'I know now grief is the price we pay for love' - psychologist Niamh Fitzpatrick writes about losing beloved sister Dara one year ago
I wish that all I knew about grief was how to spell the word. Instead, I find myself intimately acquainted with this most challenging emotional state and unfortunately, I know rather more about grief than I care to.
My sister Dara Fitzpatrick was one of the pilots of the Irish Coast Guard Rescue 116 helicopter that crashed off the coast of Mayo while on a callout in the early hours of Tuesday, March 14, 2017. My family was notified of the crash by two work colleagues and friends of Dara's calling to the door just before 6am. They told us that the helicopter had gone down and there had been no contact with the crew since the early hours. All we could do was wait. As the morning went on, news bulletins reported that a body had been recovered from the water. Approximately six hours later, two officials from Dara's company arrived and delivered the information that we were hoping we would never hear. The body recovered from the water had been formally identified as Dara.
That moment, with the man in uniform and the man in the suit standing in the kitchen of Dara's home… her family and friends huddled close together… as if bracing for what we knew was coming… hearing the words said out loud telling us that Dara had died… knowing that this was not a nightmare, that it was real, that we would never again see our lovely Dara walk into this kitchen with a smile or a hug for whoever was there… that was my first introduction to grief.
The world stopped
I know that grief doesn't tread gently, because that introduction wasn't a polite handshake. In that moment upon hearing the news that Dara had died, grief hit like a sledgehammer, leaving me at the same time reeling from the impact, and in disbelief that this was happening. In those first few seconds and minutes as my brain realised that Dara was gone, actually gone and never ever coming back, I felt as though my physical, mental and emotional worlds were going to crash down around me.
It was as though the world had stopped. Literally stopped. For me, that moment was the end of life as we knew it and the significance of that hit hard and without mercy, bringing a sadness with it that was and still is savage in its intensity.
I know that grief can announce its presence physically, cognitively, and emotionally. In those first few moments upon hearing that Dara had died, physically my heart felt heavy; my breath seemed to catch in my lungs; my stomach sank like a stone. As the days, weeks, months and indeed that first year went by, I experienced a range of different physical symptoms of grief.
Behind a glass wall
I often had problems sleeping, yet when I did sleep I sometimes had nightmares that woke me up in the middle of the night; I was constantly exhausted, with a level of fatigue that was both immense and unprecedented; I had regular colds and flu with a seemingly compromised immune system and earlier this year was admitted to hospital for a spell with suspected pneumonia; and shockingly to me, but apparently not uncommon after losing a loved one, my hair began to fall out.
Cognitively, I found that despite my psychological skill set, there have been times when I just have not been able to concentrate; I've been absent-minded, forgetful, missing things that I would usually pick up on. At times like these I have put something in the fridge that should have gone in the dishwasher, or vice versa - I've just not been cognitively present.
I also noticed the impact of grief on concentration when it came to reading. I am an avid reader both professionally and personally and in that first year after Dara died, whilst I found that I could still read my psychology texts and extract learnings from them, when it came to the fiction that I love to read, I simply could not take in more than a few words on a page before my mind zoned out. I would usually read up to 12 books while away on a two-week holiday and it took me almost a year after Dara's death before I could finish a book of fiction.
Emotionally, immediately after hearing that Dara had died, things seemed to almost pause and recede and I began to feel numb. Very soon after receiving the news, as a family we had a series of decisions to make, a funeral to organise, and we had to travel to Mayo to bring Dara home. So, I suspect that my emotional brain went into a state of numbness to allow me to function during this time and to get done all that we needed to do.
Those first few days and weeks after Dara died it often felt as though I was behind a glass wall; I could see everything as it happened, but it was as if there was no sound on, so I wasn't able to fully experience, wasn't able to fully feel. I swung between that emotional state of numbness to full on breakdowns, where I cried as I have never cried before, with sounds coming out of me that I didn't recognise. I had to be physically held up by friends or family during some of these moments, such was the overwhelming and overpowering nature of the sadness.
I know too however, that grief doesn't always show up as sadness. Sometimes it visits as anger, hopelessness, frustration. Sometimes it's the tiniest thing that can set off an emotional response, like the extra drop of water spilling the liquid over the edge of the already full glass. Whilst I have and do experience a range of emotions related to grief and I can see that there is a process of some sorts in there, I personally haven't noticed grief in stages, it feels more jumbled to me, not clean-cut and neat in any way, but more of a lurching messily from one emotional state to another and often back again, repeatedly, often without warning.
I know that grief has no manners. It doesn't care where you are or what you're doing, when grief wants to visit it marches straight in without hesitation. In May 2017, I began working as sport psychologist to the Mayo Senior Football team. In August of that year we drew with Kerry in the All Ireland Semi-Final and a replay was warranted. We all gave it absolutely everything when it came to the preparation for this game and Mayo played a superb game of football and were victorious on that replay day in Croke Park, meaning that we had earned our place in the 2017 All Ireland Final.
Grief knows no boundaries
Back in the dressing room after the game, after our Manager Stephen Rochford had said a few words to the group and the players were getting showered and changed, I was standing in the now quiet warm-up room when I began to cry. These weren't small, subtle tears, these were full on, choking, heaving, sobs and despite my armoury of psychological tools, I couldn't stop them. Whilst I had of course laughed since Dara died, this was the first time since March 14 that I had experienced pure joy. Seeing the faces of the players and backroom team as everyone spilled back into the dressing room after the match, it was incredible, it was pure and utter happiness.
We had set out to give ourselves an opportunity to compete for an All Ireland title and we had achieved it on this day. That feeling is immense and as a unit you feel like you could burst with pride and satisfaction. But it felt as though my brain couldn't deal with feeling such intense joy, having felt such intense sadness for the previous five months. So, the tears fell, and they kept coming, I felt absolutely inconsolable in that moment.
Some of the management team and players found me and tried to comfort me; the more they hugged me, the harder I cried. Midfield player Tom Parsons looked down at me when he hugged me, and he quietly said, "she's here with us, Dara is here with us". I thought that I'd break in two, the pain was so intense on hearing those words. There was a layer of comfort in his kind words, in the idea that Dara was somehow there with us all. Given that she had died in Mayo and that the people of that county minded us as a family so well since, something felt right about that.
It's different for everyone
Grief however didn't care that this was my place of work. Whilst the Mayo job was so much more than work to me, I was there as a professional, with responsibility for the psychological preparation of this group of 40-plus players and management, but grief just barged in, just showed up, not caring one jot where I was at the time. In 26 years of private practice as a psychologist, I have never lost control over my emotions like that. I was lucky that at the time that I did, my job was done for the day, we had achieved what we set out to achieve in the game and so in one way I was off duty by then. But grief didn't care, it visited when it wanted, and it did so with a force and ferocity that was staggering, it has absolutely no manners.
I know also that grief is different for everyone and that there's no right or wrong when it comes to how you grieve. Just as each person's relationship with a loved one is different, so too is each person's grief for that person. Grief is personal. For some, it's about needing to take time and space for themselves to process the loss; for others it's about needing to connect with others who are grieving and to talk about their loved one; some will throw themselves into work and let the mind process the loss in the background; others may seek help from a therapist to work through the myriad of tumbling, rolling, evolving emotions after you lose someone you love.
I personally find that connection helps me in the grief process, spending time with others, listening, talking, sharing. I also went to a psychologist to help me process the trauma and grief and I found it a significant help to me.
I know that grief is not just about your own pain but is also about seeing the pain of those you love and not being able to do anything to take it away. You just know that they must endure the pain of losing Dara and that all you can do is to be there in whatever way possible as they do this. This element of grief is particularly painful, I find; you have just lost one of the people that you love most in the world and now you must see the other people you love most in the world in pain. It's very difficult and I am still working on finding a way to be OK with this aspect; it's really a sadness on top of sadness.
I know that grief can tear people apart and it can also bring people together. Sometimes people go in different directions after losing a loved one, each needing to process their own pain and unable to help one another. In other relationships, shared grief can connect people at a deeper level than they previously knew. Each understands the other's pain, no explanation is needed, no expectations are in place, it's just people walking alongside one another companionably as they march onwards carrying their loss and pain. I know that when I'm with people who knew and loved Dara, such as her family, friends and her colleagues, that feels comforting, I feel connected. I also feel connected when I'm with people who may have never known Dara when she was alive but who were involved in the aftermath of the crash, especially those in the search and recovery roles, or in the support roles in the incredible communities of the Blacksod and Belmullet areas of Mayo, who literally gave us beds to sleep in and food to eat in those weeks following the crash.
I feel connected too when I'm in touch with people from the emergency services, who have surrounded us with such an outpouring of warmth and support, they know themselves what it's like to be in a role like Dara's and what it's like to be family of a loved one in rescue and emergency services. Similar with those in the aviation industry, I feel a draw and connection to them.
I also feel connected when I'm talking to people who are grieving themselves. It's like this huge club that no-one wants to be in but of which we all eventually gain membership. When I look into the eyes of those who have been in our shoes, I can often see my own pain reflected back at me. Some of those people are farther down the path than I am and seeing them OK on some level gives me great hope. Others are newly acquainted with grief and I find that I'm able to give support. The shared understanding of what it's like to be a member of this club is something that I find connects, comforts, consoles.
I know in addition that grief doesn't wear a watch or have an expiry date, there's no set time after which someone should feel better after a loved one dies. No time when you should be 'over it'. I don't believe that I will ever get over this, but I do believe that I am learning how to live with it. I read once about a woman who had lost her sister saying that she "hasn't moved on, she has gone on". I like that, it feels right, to me it's about going on, putting one foot in front of the other and finding ways to accept our new reality of life without Dara. There's no time limit with this and I'll get there when I'm ready, not when society or anyone else thinks that I should get there.
I know that grief brings with it a new perspective on life. It's as though I now have a new set of eyes, because I see things differently than I did before Dara died. I find that there's an added clarity, a heightened awareness of what is truly important in life. For me, what really matters now is spending time with family and friends, ensuring that I achieve good health, having experiences rather than possessions, and doing work that is meaningful.
Worries, concerns and issues that may once have been important just fade into the background, until they no longer feature on my radar. I either deal with something or if I cannot influence it, I let it go. I don't waste time anymore; I use my energies, focus and time on what matters and I pay no heed to the rest of the noise. I also have immense gratitude for the little things these days, because they have now become the big things. Spending time talking, laughing, sharing with those I love. Being hugged by one of the people I care about, one of those proper, big, strong, warm hugs. Walking by the sea. Reading by the fire. Hearing my favourite songs played really loud and singing along even though I'm off key. Completing a piece of psychology work well, so that I've made a difference in someone's life. There's a simplicity about life now, with everything stripped back to the basics and I find that this new perspective brings a sense of peace with it and my emotional world is all the better for it.
I know that grief even in its viciousness, brings with it choice, and the choices people make can reveal a lot about them as a person. I have watched my family, my extended family and Dara's colleagues and friends deal with her loss with dignity, strength and courage and it is heart-warming to see. These are people who have been devastated by the loss of this beautiful person, whose lives have been changed forever in a myriad of ways that no-one knows about. Yet they choose to step up and do what life asks of them and to live their best lives and honour Dara in whatever ways they can as they do so. They haven't given up or given in, they have gone on even though it is so very difficult, and they may not always feel like it. Dara would be proud, of that I am sure.
I know that grief is complex, so complex. One part of me absolutely wants to feel better some day, but another part of me never wants the pain of losing Dara to go away. Part of me doesn't want to be able to answer that I am OK when people ask how I'm doing. How is it OK to be OK when Dara's not with us anymore? How do I get my head around that?
With Dara's loss there is a gap in our lives that is immense. Even when I see photos of us all taken in the present day it looks wrong, the shape of the family group is wrong, Dara is missing. How can I ever be ok again with that as our reality? However, one of my sisters observed that Dara would give anything to have her life back and that we have our lives, so we owe it to her to live them to the full. Wise words. I also know that Dara fought so hard to get out of that helicopter, to try to get back to her child and family, she tried so hard to live, yet despite her supreme efforts it wasn't to be.
So again, what I take from that is that we owe it to her honour to live the lives that we do have, that she would love so dearly to still have had. Led by example by my parents who have now handled the loss of two of their six children with incredible fortitude, my siblings and the rest of our extended family make every effort to live life fully and to honour Dara in doing so. I admit that on some level I personally am still working on that one, on finding the balance and moving towards somehow being OK some day, I do want that but I'm not there yet.
I know finally, that indeed, "grief is the price we pay for love" (Dr Colin Murray Parkes). I have of course known people who have died, plenty of times I have been sad and cried at funerals, consoling family or friends over loved ones that they have lost. But I've never felt like this before and it's because in my lifetime I have never lost someone I've loved in the way I love Dara. Dara was kind, funny, courageous, somewhat shy, intensely loyal, hugely family-orientated, and she had a presence that was felt by all as soon as she walked into a room. When Dara loved you, you felt loved. She was my sister for 45 years and in my family, we are friends as well as family, so that sister relationship was also a friendship. It was a lifetime of sharing experiences, dreams, worries, adventures; sharing the joys and the sadness. It was mutual respect in our professional lives and mutual support in our personal lives. It was listening, talking, guiding; it was laughter, tears, arguments, making up, hugs; the full range of human emotions and behaviour over 45 years.
It all stopped literally overnight, suddenly, without warning and without a chance to say goodbye or to even give her one last hug. What on earth else would I feel, only grief? So, I know that grief is normal, it is natural. I know that I would rather love Dara Fitz as I do and to feel this pain as I grieve for her, than to not have loved her so much and to feel OK now. Grief is indeed the price we pay for love.
Niamh will be the guest speaker at the Irish Hospice Foundation's annual Living With Loss evening this Thursday, November 1, at 5.30pm at the Alex Hotel in Dublin. No booking required for this public information evening on grief. All welcome.
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