On the Nature of Grief

Peter Cunningham is a novelist from Waterford. In 1990, he lost his son Peter, aged 16, and in 2011 he wrote the below piece On the Nature of Grief, an insightful description of the unique grief which parents experience who have lost a child. Peter is a member of Aosdána, the Irish Academy of Arts & Literature.


by Peter Cunningham

One morning not so long ago I met a friend who is an undertaker. He’s an intelligent, sensitive man who has lived in the local village all his life. Over coffee, our conversation turned to foreign workers in Ireland and how difficult it is for their families abroad when a death occurs here in Ireland. It’s the same when an Irish person dies abroad, my friend said. It’s so hard on the family.

The undertaker then described the death in the locality several years ago of a young Chinese man. He died in tragic circumstances and the undertaker was asked to look after the arrangements. The deceased had come from a poor and remote part of China that the undertaker had never heard of. The young man died alone in Ireland, friendless and half a world away from home. 

A week after the death, the deceased man’s parents arrived in Ireland. They were simple people, without a word of English.

“Theirs was the most profound grief I have ever encountered,” the undertaker told me quietly. “I have never seen two people more distraught. It was terrible to watch.”

I thought of that story this week in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of two young women, one near home in Ireland, one very far away. My friend’s account of the Chinese parents’ extreme distress seemed to emphasise grief’s savage universality. The most incommunicable and devastating of all our emotions is a mystery that very few of us will escape from.

Today the families of Michaela Harte and Miriam Reidy are going through something worse than a nightmare. Grief is a form of madness. The natural order has been inverted. These families are submerged in the deepest end of the dark pool of grief, all the more so because both deaths took place under the most appalling circumstances.

Ever since the death in September, 1990, of our eldest son in a car crash, every time parental grief jumps out from the daily news, I believe I can understand how the parents of the deceased are suffering.

There is a natural order to life and the death of a child is not part of it. All of us of a certain age have observed the rituals following the death of a grandparent, or an aged parent. Grief is often well diluted when the old pass away. We mourn them perfunctorily, which is how we, if we live to be very old, will eventually be mourned. And yet grief has the ability to strike at all ages, across all barriers.

I remember my grandmother, a widow then in her seventies, prostrate with grief at the death from lung cancer of her eldest, unmarried son. I did not understand what was happening – I was eight years old – and may even have been embarrassed by what I saw. An old woman with the wind knocked out of her. It was so different to when her husband, my grandfather, had died, I heard people say.

I have seen hardy countrymen shake with emotion on the death of their neighbour. And we all remember occasions when it seems that an entire nation is grieving for someone they feel they know but have never met, as occurred following the death of Princess Diana. There are no rules where grief is concerned.

And yet the death a child stands alone. It is followed by a grief that shakes you to your core. It robs your confidence for years. Never again can you totally relax, because the last time you did so, on a misty day in September, there was a knock at the door that changed your life forever.

Grief is a transforming process. Grief strips away everything else and cuts the strongest people down to their bones. Often what you discover is a different person to the one who stood there before. I have seen families whose children have died in unspeakable circumstances pleading for “no retaliation”. “Let this never happen again,” they say. Grief opens the hearts of even the most obdurate men and women.

Grief is a strange condition, for it gives you eyes you never knew. Never again will you see pictures of distraught mothers in Palestine or Baghdad without being with them, even if fleetingly. Grief is the most centered of all emotions. You look into the faces of sympathising friends and you know two things: first, that they are there for you; and second, that they really have no idea what you are going through.

There are funny moments too, in the heat of it all, when the wagons are circled and families gather. If you don’t know the humour that resides in the darkest moments of the human spirit, then you probably haven’t been there.

When death strikes into the heart of families, siblings and cousins hurry home and unite. Grimly, fiercely, warmly. You remember the good days, the loving days, the really funny days – and you laugh. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’re laughing or crying, and then you realise that both tears and laughter come from roughly the same place. You all sit down for meals together, like you did years ago as children, and someone mentions an idiosyncrasy in a recent visitor who came to pay his respects and you break up with laughter again.

You are going ever down in a lake without a bottom. You look below you and miles beneath you see others whose burden is even greater than your own: parents who have lost all their children; men or women whose entire extended families have been killed in a terrorist reprisal. This relativity gives you some level of sanity.

Grief is chaos. It’s like drowning and being saved, over and over. For years. You just learn to live with it, somehow. And then, a decade later, or two, when you think, perhaps guiltily, that you are at last on firm ground, grief sneaks out and ambushes you in broad daylight.

A line is drawn in the fabric of your life. Before and after. You wonder at how little you knew before; you stagger under the weight of what you know after.

There are no formulas. Details take on huge importance and are etched indelibly: the time you heard, the place. Who told you the news. The shock is an everlasting trauma. You now grasp what you never could have imagined before - that you are a member of an exclusive club that you would gladly swap your own life to be out of. Everything you see is through a lens of comprehending pain.

Some people have the comfort of a loving God, others immerse themselves in poetry. I have been to funerals where the priest declared that “God has taken the little child for Himself” and I have shuddered. You find a new tolerance, a new way of understanding.

Grief heightens our intuitive sense of those around us. You cleave to some people, and perhaps it may surprise you who they are. Others, whom you thought of as friends, you cannot bear to be with. Your soul is in charge and it makes its own instinctive choices. Years later, you look back and marvel at how you survived – and then you realise that you were not alone, that the soul you may have doubted was somehow beside you. Yes, you, for whom church, chapel and meeting may long have been a stranger.

Grief is a mystery far bigger than the world we inhabit. It goes to the very essence of our existence and its universality confirms in a unique way the gift of our common humanity.

And if we are lucky, the desperate grieving love we feel for those who have gone becomes the basis of our personal redemption.



Peter Cunningham2-300x200  

Peter Cunningham is an Irish novelist.
Details of his work can be found at www.petercunningham.ie