Tragedy, magical thinking, and the lasting impact of grief

More than four decades ago, my mother and my only sibling, my older brother, were killed in a car crash. One morning I got up and went to school and that was it, I never saw them again.

Even now, 42 years later, this event still has the ability to feel unreal, like it must have been a mistake and I ask myself, “ how could it have happened? How could I not have seen them in all this time?” In such moments it can even feel like they might still come back, like I am leading an interim life until they do.

The magnitude of the loss which pared my family down to just myself and my father was compounded by the ensuing silence.

The year was 1977 and the details of the collision were horrific. No one knew what to say or do so it was thought the least said the better. As a result, they were rarely ever mentioned again. Nowadays, the importance of talking and remembering is much better understood, but even today, cases of unexpected, traumatic loss will never be easy to come to terms with.

Ronan and Geraldine.
Ronan and Geraldine.

I am thinking of the car crashes, violent incidents, freak accidents which claim lives out of the blue. Vital, needed people who were there in our lives one moment and who are in an instant gone. There is something about that kind of loss which can make acceptance extremely difficult .

The circumstances may be simply too unbelievable, too unreal for our brains to compute. There may be unanswered questions, no possibility of ever seeing them again remains. There may even be issues of blaming ourselves.

Embarassment

Does true acceptance ever really happen for those left behind in such circumstances?

A lot depends on what happens next. At seven, I was deemed too young to attend the funerals of my mother and brother. I was 16 before it occurred to me to seek out a grave. I was so completely up-ended by the events and the subsequent silence that I had no idea what had happened to me.

I didn’t know what grief was or if I had experienced it. I knew that I had uncontrollable fits of crying throughout my teenage years and beyond, but to me, these were just sources of embarrassment which showed how “weak” I was. Indeed, it is only recently that I have come to understand the whole nature of grief and how important it is that it finds expression.

Like “Sadness” in the movie Inside Out, grief must be allowed. It must not be thwarted or disenfranchised by well meaning down-playing or anything that starts with “at least...”.

Jacqueline de Brit (nee Hart).
Jacqueline de Brit (nee Hart).

As Shakespeare so eloquently surmised: “ The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”

Bereaved children in particular need to see and hear the adults in their lives talking about and expressing their grief so that they know it is okay to express theirs. If children are told to “be brave” especially “for” the deceased, they may feel like they are doing something wrong by being sad and expressing that sadness.

No one is saying any of this is easy.

Bearing witness to another’s pain is hard, which is why so many of us go through it alone. It is easier to look for the quick fix of distractions or even anger as a way of avoiding it.

Wanting to protect, a child especially, from further pain is understandable but ultimately counterproductive. The word we are looking for is empathy, and empathy in a nutshell acknowledges that sometimes there is no up-side; life is hard and sad – a vale of tears.

But even though it may be a universal truth that life sucks, at the same time life has to go on. There has to be a way of managing the pain of loss even if it seems hopeless. I don’t know about counselling. After the birth of my children, my unaddressed grief hit me like a truck. I knew I was in trouble but I didn’t know what to do.

No amount of “being grateful” advice was going to help. I wanted something to change and I was agitating for a connection to my past; awareness, acknowledgement, anything. When I first broached the subject of moving, I remember having a bizarre conversation with a counsellor over the pros and cons of various north Dublin parishes. I wanted to return to the place where I had grown up, but I felt guilt for expressing that need, I didn’t know why. The counsellor was oddly defensive about my wanting to move and I came out of that session feeling even more guilty.

Only after following my gut instinct and making the move back to my childhood home did I realise that, in my case, moving back to the place where I lived when my mother and brother were alive, the place where people knew them and knew me, was the kind of closure I needed and that counselling could never give me.

If my grief is an expression of the level of love I felt and a measure of how much their loss hurt, how could it go on for anything but a lifetime?

After 30 years of disenfranchised grief, I needed physical closeness to the only thing I had left of them: a place. I needed to pass the spot where it happened, every day; see the house where we lived, every day; walk the paths that we walked, every day. I needed to talk to the people who actually witnessed the crash that morning, saw the the burning car, witnessed the attempts to get them out.

Some people call it dwelling on the past, I call it closure. I know now that this crash happened. I have talked to the people who saw it with their own two eyes, even if I didn’t.

My grief

Now I don’t need to see my old house every day or seek out old neighbours for anything other than a chat about the weather. I don’t notice every time I drive by the intersection where it happened. I have visited all the old places and unearthed newspaper archives from that day. I have up-ended every stone I needed to to quell the internal drive for a connection that pushed me to move back, even when there was no other practical reason to do so.

The heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of. I am far from being coolly detached and I still cannot say the sentence “my mother was killed in a car crash” out loud to another person without crying (I can’t even bring myself to include my brother) but believe it or not this is actually progress.

My grief feels like it is on a more normal trajectory now. I recognise that what I feel is loss. I know the shape of it and I can acknowledge it and decide how much time I am going to give it.

Jacqueline, Ronan and Geraldine.
Jacqueline, Ronan and Geraldine.

There was a time when that was not possible because I had no boundaries. An innocent question could trigger an avalanche of emotion which could go on for at least the day.

According to the experts, the goal is to try and integrate the loss into your life in a way that allows you to carry on with purpose and meaning. Looking back I can see that although my life had indeed carried on with purpose and meaning, my grief remained behind, frozen in time like a solid block of ice unable to melt. By going back to ground zero so to speak, I was impacting (unbeknownst to myself) what experts in complicated grief call “imaginal revisiting” – a therapeutic approach which encourages revisiting the source of the pain rather than avoidance.

In other words, getting up-front and personal with your grief. It is an approach used to help those whose grief is “stuck”. A decade ago I didn’t know any of that, I just felt a need to reconnect to the place I knew as a child.

Moving back turned out to be the single most healing thing I could do for that seven-year-old girl whose world imploded one January morning in 1977.Katharine Shear, a leading psychiatrist in the field of complicated grief (which is characterised as prolonged or stuck grief) at Columbia University, bases her work on the underlying principle that grief is a form of love. She explains that this is the attachment approach to grief and it is shared by many grief researchers and counsellors. It can be traced back to the British psychiatrist John Bowlby, whose attachment theory states that all humans are hard-wired to make strong affectional bonds.

It is these attachments which give our lives security, meaning and generally keep us on an even keel. When an attachment is severed by death, grief is the response to the lost attachment. Shear quotes novelist Julian Barnes to underline this point; “Nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth; If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter”.

This all made sense to me.

If my grief is an expression of the level of love I felt for my mother and brother and a measure of how much their loss hurt, how could it go on for anything but a lifetime?

How could I give up that pain? But I have to ask myself, “ Do I grieve for them because it still hurts or do I hurt because I still grieve?” What is the point of still grieving them?  Where is it getting me?

I listened to a radio interview recently with a woman whose young son had been killed on the road outside her house by a speeding motorist. In it she described her struggle with grief and how she realised later that not having had the chance to say goodbye was a major impediment for her in coming to terms with the loss.

I was rooted to the spot. “Say goodbye?” The notion had never occurred to me.

I tried to apply it to my own situation and found myself instantly recoiling. Even writing it and thinking about it now, I know I will never be able to do it. Which led me to wonder, if you can never say goodbye, is this as good as it gets in terms of recovery? No sunnier uplands of acceptance yet to reach?

this is the cold truth of loss: after the dust settles and the callers have gone, there is nothing

I don’t know if keeping the deceased part of one’s daily mental landscape as I do is healthy. It’s probably not that much different to believing in an after-life or finding comfort in prayer. And this is important: I used to dismiss both those ideas as being pathetic exercises in self-delusion or magical thinking. I believed that you had to live with reality, that this is life, harsh and unyielding with no room for fairytales. Reunions in heaven were just giving myself false hope. So I never took that “time off”.

But now, I am not that hard on myself. Why not think about them looking on at my life if it gives me comfort? Why not soften the hard edges of reality a bit? God knows reality isn’t going anywhere fast. I understand now how having a faith brings comfort to those grieving. It is something rather than nothing. And this is the cold truth of loss: after the dust settles and the callers have gone, there is nothing.

There are relapses. If I am at a low ebb, I abandon all of my “magical thinking” and I just wish they were here, with me in my life. If I allow myself to dwell on this, the unfairness of it, I have to remind myself to stop because I know I am now veering into self-pity. Who said that I should have a perfect life?

Everyday terrible things happen. I have found that accepting this simple fact, really understanding that life is unfair and the world itself a deeply inequitable place helps me adjust my mental position once again.

Geraldine De Brit: pictured on her street in Sutton with husband Donnacha McCarrick and children (from left) Jacqueline (17), Ronan (14), Grace (11) and Denis (13)Photograph: Dave Meehan
Geraldine De Brit: pictured on her street in Sutton with husband Donnacha McCarrick and children (from left) Jacqueline, Ronan, Grace and Denis. Photograph: Dave Meehan

I know I have many blessings not least of them being the miracle of life itself. If experience has taught me anything it is that life is a fragile and unpredictable thing.

A candle that can be expunged at any moment. I know if my mother was here she would tell me to say goodbye to the pain, remember the love and live my life to the full.