Wednesday 24 January 2018

McGrath encouraging others to open up about grief after brother's death

McGrath: Encouraging others. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
McGrath: Encouraging others. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Tom Rooney

Jack McGrath was just one of many eager academy prospects on Leinster's books when his brother took his own life in 2010.

As is so often the case with a bereavement, Ireland prop McGrath became immersed in a tangible endeavour as a means of suppressing his grief, but would find it only a temporary remedy.

In the 2009-10 campaign, the then 20-year-old made a solitary appearance for the Leinster senior side, coming off the bench to replace Ronan McCormack in a 30-6 league loss at the hands of the Glasgow Warriors.

Unwilling and unable to confront the pain that had befallen his family, McGrath dedicated every ounce of his being to progressing into the professional ranks. Rugby provided him an outlet to channel or stifle the reality of losing his brother.

"I was 20 when it happened," said McGrath at the launch of IRUPA's Tackle Your Feelings initiative. "I was trying to become a professional rugby player, that was a distraction from it.

"Then trying to break into the Leinster team, that was a distraction from it. Then trying to break into the Irish team, that was a distraction from it."

In a strange irony, McGrath found that in achieving his ambitions, he could no longer delay the prospect of coming to terms with his brother's death. While striving to make the grade, the prophetic words of his brother had initially fuelled his desire.

"When I did all those things, the seed was still there and it had just been wrapped up in other things so it raised its head again and the anxiety came.

"I thought by playing rugby and just by completely forgetting about it that that was the way to deal with it. It wasn't, obviously.

"He always said that I'll play for Ireland so that was one thing that would have always motivated me to go on and try and succeed in that regard. It's funny what things motivate you and that was definitely one of them," McGrath said.

The St Mary's man earned the first of his 30 Ireland caps against Samoa in 2013 and, even after back-to-back Six Nations winning campaigns and establishing himself as a world-class loosehead, McGrath was no closer to taming those demons.

In the world he occupies, one which extols and often glorifies unbridled masculinity, McGrath felt compelled to keep an ever-swelling mass of dread within, but something had to give, and he turned to his girlfriend.

"I got to a point in my own life that I had to start talking about something. For me, it's something I want to make people aware of and it is ok to be vulnerable, and it is okay to talk about your feelings," he explained.

"That's the message I'm trying to get across; when I was in my bad stage of anxiety I eventually just woke up one morning, I'd had this knot in my stomach for two years, and I just woke up one morning and said 'I can't do this anymore, I can't have this feeling anymore'.

"So that was the day that changed me forever. It's funny how, even from the smallest thing - it doesn't have to be death, it just has to be something that really upsets you as a person - if you just open up and speak about it, it is really incredible how much better that can make you feel."

Upon hearing about this project, McGrath immediately offered his services and, if he can, hopes to encourage anyone in the throes of internalising grief to take that first step in breaking their silence.

"IRUPA look after the players in Ireland so they're able to get players involved," he said.

"Rugby is seen as such a macho sport and people forget that the players have feelings as well and normal stuff happens to them. It's one of those things that when I heard about the campaign I knew that I had to get involved.

"I've never felt any better in my playing career or outside of that, and it's definitely down to opening up about it.

"It may seem like such a small and simple thing, but you just need to find somebody that you trust, a friend or family, and just open up about it."

Irish Independent

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