The grief of losing both parents by the age of 16
An only child and orphan, teenager John O’Connell has learned that it doesn’t help if you hide the pain
John O’Connell: ‘I think the worst thing I did was to hide it [the grief] and think I could beat it straight away. I think I should have just let it happen.’
He was only five years old but John O’Connell still remembers the moment he was told his mum had died – two days after the event. “It was weird because everyone crowded around me. I was so small. I could see everyone else reacting to it but I don’t think they knew I kind of understood.”
His mum, Miriam, had received a long-awaited liver transplant at the age of 34. But “by the time she got it,” he says, “her heart was too weak and after the operation she got a heart attack that killed her.”
An only child, he didn’t go to the funeral – “I don’t think I was allowed” – and, looking back, he thinks perhaps he should have been given the choice. As far as he remembers, he was upset for a few days after he was told of her death “but because I was five, life just kind of went on and that was kind of it”. However, of course, it wasn’t.
For a start, he and his father, also named John, moved out of their home in Blackpool, Cork, and into the home of his paternal granny.
“As a child you just expect both your parents to be there and one day your mum isn’t there and you are kind of confused about what’s going on. You think she is going to come back.” At the same time, he felt his relationship with his dad was fading.
“It didn’t break down but I think he distanced himself, not just from me but from everyone. I didn’t really understand what was going on and I was confused why he was doing that. It was a difficult situation.”
At about the age of nine or 10, he really began to become aware of the loss of his “funny and bubbly” mother, who was a really good singer, he says.
“It actually hit me properly then; not a grieving process, a realisation. . .” he says. By then his dad had met a new partner, Colette, and the three of them had moved back into the family home when John was eight.
Did he resent this woman taking the place of his mother? “Not at the start. But when I reached nine or 10 I began to question why she was there. There were times when I didn’t like her. I think that is natural.”
Then, in another cruel twist of fate, his father was diagnosed with throat cancer last August. He went in for an operation the following month to have the growth removed and all went well.
“About two days before he was due to come home, he got an infection. He ended up getting blood poisoning and it killed him,” says John, who was plunged into dealing with the loss of his second parent.
“This time it was different because I was 16 and I was taken into consideration in planning the funeral.” Again, there were crowds of people around him but that initial surge of great sympathy soon seemed to ebb.
“It was a good feeling at the start to know that I had people there but, after a while, life settles down and you’re left feeling, ‘Why are they moving on and I’m left like this?’ It was like everything I had built up from dealing with my mum had just been broken down again. My father dying definitely shadowed everything.”
One bad day followed another. “I knew it in myself exactly what was going wrong. I was just waiting for other people to notice,” says John. He didn’t want to talk about it because he found that too difficult.
History repeating itself“Even when I was younger I used never talk to my dad about my mum.” And now history was repeating itself.
“I wasn’t talking to anyone about my dad. It was difficult and it was lonely. I didn’t want to leave my house; I didn’t want to do anything.”
His relationship with his father’s grieving partner was “almost nonexistent”, he says. “I would come home from school and go to my room; she would come home from work and sit in front of the telly. When she was going to bed I’d go downstairs to watch the telly. The two of us were living together but we might as well not have been.”
It was no coincidence that it was at emotion-laden Christmas time when John, in his own words, “cracked”.
“I basically said I wasn’t going back to school, that I had had enough. That was when Colette put her foot down and said we needed to get help before it went any farther.”