by Patricia Allen-Garrett
Note to the reader: When I began to write about the death of my best friend, Kieran, it was in a bid to try to make sense, understand and deal with the feelings evoked in me by his death in March of this year. After my initial outpourings I began to wonder what it might mean for me in terms of my therapeutic understanding of grief and how I might sit with it within the therapy room. This article is therefore a sort of hybrid – an exorcism of my own grief and a wider contemplation of the various models and thoughts about grief.
It’s beautiful here in Sorrento, it’s late September and still gloriously warm. There are lemon trees and olive trees everywhere. It seems that around almost every corner the sea sweeps her glory and when the sun smiles on the water the result is breathtaking. When I breathe this in I feel like I’m breathing in life itself. I’m not sure what it is about the sea but it feels like I could sit and just watch it for hours. I wish I could paint; my words just aren’t original or descriptive enough to capture its beauty, power, tranquillity and stillness.
In the midst of all of this beauty, I feel sadness. I know it’s about Kieran because when I acknowledge it I physically hurt. Its almost like – ok, enough, come back to me now. I have no doubt the closeness we reached during the last three months of his life gives me some comfort but it also makes me sadder – I wouldn’t change them, just the outcome.
To lose anyone is hard, to lose a friend who I’ve grown into adulthood with, who has seen me at my highest and lowest, who celebrated my successes, pushed me to be all I could be and who knew my darkest thoughts is almost unbearable at times. His ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’ as he swept into wherever we were to meet (invariable late!) will stay with me forever as will his strong and very direct advice and no-nonsense way of telling me off. He kept me very grounded on occasions when I would lose the run of myself! He was outraged on my behalf when people treated me badly (as he saw), other people’s very lax and sometimes careless attitudes with me (“forget them, they are just bad mannered and you need to tell them that!”) and quietly joyous for me in the moments when life began to go in a direction I wanted it to. It just feels so unresolved though, I’m sure the first experience of losing someone who I loved so much is going to cut with the deep strokes it does, but sometimes it’s excruciating.
Part of me knows he was so full that he was also quite empty. I never really knew anything about his early life; I just presumed we would get around to it over the course of our lives. Sitting at the table with him on New Year’s Day last year I got a glimpse of how it must have been for him, reasons for his drive, his choice of partner, his brokenness. I will always remember being touched several years ago when he asked me through tears if I thought those who had died would be waiting for us and how awful it would be if we weren’t all together. I remember being desperately upset but even at that point knowing it was one of only a handful of times in the 17 years we had known each other when he was able to show me his true vulnerability. And I realise now how hard it must have been for him.
Despite my knowledge of grief and the grieving process, it still amazes me how strong it is, how its grip is vice-like, unwavering and so cruel. Bowlby identified three stages of mourning as being protest, despair and detachment. Freud said in mourning an important loss we tend to withdraw all emotional attachments and energy from where they were previously invested and that usually this is temporary and is eventually followed by a reinvestment of emotional attachments. I have found the first part at least to be true. It’s as if I just don’t have the space or interest for normal things at the moment, as if life has changed so much and then at other times my sorrow feels so heavy, almost as if my living life is somehow saying his death doesn’t matter. It’s so confusing. One moment doing the normal things of life – I’m with other friends or working or walking or swimming or thinking and the next I’m winded by the almost physical sense of my loss. I feel like I’m on quicksand – as C.S. Lewis put it:
“In grief, nothing ‘stays put’. One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down?” (1961).
It’s ironic that I started a career break from the non-therapy side of my work on the 1st October to afford me more time to work in therapy and also to do some research into bereavement. The paradox of spending time researching it in a whole different way isn’t lost on me. And as I experience it firsthand I find myself moving away from Worden and Kubler-Ross and what feels like their sterile stages and finding more in common with the rage of Ironside and the depression of CS Lewis. At times I’m so furious with Kieran for taking his life, for leaving me to struggle through without him that Kubler-Ross’ anger stage doesn’t even come close to expressing the wrath I feel.
Victor Frankl (1962) cites sacrifice as a way of finding meaning and sense in the pain of bereavement – he says: “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” But if, as we know, death removes our ability to say goodbye gracefully, then suicide cruelly robs us of any sort of sense we might be able to make of the death, leaving in its place, powerlessness, wonderings of could I have done more, despair and pain at the depth of agony he must have been in that suicide was his only ‘choice’. I look back on his last text to me sent some hours before he died; ‘you’re on my mind, darling. Thinking of all your kindness and compassion. Ever grateful. As ever, my love.” In his heart he knew I was there but it just wasn’t enough and if I ever needed convincing or reminding that we don’t have any control over anyone other than ourselves, that text says it all.
As therapists we know that one of the very important aspects of the grieving process are the rituals we carry out, the contacting people, the wake, the planning of the service (religious or otherwise). Our invented ways of saying goodbye to those who won’t ever come back, helps us bridge the gap between life and death and they help us find some sort of closure. But Kieran’s final wishes were for no funeral, no service, not even a headstone to mark that he had at any point existed. This added to the sense of isolation, of futility of confusion. I couldn’t bear that this man who had been such a part of my life wouldn’t be remembered and so, many months later, we organised that his name be added to the ceremonial stone in Kiliney Park and we remembered him in song and poetry and words and we planted a beautiful tree which stands strong and proud on the hill, looking over the bay.
I don’t expect anyone to really understand the nuances of the relationship Kieran and I shared but I hate the clichés, the jollying along which comes from well-intentioned people. It reinforces how important just listening sometimes is. As O’Farrell says – we really don’t have the right to take someone out of their pain and even if we do, aren’t we forging dependence? In life and in the therapy room I can try to help someone in their grief – but just at the moment do I really want someone to make this better for me? And realistically how could anyone make this better? And so, I reflect on the losses of some of my clients and search myself to see if I was guilty of trying to make them feel better by trying to reduce the hurt through some sensitive phrase or sentence rather than allowing them to just share their expressions of hurt and anger.
I wonder will it always hurt? I suspect time will help, that it won’t be as raw. But I miss my friend very much. Being able to tell him I loved him was fairly incredible for me, although I’ve often been called ‘warm’ and/or ‘emotional’ (with varying degrees of condemnation!) I don’t open up particularly easily and I’m not given to spontaneous declarations of love!
Being the person he was, he had a very large circle of people in his life, some acquaintances, others friends, and others of us who were lucky enough to be more than that – a motley sort of family. I try not to get caught up in petty jealousies, everyone who knew him was touched by him and felt special – that was one of his gifts. Towards the end, he told me how fraudulent he felt about that. I absolutely know he was no saint, that’s precisely why I loved him so much. He could be selfish and disappear for long periods of time but now I think I understand that more. He couldn’t always be there – it took too much – even for those of us he didn’t need to worry about that with.
No-one can ever replace this wonderful, irreverent, talented lovely man. He was the closest thing to a brother I’ve had. I felt his love strongly and his passing has made me appreciate the importance of friends and of love. In terms of Worden’s tasks of grieving I know I have to find a way to ‘emotionally relocate’ Kieran and move on. And although I completely understand that this doesn’t mean forgetting him, that its about finding a place for him in my heart and psyche and soul which remembers how important he was to me but also means I don’t lose the ability to connect with others, somehow that’s just a little bit beyond me at the moment.
In my work with clients I try to make Worden’s tasks personal and relevant to them so that it’s not just a cold theory but something that is living and meaningful which they can integrate. I have a sense for me this will be about trying to find a way of living my life that allows for the love, fun, depth and friendship that was in my relationship with Kieran. In some ways it would serve as a tribute to him, a way forward for me and perhaps this aspect of my personal experience of loss will allow me to do what Sheila Cassidy talks about; ‘share the darkness’ and be with others in a much more congruent, authentic and complete way. Perhaps for me that will be my meaning in this bereavement?
And so, it’s beautiful here in Ireland, it’s early December, cold and clear. There are Christmas trees and Christmas lights everywhere. It seems that around almost every corner there is a reminder of Christmases past and when my memory goes there the result is heartbreaking and heart-warming. When I breathe this in I feel like I’m breathing in life itself, painful as it is. I’m not sure what it is about grief but it feels like I could just sit and get lost in it forever. Perhaps words aren’t original or descriptive enough to capture its depth, rawness, power and rage but perhaps, just perhaps they are a start.
Patricia Allen-Garrett is an accredited member of IAHIP, she teaches on the NUI Maynooth Certificate in Counselling Skills and works in private practice in Gardiner Street and Glasnevin.
Cassidy, S. (1991) Sharing the darkness: Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books
Frankl, V.E. (1962) Man’s Search for Meaning: Hodder & Stoughton
Kubler Ross (1997) On death and dying: USA: First Scribner Classics
Lewis, C.S. (1961) A grief observed: London, Faber & Faber Ltd
O’Farrell, U. (1999) The courage to change: Dublin, Veritas Publications
Worden, W. (1983) Grief counselling & grief therapy, a handbook for the mental health Practitioner UK, Tavistock Publications Ltd