Emma Foy (died 14th April 2005) – An Appreciation

by Helen Kehoe

Emma’s untimely death last April came as a terrible shock and was a source of deep sadness to all who knew her.  Despite the chaotic and unpredictable nature of her last illness, she bore it with great strength and characteristic courage.

Emma was from the West of Ireland, and grew up in Galway. She first qualified as a teacher and subsequently went on to train as a psychotherapist, studying in both England and the United States.  She spent most of her working life in England as a member of the St. Louis Congregation.  In her initial career as a school teacher she did marvelous work with troubled teenagers who had been assigned to the school’s ‘sin bin’.  She was appointed as Regional Leader of the English Province of the Congregation from 1981 to 1984.  She was a member of staff at Heronbrook House, an English residential therapeutic centre for priests and religious, from 1988 to 1994.  In 1995 Emma moved back to Ireland and set up a private practice in Dublin.  In addition, she also did group work with students for both the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre and the Institute of Creative Counselling and Psychotherapy.

It is impossible to describe fully the richness and vitality of knowing Emma.  She was warm, witty, fun-loving, witty with a mischievous glint in her eye.  She was, in the best sense, a rogue, and her impish grin never failed to spark off good-humoured repartee.  In describing this quality one of her friends said ‘she left little whirlpools and eddies of good humour wherever she went’.  There was an excitement to being with her – an edge to it. Anything was possible. She could be outlandish and irreverent, with a playful sense of the ridiculous which made her so much fun to be with.

Emma had great wisdom and insight. However, she was slow to dispense these, preferring to take the time to gently facilitate you in accessing your own wisdom. She had a very creative way of lookig at problems and arriving at solutions. She was fiercely honest, looking into the eye of any situation and calling it as it was.  But she would do it with great sensitivity and compassion.  There was always a great sense of support from Emma and you knew you could be yourself with her.  In fact she would challenge you to be yourself, to be real, and to settle for nothing less.

Emma took her inner journey very seriously.  She challenged herself to be her best self.  She showed tremendous courage and took great risks in the life-changing decisions she made.  She enjoyed deep discussion (peppered with hilarity!) over a meal with friends.  These sessions would often go on late into the night and would usually come around to the the topic of spirituality – and always a spirituality that encompassed humanity. She had a great enthusiasm for life and a desire to live life fully. She was a highly respected therapist.  Her training was in Gestalt therapy, but she drew on many skills and techniques taking an eclectic approach. She was very creative in her way of working. But the real instrument was herself. She gave of herself very generously and had the courage to make that costly identification.

Wounding is the traditional training ground for the healer and Emma was a wounded healer. She had a hard life in many respects. She contracted T.B. as a young child and at the age of five was hospitalized for three years. It was during this period that her father died. These events at such a young age left their mark both physically and psychologically and having plumbed her own depths she was able to be there in depth with others, showing enormous compassion and empathy.

Emma loved nature. She loved the sea. She loved flowers and was a keen gardener. She loved poetry. But her great passion was for art. She was an artist and a member of the Black Sheep arts group in Dalkey for a number of years.  Valerie Coombes described Emma as ‘a true Black Sheep in the best sense of the word – feisty, brave, original, treading independent and unusual paths.  She was much loved by her classmates for her spiky humour and rich humanity.  Her work had integrity, power and a mystical quality’.

Perhaps precisely because she was focused on central issues of spirituality and growth, Emma did not have much time or regard for bureaucracy, form-filling and report-writing.   Tax returns were a real nightmare for her!  We, her friends, will always associate Emma with an endearing element of clutter in her life and working space.

In thinking of Emma’s life I am reminded of the poem ‘The Summer Day’, written by one of her favourite poets, Mary Oliver:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?