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Did you know the term ‘grief overload’ exists? I didn’t until recently

When dealing with multiple losses, emotions can seem chaotic and defeating

I don’t think I ever saw my sister Geraldine wear all black. It seemed appropriate, then, that we asked everyone attending her funeral to wear “a pop of colour”.

In March, 2022, Geraldine died unexpectedly, aged 58. She left behind three heartbroken adult children and us, her nine remaining siblings. I am the youngest of 12 children and this year I have been struggling to navigate yet another traumatic loss.

In 2003, my brother Fintan died by suicide. Two years later my father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and died from the illness in 2011. My parents used to always say, “we came into the world nine months apart”. A mere 11 months separated their exit, as our mother died from vascular dementia in November, 2012.

After two decades of living with debilitating stroke damage my father-in-law died peacefully in the summer of 2014, just four weeks before the birth of our second child. The many stories shared by my mother-in-law, my husband and Paddy’s two other sons have given me a vivid sense of a quiet but strong man. The grief that emerged around his death echoed the grief my family had experienced when my mother died; a sadness for the much-loved man who had just departed and a lament for the man I had never had the chance to know, prior his illness.


In October 2016 my sister’s husband Jan died suddenly aged 55. A talented master jeweller from Armenia, he had stolen Imelda’s heart in the 1990s. They set up home and a thriving business in the quiet suburbs of Williamsburg, Virginia in the United States where they lovingly raised their son, my nephew Jonathan.

From my teenage years and into adulthood, many of my life’s milestones had been commemorated with a unique piece of jewellery designed by Jan. When a robbery occurred at our home during Christmas 2015, all that treasured jewellery was stolen. In tears, I called Jan. Without hesitation he meticulously recreated the magnificent engagement and wedding rings that he had produced for my wedding day. After being spoiled with jewellery gifts crafted by Jan since I was a teenager, little did I know that these rings would be the last he would create for me.

Another shocking and traumatic death followed in June 2018. My eldest brother, TJ, who had become paraplegic after a tragic accident, died from subsequent complications. He was 61.

With each family death, I’ve found solace through writing and listening to others’ experiences. Sadly, there’s always someone who can relate. There is comfort in numbers.

Multiple losses

Did you know the term “grief overload” exists? I had never heard of it until this year. Having experienced the bereavement of so many family members before I’d turned 45, the term resonates. Respected author on the topic of healing in grief, Dr Alan Wolfelt from the American Centre for Loss in Colorado, describes it as “different from typical grief ... when dealing with multiple losses, the grief often seems especially chaotic and defeating”.

My brother Fintan died on March 19th, 2003 so his 20th anniversary and my sister’s first anniversary are days apart. I dread both. Since Fintan’s death, I had professed many times that no other death would be as horrific because losing Fintan was my first family bereavement, and it was such a traumatic shock. He was 31 when he chose to end his life and I was 26. His suicide left such a deep and lingering scar that I can still recall the minutiae of details from that time. As his only younger sibling, Fintan had always tried his best to look out for his little sister.

Almost two decades on, the pain had somewhat healed but I knew, if triggered, that the initial scar had the potential to burst and expose the rawness I’d experienced years ago. My sister Geraldine’s sudden death has brought about a new depth of grief, with which I am still grappling. Counselling has helped me in the past and I have no doubt it will again; when I’m ready.

As a stereotypical poet, Geraldine loved nature and the wild. She chose to live on her own in a remote part of Co Mayo. Throughout her life she was heavily involved in the community and was loved by many kindred spirits who crossed her path. As an introverted extrovert who also had a complicated relationship with family, Geraldine opted for a solitary existence. She and I had allowed many years to pass without speaking. Today, I am grateful we had reconciled, sparing me from what I’m sure would have been another layer of complicated grief.

We wanted the gathering to be more about celebrating Geraldine’s life in a joyous, creative way rather than mournfully lamenting her death. We believe this is what Geraldine would have wanted

In the days preceding Geraldine’s death, a few of us had been in touch with her, but when she failed to show up at a friend’s wedding and her mobile remained unanswered, the alarm was immediately raised.

Gardaí quickly ruled out foul play and indicated natural causes, but it took months for the exact outcome to be known. The coroner’s office in Mayo had initially projected that postmortem results would “likely be furnished within a few weeks”. Those projections were extended to 12 weeks. The reality was 16 weeks. Why such a delay? The relentless battle for answers makes any unexpected death more difficult for an already spent, grieving family. That gut-wrenching “limbo land” is like a living purgatory.

Answers help.

In July 2022 we were told that Geraldine had died from an aortic aneurysm, that her death was estimated to have been quick and that it most likely occurred the day she was found. This much fought for clarity provided enormous relief.

For me, it felt like permission had finally been given to move to another stage of grief.

Letter of wishes

Stages of grief unfold uniquely for each person. No two people will grieve the same way. I have always found comfort in talking and sharing. This is not for everyone. It helps to be aware that each person’s path through grief deserves mutual and individual respect.

A “letter of wishes” is not often talked about but if written in advance by the deceased, it can provide a grieving family with important tools such as specific funeral wishes or, for example, if you leave young children behind, it can cover details about how you would like them to be educated or their religion. It is a document that can be drafted to accompany the will, to provide helpful guidance to the executors, trustees and/or family members dealing with your estate. It is not legally binding, can be confidential and easily changed or reviewed.

Geraldine didn’t have a letter of wishes but unsurprisingly, due to our more frequent brushes with bereavement than most other families, we had conversations about death so we were relatively confident that she would have wanted a humanist ceremony and to be cremated. Armed with this “comforting” knowledge, we worked together to give Geraldine the personal and heartfelt send-off she deserved.

The staff at Shannon Crematorium sensitively guided us through this difficult process and respectfully allowed us the freedom to personalise the ceremony. We wanted the gathering to be more about celebrating Geraldine’s life in a joyous, creative way rather than mournfully lamenting her death. We believe this is what Geraldine would have wanted.

Art, be it music, song, written word or any other form, brings people together when they need it most. Geraldine’s oldest son, Shane, read a poignant poem at the ceremony that she had penned called Focal Ghrá. This was from her debut collection of works, published 25 years previously. With every line that Shane emotionally recited aloud, as Gaeilge, I could see Geraldine’s face. It was a vivid and happy memory from November 1997. On that day Geraldine had been bursting with pride, as then constituent minister for environment Noel Dempsey had launched her book, Darkness and Light, in Maguires at the foot of the Hill of Tara in Co Meath. As Geraldine’s words, through her son, filled the room, I felt comforted.

Geraldine’s second son, Gearóid, bravely volunteered to be master of ceremonies. His sharp wit ensured all of us who were gathered, either on site or online, shared a few laughs between our many tears. Geraldine’s youngest child and only daughter, Megan, is an actor and singer. In 2021 a reviewer of this paper described Megan as “destined to be a huge starand her proud Mam had shared that review far and wide. Poignantly, just months before Geraldine died, Megan had written and performed a song about her mother, which she had recorded and given to her as a unique Christmas gift, the last gift she would give to her Mam. In a fitting tribute that same song formed the soundtrack for the photo montage of Geraldine’s life that we shared at the ceremony. It was a goosebump moment that was both devastating and comforting.

As the ceremony drew to a close, Thurles band (and lifelong friends of Geraldine) the Infantinis performed the Weight (by Canadian-American ensemble the Band). The eerily apt lyrics “take a load off [Fanny] and you put the load right on me” soulfully accompanied the coffin to its final destination. Reflecting one year on, I am optimistic that all who joined us on that sun-filled March day in 2022 left the crematorium feeling both uplifted and sad. It was a bittersweet goodbye.

As more of us live longer, struggles with grief will inevitably occur more frequently. Grief expert Dr Wolfelt offers this advice for anyone experiencing the darkness of those first 365 days of grief “over time and through active mourning, they come through and so will you.”

I plan to climb Geraldine’s much-loved Hill of Tara, where I will read her poetry, sing some of her favourite ballads and feel her presence.

For now, that sense of hope will have to suffice.