three children, Tom grew up in Churchtown, the son of an architect. Aileen's father was an auctioneer.

When she invited Tom to her family home, she brought him up to her bedroom, which he remembers looked like Francis Bacon's chaotic art studio. There were bright coloured clothes and already, there were works of art, and projects of which she was proud. Aileen remained an artist until her dying days, when she was painting and creating and reacting to the world around her with her art. On the first day in her home, she brought him to a field beside their garden and kissed him there. Looking back, Tom smiles as he thinks of how she took total control of the situation and how he happily went along with it.

He had hailed from a more conservative background, where his mother was a daily communicant and his father was horrified by any hints of intimacy on their television screen.

"It was a very traditional middle-class Catholic background with loads of Catholic, Victorian baggage about sexuality, with awkwardness and embarrassment about it.

They married in 1973 and went on to have three children -- Arron, Olwen and Luke, who died tragically at nine months. But through it all their marriage was characterised by a deep bond of love, friendship, honesty and fun. This has made Aileen's absence all the harder to take.

Although raised as a Catholic, Tom is an agnostic. He admits that it would have been easier for him had he been a man of faith.

"The idea of God is a brilliant thing to hold onto," he says. "It's so successful because it provides an explanation for that which there is no explanation. That's why I was caught in this ambivalent space, screaming at a God that I didn't know existed, and whose existence I doubted, for having sent me this ordeal.

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