Miriam and Aisling: Bleak vista of grief can remind us of the value of love

Death stalked my family relentlessly for seven years

Miriam and Aisling.

Miriam and Aisling.

 

I’m thinking about my sisters a lot lately. I think of my youngest because I miss her wildly – the last time we saw each other was July, in Kerry. I never dreamed that day as I waved her goodbye from the caravan steps it would be so long before we saw each other again.

Last March, and into April, as the schools shut and life as we knew it ground to a screeching halt, we had many phone calls, which ran along the following lines:
“How you doing?”
“Grand, not a bother. You?”
“Great, yeah. Fine. All good.”

The following week, the same. Still good. The week after, no great change. We greeted the pandemic with calm heads and equanimity. A few years ago, my family lived through our own version of the pandemic, only the rest of the world did not stop.

The terror, the anxiety, the overwhelming fear, the ground shape-shifting beneath your feet every day with more bad news, yes, that we knew. But our fears and terrors were particular and not general, not global.

Death stalked my family relentlessly for seven years, taking my parents, way too early, and my sister Aisling at 41.

I lost half of my family in seven years, to heart disease and cancer.

No one around me could ever comprehend or guess at living with that much grief, how it absolutely squashes you, pummels you close to the earth, how it bleeds reality until your entire world is anaemic, everything you touch is paper thin and unreliable, any second your legs could buckle beneath you and the swamp will take you down.

I watched as people fell apart in the face of uncertainty and I grimaced when I saw the hashtag #holdfirm being thrown around

A few weeks into the pandemic, my sister (still okay) said to me (still okay), the rest of the world has caught up with us now. What they are going through is what we lived with for years. I watched as people fell apart in the face of uncertainty and I grimaced when I saw the hashtag #holdfirm being thrown around by politicians and the Health Service Executive. I had been doing that for close on 12 years now, since my father died and the ground beneath us was cruelly ripped away.

Twelve years of grieving, of anticipatory grief, of more death, my mother, four years after my father, lung cancer, an astonishingly brutal and swift 11 weeks from diagnosis to death. A mere three months after we buried our mother, my sister Aisling, living in San Francisco, rang to tell me she had stage three triple-negative breast cancer.

Miriam and Aisling.
Miriam and Aisling.

Necessities

Every day was a battle. I had work to cope with, children to raise. There were Junior Certs and Leaving Certs to get kids through, and these kids were as hammered by death as I was. As well as ploughing on through days that stuck like glue and were unremittingly grey and honestly, if you managed to struggle through, keep everyone alive and clean and fed, you were winning.

Life was pared back to its absolute necessities. I had to dive to the deepest part of myself to find the strength to carry on and I was like blunt stone being sculpted and rehewn as a new version of me emerged from the tragedy that took half of my family away. Because grief does that to you, it reshapes you and remakes you as you adjust to life without the people you love. My mother was my best friend, and the loss to me was catastrophic. Losing my father was like the true magnetic north disappearing, like staring at a clear night sky and the stars had disappeared.

All certainty and surety was gone. Yet I had to find that, to create it and embody it for my kids and it was tough, so damn soul-destroying. And being together did not even help, because there were birthdays and occasions where we gathered in each other’s houses for celebrations and all we could see were the ones who weren’t there. Death had knocked down the walls of my family castle, leaving me open, broken and exposed. But much as I wanted to fall apart, to give up, I couldn’t. I had an absolute responsibility to my parents and my sister to love and to live, as well and as fiercely as I could.

I felt if I stopped moving I would disappear too

What pulled me through? The unstinting, loyal support of family and friends. Wine, at the end of the day a glass was like a soothing, comforting hug. Soapy, emotional TV was good, for the days when you’d been holding in your tears and you could only let them out in jagged, heaving, silent screams that would not wake the sleeping children. Weeks before my sister died, family friends gifted us a mini schnauzer puppy, and there were days that winter after the funeral where I spent hours walking her in the rain, under the endless lowering skies of the Curragh, unable to face what was in the house, all I had to do. I felt if I stopped moving I would disappear too.

Aisling had been constantly at me to do yoga, so I found Yoga with Adriene and there were days when following her videos were the only things that made sense. I leafed through books of poetry and sometimes the answers to my loss jumped out at me in words centuries old. Music helped. I played the song she’d chosen for her cremation, As by Stevie Wonder, on repeat and the lines held me up like towropes on the darkest days. Incapacitating grief drove me to counselling, where I unravelled the damage the harrowing timeline of death had wreaked upon myself and my children.

Mostly though, what held me together was the image of my sister in hospice, on Christmas day, a day before she died and her last day of awareness and lucidity, sitting up in bed laughing and making us laugh, and looking for more champagne. Diagnosed at 38, dead by 41, the most fiercely alive person I ever knew, the kind of girl who bounced into a room and ignited it, adored by her friends and worshipped absolutely by her nephew and nieces, she went through chemo, a mastectomy, being cancer free then the devastation of cancer returning, losing her fertility and hope of children, brain surgery – all on her own, without a partner, and Aisling never, ever complained.

She always believed she would get better and the most she ever said was: “This sucks.”

Blessings

Here’s the secret I’ve been holding, all through this terrible last year, as I saw my work disappear, my Leaving Cert daughter go through the freakshow of predicted grades, no sixth-year holiday, no graduation, no debs, college starting online. We are hanging on by our fingertips, I’m a single mother, things are never easy. But I tell my kids, every day, how lucky we are. I spell out the blessings. We don’t have everything we want but we have everything we need. My kids are resilient and tough, battle-hardened and grief- hewn into better versions of themselves, and yours will be too.

The secret is you’re alive, you are here, you are getting to live through this time, and never, ever, forget that. If you are one of the multitudes who has been bereaved by this disease, every part of my heart goes silently out to yours. You have lost someone, possibly the most important person in your life, without the comfort and consolation you would normally expect. Your grief is magnified by our absence, yet also strangely silenced by it. Realise what you have around you and accept what you are going through.

Pull your children to you and tell them how much you adore them, every single day. If you don’t have kids, tell your friends, your siblings, your parents. Because believe me, there is only one response to death, to this death of a life we are living through, the death of everything we once held precious and dear – and it’s very simple.

It’s love.

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