When a Child Dies is an experiential book in which the reader is invited into the minds and hearts of a family devastated by the death of their youngest member. Through the voices of the childs parents and siblings, this book explores the many feelings and thoughts experienced following this tragedy.
The feelings of shock, anger, rage, sadness, fear, terror, denial, yearning, guilt and loneliness are palpable throughout, showing how the family coped, and what helped them to come to terms with their loss.
When a Child Dies ultimately uncovers a family slowly emerging from darkness and chaos to reach some kind of acceptance, and to make the decision to live rather than to merely exist.
Cathal OShea was 13 when he cycled from a side road into the path of a car near his Co Tipperary home and was killed. That was nearly two decades ago, but the shock of that dreadful day still reverberates in the hearts, minds and bodies of his family.
Cathals father has written about the experience in When a child dies: footsteps of a grieving family, published recently by Veritas.
There is no other book like this anywhere I know of on this subject. Because Jim OSheas account is stark and raw and because Cathals mother and siblings also wrote down their feelings, either at the time or for the book, the effect is to bring you into the grieving heart of this family.
Cathals death left the family mentally and physically shattered in the immediate aftermath. Jim writes of how, on the day of Cathals death, and after making the horrific telephone calls to his adult daughtersI was overwhelmed. I could not bear to hear the screaming and pain of my surviving children. I felt the energy leaving my body..."
He could no longer carry out the role of strong father of the family. His son Bill wrote of that night: "My father was shattered. He was a rock of strength and here he is devastated. This did not make sense. This is my most lasting memory."
Jim speaks of awakening the next morning "to the nightmare". His wife Mary "lay silent beside me, struck dumb by the horror of losing one of her children".
There are so many things in this book that you would not think of unless you had been through this experience. His mother writes about going to the post office to cancel Cathals childrens allowance.
"I remember saying to the assistant, what do you do about childrens allowance when a child dies, and then I broke down in front of him."
To this day, "I still find myself thinking of him a lot when I cook something he liked."
Nearly 20 years later, the pain of losing Cathal is still there for the whole family and that is something which I think we fail to appreciate. We all accept that parents will never stop grieving a child but we fail to understand the depth of the loss felt by siblings.
"I often stand at his grave and wish I could dig up his coffin to see him again," writes his sister Deirdre.
"It is my belief that one never recovers fully from such a loss," writes Bill. "One merely learns to live with the pain. Sure, I can laugh and have fun, but that dark cloud will never lift fully."
Jim, a teacher, insisted, after Cathals death, that Bill return to school to do his Leaving Cert. "Looking back I realise that I was beginning to operate again, perhaps in a male way of keeping busy," Jim writes. But he wishes he had encouraged Bill to postpone his Leaving Cert for a year. The early return, he believes, "had serious consequences for him in terms of coping".
His sister Frances, when answering a questionnaire her father had prepared to help him write the book, says that "the parts that made me cry most were thinking about how he would be now, and ... how I never told him I loved him".
Of all Cathals siblings, Breda was closest to him and yet the shock and devastation of his death have wiped out most of her memories of him. "I used to drive myself crazy wracking my brain, trying to recall the conversations and laughs we had," she writes. "But all those occasions died with Cathal. I cannot even remember his voice."
Jim OSheas concentration has never fully recovered since Cathals death. A skin condition which had emerged after the tragedy re-appeared when he was writing the book.
If you have anything at all, professionally or personally, to do with people who are bereaved then you should read this book.
It will hurt, and its too much to bear in a single reading, but you will be a better person when you have finished it.
- Padraig OMorain, The Irish Times, 27 May 2008
When A Child Dies
Cathal OShea, aged 13, died in a road traffic accident on 18 February while out cycling on a Sunday afternoon. His father, Jim, has now written a book based on the whole familys experience of bereavement , a book that will help many other families struggle out of such darkness towards some kind of acceptance.
"Time is possibly the greatest healer," says Jim OShea, a retired school principal, who has now retired as a counsellor. "Its an old saying, but thats what happens. Somehow the wound closes and the pain eases over time. The first year is horrendous. Every morning when I woke I could see this big, bright light with "Cathal is dead" written in the middle of it in big print, but gradually the print got smaller and smaller.
"Losing a child is like an amputation: the limb is no longer there, yet you are always aware of it, you have this ghost feeling, if you like. While you will never forget and there will always be sadness, the pain will ease."
Jim OShea had a strong urge to write this book, When A Child Dies: Footsteps of a Grieving Family. "My main purpose was to give bereaved parents and siblings hope, he says, perhaps who have never experienced bereavement an insight into the hearts and minds of those who have
Jim believes that it took great courage for his wife and other four children - Frances, Bill, Breda and Deirdre - to let their feelings about Cathals death be heard. At the time that Cathal died, his sisters and brothers ages ranged from teenagers to young adults.
"Our hope is that other bereaved people may get a crumb of consolation, knowing that we had suffered so much and survived."
The royalties from the book are being given to Our Ladys Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin.
WHAT HELPED THEM HEAL?
But what, besides the passage of time, helped Jim OShea and his family to heal? "Talking to others was also very healing, especially talking to those who had lost a child. We knew they really understood, even if their grieving experiences had been different from ours.
"Letters received from friends and even strangers were very consoling too. Keeping a journal also helped in terms of seeing how far the family have come on the road to recovery. It was something I suggested at the time. Though, until my family allowed me to read their diaries while I was writing this book, I didnt know the details of their grief. I learned a lot about how they felt that I hadnt known before."
Creativity can be healing too, according to Jim. He personally wrote poetry about Cathal, a boy "full of mischief and of glee". One of the exercises that he found therapeutic while having some bereavement counselling himself was to write a letter to his deceased son. "In it I expressed my love for him and apologised for any occasions when had been hard on him.
CHALLENGE THE GUILT
"Guilt is a big part of grief for some people, especially when death has been sudden. I felt guilty for coming down hard on Cathal about homework and studying. Bill felt guilty that he hadnt been around to look after him that day. Breda felt guilty that she wasnt living at home anymore, where she could mind him.
"Guilt is something that has to be challenged. It can rest on ridiculous foundations and yet appear logical, but it is an immensely powerful feeling and clouds our thinking.
"I felt guilty that I had allowed Cathal a bicycle. That guilt is unfounded. A child has to be given appropriate freedom and the chance to develop. We cannot keep our children under lock and key. They must learn to live in the world and that brings risks," says Jim.
FEEL YOUR FEELINGS
Allowing yourself to feel your feelings is also important in recovery. "Despite being busy, you have to make some time for your anger, depression, your anxiety and your loneliness. I allowed my tears to flow, though not always when other family members were around.
"We had a big solid-fuel cooker heating our house at that time. It had a large white top to keep in the heat, and Cathal and I had the bad habit of sitting on it together each evening after school to warm our backsides.
"After he died, I used to sit on it, hunched over and crying, getting comfort from the heat. It must have been difficult for others in the house to listen to the weeping of an adult male each evening, but most of the time I cried alone. I felt my family had enough to deal with."
Spirituality also helped Jim OShea to cope. "My faith did give me comfort. There is always the idea that Cathal is in another place and that well meet him again someday. If I didnt have that spirituality, life, would be bleaker for me. I felt a link also with Our Lady. She had lost a child too. This consoled me. I felt we had something in common. I felt she understood," Jim explains.
Mary OShea, Cathals mother, found talking to her children the most healing influence over the years. She also got enormous support from her own siblings and the pastoral care within her church.
Deirdre and Breda speak of the commitment and support of their husbands, friends and family. Frances eventually got consolation from a re-found faith in God.
Being busy also helped, Jim believes. "Standing in front of a class or running a large school demands concentration and attention and, over time, took my mind from my gloomy thoughts.
"I liked doing historical research, too. I found that writing preoccupied me and was therapeutic for me. Everyone has their own way of keeping busy. In the early days after Cathal died, I found TV a distraction - when I was watching it I didnt have to think."
Down the line, hobbies are important in healing too. Jims wife Mary found badminton a comforting distraction in the early months after Cathals death, while Jim took up set dancing in 2000. Six members of the set dancing club have lost children, he says.
"It is so healing to see club members who lost children, often showing great humour. We never talk about it, but I suppose I feel a special unspoken bond with them."
WHAT HE WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
But what would Jim do differently if he had the chance? "I wouldnt have tried to get Bill back to his Leaving Cert so quickly. He had his oral Irish and mock exams a few weeks after Cathal died. In the summer, I took him off to London with me to work on a building site too. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. I thought wed all get away for a while and be able to forget. It was so stupid, because you bring the pain with you. Home is a comfort zone, and its better to grieve at home than in some strange city.
"Bill going off to college and living in a flat by himself that September was hard on him too. Looking back, he should have postponed his exams and taken time out to heal.
"I never realised how much siblings suffer. Standing back now, Id say that our childrens suffering was as great as ours when Cathal died. I wouldnt have been aware of that at the time, because I was struggling myself.
"Children also have the added pain of seeing their parents grieving. From their writing, its obvious they were all very concerned about their mother and how she would cope.
"A mothers bond with her child is very deep. It was also difficult for them seeing me, their father, shattered by grief."
- Country Living 2008
A Death in the Family
How does a family cope with the sudden death of a child, a happy go lucky boy of thirteen, killed by a car outside his home on a sunny February afternoon?
For the OShea family, the death of the youngest child, Cathal, the pet of the family, brought chaos - a word that recurs throughout this book. Nothing in their lives before, no experience, not their religion, had remotely prepared them to meet this calamity.
Written by Cathals father, Jim, a retired school principal and practising counsellor, When a Child Dies documents the familys reactions to this terrible event, both in the immediate aftermath and through the following eighteen years.
The author draws on writings by his wife and four surviving children, in journals started at his suggestion shortly after Cathals death, and on questionnaires he asked them to fill in when he decided to write the book. His hope was that other bereaved people may get a crumb of consolation knowing that we had suffered so much and had survived.
The result is an uneasy mix of voices, the authors of course being dominant, as he comments in a quasi-professional manner on his familys grief reactions, including those of his wife, Mary, who was not altogether happy that the book be written.
It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of a childs death on parents and siblings, and it can indeed be helpful to bereaved families to witness how others have endured the same blow, yet this books high emotional tone, as though suffering were an exceptional occurrence, jars a little at times.
Families and individuals grieve in their own way. Some will be composed and reticent in public, and perhaps equally so in private. Some will be composed in public, and perhaps equally so in private. Others are less reticent.
The OShea family did not hide their grief either in public or from each other. The three daughters describe screaming when they received the news of Cathals death. One writes that she was hysterical, just hysterical. It is telling that one of her best friends didnt come to the funeral or the wake. She said by way of explanation that we were too emotional a family and she couldnt take the excess of grief she knew we would express.
The author often listened and shuddered as I heard the wailing and weeping of various members of my family from different rooms. Yet he castigates himself for not showing his grief more openly and one of his daughters writes: I couldnt understand how my dad returned to work so soon after . . . he seemed so detached to me.
This is one of the harsh truths of bereavement: that in their grief people do not always understand the ways and needs of others. The bereaved are like walking wounded who, in their struggle to survive, have little energy to spare for others. As Jim O Shea writes: I wanted to support my children but I was unable even to support myself.
As the years passed, the rawness of the OShea familys grief lessened. They even began to enjoy life again. Yet, for the author, there is always a feeling of unease beneath the surface. For a long time he saw this as a failure; after all, he was the go-getter, the achiever and since it is possible to get over many losses . . . I thought that the loss of a child was no exception. Now he knows that this is not so, that the nagging sense of loss will always be with him.
- Anna Farmar, 1 May 2008 Irish Catholic
Anna Farmar is the author of Childrens Last Days (Town House) an account of childrens terminal illnesses and their parents grief.
- Chapter one
A Cloudless Horizon
A Family Whose Youngest Child was Greatly Beloved
The year 1971 was a new and exciting one for our family. I resigned from Irish Shell and BP, where I had worked for ?ve years. I had enjoyed working there, and I loved the Dublin of the 1960s, but I had always wished to live in the country, and it had long been my ambition to teach. I took up a teaching position in the Christian Brothers School in Thurles, my alma mater. I looked forward to living and working in my own county, Tipperary, and I felt that country life would give my children more freedom, remembering my own childhood in the beauty and wilderness of Kilcooley in the parish of Gurtnahoe, twelve miles from Thurles.
It was also, to my mind, a much safer place for children, with less road traf?c. The place I chose to build my house, where Mary and I still live, is situated less than two miles from the town of Thurles, a rural setting on a back road. Indeed, a few miles further and the road has a ridge of grass growing right down the middle. There was little traf?c on it in the 1970s. It was as safe a place for children as one could imagine.
We had three girls at that stage, Frances, Breda and Deirdre, all Dublin Jackeens, but who today profess to being loyal Tipperary women. Frances, the eldest, was only four years old, and had not yet started school. Two boys, Bill and Cathal, were born to us in Thurles. Bill was born in 1972 and Cathal in 1976. Cathal arrived prematurely on Sunday 26 November 1976. We had been shopping in Thurles the day before when Mary suddenly felt some pain. As a precaution, we decided to go to the District Hospital, where they told us that she was in the early stages of labour and so couldnt leave. I dashed home in a panic and ?lled a suitcase with any clothes that looked as if they might be useful in hospital!
Our new baby spent the next six weeks or so in an incubator and we decided on the name Cathal. It means strong in battle, and comes from the Gaelic word cath, meaning a battle. We thought about him all through Christmas, and looked forward to bringing him home in January. He looked so tiny in the incubator, and we longed to hold him. The nurses presented us with a caul, which had covered his head when he was born. We were so pleased at this. A caul is a membrane of skin, and is valued as a symbol of good luck. The Gaelic for caul is caip?¡n sonais, meaning cap of happiness or good luck. We could not imagine any misfortune befalling a child born with a caul.
There was great rejoicing when we brought him home shortly after Christmas. He was a beautiful baby, with large blue eyes and lovely pale skin. He looked like his mother and his sister, Deirdre. He was a very quiet baby. One of my memories is how much I liked holding him at Mass on Sundays dressed in a white woollen jump suit, as he quietly stared at the nearest Mass-goers. I felt so proud holding such a handsome child.
Our quiet baby changed dramatically when he began to walk. Like most children, and particularly boys, he was fast on his feet, as wild as I was when I was a child , almost an extension of myself. He was full of curiosity, and seemed to have a hundred hands, all of them busily engaged! He was a witty child. From an early age he liked to dress up in funny clothes, and was very creative. This creativity turned to writing little stories by the time he was ten or eleven. He loved to write about ghosts and monsters. I discovered a great number of these after he died. As a young child he also wrote poetry; some of it, perhaps, prophetic. One of these was called The Seed and I quote it verbatim:
There once was a seed who didnt want to grow
He wanted to stay in the dark down below.
His brothers and sisters were growing up fast,
They said hurry up brother or elss youll be last.
There brother said I am not growing up in the wind and the rain
Ill just stay here on my own to be soking and blowing
Ill just stay here on my own.
But his brothers and sisters said come brother grow.
There brother said if you dont grow
Youll never blow.
As he grew older this beautiful baby became a very handsome boy with lovely hair and a gentle smile. Our children remember him in different ways. He was Bredas favourite, and he nicknamed her the little red hen. In her journal of 30 March 1991, a year after he was killed, she describes him as a lovable, innocent beautiful, funny child. That really sums him up. She created a lovely portrait of him, and how they related:
We would cycle to town together & I would buy him loads of sweets or a burger, chips & coke. It used to make me so happy to see his little face light up with delight. My brother appreciated everything. He was so vain, all done up in his jeans, runners & heavy metal t-shirt. His hair would have to be immaculate. If one hair stood up it would be down to the bathroom for a quick splash in the sink, & then off to town to play computer games in the chipper or meet a few friends; a regular kid, but a special one. I used to say to him wait until youre old enough to go out with me, Cathal, well have a laugh, you and I
I know that we are fortunate to have this lovely portrait of our youngest child, because today Breda might be unable to bring herself to recall him in such detail. One of the questions I asked my family was how they experienced Cathal from the time of his birth until he died. What type of personality came across to them? What were the things they most remembered about him? What were the things he did? How did he relate to them? How did they relate to him? They found this a very dif?cult exercise. It wasnt that we each did not have our own description of him, but that it forced us to bring him back to life. The soft-spoken, ?esh and blood child. Not all members of my family were able to do it, and this is a barometer of how dif?cult and painful it is to lose a child or a sibling. However, we all grieve differently, and I know parents who get consolation from recalling their dead child in detail.
I still ?nd it painful to remember him as the witty, funny child that he was. But, as part of writing this book, looking at photographs of him dressed up in his funny suits has helped me. I can smile when I remember how he used to call me Shiner, because of my bald head. It would have been a good nickname at school, but Jimmy seemed to be what the boys preferred! This funny little boy also liked to take risks. I remember meeting him in the yard at 8 oclock one summer morning. I assumed that he had got up early, and was out enjoying the sunshine. Only later did I learn that he and one of his friends had spent the night in an old, and apparently haunted, castle some distance from our house. I can also smile when I remember how his nephew, Gerald, adored him, and how Cathal used to tear around the house with Gerald gleefully hanging on in a wheelbarrow. The same pattern is now repeated with my very young grandchildren looking up to the older ones. I am aware of this with a mixture of joy and sadness. It reminds me of how Gerald must have felt bereaved when Cathal died. Although very young, he often asked where Cathal was. Bereavement psychologists remind us that children as young as two-and-a-half mourn.
Deirdre, too, shares her memories of Cathal, and brings him to life in a lovely, intimate way:
Cathal had a very bubbly personality. I always remember him as being happy and carefree. He loved life, living, animals, playing and music. And he really loved Dotty [our cocker spaniel]. We used to watch Home and Away together, take off our socks and let Dotty lick our toes. There was nearly a ?ght over whose toes Dotty would lick. We all adored him. I was six years older and we spoiled him rotten. He was the centre of attention in our house. He had a wild streak, and loved dressing up when he was young. Gerald followed him around like a lapdog
We were teenagers at the time of his death. We had a typical brother/sister relationship, only we would have felt very protective of Cathal due to the age gap. I remember him turning green when he smoked Grandads pipe. We used to dread him climbing and jumping off the walls when he was small. He had so much energy all of the time, and he always seemed so happy. He was game to try anything. He had no fears. He had a wonderful temperament.
He used to sleep with Breda in our bedroom. He was very close to her. She was so great at making up stories at nighttime. Her imagination was unbelievable. He was really into heavy metal music. Dad hated the t-shirts he wore. He grew so tall and was so handsome. I remember Dad used to get frustrated at him over his homework. He certainly wasnt a lover of books. He believed in happiness and having fun. He loved his bike and his radio/cassette player. He used to carry it around on the bike.
Deirdre is right. I worried a great deal about Cathal. I used to frustrate Mary talking about my worries when we went walking some evenings. I had a fear of heavy metal music, and all that it suggested to my conservative mind. I dont remember much of Cathals primary school years. As with all our children, Mary helped him with his homework, and his time at school was uneventful. Each evening he liked to tell what had happened during the day. Indeed, most of our time was spent talking about school, which was tiresome for Mary.
I took a greater interest in his education when he entered the Christian Brothers Secondary School, Thurles, in September 1989, and since my colleagues never mentioned anything to me I assumed that he was coping well. He was an outdoor child and, as Deirdre said, wasnt keen on school. But, although wild, he was a very gentle child and never complained, so I was unaware that he was not making much progress. He found it hard to concentrate, and later I found out that he liked to entertain his friends in class by standing on the desk when the teachers were writing on the blackboard!
He must have been relieved when the ?rst term ended, and looked forward to the Christmas holidays. As the youngest child, Christmas was a magical time for him. He loved helping me with the Christmas tree, and took delight in seeing the lights being turned on and the decorations going up throughout the house. He brought us a lovely fruit bowl, and had hidden it for some time anticipating the childish pleasure of giving it to us on Christmas morning. It must have taken him a long time to save for it from the meagre pocket money that he had. We still have it, and for many years after his death it still held our fruit, but now sits in our sitting-room cabinet.
Cathals lack of progress at secondary school became apparent when his ?rst report arrived in January. I was worried and annoyed because I saw education as a means to freedom and autonomy. I think my children felt that I overemphasised education; but I came from an era and an area which saw few children go to secondary school. I feel so lucky and so grateful that my father sent me to secondary school. It changed my life, and I was determined that my children would make full use of secondary education.
Cathals poor report resulted in some serious talking, and from what I could see he began to make a great effort. The comments by teachers at the ?rst parent, teacher meeting in January 1990 were very favourable, and we were relieved and happy that he had settled down and was studying reasonably hard. We looked forward to the mid-term break in February.