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.”
The counsellor she contacted first referred them to Barnardos Children’s Bereavement Service, which operates in both Cork and Dublin. John wasn’t too keen on the idea but weekly, one-on-one counselling “immediately changed things”, he recalls now.
It was the first opportunity he had to pour out his grief, ranging back to when he was a five year old. “It was brilliant.”
However, John was adamant that he wanted to drop out of school. “I took it upon myself to do things my own way,” he says, and he didn’t really care what others thought.
He stayed at home but threw himself into exercise. “Basketball was the one thing that kept me going.” He was also studying for at least an hour a day. “It was just time for me to catch up on the grieving that I had skipped and to figure everything out.” And it worked, he says.
“I think it was the right decision. But my mindset was wrong,” he says. “Back then, if you had asked me, I would have said ‘I don’t need school, I will be fine.’ But now, more than six months later, I know that I do need school.”
He went back to fifth year at Gaelcholáiste Mhuire, which, he says, has been very supportive, in late March.
“It was like a breath of fresh air really, just getting back into a normal life. It was good. I had gotten rid of all the demons about school and going back was fine.”
Sitting beside John for this interview, Barnardos project leader Gina Cantillon explains how everybody deals with grief differently. The bereavement support service has had about 70 referrals since January and is working with about 200 individuals, although lack of resources means there’s a five-month waiting list.
“The key in our assessment is to figure out what is going to be the drive behind the healing for this particular child.”
The focus of their work is “turning up the volume on supports that already exist for that child. We are helping parents or guardians, schools or community, neighbours or grannies, to do what they already do but just to do it in a little bit more of a focused way.”
John was very clear about what he needed, she says. “He just needed back-up in doing it.” Since the death of his father, John had been experiencing post-traumatic stress (PTS): “sleeplessness, flashbacks, that sort of uncontrollable stuff going on”, she says. He was right about needing to stay out of school: it was just too stressful, and was exacerbating his PTS.
“You have to deal with the trauma aspect: you can deal with the grieving aspect later. They are two separate things.
“Trauma is a problem of physiology, more than psychology.”
However, she adds: “I think the extent to which John turned it around, as rapidly and as completely as he did, is very unusual.”
No running awayJohn, who wants to study psychology when he leaves school, says he has learned that you can’t run away from grief. No matter how long it takes – it might be weeks, months or even years – it is going to catch up with you.
“I think the worst thing I did was to hide it and think I could beat it straight away. I think I should have just let it happen.
“I’ve had a strange and fairly bad childhood,” he reflects. “But, to be fair to the people in the family and around me, they have done their best to make it the best it could have been.”
He thinks having had to grow up quicker than his peers will stand to him in the future, but it is also the reason he gravitates towards slightly older people. Most of his friends are 18, 19 or 20 years of age.
Since starting to attend Barnardos, his relationship with Colette “has been brilliant”, he says. “We have become so close.”
Friends, basketball, music and his extended family are his lifelines. “My family means more to me than anything in the world – I love them to bits.”
John feels he has got a new lease of life. “I am back to the stage where I’m happy and bubbly and tough; carefree.”
While he knows that events and memories will continue to trigger bouts of grief, “I think I have come far enough and learned enough to be able to deal with these things.”
The first anniversary of his father’s death this September will be one such testing milestone. “I don’t just miss him as a dad, I miss him as a best friend,” he says. “I miss sitting down watching a match with him or I miss him coming to watch me play. Things like that.” Barnardos operates a bereavement helpline service on 01-4732110, 10am to noon, Monday to Thursday, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Death of a peer when a teenager
Losing a peer can be especially difficult for adolescents, particularly if it is not recognised by those around them as a significant loss, in the belief that friendships are more transitory than family relationships.
The circumstances of a young death are also more likely to be traumatic: suicide, accident, murder.
“It is a tough process to be left totally alone when you lose a peer,” says Prof Danai Papadatou, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Athen. “We don’t have enough research to show us how grief develops when an adolescent loses a peer – by contrast we have much more evidence with parents and siblings.”
The fact that adolescents do not share their grief with their parents is not an indicator that they are not grieving. They may be grieving with friends, in another setting outside the family.
“What is important is for parents to provide opportunities to discuss the loss and to respect the adolescent’s willingness to discuss it, or to avoid any discussion, and not to try to fix their pain,” she stresses.
“Their pain cannot be fixed. We can accompany them and be there whenever they are ready to talk to us – not when we are ready to talk to them.”
We Irish sometimes commend ourselves on “doing death well”, with our tradition of wakes and big funerals enabling the community to rally around a bereaved family. “Rituals are very helpful because they bring structure at a time that is chaotic and they give meaning to the loss and allow people to support each other,” she agrees.
However, before long, “everybody goes back to their own life and that is when it is harder; much, much harder. The grieved person realises, ‘I am on my own to face this empty space’ that is left by the loved person and then begins the real, real deep grief”, says Papadatou. “We push people to get over it too fast,” she says. “And grief doesn’t work that way.”
For more information see childhoodbereavement.ie and hospicefoundation.ie
How to help teens cope with death
Bereaved adolescents face particular challenges because they have to deal with grief at what is a very vulnerable time of life.
Their grief is “lived with great intensity”, explains Prof Danai Papadatou, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Athens. They can find it hard to share their feelings with parents, as they are in the process of growing away from them, but neither is their peer group – particularly at the ages of 11-14 – solid enough to support them.
“They tend to withdraw and isolate and live their grief internally. At the same time, they mask their grief and appear as if they are managing very well but internally they may suffer quite a lot.”
Grief evokes a wide range of responses, such as anger, guilt, disbelief, search for meaning and mood swings.
“Some adolescents who are overwhelmed by their emotions and intensity of grief appear very angry and they end up in fights very easily. Other adolescents are likely to get depressed.
“Some will get involved in risky behaviour – drugs or alcohol – in a way to numb the intensity,” Papadatou told The Irish Times on a recent visit to Dublin.
Founder and president of Merimna, a Greek non-profit organisation that provides care for children and families who face illness and death, she was here to address an Irish Childhood Bereavement Network workshop on adolescent grief, hosted by the Irish Hospice Foundation.
Research shows that most bereaved adolescents cope very well and adapt to living with a loss without any intervention “and that is very encouraging”, she says.
A critical factor in how they fare after the loss of one parent is how the surviving parent assumes the role of lone parent. Some parents are so overwhelmed by their own grief that they are incapable of setting boundaries on behaviour and discussing the loss with the adolescent.
“This can cause greater difficulty for youngsters,” she says. “They lose a sense of structure and safety.”
Likewise, while teachers need to be understanding, they shouldn’t be too lenient and make the adolescent feel they are being treated differently from classmates. Letting bad behaviour go unchecked only “decreases their self-esteem”.
Other changes after the loss, such as moving house, changing schools and losing friends, can compound problems.
“These are additional, parallel losses that evoke an additional grief and make adjustment even more difficult,” she says.