Tuesday 15 October 2019

Michael Kelly: 'The 'old security' is gone with my mother's death - but we should take pride in our attitude to grieving'

C S Lewis, who wrote that his mother’s death robbed him of all old securities. Photo: Getty Images
C S Lewis, who wrote that his mother’s death robbed him of all old securities. Photo: Getty Images
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Belfast-born writer CS Lewis knew a thing or two about grief and suffering. His mother Florence died when Clive was just nine in 1908 and he was sent away to school in England by his distant and demanding father.

It's young for a boy to be in the world without his mother, and he wrote decades later in his autobiography, "with my mother's death, all settled happiness disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis".

I read the words first as a teenager and they had little impact on me. Yet, they keep coming back to me now time and again - first thing in the morning and last thing at night, standing on the Luas or waiting in line in the newsagents. They are forever in my mind.

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I buried my own mother Ann last week. Though only 65, she had been unwell off and on for just over a year and while we prayed for a miracle, we had to come to terms with the fact that she wasn't going to get better.

And even though you know, nothing prepares you for the day that your mother is no longer there at the drop of a hat.

Gone is the reassuring voice on the phone day or night, the woman who always knew the perfect birthday or Christmas present, the one who never returned from a trip without a thoughtful gift. No longer there to hug or to ask for advice.

Even though I turned 40 earlier this year, it still seems young to be in the world without my mother and along with my father and four brothers we will miss her every day. Even the happiest of days will now be tinged with her absence.

And yet, I keep coming back to the fact that we were lucky to have had her for so long.

Where I come from in rural west Tyrone, we do death well.

My mother died exactly where she wanted to be: at home surrounded by her family and the life she and my father had built. Her death happened in the early hours of a Sunday morning and, typical of my mother, there was no fuss: she just slipped away.

Death in Ireland - particularly in rural Ireland - triggers a time-honoured series of rituals. Just after her passing, we phoned the local curate who was there within minutes. Unbeknownst to us, a kind neighbour was awake, unable to sleep. She saw the lights on in our house and her first instinct was to start to bake scones for the wake.

Mum was always going to be waked at home. She had left us in no uncertain doubt about that. Though not a demanding woman, she left fairly precise instructions right down to how she should be dressed.

When someone dies at home, there's a bit of formality around it and a district nurse came shortly after my mother's death. After carrying out her official duties with such kindness and compassion, the nurse helped us to get my mother ready.

If I had been asked six weeks ago if I wanted to help prepare my mother's body for her wake, I knew I wouldn't have felt able to do so.

And yet, when it happened, there was something beautifully cathartic about being able to do that simple thing for a woman who had done so much for me.

Word spread quickly - it always does in rural Ireland.

Soon our home was a hive of activity as neighbours and friends I hadn't seen in many years started getting things ready. Boilers and teapots appeared from everywhere and marquees were hastily erected.

People I didn't even know started arriving with plates of sandwiches, their kindness etched on their sincere faces as they stopped to give a reassuring rub of an arm with a simple "Sorry". It's almost as if each parish in the country has a team 'on-call' for moments like this.

Grief is a complex reality. And Irish people don't need a qualification in psychology or psychotherapy to know that, and they also know that no sentimental words hide the awfulness of that reality. Irish people get grief and death in a way that I think is largely absent from many other parts of the western world.

In the United States, many local authorities have started to put restrictions on home wakes.

In Britain, it is not uncommon to meet adults who have never seen a dead person or even been to a funeral.

And yet, traditionally at least, in Ireland the wake at home is so much a part of the grieving and healing process.

It's hard to think of anything more appropriate than the person spending the days and hours before the funeral surrounded by the things and people they loved in the home they made for themselves with their family.

Over the few days of the wake, a couple of thousand people from near and afar crossed the threshold of our home to be with us.

They shared (hilarious) stories about my mother and moments when she had impacted on their lives. The esteem with which she was held by so many people filled us with pride and it also eased the burden of our grief and loneliness.

When we carried my mother to the church, friends, neighbours and passers-by stood in reverence - many who had known their own grief offered simply a knowing nod of the head.

It's early days, and CS Lewis is right: the old security is gone. But as a people we should take pride in how we understand death and grief as a community rather than something to be hidden away.

Yes, we do death well - may that never change.

  • Michael Kelly is editor of the 'Irish Catholic' newspaper

Irish Independent

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