Patricia Scanlon: Living after a great loss

In an extract from her new book on grief, In an extract from her new book on grief, Patricia Scanlon reflects on the death of her mother reflects on the death of her mother

Patricia Scanlon: Living after a great loss

In an extract from her new book on grief, Patricia Scanlon reflects on the death of her mother

Throughout life, grief comes to us all in many forms. It may be for the ending of a relationship, the loss of good health, a home, a job or career, financial security or a loved one through death. Everyone will experience grief differently and in different stages. Sometimes we are given time to prepare for the loss of the loved one. At other times, death is sudden, unexpected, tragic, and a numbing sense of shock can be even stronger than the grief, which will come later. Initially, in those surreal days after a death, we are taken up with practicalities. Relatives and friends have to be notified. A funeral has to be organised. In a way, these distractions are a blessing. They give us time to absorb the enormity of what has befallen us.

They give us a chance to do our best for our loved one in the tasks we have to undertake for them: our last gift of service. I remember going into the undertaker’s with my dad and siblings after my mother’s death. I had passed that building thousands of times and never given it a thought. Now, unthinkably, we were seated with a most compassionate and understanding undertaker, handing the burden of arrangements over to him, being guided on every step that had to be taken.

There were moments of humour when we looked at the array of coffins, knowing instinctively that my mother would not have liked the rather flashy, ornate ones.

Later, I remember going into my local supermarket and hearing two people laughing. How can they laugh? I thought. How can the world just keep on as though nothing has happened? My mother is dead!

I remember the awfulness of actually saying those words to someone for the first time. ‘My mother has died!’ I could hardly believe it, even though I had been at her bedside. It’s strange what you remember about those days.

I remember being in the funeral car. How many times had I blessed myself and said a prayer, as is the custom in Ireland, every time a funeral cortège passed? Had I ever thought I would be a mourner one day watching people bless themselves as we drove by?

I remember being touched as we drove past by the sight of a young man, selling newspapers at traffic lights, removing his baseball cap and bowing as he made the sign of the cross.

That simple, heartfelt moment of a stranger’s kindness will stay with me always. I remember friends, acquaintances and neighbours standing with us in solidarity at the funeral mass and the wake, sometimes just pressing our hands or hugging wordlessly. Such kindness. Such comfort. I remember a couple of months after my mother died, a lovely photographer, who had taken publicity shots of me, arranging to work on the photo of my mother that we had chosen for her memory card.

Patricia Scanlon
Patricia Scanlon

As he was leaving, he said to me, ‘This is a very, very hard time. Be good to yourself.’ Somehow, it was a shock to hear him say it.

There had been so much to do.

We had all rallied around my father and he had become our focus. I had to continue writing the novel I was in the middle of when my mother had passed – the reins of life had to be taken up again – and I hadn’t really had time to realise that my mother’s death was the hardest thing I had ever endured. His words gave me permission to say to myself, Yes, this is a very hard time.

Stop pushing yourself. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes it isn’t that easy. One of my dearest friends, who had suffered the sudden loss of a brother, said to me a few days after my mother passed that waves of exhaustion would hit me out of the blue. She told me to be careful of my driving, to try to concentrate because invariably my thoughts would revert to the bedside vigil and the moments of passing.

This was so true. Sometimes it was all I could think about, especially when driving. Then my mind would wander back. Another friend offered me Xanax tablets and I was tempted to take them, but instinctively I knew it was not for me, though many people find it helpful to take medication at such times.

I realised that grief had to be endured, no matter how long it was postponed, and I thought, I might as well deal with it now rather than later. Grief will have its way and has to be worked through, as does the anger, the depression, the sense of isolation, the guilt one invariably feels, remembering rows or disagreements that may have occurred or that you felt you hadn’t done enough for your loved one when they were alive – even though you had. During this period other questions often arise. ‘Is this it? Do we live whatever sort of life we live, and then just die?

Is there a purpose to living or is it all very random?’ As Pam [Patricia’s co-author] explains, death can be a ‘great awakener’ for those who are left, and those who mourn.

Why? Where? How? So many questions. Sometimes you may feel angry with the person who has passed because there were difficulties in your relationship with them. There may be no grief at all, just resentment.

This is a hard path to walk. Many years ago I opened a cherished book The Game of Life by Florence Scovel Shinn on the page with the quote at the chapter beginning: ‘No man is my friend, no man is my enemy, every man is my teacher.’

At that time, my world view was beginning to change, and I found it to be such an interesting concept. It changed my view of relationships with family, friends, and partners. There are people we don’t get on with in our lifetime and that’s fine. It would be a perfect world if the opposite were true.

But if you ask yourself, what is that person teaching me, or what am I teaching them the answer may bring a different energy to the association. It may be a parent, sibling, child, partner, friend, or workmate who has been in our life for a specific reason. And when their death occurs and there is estrangement, one is left with the distress of knowing that nothing has been resolved, closure never achieved. If you are in a difficult situation like this, there is an affirmation that can be very helpful.

Simply say: I put my problems, regrets, anger and resentment with [name] in the hands of Divine wisdom and love, release it to the Universe, and go free.

Say it when all the emotions come surging up, and believe that in time a healing balm will come and you may even be able to bless the one who troubled you. Share memories, especially of good times, but don’t push any difficulties you had under the carpet.

No relationship is perfect, no shared life is without its challenges. Acknowledge them and let them go.

However grief assails you, it’s important to remember that help in the form of counselling or therapy is available, if you feel you need it.

This can be a positive step in your self-care at this vulnerable time. It’s also important to make the most of family and friends. Sometimes sitting down with them over a cuppa and chatting about the person who has passed is extremely therapeutic.

Share memories, especially of good times, but don’t push any difficulties you had under the carpet. No relationship is perfect, no shared life is without its challenges. Acknowledge them and let them go.

Remember, too, that difficult as it is, when grief is overpowering, it’s a sign of the great love you shared. That awareness brought me much comfort, and still does.

A wise friend of mine once told me that grief is like a tsunami at first – overwhelming and unstoppable – but that in time the waves lessen and grow calmer until, over many years, they are merely ripples. I didn’t believe her, although I wanted to, in the throes of devastation when my mother passed away. Years later I realise she was right, and as I now grieve my father’s death, I know that, in time, that grief, too, will lap gently on the shore. Remember, too, that difficult as it is, when grief is overpowering, it’s a sign of the great love you shared. That awareness brought me much comfort, and still does.

- Extracted from Bringing Death to Life by Patricia Scanlan, Dr Mary Helen Hensley, Aidan Storey and Pamela Young published by Hachette Ireland and out now in trade paperback, €16.99.

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