My sister Dara Fitzpatrick ‘was more than a pilot and more than her death’
Niamh Fitzpatrick, psychologist and sister of the late helicopter pilot, on grief and loss
Capt Dara Fitzpatrick: ‘It hit me that the book was like the goodbye I never gave Dara,’ says her sister Niamh Fitzpatrick, author of Tell Me the Truth about Loss. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“‘Vicious. Violent. Visceral.’ They were the words I wrote in Notes on my phone, when we were being driven to Mayo. They were the words that had come into my head when we were standing in the kitchen; when they told us.”
Niamh Fitzpatrick is talking to me in the kitchen of her own home, in south Dublin. She is talking about the morning in March 2017 she and her family heard the news that the body of her sister, the pilot Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, had been recovered from the water off the Mayo coast. Dara, along with her colleagues Capt Mark Duffy, Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby, all died in the course of what should have been a routine call-out for rescue helicopter 116.
The loss of those four people who died in the course of their work to serve the public in times of need was a national event. The loss for two families, the Smiths and Ormsbys, was cruelly compounded by the fact that neither body of their missing was ever recovered.
Fitzpatrick, a psychologist, has now written a book about loss. The loss of her sister came around the same time as the loss of her marriage, and her hopes to be a parent. Any one of these events is life-changing, but to experience all three close together carries unthinkable challenges.
“Writing the book made me feel infinitely worse at the start, and as I moved through it, infinitely better,” she says now. “This is a book about loss and grief, but there is nothing about the crash there – it’s the grief and loss following the crash that I talk about. But if Dara hadn’t died, would I have written the book? No. This is a sister writing this book, with a psychologist’s eye on it. I wanted to talk about the loss and about Dara. She was more than a pilot and more than her death.”
It’s true that there is nothing about the crash itself of Rescue 116 in Tell Me the Truth about Loss – and the full inquest of the incident is still to be scheduled – but much of the book is informed by the consequences of the crash. There are entire chapters about hearing the news, and the days leading up to and including a funeral that was broadcast on every news report that day. Open the book at random, and there is barely a page that doesn’t have Dara’s name on it. Her loss dominates her sister’s book.
In the days and weeks that followed the crash, pictures of the striking red-haired pilot with her ponytail, who had left a toddler son behind, were familiar images in the media. For whatever reason, media attention was focused less on the other three crew members, two of whom never got to even have a funeral.
The difficult question has to be asked: how did she balance writing about her family’s loss, while knowing that it would focus yet more attention on one particular crew member of the four who died?
“It’s not for me to tell anyone’s else’s story,” Fitzpatrick says carefully. She admits it remains difficult to navigate a path between feeling the need to tell the story of her own sister’s life and death while acknowledging the stories of the other three on that helicopter remain less well-known.
In the weeks and months after Dara’s death, she was approached by four different publishers. She had been writing notes in her phone about the confusion, rage and pain she had been experiencing ever since the news had first broken, and wanted to write something more thoughtful and considered about the process of attendant grief.
“It hit me that the book was like the goodbye I never gave Dara,” she says.
Time on its own doesn’t heal. It’s what you do with that time, rather than the time itself
Fitzpatrick has practised as a psychologist for more than three decades, and her focus was in trying to write about the experience of grief in a way that might help others. The story she writes is not only about the loss of a sister. Her marriage of over two decades ended. So too did her hopes to become a parent – first via IVF, and then via adoption. Neither route was successful.
“No amount of wishing is going to make things in the past different,” she says. “Time on its own doesn’t heal. It’s what you do with that time, rather than the time itself. Choosing not to engage with whatever happened and hoping ‘time will heal’ is not the answer. Engaging with loss is not the easy option.”
Fitzpatrick had spoken publicly before about Dara’s death, and also about her fertility treatment. She has now also shared details of the ending of her marriage. It’s unusual that clients of a psychologist know so many personal details about the person they come to see on a professional basis. In addition, there is a marked physical resemblance between the two sisters. How does she deal with juggling the personal and her professional role?
“Usually, clients don’t know anything about you,” she says. “When Dara died, I couldn’t change the fact she was my sister, and that everyone knew. That knowledge of a tragedy was there.” She spent a short time at the beginning of every session acknowledging what what happened, and then moved on. “I am fully there and present with them.”
Fitzpatrick also writes about choosing to give up her dog Buddy, a Lhasa Apso, whom she had had for five years. In the aftermath of the many things that needed to be done after Dara’s death, a friend offered to come around and take over care of the dog. Fitzpatrick never took him back after the funeral. She didn’t feel able to. He now has a new home with a friend of hers.
“They say a dog can be a teacher, a healer or a companion, and that is what my little dog could have been,” she says now. “But our lives were so thrown up in the air, we were back and forth to Mayo, there was this little child [Fionn, Dara’s son] we had to think about. The little dog would have been so far down the line of priorities that it didn’t seem right or fair to keep him.”
When Fitzpatrick went into Dara’s room on the morning the news broke, she found among the bedclothes a book Dara had been reading before she left for work. It was No Time for Goodbye, by Linwood Barclay, a book Fitzpatrick had given her.
The challenge is: how do I remember Dara and also live my life? How do I adapt and survive?
“We have that book. We kept that book,” she says. “A friend of Dara’s has offered to read it and finish it, so that it will get read. Dara never finished reading that book.” It’s another ending, another way of paying attention to small details that mean so much to bereaved families.
Tell Me the Truth about Loss is not the easiest of reads. It is suffused by an inescapable sadness. But loss – particularly compounded loss – is a deeply sad process. Having lost so much in recent years, what has Fitzpatrick now learned from the experience?
“A lot of life is noise, and when you pare away a lot of stuff, people are what matter,” she says. “Don’t waste time worrying about small things. The challenge is: how do I remember Dara and also live my life? How do I adapt and survive? You have to find your patience and and trust and composure. Being aware that you have survived so far: the more hard times you live though, the more you can get through. It’s not about being invincible. I have discovered what I can withstand is so much more than I would have imagined.
“I still have hope. I have learned that whatever your loss in life is, you have to hope that some day, you can carry the pain of that loss and, at the same time, keep living your life.”
Tell Me the Truth about Loss: A Psychologist’s Personal Story of Loss, Grief and Finding Hope, by Niamh Fitzpatrick, is published by Gill