Sunday 23 October 2016

Give your sons and daughters an extra hug when you can

Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30

People hold candles during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Berkeley, California
People hold candles during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Berkeley, California

The unspeakable tragedy that took the lives of five Irish J1 students and an Irish-American student in California this week put the fear of God into the hearts of thousands of parents around the country.

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Massive relief swept through many homes on Tuesday as young people made contact with parents by text, email and social media to say they were OK and were either not caught up in the Berkeley balcony collapse tragedy, or that they had survived.

But with the relief came the realisation that we are all only one step away from unexpected and devastating loss. We never know what is around the corner, or the day when that knock we all dread will come to the door.

My two young adult children are past the J1 stage, but for us the awful events came a little closer to our home than we would have liked. Our son learned that Eoghan Culligan, a former St Mary's College Rathmines student and brother of a close friend, died in the tragedy.

The St Mary's lads are a very tight group and they gathered that evening to support each other and to call to the Culligan home.

There was lots of contact back and forth to see who had been at the party in which the six young people died, and information and news shared. On Wednesday evening, they came together at a special service in St Mary's school. Despite the sorrow it was lovely, as a parent, to see how they drew huge comfort in their close network, and to witness how they all rallied around to provide support for each other.

The Berkeley tragedy was also raw for us, as our daughter is currently in New York on a year-long graduate visa. She did her J1 two years ago. I replayed time and time again in my head this week the "what if" scenario. What if it had been her? What if it was us who got the late-night phone call? What if it was us who had to make that heartbreaking journey across the Atlantic to bring home a body or to be with a badly injured child? How would we cope if the unthinkable happened?

This appalling accident will be a huge challenge for those of us who have a young adult abroad, or one about to go away. There will be the temptation to ask them to fly home or to cancel their trip, or to hop on a flight to be with them. I heard one mother this week say that there is no way she will she be letting her daughter go on her J1 next year. That reaction is totally natural.

But we can't wrap our kids up in cotton wool for ever. The J1 has been a rite of passage for almost 30 years. It is into its second generation now, with parents who did it when they were in college waving their kids off for the same experience.

We must remember that most students who go away come back safe and sound. But, yes, of course you worry. You hate the idea that, for the first time, you lose control.

When my daughter went to Chicago on her J1 two years ago I had a little chat with myself. She was 21, fairly sensible, and I realised I had to let the reins go. Yes, she was more than likely going to play hard as well as work hard - sure, I remember my own student days only too well. But the less I knew about what she was getting up to the better. It didn't stop the odd sleepless night, though.

We rear our children in the knowledge that someday they will flee the nest. There comes a point when you have to let them lead their own lives and you can't live your life waiting for devastating news that might come in the middle of the night When they go abroad, all you can do is hope they have a great time and come back with great new experiences. Yes, it is an anxious time - but it is about letting them grow and spread their wings and get life skills that will stand them in good stead in later years.

So despite what happened in Berkeley, parents need to keep their own anxieties in check and not to transfer or burden their children with them.

And, remember, impetuous young people will not always understand our reaction to hearing of the bereavement of other families. All parents of young Irish people abroad this week stand in solidarity with the mums and dads who had to make that lonely and heartbreaking flight to Berkeley. I hope it is of some comfort that the hearts of the nation are with them.

And meanwhile, parents, give your sons and daughters that extra tight hug when you see them next. Hold them close for an extra few seconds.

We never know what is around the corner.

Irish Independent

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