One Friday morning getting on six years ago, my brother came up to Dublin from Waterford. He had a bit of a headache and was a little irritable. This was not unusual.
He was frequently irritable. However, he also wasn’t eating — this was unusual. Less than 48 hours later he was dead.
He had a violent seizure on the Saturday morning. He was taken to hospital, where they discovered a large
tumour on his brain. Shocked and panicked beyond words, we were told to go home and get some sleep as there was no immediate threat to life. Turned out they were wrong.
He died in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Bereavement affects people in different ways. To a large extent, it depends on how they die. When someone has had a full life and said all their goodbyes it can be easier to accept.
When it’s not expected, less so. The unfairness of it all, the sense that there was unfinished business, the things that will forever remain unsaid — all weigh heavily.
Whatever the circumstances of your loss, you are likely to experience what Elisabeth Kubler-Ross called the five stages of grief.
These can hit you in any order and varying degrees of magnitude, though it usually begins with: Denial: People you know don’t die. Other people die. Until they do, that is. Or maybe death seems to follow you everywhere — ‘Oh God, is this happening again? Why does everyone I know die?’ It doesn’t matter the circumstances, whether young or old, expected or a complete shock, there’s always a sense that it isn’t really happening. It can’t be happening.
‘Yesterday he was asking about getting a TV in the room to watch Match of the Day, now you’re trying to tell me he’s dead? That just cannot be.’ You wonder when you will wake up.
This denial is usually what gets us through the initial, completely overwhelming stages of bereavement.
Anger: Some things just seem incredibly unfair. There are so many horrible f**king b**tards out there.
Why are they still alive when your loved one isn’t? It just cannot be. If your religious, you might question God’s plan.
F**k him with his stupid beard and sandals and mysterious ways. Then there are the dozy gits in the hospital. Could they not have done more? And what of the deceased himself? Has he never heard of a check-up? The targets are many and plentiful.
And that’s before you get to the main culprit, old s**t for brains himself, that utter arsehole in the mirror, you.
Obviously, you messed up. Why didn’t you stop him from getting in that car?
Why didn’t you give her a call when she said she was feeling down? You call yourself a friend, brother, sister, father. Like denial, it’s natural and serves a purpose. It proves that you do, in fact, feel.
And then it will subside and other emotions will take over. Such as, Bargaining: The ifs and if onlys. If you’ll just bring him back to life, I promise to lead a better life.
I’ll give to the poor.
I’ll never tell him he’s an idiot again because another characteristic of the recently deceased is that that they are perfect. Every argument you ever had is relived, and you’re always in the wrong.
If you, the supreme deity, will just grant me this one wish, I’ll set the record straight. I’ll never lose my patience or be stroppy with him or her ever again. Is that too much to ask? Unfortunately, yes, it is. But we’ll cling to anything.
Depression: You’ve accepted he’s dead. And with that comes a mental, physical and spiritual fug. Life is experienced through a grey cloud. The pain is physical, a weight in your stomach that won’t go away. Everything is hopeless. You can’t face work. You just want to stay in bed all day.
Or possibly the pub. You may end up picking fights with loved ones, and be generally difficult.
Whatever the impact your mood may be having on those around you, it’s as nothing compared to what it’s doing to you. You may end up needing to see a GP or a counsellor.
However mentally strong you consider yourself to be, you begin to understand what mental illness feels like. But like the other stages of grief, this too will pass.
And then, eventually, Acceptance. It can seem, when you are stuck in one of the other stages of grief, that acceptance is both impossible and
undesirable. Getting on with your life again feels like a betrayal. Someone you loved has died. You have no right to enjoy yourself ever again.
But sooner or later, almost imperceptibly, and despite your best efforts, it changes. While never forgetting, you begin to adjust and find your way again.
If depression is a fog, with acceptance the sun comes out again and your head slowly begins to clear. It doesn’t mean you’re over your loss or you’ve forgotten them – that will never happen.
But it means you’ve mostly accepted they are no longer physically there. The good days start to outnumber the bad ones. Of course, it doesn’t end there.
Triggers can come from anywhere and at any time, even five years later during Would I Lie to You when Lee Mack says something funny — and you suddenly remember your brother thought he was annoying. And you’re lost in reverie for the next 10 minutes.
But I believe it helps to know there is a process at work. That you are not the first person to feel like you do. It helped me, anyway. And as the years go by since Nick’s passing, I hope this understanding will continue to stand to me.
Counsellor and psychotherapist
This reader's opinion was originally published in the letters page of the Irish Examiner print edition on 8 July 2019.