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Yes, you really do need to talk when you lose a parent

 

In a week when Princes William and Harry admitted struggling to discuss Princess Diana’s death, two NI women share their experience of loss.

Aislinn Turley was only 22 when pancreatic cancer claimed the life of her much-loved father, Jim (54), a senior teacher at Maghaberry Prison and a prize-winning Portadown golfer. Aislinn received grief counselling in London, where she studied music, before returning home to Lylo, Co Armagh, settling near her mother, artist Sandy Turley. A gifted musician, Aislinn teaches flute, clarinet, saxophone and oboe. She says:

I can very much relate to Prince Harry burying his grief away and shutting down for 20 years. You don't even realise you've not addressed the issue. Harry asked: "But what of the vast, silent expanse that comes after?" That's right - we are expected to be over it or have dealt with it after so long.

But what if you've not? Is there something wrong with you? The last thing you want is for anyone to know you're not coping in case you are judged and seen as weak.

I found out dad was terminally ill with cancer on his birthday, on May 30, 2004. He died on August 17.

Mum had notified Trinity College of Music, where I was studying in London, so I was able come home. I remember arriving, not knowing anything, but dad looked gravely ill.

No one would tell me anything. I'm the youngest and I guess they were trying to be protective, but I'd walk into a room and everyone would stop talking.

I ended up asking my mum outright, and she had to tell me dad was dying. She said he couldn't bear to tell me.

During his short illness, he did talk to me about how he felt. He said he had days when he cried alone.

In front of us, he was so brave and was his typical funny self to the very end, making jokes that he was "the walking dead".

He asked me to organise the music for his funeral and discussed songs he liked, and then said, "I'd love you to play at it".

I regret it now that I told him I would never be able to, as much as I'd want to, but somehow when the day of the funeral arrived, I did.

I heard his voice in my head say: "You can do it, you're my star," and I found the strength for him.

Macmillan Cancer Support were a great help to dad. They provide an invaluable service to families, but I don't think anyone or anything can prepare you for the death of someone you love. Even if you know it's happening, it's always going to be a shock.

Prince Harry didn't even get the opportunity to say goodbye to his mother.

We spent the last few days by dad's bedside, watching him slip away. He was such an alive person, so the contrast was immense. Suddenly, he looked so dead. It's not something I will forget. While we hadn't cried during those last days, when he passed we cried uncontrollably.

It's the only time I remember all of us really crying. The only way to describe the feeling inside is 'hollow'. A bit like they say, really, that someone pulled the rug from under you. Nothing is stable anymore.

Visitors were coming as soon as we arrived home from the hospital. There was no time to think of what had happened; everything became a blur.

I'd an overwhelming feeling of numbness and I know friends were looking at me, thinking, "Why isn't she crying? How is she okay?"

My mum and brother, Scott, were the same. The tears were gone, or possibly they were gone just in front of each other, because we didn't want to cause upset.

I remember thinking how perfect dad looked in the coffin. I'd stare at him endlessly, half expecting him to just sit up and talk to me. It's a very different image in my head to the memory I have of how he looked when he had just died.

You go into denial during the wake. My old dance teacher arrived and I opened the door with a huge smile, like nothing had happened, and I could see it seemed an inappropriate way to greet her under the circumstances. But I guess it's a coping mechanism.

I had been in a kind of haze of denial and then the morning of the funeral arrived. When it was time to close the coffin, I sat with dad alone and I suddenly felt an overwhelming ache that I would never look at his face again. I cried and thought to myself, "How am I going to get through this?"

My brother came and put his arm around me and said, "You have to let him go". Scott was our rock; he grieved within himself.

I left a week after dad died to go into my last year at music college. I didn't want to leave mum alone so soon, but she was adamant about it, saying it's what dad would want. The visitors soon stopped calling and she had to face a very lonely reality. I worried so much about her and came home as often as I could.

Living in London, I simply didn't deal with dad's death. I could nearly pretend it just hadn't happened. But then you come home and walk through the front door and the harsh reality hits you. He's gone. He's never coming back. The physical ache is so real.

Grief physically hurts. There is no denying it. Your heart aches and nothing can stop it. With time, it stops hurting so much and in a strange way you miss that physical pain that was the constant reminder of what you had lost.

You start to worry that the grief has consumed you so much that you are annoying people, and you try not to talk about it. I remember a close friend at college saying, "Aislinn, you rarely talk about it and you never cry. I'm really worried about you".

I had a real fear of looking weak, and a feeling I should have dealt with this already.

Don't annoy other people with your problems. I know now how wrong this was and how it stopped me from dealing with it.

Music in some ways was a great help. I could pour my heart out into my music. Then, there were the days I couldn't face even lifting my flute because I couldn't deal with having to feel anything. I was completely closed with regards to relationships. I eventually had a serious relationship at 26. I was still grieving so badly, I'm surprised he stayed.

I would lash out and close-up. I would still cry alone every day. Something would trigger it - maybe a song dad liked would come on the car radio and the tears would roll down my cheeks.

My college wasn't expecting me to return so quickly and I was told I would have to go for counselling. I was, of course, sceptical and thought this is a waste of my time: I'm fine, I don't need anyone's help. I just want to be left alone. I most certainly do not want to talk to someone about how I feel. It was like my worst nightmare.

The first session was awkward. I was quiet. I doubt I really said much at all. I didn't really want to go back. After a couple of sessions, I started to open up slowly about how I felt about this massive loss that I was not allowing myself to experience. I had a few sessions that I came out of feeling a huge sense of relief. Things that I'd no idea I felt would just come out of my mouth. Feelings of guilt and wishing I'd done things differently. Having someone, who's not a relative or friend, tell you that you did your best and everything you possibly could, was such a comfort to me. Counselling helped without a doubt, but for me personally, the grief process just took a really long time.

I had good days; I had very bad days. At some point, when I wasn't even thinking about it, it just didn't hurt the way it did before. I always loved that line in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes about how 'a heart can be broken; but it keeps beating just the same'.

Personally, that sums up grief for me. It was exactly how I felt. You stumble on through life, feeling completely broken but eventually you learn to accept it. The loss is always right there with you, but you have learned to live with it.

Of course I still miss dad, but I'm in a good place in my life now and I have a beautiful daughter, Caoimhe, who completely changed my world. Dad missed so much of my life. He didn't see me graduate, he didn't walk me down the aisle on my wedding day and he never met his granddaughter. I talk to her everyday about her grandad Jim and how he's in heaven watching over her. He was such a huge character, I have plenty to tell her about him!

Like Prince Harry and Diana, dad and I were extremely close. I remember, even when I was as old as 17, I'd be walking around the shops and he'd have his arm around me or hold my hand. He was a big gentle giant. We would make breakfast every Saturday morning together for mum and my brother. It was our time together before I'd go to orchestra rehearsals and dance class.

We would have the radio on and be singing and joking together. I remember him as someone adored by everyone, so charismatic and fun to be around. People always gravitated to him.

I do worry that my memories of his face are slowly going with time - that my memory of his face is based on pictures rather than my own actual memories of him. I still hear his voice in my head. He often gives off to me!

Prince Harry said: 'Your life has fallen apart. You don't go back to being the person you were before'. I think that's very true. Your life is never going to be the same. Nothing will change that or can make it better. You have to learn to live with it.

Everyone says time is a great healer, and that is definitely true, but grief is a personal journey everyone does in their own time and at their own pace."

  • Aislinn Turley is a woodwind tutor for the Education Authority, teaching flute, clarinet, saxophone and oboe. She also teaches privately and work as a freelance musician throughout Ireland. To contact her, tel: 07928 737571 or email: aislinnturley@hotmail.co.uk

‘When people came to show support, I almost always took to my bedroom’

Belfast university student Rachel Dean (19) lost her father, Graham (47), to a heart complaint just days after her 18th birthday. She says:

Having never lost anyone before, I would never have believed that I would suddenly lose my dad, Graham, just a few days following my 18th birthday.

I was studying for my final sociology A-level exams when my mum, Anna, came to tell me that she had to ring an ambulance for my dad — he had terrible heart pains and we believed it was a heart attack.

I had a lot of hope that everything was going to be fine, because the treatment given for heart attacks had improved so much over the years. However, something much worse had happened to my dad — he had an acute aortic dissection.

The doctor explained this as a tearing of the aorta that causes massive internal bleeding, which is rarely survivable. Princess Diana died from the same condition, however, it was caused by the impact of the tragic car crash in 1997.

Hearing the news from the doctor that my dad had passed away left myself and my family completely heartbroken. Almost two years on, I still haven’t come to terms with it.

My dad was in such great health, and his death left a massive hole in my family and in all our hearts. He did everything for anyone, being a great handyman, with no hassle at all. He was kind, light-hearted and funny. I was such a daddy’s girl. We had our own inside jokes and I feel his loss every day.

With my dad’s passing being so sudden, we were all left in a state of shock. For me, grief and shock prevented me from talking to my family and friends and, whenever anyone visited to show support, I almost always took to my bedroom.

The more time I spent alone not talking about my dad’s death, the more I felt I couldn’t talk, especially to my family, who I knew were in so much pain, too. I wrongly believed that I would burden them further, but, really, they just wanted me to talk to them.

One day, my mum expressed concern at how closed-off I had become whenever conversation turned to the topic of dad’s death.

Having been to grief counselling herself when her dad passed away when she was just 25, my mum suggested I make  an appointment with Cruse Bereavement Care. After some thinking, I agreed that it might be a good idea.

The idea of talking to someone who was totally uninvolved in my day-to-day life seemed much easier than talking to those who were feeling the loss of my dad, too.

So, I rang Cruse and made an appointment and they asked me a few questions over the phone to try and determine what sort of counselling I might need.

My first appointment was more of an assessment session — I was asked a series of questions and I was encouraged to answer what I could, as best as I could.

I was also given a series of statements on paper and asked to rate how strongly I agreed, or disagreed, with each one.

Everything was very confidential (each person is given a number on their files, rather than their name) and the assessor was very kind and approachable. I found her very easy to talk to, much to my surprise. I remember telling her things that I never thought I would be able to say out loud, and it was honestly such a relief. I was so nervous before attending. However, the assessor was very understanding and made the atmosphere a lot calmer for me.

When my first session was over, she explained that I would be assigned to a counsellor who would have access to my files and I would speak only to them every week. On my second session — my first with my assigned counsellor — I prepped myself to talk about my dad and about everything that had happened. I talked — and cried — a lot and the counsellor listened, offering her opinion and advice when needed.

At first, I did find counselling quite helpful as it was somewhere I could go, outside of home, and talk solely about how I was feeling. Each week, the counsellor asked me how I had been since the previous week and asked how often I had left my house, or talked to someone about my dad. She encouraged me to try and gradually talk to more of my family about my dad’s passing, but, personally, I just was not ready to do that.

Looking back now, I do believe that I may have committed to counselling too early after my dad’s passing, and my inability to plug into my emotions meant that I didn’t benefit from everything that grief counselling offers young people.

I think if anyone is considering counselling after losing a parent, or close relative, they really need to feel ready within themselves to discuss their loss and let their emotions out. My advice would be to make sure you are prepared to feel very strong emotions when retelling the details of what happened to a complete stranger.

Grief counselling is such a great idea for those ready to talk and I highly recommend it to those who think they may need it. I think if I attended counselling again, having gone back to barely being able to talk about my dad’s death, I would benefit so much more from it now than I did last year.

It is much easier talking to someone who had no relation to the person in your life who has passed away. You just have to be ready to talk. It is so much more beneficial than hiding away in your bedroom, feeling worse and worse while talking to nobody about one of the biggest things to happen to you.”

  • Read Rachel’s Fashionspy column in the Belfast Telegraph every Thursday

 

 

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