The day of her mother’s funeral, the 10-year-old was taken for a jaunt in a private plane

Hilary Fannin: The illness that took her mother’s life at 43 was as fast as it was relentless

On that still spring morning among the sleeping graves, under a pink apple blossom, the scene was lit by streaming sunlight

She was 10 years old when her mother died. It was 1966. The illness that took her mother’s life at 43 was as fast as it was relentless. A husband and three children were left behind.

It was decided that, on the day of her mother’s funeral, the 10-year-old would be taken off for a jaunt in a small private aircraft piloted by a family friend. From above the clouds, she would be able to gaze out at a patchwork of green and yellow fields and look down on a navy-blue sea combed through with white horses.

That she would be whipped off the ground and sped through the air, without any explanation whatsoever, on the day of her mother’s burial was a decision made, I’m sure, with extravagant kindness by awfully well-meaning adults.

Because what else would you do with a shocked and grieving child? Only pluck them out of their orbit and distract them with a brand-new kind of terror. God forbid you might bring them to the funeral of their beloved parent and allow them to absorb, and maybe even begin to understand, the finality of her passing.

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After the 10-year-old girl landed, throughout the raw months that followed, she plucked out all her eyelashes.

It was as if the location had been scouted by a movie-maker and we, her friends and fellow mourners, had been cast as special extras

More than 50 years later, I and a small group of friends stood with her, surrounded by stunning scenery, with the Sugarloaf mountain in the background, at her mother’s newly cleaned and restored grave in a 19th-century churchyard in Co Wicklow.

We were there to inter the ashes of her brother in the family plot (the only piece of ground, she wryly observed, that she or he had ever owned). Her brother – who had, throughout a challenging life, been her stalwart and friend – was to be reunited with the mother that he, too, in his own way, had mourned for a lifetime.

At his instruction, his ashes were housed in a biodegradable urn and placed in the ground. After that, a rosebush and a brace of bluebells were dug into the newly turned earth.

On that still spring morning among the sleeping graves, under a pink apple blossom, the scene lit by streaming sunlight, the soundtrack a blackbird’s song, the gathering felt almost staged, almost unreal.

It was as if the location had been scouted by a movie-maker and we, her friends and fellow mourners, had been cast as special extras, costumed in our straw hats, our woolly tights, our scuffed runners, our gardening gloves and leathery walking boots.

It was an entirely secular occasion. Each of us threw a handful of earth into the grave and said goodbye. My friend and her daughter both read short pieces of text that her brother had favoured, and my pal’s three-month-old granddaughter mildly protested her hunger from under her wild mop of light-brown hair.

A tragic incident, such as the loss of a parent at a young age, can ultimately help to make a person stronger, more realistic and self-reliant

Afterwards we walked down the hill to a small café in the village and had sandwiches and mugs of coffee. The waitress came out with a great tray of cakes and we talked and laughed and reminisced; and the baby, now fed, slept in her buggy. Then we departed the café and went back to our lives.

It had been a year since my friend’s brother died, a year since his small, Covid-restricted funeral, a year since we’d gone our separate ways after his cremation without the opportunity to raise a glass to him or share our memories.

I suspect that many of us are now attending ad-hoc gatherings to mark the passing of loved ones who died when we were unable to congregate. I asked my pal about the experience of this extended, reignited grieving, and she said that it had been a kind of gift to have time, after the initial shock had eased, to plan and to prepare a way to finally say goodbye.

“He’s with our mother again,” she said simply, “and that is something to celebrate.”

One of the readings at his interment touched on the way a tragic incident, such as the loss of a parent at a young age, can ultimately help to make a person stronger, more realistic and self-reliant.

The simple beauty of that morning in Co Wicklow lay partly in the knowledge that even if someone doesn’t fully manage to complete the journey from grievous loss to steely self-confidence, even if their old wounds could never entirely heal, that person is still understood, still cherished, still missed, still loved.