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What can you do when there is no consolation...


IN MEMORY: Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin signs the book of condolence at The Pro Cathedral in Dublin yesterday

IN MEMORY: Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin signs the book of condolence at The Pro Cathedral in Dublin yesterday

Tony Gavin

IN MEMORY: Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin signs the book of condolence at The Pro Cathedral in Dublin yesterday

"The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not 'get over' the loss of a loved one: you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to."

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

Mike texted into the radio show from his truck. "So true", he said, "I lost my son aged 21, 15 years ago. And have I shed tears this morning! I've shed a lot of tears this morning - this is a constant pain."

It's harrowing stuff. Every memory of the sudden death of a loved one has been revived; phoenix-like, it comes roaring out from a place of peace where we thought we had left it. On Sean O'Rourke's radio show last Wednesday, Dr Harry Barry and Enda Murphy talked of the pain of losing a child, of how it never goes away. "You carry it with you for the rest of your life," said Dr Barry.

They tell stories of parents who have suffered grievous losses: the father who keeps his son's clothes as "the smell is the only thing I have left of him"; the mother who "wears her pain like a cloak". "I put it on me, I walk down the street but I don't know where I am going."

The country seems to be a blur of sorrow and loss; of great, deep hurt. "It starts with pain and it ends with pain," says Dr Barry. "The incomparable, devastating, visceral pain that is all-compassing. The pain that takes over the entire life of a person. There is no other loss that causes such pain - as the parental loss of a child."

Like most of the rest of the country, I am glued to my radio or TV - listening to the tsunami (overused but the only word which seems to suffice) of media coverage on the desperate tragedy in Berkeley. Sometimes I feel I should switch over, treat myself to some distracting soothing sounds, watch a comedy show - but I can't.

Though irrational, I feel that it would somehow be a disloyalty not to listen, not to share, no matter at how far a remove, the grief of the family and friends of those beautiful children, who lost their lives so suddenly, an ocean away from us.

Ever since my first child was born and placed in my arms, I knew that my greatest fear for the rest of life would be if anything happened to her - or later, to her brother. It's still my greatest fear. It is every parent's fear. For those unlucky Irish families this week, this fear has been realised. We can't let them shoulder it alone.

Anyone who has suffered the death of a child will know that there is no sugar-coating, no "fixing", no way to avoid the physical, hammering pain that accompanies this most unfair of all experiences. But many things in life aren't fair.

Bad things happen to the best of people. Again and again and again. They don't have to happen for a reason. They just… happen. It's horrific and sad and heart-churningly cruel and there's very little we can do about it. Except survive. And help each other. Because such sudden, random deaths affect all of us. Suddenly, we are confronted with the arbitrary nature of life, the feeling of "there-but-for-the-grace-of God", and the guilty relief that, in fact, this time it isn't us but some other unlucky soul, and the fear that the next time, it may very well be us. Who knows? God? Man? Fate? No one. No one knows.

And so, we fear the unknown while all we can do is stay together, comfort each other, hold tight to old rituals and traditions, which are so, so, important in providing us with some sense of stability in such a randomly, arbitrary, often cruel world.

Like so many people my age, I had no use for the religious rituals of the Church I was reared in - until hit with a sudden family death. Not 30 minutes after I had hung up on an affectionate conversation with my beloved younger - just three months short of being an Irish twin - brother, he was no more. There was no rhyme or reason or explanation that would suffice - it was just one of those things that happen. Inexplicable, unfair, cruel, but part of life. What got us through the next few weeks was the Irish reaction to tragedy.

The hundreds of people who turn up - sometimes wordless, for what can they say? - to just be there. To say "we are with you". The ancient tradition of shaking hands with the family of the deceased, which I had always considered to be an unnecessary intrusion into the family's private grief, suddenly revealed itself to be the huge psychological support it was.

This groundswell of empathy, love and support is what gets families through the initial stages of shock and grief. Talking about their loved ones, sharing memories, being there. This genuine expression of support - of so many people sincerely wanting to help, despite them not knowing what the hell they should say - is currently carrying the families of these young people, Ashley, Olivia, Eimear, Eoghan, Niccolai and Lorcan, as they battle their shocked grief. The Irish way of dealing with sudden tragedy in the community is not to be under estimated. The Catholic Church's adherence to ancient ritual when faced with death is deep and powerful and so beneficial to many - whether you are a believer or not. It gets us through the darkest of days.

But what next? What about when the ritual and the clamour and noise is all over and there's nothing left but silence? When everyone has, no matter how reluctantly, returned to the normal, day-to-day minutiae of their own lives? When the survivors are expected to do the same? Time heals all wounds, is what we're told. And yet, it doesn't really. It may get easier after the first year of hard physical hurt, but it may not. There are no rules. Particularly when the death of a child is concerned. As Dr Barry said: "This pain stays with you always. You carry it with you for the rest of your life. It's the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing at night."

But you still have to get up each day and face life. How do you do it? One foot in front of the other. "You have to get up, go to work, make the dinner," he says. Do all the ordinary things that are routine. "But it still will be the last thing in their [parent of a child who died] head when they die."

And that's the point. We're very fond, when we want to comfort people, of reassuring them that "worse things happen at sea", that perhaps they should be grateful for x, y and z. That isn't helpful. Nor is the belief that grief is some sort of medical condition or process - and if we go through it in a certain way we will emerge, healed and whole, on the other side. Time will help us cope with the wounds, but nothing will ever heal them. We carry them with us as necessary memories of our loved ones. And we go on. We can do nothing else.


Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council has set up an on-line book of condolence for those unable to access one locally. Access at www. dircoco.ie

Sunday Independent