Grief – Your heart will always be a little bit broken

Categories: Care.

The strangest feeling you’ll probably ever have is willing someone you love to die.

After months of hoping, accepting defeat is the only option left on the table. You want them to be free and feel no pain. And so, you wait in this weird pre-death limbo.

Dad didn’t smoke and barely drank. He was very active – a farmer. After a few weeks of symptoms – that could easily be put down to several other minor issues – he was diagnosed with a type of cancer I had to Google the spelling of: oesophageal. As the doctor informed us, it’s often associated with smokers and heavy drinkers who are overweight.

As I said, Dad never smoked, hardly ever drank alcohol and was far from overweight. It was a shock, but then again lots of people get cancer and lots of people survive.

Before we knew Dad was sick, I had began the common post-college ritual – flights to South East Asia were booked and my working visa for Australia was sorted (months before we knew anything was wrong).

As fate would have it, the day I was due to fly out was the same day Dad had an appointment with a specialist in Dublin: 1 September 2012. After hours of sitting around, we heard the three worst words in the English language: It has spread.

I spent the next few months in Sligo and, bar some Christmas work in Penneys, was gainfully unemployed. I wouldn’t take back a moment of those months.

After the initial shock of the diagnosis dulled, fight mode kicked in and treatment began. He responded well and had a good Christmas. Hope was there.

When the treatment stopped working, the doctor assured us there were other options and they’d try a new type of chemo. It didn’t work. Again, the doctors said we’d go back to the drawing board.

On a Friday evening at our house, a nurse told us: ‘A week is a long time in your father’s life’.

It was the first time anyone had been that honest about what was happening. The truth hit. I was mad at the doctors and nurses for what felt like them deceiving us over the past few weeks. But what were they supposed to say? ‘He’s dying’ is too blunt.

All the positive, hopeful language is what you’re supposed to say so you say it. In hindsight, we were in denial. But you can talk away any symptom or sign if the truth is too painful.

In the months while he was sick, Dad had conversations with us about what would happen if he died. He and I sat one night in the dark watching a David Attenborough documentary and mused on the meaning of life. Spoiler alert: Neither of us knew.

A countdown kicked in once the nurse said what she said. It was agonising, but also a beautiful period that many people don’t get before someone they love dies. We cried and we laughed and we talked.

As Dad himself pointed out, if he had been hit by a car and died instantly, we would have never had the chance to say how much we loved each other. Nothing was left unsaid and he died at peace.

It was 1am on Monday morning went he went and the house was soon filled with neighbours. Then the funeral process kicked in – picking the readings and the coffin and the suit.

As the writer in the family, the eulogy was my job. It’s a strange, difficult thing to write – you have to sum up 60 years of life in a few minutes. It should be respectful and funny, but not too funny. At the time, I didn’t know I’d get to perfect the technique in the coming year.

In the days and weeks after, the house is full of relatives and neighbours and sandwiches. It’s all very surreal and what just happened doesn’t hit you until much later. That was my experience anyway.

Even now, my primary coping tactic is not thinking about it. When I do, I sob within about three seconds flat. In those moments when it hits me that he’s gone, I find it hard to breathe. Until I take up acting, the crying-on-cue thing will remain a largely useless trait. But I can picture myself as ‘weeping girl #4′ in some depressing film.

Humour is another helpful tactic – it’s kind of like the mental equivalent of jazz hands, akin to shouting: ‘I’m actually grand! Don’t worry about me! Don’t be awkward around me! Let’s pretend none of this is happening!’

You can make fun of grief when you’re grieving, you get a free pass.

Anne Enright has a great line about bereavement in The Gathering – your grief is comparable to your farts: Basically, you can happily dwell in your own, but, dear god, you want nothing to do with someone else’s.

Nobody knows what to say when somebody dies. And that’s okay. To try and make situations with friends less awkward I had some stock answers for when they would sympathise about my Dad: “You didn’t kill him … did you?,” I’d say. Or…

It could be worse, everyone could die.

Then everyone died.


Six months later, it was my granny. Then my friend.  Then my granda.

About seven billion people didn’t die, but that was largely irrelevant at that time. It was a fucking shit year.

As the family’s writer-in-residence it fell to me to advise on what should or shouldn’t be included in the eulogies and, in some cases, write and deliver them.

Trying to do justice to a person’s life is not a straightforward thing to do – whether they lived until 89 or 23. When a person has died of old age it can be easier to accept than when they were taken unexpectedly, but there is no easy death and no easy grieving.


Lots of things remind me of my dad. I got his thumbs, for instance. Every time I see a black Toyota Corolla I still, for a split second, assume he’s driving it.

I wish I took more photos of and with my dad. I wish he could pick me up from the train one more time – and carry my suitcase to the car even though it has wheels. I wish I could talk to him about the farm, the weather, the marriage referendum, Mayo not reaching another All-Ireland final. I wish I could talk to him about anything.

Above all, I wish he got to be a grandfather. He would have been SO good at that.

I’m very aware of the fact this grief is not mine alone – it belongs to many people. We all deal with loss in our own ways – some openly, some silently. Whether you’ve loved someone for minutes or decades, parting is not easy.

Shortly after Dad died, one of my sisters said she was going to run the Dublin City Marathon to raise funds for cancer services in Sligo General Hospital. She asked my sisters, mum and I if we wanted to do it too. I hated running – to be fair I’d never really tried running so it was an assumption, but a fair enough one to make.

I’m sharing this fact because this was a really big deal for me mentally.

A marathon seemed like a genuinely impossible task. Having to run a lot and for prolonged periods seemed like a way of making a bad situation worse, but I couldn’t really say no. What would my reason be? ‘I’m actually pro-cancer, but you work away.’

In the end it was actually one of the best things we’ve ever done.

People stop asking how you are

It’s been over three years since Dad died. People usually stop asking how you are within the first few months, or once the first anniversary rolls around.

Sometimes I wish people would ask me about him, sometimes it might be best they don’t (see previous paragraph re weeping). There’s no handbook for any of this stuff.

Sometimes you’re told, by well-meaning people, ‘It gets better with time.’ In my experience this didn’t really happen. It’s true, to a point. You get on with your life. You’ll be happy, you’ll have fun. But your heart will always be a little bit broken – and that’s okay.

For anyone who is recently bereaved, don’t feel the need to get over it. Just let it be. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to shout, shout. If you want to laugh, laugh. There is no right way to grieve – whether it’s been three days, three years or 33 years.

The grief I feel a couple of years on is deeper in many ways. When I lost people I loved in quick succession everything happened so fast there was an unrealness to it. The more time that passes, the more it sinks in.

Call someone

I’m not special. Everyone has or will feel like this at some point – probably several times. People die all the time. Other people keep living. That’s life.

People are taken from this life at all ages and for all types of reasons. My dad was a wonderful person, so was my granny and my granda and my friend. I was lucky to have had them and I miss them every day.

There is no end point with grief. You won’t suddenly be okay – and that’s okay too. The main thing I’ve learned from being bereaved is to appreciate the people you love and make sure they know that you love them.

If there’s someone you want to hang out with, arrange it. If there’s someone you should forgive, forgive them. If there’s someone you should call, call them today.

Over the next five days, the is running a series entitled  Last Rites which will look at death and dying in Ireland in the same way that Irish people do: with sadness, celebration, sombreness, humour and irreverence. 

This article was originally published on

For information on bereavement support see 


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