Old grief gets some welcome comic relief


Yesterday was the 29th anniversary of my mother’s death and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Not about the death itself – I’ve been pretty consistent about considering it a bad thing – but, rather, how to compute the fact that it’s nearly three decades ago.

I should know how I feel by now. Not only does that period comprise 95% of my conscious time on Earth, I’ve spent most of two years writing a memoir that goes into this childhood loss in some detail. No greater sign of how oblivious I was at that time is that the book’s title, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is the phrase with which I cheerfully greeted mourners at her wake, unsure what tone to strike.

As time went on, I came to understand my mother’s death was permanent. But as pain subsides – and it does, thankfully – loss finds new ways to be incomprehensible. I’m less confused than I was at five, less hurt and angry than at 10, or 15, but still my brain flips funny little switches every so often, jolting me with some sharp, new reminder of her passing; things I miss, or missed out on.

As I look forward to watching my own son grow up, things hurt differently. My mother didn’t get to kiss any more grazed knees or carry me to bed when I pretended to fall asleep in the car after long journeys. She wouldn’t cock an eyebrow at the socialist-tinged T-shirts or abstruse electronica of my teens. She never got to smile politely at girlfriends she detested, or text me to say she loved them. Sheila O’Reilly never sent a text message, full stop. She didn’t even live to see Bryan Adams’s Everything I Do (I Do It For You) get knocked off UK number one, where it had been for the last four months of her life.

My son is too little to notice the asymmetry of his grandparents. He’s content to know he has a ‘nana and grandad’ in Dublin, and a ‘granda’ in Derry, and adores them without thinking about whether any are missing. I quite often think about the conversation we have ahead of us. This week I even had a dry run, when I saw my nephew Ardal.

Ardal, like most four-year-olds, is sensitive and wise. He balances a probing thoughtfulness with a passion for jumping off couches and thumping his little sister Nora on the shoulder. He’s known for some time that Granny O’Reilly is deceased, but the full effects have only begun to sink in. My sister Maeve had been talking about visiting my father, when Ardal suggested she might see her mummy while she was there. Maeve quietly reminded him that this was impossible only for him to reply, with the sort of cheery earnestness neglected by most grief counsellors: ‘Of course you can see her! It’s just she’s a skeleton now.’ I rejoiced in the simple kindness of his answer, and must admit I can’t fault its logic one bit. I could have used someone with his clear-sightedness many years ago.