There is no word to describe a bereaved parent, and their grief is similarly indescribable. We speak to those who have lost a child about the platitudes that deepen their pain, the external supports needed, and the simple gestures that keep the memory of their children alive
A year after five-year-old Saoirse Heffernan died, her mum and dad left their Co Kerry home for a few nights away in Galway. “My brother and sister-in-law brought us away for a couple of nights,” remembers Mary Heffernan. “I was at the bar and a lady recognised me and came up to me and she said, ‘Oh, I have a little girl. If my little girl died, there’s no way I’d be out.’”
“She said it in a caring way,” adds Heffernan. “I think she felt it was complimentary, sort of ‘aren’t you brilliant that you’re out’, but I had to go to the bathroom to try and compose myself, and I couldn’t. When I went back to the table, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I told the others I was going back to the hotel and we all left.”
“I was distraught,” she explains. “In my head, I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, people are going to think I didn’t love Saoirse because I’m out having a drink,’” she pauses. “But what people don’t see is the sadness behind the smile, and that’s something that’s there forever more.”
There is no word to describe a bereaved parent. We have words like ‘orphan’, ‘widow’, and ‘widower’ for those left behind following the death of parents or partners, but nothing for a mother or father whose child has passed away. Perhaps it’s fitting — maybe there is no word that could adequately describe the loss — but it also feels representative of our societal need to shy away from this kind of unimaginable loss, something symptomatic of the lack of awareness, understanding and engagement around what it means to be a bereaved parent and how we can best try to support them in their grief.
And it’s something that needs to change. Because the reality is that many bereaved parents are having to grapple with additional hurt caused by things like condolences, often given with the best will in the world, that offer no comfort whatsoever.
When Sinead O’Connor’s 17-year-old son, Shane, died in February this year, the singer (who has since deleted her social media) posted a powerful message on Twitter about the painful inadequacy of the language around grief.
“Hi listen, I know folks mean the best, but the next time someone walks up to me and says my son ‘is at peace’ I think I’m gonna lose my s**t,” she wrote. “How do you know? Did he email you? Cus he certainly hasn’t emailed me.” In another post, she added, “Besides which it is ZERO comfort to a bereaved parent...it doesn’t negate the unfathomable, crucifying loss.”
One of those quick to reply to the post was mum-of-three Amy Dutil-Wall. On the morning of Wednesday, March 15, 2017, Dutil-Wall’s husband, Vincent Wall, was taking their daughter, Estlin, to crèche from their home in Ennistymon, Co Clare, when a truck driver travelling in the opposite direction moved to pull out from behind a bus.
The manoeuvre prompted a chain of events, resulting in a horrific collision that left Vincent with a permanent brain injury, and caused Estlin to die in hospital just nine days shy of her fourth birthday.
Dutil-Wall’s reply to O’Connor was steeped in empathy. “Exactly right,” she wrote. “Those that find empty platitudes comforting are those who have no idea the magnitude of pain we experience after the death of our child. Our child is not at peace and we never will be either. The grief is unrelenting.”
She remembers being in a shop after Estlin’s death when a woman told her, “Everything happens for a reason.” “I wanted so badly to yell and scream, ‘How dare you! There’s no good reason why a child should die so young and so suddenly,’” recalls Dutil-Wall. “All those empty platitudes — ‘everything happens for a reason’, ‘God needed another angel’, ‘your child was too good for this world’, ’they are at peace’ — they sound nice to the person saying it but honestly bring no comfort to the person in pain.”
In so much as any words can help, she feels something that acknowledges the pain and a desire to support is the best that can be done — not a stock phrase that tries to find a positive. “There is no bereaved parent in the world that wouldn’t rather have their child alive and well and in their arms than in heaven,” says Dutil-Wall.
It’s a sentiment that’s shared by mum-of-two Kathleen Chada, whose 10-year-old son Eoghan and five-year-old son Ruairí were murdered by their father, Sanjeev, in 2013. In the years that have passed, Chada has found some comfort in her religious faith. “I do believe that I will see Eoghan and Ruairí again, that I will be with them, that death isn’t the end,” she says. “I firmly and strongly believe the boys are with me. It’s nothing dramatic, just a feeling that they are in a good place.”
But not a better place. “A couple of months afterwards, I remember meeting a priest, and he said, ‘They’re in a better place.’ I remember saying — and I was quite proud of myself for having the confidence to say it — ‘Actually, no, Father, they’re not,’” recalls Chada. “‘A better place for them would be here with me,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you second place.’”
She says she knows there was no hurt intended by the statement, and, in general, her experience of support in her grief has been positive. Early on, a friend suggested Chada would benefit from therapy, and she acted on the recommendation, meeting with a trauma counsellor three times a week.
Securing external, professional help, she says, enabled her to identify coping strategies, sometimes needed to navigate the support provided by friends and family. “I have fantastic friends and, early on, I would find five friends or family would come and visit me in a day, I suppose to distract me and spread it out,” explains Chada. “Inevitably, we would end up talking about what had happened to Eoghan and Ruairí and about Sanj, and I would potentially have that same conversation five times a day, and get to the end of the day exhausted.”
Talking it through with her psychologist provided her with practical solutions, like switching to meeting friends in a group, or in a coffee shop, “where conversations didn’t go as deep and wouldn’t go on for hours”. While Chada believes her support network has been wonderful, even that friendships have been strengthened, she also feels accessing professional one-to-one counselling has been crucial to her experience.
The unique nature of parental bereavement means that often family and friends simply won’t have the tools to provide the support that’s needed. “A lot of bereaved parents will come to the point where their family unit and natural supports don’t quite understand where they’re at,” explains Bríd Carroll, chairwoman of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network and a counselling psychologist working in bereavement. “Often that is when they’ll turn to group support, people who ‘get it’, who have been on the journey. They’ll walk into a room and to see others who have survived is, in itself, hope.”
For the first few years after Estlin’s death, Dutil-Wall attended the bereavement support group Anam Cara, and found it immensely helpful. “Just being around other parents who have experienced the same thing can help you feel less alone and less crazy in your grieving process,” she explains.
The group — the only organisation of its kind in Ireland with services available to all bereaved parents, regardless of the age their child died, or the circumstances of their death — was set up in 2008 with CEO Sharon Vard a founding member. In 2004, mum-of-three Vard’s youngest child, Rachel, died of an inoperable brain tumour, aged five. Anam Cara, meaning ‘soul friend’ in Irish, was launched by her and other bereaved parents in recognition of the need for a safe space, somewhere to ‘let the mask drop’, where others might understand what friends and family cannot.
“You can say things in the group that you could not say to nearest and dearest because it would frighten them. But here, people will nod their heads,” explains Vard. “Parents will walk in with grief etched into their faces and we know how they feel. They’re coming into a group that really does get it. We’re almost like a tribe, and we’re here to support you for as long as you need.”
In common understanding of bereavement, the stages of grief are often trotted out as a template — shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But those who have experienced it know that the process is never linear and there is no sense of ticking those stages off and being done with grief.
Anam Cara instead uses Dr Lois Tonkin’s model of growing around grief, where a ball of bereavement is at first squashed into a small jar, then moves to a slightly larger one, then one larger still.
“We use that imaging to show parents our grief stays the same but we, as parents, can grow bigger around it. We learn what helps and what doesn’t, and we get more resilient,” explains Vard. “It’s there every day, but is survivable.” She sees survival as an important way of honouring the child no longer here. “I remember someone saying to me that ‘the purpose of Rachel’s five years on this earth wasn’t so you would be miserable for the rest of yours’, and it was a real wake-up statement,” explains Vard. “Rachel would not want me moping around not finding joy in anything. But getting to that point is a journey and takes patience.”
Chada has delivered talks at novenas on her experience of grief, reflecting, in particular, on the guilt that comes with living a life without her children in it. “I’ve always said when I’ve done various talks about it, it’s OK to re-engage in life and have fun and smile and be happy. It shouldn’t come with guilt, but it can do, and, for me, the important thing is to acknowledge that guilt and say, ‘No, I don’t need to feel that.’”
Other people’s statements like ‘I don’t know how you keep going’, or ‘your children must be the first thing you think of every morning’ can trigger a fresh wave of guilt. “There can be an expectation of how you ‘should’ be, and if you’re not, then that’s where the guilt can come in,” explains Chada. “The guilt that comes from actually living your life.”
“The saying I hate most in the world is ‘time heals’,” reveals Mary Heffernan. Following Saoirse’s death in 2011, she and her husband tragically also lost their five-year-old son, Liam, to the same incurable condition on May 4, 2014.
“Saoirse’s passed 11 years and Liamo eight years, and I feel it throughout every part of my life,” says Heffernan. “But it’s like people think ‘it’s been 11 years’ or ‘it’s been eight years... how come she’s still crying?’ Coming up to Saoirse’s ninth anniversary, I remember being asked if I ‘still thought about her and remembered her?’ and I was dumbstruck. How could I not? Saoirse and Liam are threaded through our beings. They’re part of us forever more.”
“We’re still a family of four,” agrees her husband, Tony. “There’s two of us here and the other two we carry around in our hearts and minds and souls every single day.” His experience is that men are often not as able to discuss loss, but that he has many good friends who will “pull me up the side of a mountain for a talk and check-in in their own way. I’ve gone out of my way in the past to support other fathers in the club of losing a child,” he adds. “You might only talk rubbish but then the words might start to flow. You just need to start with, ‘How are you?’”
Seventeen years on from losing Rachel, Vard says she misses her every day, but also feels she is her company. “I would often say I have an ongoing relationship with Rachel, but it’s totally different to that with my two living children,” she explains. “I remember people saying to me in the early days ‘you’ll carry her in your heart forever’, and in that intense grief, pain, loneliness and despair, you can’t get any real sense of that at all for a long time, but it does happen, if you want it to.”
“I would say there is a journey of grieving a lost child,” agrees psychologist Carroll. Following the intense loss, there is a second stage where the parent needs to discover who they are without their child’s physical presence, before finally a reconnection with that child. Carroll describes her work as “a privilege”, that reaching that moment where parents are able to talk about their child again in such a vibrant way that she, as facilitator, almost feels like she knows the child, is something wonderful. But the grief doesn’t go away and the parent will never be the person they were before their child died – something Carroll says is important for loved ones to accept.
“Friends and family often want to ‘fix’ them, they want them to be back to normal. But this idea of a ‘new normal’ doesn’t exist. Life has changed completely,” she explains. “In time, a new vibrancy can come into the individual, but that takes a long journey and real engagement with the grief. I think we have a notion on this island of ours that you just have to get on with it, but actually you have to stop and be with your grief.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule book for navigating parental bereavement and no magic formula to follow. Grief is complex and personal, and what support might work for one will not necessarily work for another.
“I would say to every friend and family member of somebody who has lost a child to ask the bereaved parent what they need. Do they need you to listen? Do they need anything practical? Keep coming back to ask along the way,” urges Carroll.
“That text that you send ‘just thinking of you today’ — how many parents would turn round and say that it landed just on the moment they needed it, just when they were at rock bottom and suddenly there was the feeling that someone cared.”
As a society, we also need to be more adept at accepting that our interaction with a bereaved parent might have a reaction of anger or suffering, and we can’t shy away from that just because it might make us feel awkward.
“More people need to be OK with hearing, ‘I appreciate your words but hearing that doesn’t help me,’” says Dutil-Wall. “It might make you feel uncomfortable for a little while, but it’s nothing compared to what the grieving person is going through.”
And while friends and family might be good at marking the major milestones — anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas — it’s important to understand that less-obvious occasions can also be hugely triggering. Vard found confirmations difficult for a long time because Rachel never made hers. Chada is all too aware that her eldest should have been sitting the Leaving Cert this year.
“If someone has lost a child, it doesn’t matter what age or how long ago, they will know where that child should be,” says Vard. “For someone to say, ‘I’m thinking of your son or daughter today, it must be a tough day,’ that endorsement is lovely. I know people don’t say it because they’re afraid they’ll upset us, but we’re upset anyway. It’s not going to make it any worse. It’s a milestone that our children did not make, and for people to acknowledge that is lovely.”
“When people choose to still mention Estlin’s name in Christmas or birthday cards, it means everything to me,” smiles Dutil-Wall. “When her name is left out, it hurts. She’s still very much a part of our family and it means so much to see her name there alongside ours.”
The Heffernans love to hear people talk about their children, particularly when it comes out of the blue. The day before we talk, Mary has received a message on Facebook from a woman who told her she remembers seeing Liam toddling onto The Late Late Show and how handsome he was. “I was over the moon,” she beams. “I can’t tell you the joy when someone randomly says something like that or how they maybe had met Saoirse and would never forget her smile. It might bring tears to my eyes, but they are the happiest of tears, because the biggest fear is that your child will be forgotten, and we do not want our children to be forgotten.”