Everything changed with one shocking phone call from Ireland
After my brother's death, I returned to a home changed irrevocably from the one I had left. A sharp gulf separated my life into ‘Before’ and ‘After’
Sylvia Davis: “It is not the life I thought I was heading towards, but then I’m not the person I was”
When I moved to Washington DC in my 30s, it was the realisation of a long-held dream. I had always seen living abroad as a component of a full life and it had been something I had long postponed. So when I secured the opportunity to work in a non-profit organisation in the US, any fears I had were outweighed by the nagging suspicion that if I didn’t grab the opportunity now I never would.
I was surprised by the relative ease with which I settled into my new life. Work colleagues became friends, I found an apartment in a great area and I loved exploring a city previously familiar to me through The West Wing.
But 11 months in, everything changed with a call in work from Ireland. The devastating news was broken to me that my healthy younger brother had died suddenly back home.
Derek had been the person I was closest to in my family; he knew me better than anyone. Four years younger than me, he was hugely protective and supportive, and funny and charismatic and popular. His card telling me he was proud of me for making the move to DC stood on my desk. How could he be gone?
In shock, I returned to Ireland to a home changed irrevocably from the one I had left. A sharp gulf now separated my life into “Before” and “After”.
It is said the Irish do death well, and having been through the trauma of sudden death, I can see the reasons for this. Arriving home to a surreal nightmare, I felt companioned by the community as my family struggled to comprehend our new reality.
Weeks of numbness followed, each family member going through the motions, unsure of what to do or say.
Finally I returned to the US. I had recently met someone (now my husband) and I had my job to get back to. And after losing my brother, it seemed Ireland held nothing for me anymore.
Just as my relationship with Ireland had changed without my brother in it, likewise my relationship with America had changed. I brought my grief with me to a place where nobody knew Derek. At times, the pain was so great, it was easier to pretend he was still back home. At other times, when I tried to connect to the loss, I had nothing to hold on to: I couldn’t visit his grave, I couldn’t go to his familiar haunts, I had no memories of him in my new home. It all added to the sense of unreality.
I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the overwhelming feelings of grief with my new friends.
My sense of self – the self raised in Ireland, the self connected to being Derek’s sister, even the self that loved America and couldn’t wait to travel there – seemed eroded.
Many of those who grieve will tell you the well-wishers fall away in the weeks and months after a death. But thousands of miles away from my old support, and with the rest of the family grappling with their own pain, that natural shift felt like abandonment.
I was in limbo, looking for connection to that which I’d lost while also attempting to make a new life, at a time when my confidence was at an all-time low. Things that had excited me before now seemed empty and meaningless. Without the love and support of my husband I’m not sure what I would have done.
For many of us, the views we hold of Irish emigrants abroad are that they have made it. I held that view myself. Before. But I realised the hard way that living abroad does not immunise you from loneliness, from family responsibilities or from the difficulties of life. In fact, without the familiar resources from home, these life struggles can be all the harder.
Losing my brother was the hardest thing I have ever been through and it is a loss I continue to struggle with. But as time moves on I’m gaining a greater sense of what helps and what hurts and what kind of life I want for myself now. I’m building a new life, one that connects me to Ireland - to my relationship with my brother and the rest of my family - and my adopted country with my husband.
It is not the life I thought I was heading towards “Before” but then I’m not the person I was “Before.” Here in the land of “After,” things are painful at times, beautiful at others, sometimes sad, often joyful. Like life anywhere.