Life after grief


Coping with the sudden death of a young person is brutally difficult. What is it like when the deceased was in the public eye? The Philbin-Bowman family each found their own way, writes Kathryn Holmquist

His father, broadcaster and historian John Bowman, describes him as "a minor cultural figure of the 1990s". For many people, the really irritating part is that Jonathan was a minor cultural figure while still a minor. He defined the word "precocious", yet there was far more to Jonathan Philbin Bowman than that. Love him or loathe him, Jonathan was a day-maker. Sometimes he love-bombed you with creative ebullience; other times he tempted you into debates you could never win, in the Shelbourne Bar, the Unicorn or the middle of Grafton Street. This trait of arguing for the sake of it irritated his father. He could be infuriatingly obnoxious or endearingly entertaining, but, either way, few things were more stimulating than an encounter with JPB.

At 16, he announced on the Late Late that he had left school because he didn't believe in rules and authority. Byrne asked him, with eerie prescience, how he saw himself as a "grand old man". Jonathan replied that he couldn't see that far ahead. Byrne answered: "At 18, who thinks of being 58?"

Jonathan never got to think about being 58. His death in March 2000 at the age of 31 was, in his father's words, "a silly accident caused by alcohol". Jonathan stumbled home drunk, fell down the stairs into a glass door and slowly bled to death, too intoxicated to call for help. "He died from drink - he was too drunk to get help," says John.

Those who rushed to eulogise him were a who's who of Irish life; as poet Brendan Kennelly wrote, many had been swept away by his "mastery of comedy, of mad, incisive, intelligent, outrageous fun". But behind the public grieving was his family, including his son Saul, then aged 11, his parents, sister Emma (30 at the time), and brothers Abie (then 19) and Daniel, also aged 11.

Emma, a computer specialist, shared Jonathan's interest in Buddhism. She now rents the house in which Jonathan lived and died and, in the absence of Jonathan's chaotic habits, has turned it into the kind of haven that both she and Jonathan had aspired to.

Abie, who teaches in a programme for gifted children at Dublin City University, felt overwhelmed by the level of public affection for his older brother, and increasingly found himself playing "bad guy" at home, reminding his parents of Jonathan's failings.

Eimer, Jonathan's mother and a psychiatrist, was in such deep mourning that getting out of bed was difficult. She thought she would never recover and each morning had to build up courage to start the day. "It was as though the world was suddenly in black and white, having been in technicolor," she says. "Jonathan had created such magic. When he was gone I thought I would never laugh again."

John coped by immersing himself in the postbags of letters of condolence. An idea emerged that he would create a book for Saul, made up of letters and photographs. As the project grew, John considered publishing it privately for about 1,000 of John's bereaved friends. Saul, who may have attended more media launches during his young years in a pram than most journalists do in a lifetime, helped by contributing his own memories of his father's escapades.

Publishers asked John to write a biography. Ever the historian, John felt that his son's life didn't merit a biography and that the letters should speak for themselves. So, eventually, he decided to create a book of memoirs and letters, combined with extracts of Eimer's journal and contributions from people who had known Jonathan. John enhanced the bank of volunteered contributions by soliciting others from people who had known Jonathan well, amongst them teachers and bankers. John wanted to publish the book himself to ensure its quality, rather than as a business proposition. His friend, Jarlath Hayes, who died a year ago, started the ambitious design, which was finished by his daughter, Susan Waine.

Yet while John found comfort in creating the book, Jonathan, published at considerable cost this week by his own How Tatt Press, his wife, Eimer, and son, Abie, were less enthusiastic. Abie has had "serious reservations" about the usefulness of his father's project. "I have been particularly worried that contributors writing to my father about his deceased son will be too generous in their praise and not honest enough in their criticism," he writes in the book's 'Afterword'.

Eimer felt angry that while she was left coping with the practical and emotional issues surrounding Jonathan's death, her husband, John, was "running away to be with Jonathan" by immersing himself in the book.

"John withdrew into himself," she says. "I think this book for him was survival, a way of being close to Jonathan and reconstructing Jonathan and getting to know lots of aspects we didn't know about. I was left with all the human beings here. I had to keep the show on the road."

CaraIosa Mehigan, Saul's mother, was then a single mother with a new baby at home. Eleven years earlier, she had handed the rearing of Saul to Jonathan, with the support of Eimer, who understood CaraIosa's desire for travel, education and career. Eimer advised CaraIosa that if Jonathan was to be the sole carer for a while, CaraIosa would one day have her chance. Neither woman understood how soon and how tragically that day would come. Luckily, CaraIosa and the Philbin Bowmans remained close.

When Jonathan was a baby, Eimer herself had stalled her medical career for 10 years to care for him and his sister Emma, only 11 months younger. Jonathan had been such an easy and happy baby that Eimer and John, then students, had decided to have another soon afterwards. Reality hit Eimer when, as a junior doctor, she realised there was no way she could continue her medical studies with two babies at home.

She threw herself into motherhood, teaching Jonathan and Emma to read their first words by the age of two. That's not so unusual, but it soon became clear that Jonathan had a frighteningly advanced intelligence for his age. Whether he had a mother "hothousing" him at home (as Emma says) or not, Jonathan would always have been unusual, awkward and challenging - the curse of the gifted child.

Daniel, John and Eimer's son, is nearly the same age as Saul and feels "competitive" towards his uncle. While the family is united, Eimer and John see CaraIosa as Saul's main caretaker, and like any other parents of a teenager, invest their parenting energies in Daniel. "When a child dies, parents can lose sight of their other children, but Daniel wouldn't let you lose sight of him," says Eimer.

One can only imagine what a strange experience it was for Jonathan's family to see his memory taken over by so many famous people who wanted to write about him. Eimer says, convincingly, that she was amazed by the postbags which followed the funeral.

She had always worried about her son's apparent lack of intimacy with people and was concerned that his many friendships were superficial. "Jonathan had a wide range of interests and knew so many people, but in the more intimate setting of relationships with women and in family life - in the sense of the ongoing low-key relationships we all have - that was more difficult for him. His verbal intelligence was way ahead of his emotional judgment," says Eimer.

She used to nudge her son to "be real" and engage with the intimacies of ordinary life. Each time he visited home he brought a different friend. For Eimer, good friends mean a tight-knit group of people that you have known for at least five years and spend time with. It was only when Jonathan died and the private letters began flowing in that Eimer realised how many people her son had known and how well-loved he was. "I really had no idea," she says.

Two years on, she believes that Jonathan's 1,000 close friends were, indeed, close and that he engaged in friendship with intensity. Because Jonathan's legacy of admirers is so overwhelming, John is steeling himself against accusations of hagiography from cynical colleagues in the media. But he feels that the book stands on its own as a record of a changing Dublin as much as it does as a tribute to Jonathan. The index is a who's who of 1990s Dublin and the book is evocative of the period.

Yet there's no avoiding the fact that Jonathan bled to death, alone, from a treatable injury because he was too intoxicated to seek help. Where were the friends then? Before he died, some of Jonathan's friends worried about his excessive drinking. Jonathan dropped a hint to his mother that he had a problem.

"It did not register with me," says Eimer, "When he said 'I'm going to give up drink', I never asked, as you might: 'Are you drinking a lot?' After he died, I thought 'God, the things you don't see, the things you worry about as opposed to the things you should worry about'."

Jonathan was good at compartmentalising his life, Eimer says, presenting different sides of himself to different people. "He was drinking a lot, but only in the last few months. We weren't really aware of that. It all happened so quickly."

If Jonathan had lived, John believes that he would have been a "great broadcaster" with his own chat show. John refutes the accusation that Jonathan's influence was gained through having a famous father; he had encouraged him to be a scientist or barrister and Jonathan's talent for journalism came as a surprise. John insists that Jonathan had achieved on his own merits, just as he had insisted on rearing Saul on his own. One of the many perplexing issues left behind is that, at the time he died, Jonathan was taking anti-depressants and getting advice "over the phone" from a psychiatrist, who didn't know that he was drinking heavily. It's possible that the combination of the two drugs - alcohol and anti-depressants - colluded in the behaviour that led to his death.

John and Eimer have grieved intensely, but in the end, says Eimer, "you cannot blame yourself".

Jonathan: Memories, Reflections, Tributes by John Bowman with Eimer Philbin Bowman is published by How Tatt Press (€14.99 pb,€29.99 hb)