Only moments into the exceptionally moving Requiem Mass for Aideen Kennedy, Father Sean McCartney went straight to the deeply perplexing and unbearably painful details of this young mother’s death: how could it be that one family should endure so much suffering?
Before him in the pews at the Good Shepherd Church in Belfast were Noel and Maura McGaughey. They had four children. Now, with Aideen’s passing, their two daughters and two sons are all gone.
Such grief is beyond our comprehension, and it was impossible not to be struck by the composure of the McGaugheys, grey-haired, stricken-faced, yet epically stoical. As grandparents do, they were supporting Aideen’s children, Jacob and Eva. It was a tableau of pity and sorrow.
Most of us would have no idea what to say to bring a crumb of comfort to the McGaugheys. The wisest theologian or philosopher would find it difficult to make any sense of why such anguish should be visited again and again and again upon one family. Many feel reduced to a kind of baffled anger at the wretched unfairness.
Clergy, however, cannot walk away from such huge questions about human suffering. Indeed, this was the third time in seven years that Father McCartney had found himself providing spiritual support and emotional solace to the McGaugheys.
Their son, Rory, died aged one in a road accident, but when their son, Dara, died aged 35 from a brain tumour in 2015, and less than a year later their daughter, Fiona (44), died of cancer, Father McCartney had officiated at both funerals. Now, the retired priest was conducting Aideen’s.
Father McCartney’s words were among the most memorable I’ve heard at a funeral. Plainly and frankly, he spoke of two things.
First, he revealed the quiet, faithful acceptance of Noel McGaughey when he’d told the priest of Aideen’s death. Father McCartney was lost for words but Mr McGaughey had said simply: “It’s God’s will.”
And then the cleric admitted his difficulty with that phrase. “It’s used very often, but I struggle to know how it’s God’s will, how a mother of two young children in her early 40s... that that’s God’s will that she should be taken from us at this particular time.
“It shows you there are some questions that there are not satisfactory answers to on this side of the grave.”
It was an important acknowledgement that sometimes there are no straightforward explanations, even for those who spend their entire lives wrestling with such dilemmas. There was a strange inversion here too, with the grief-stricken parent drawing comfort from faith and the cleric struggling with the seeming paradox of a loving God allowing such hurt.
Father McCartney later spoke profoundly of the comfort to be found in faith, but that candid admission early in the service will have resonated with many of Aideen’s friends who knew of the devastating impact that losing her brothers and sister had upon this kind, funny and compassionate woman.
There isn’t an official Sibling’s Day, but there should be. If you’re fortunate, brothers and sisters are your best, most loyal friends. Together you share a unique history, eyewitnesses to each other’s childhood, a whole map of memory and heart and home that only you can navigate together. You share a secret language too — an oblique reference here, a nickname there, instantly teleporting you back to some ancient family drama or eccentric relative.
Siblings ground you. They knew you before you were properly you. They say things to you that no one else would dare to; they have your back when all others have fled. They are parental interlocutors at tricky times. Co-conspirators against ‘the olds’ in youth, compatriots as they age and require care.
Aideen lost all that when Dara and Fiona died. She told this newspaper how if she had “a big problem or anything was going on in my life, they would be the first people I would go to – but obviously now I can’t do that”. Her children reminded her of her brother and sister.
I didn’t know Aideen particularly well — she’d asked me for advice recently and I’d been glad to help — but like many others, I felt I knew her well through social media.
Scrolling back through her tweets, I thought again about what a sweet, uplifting and fun presence she was. Sometimes her sadness slipped through — once, she tweeted that she was lonely, prompting hundreds of supportive replies. But hers was a largely happy timeline of photos of her rescue cat, Willow, her children, her mum and dad and lunch with pals like disability campaigner Dermot Devlin.
An antidote to online toxicity, she made friends from all backgrounds. Always the journalist, she live-tweeted her way through the election. When her pal, Emma Little-Pengelly, became MLA for Lagan Valley, she was among the first to tweet congratulations. It was a nice touch by Father McCartney to reference the DUP politician’s tribute to Aideen too.
She had grace in extremis; her final tweet last Friday was a kind decline to an interview request, completely understanding the journalist’s predicament.
Aideen’s favourite poem was Seamus Heaney’s Mid-Term Break, about the death of the poet’s infant brother. The line ‘Paler now, wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple’ was reminiscent of what her mother had said about her brother, Rory.
Heaney wrote powerfully of how a child’s death ran brutally against the natural order of things. Noel and Maura McGaughey have faced that four times.
Aideen greatly admired her parents’ forbearance. Despite having “been through so much” they were the “strongest” people who were determined “to enjoy what life has to offer”.
In that poignant tweet announcing that she was dying, her focus was fixed on the future still upstream for her beloved children, urging us to “keep an eye out” for her “kindest, sweetest most thoughtful kiddies”.
“What will survive of us is love,” wrote another poet, Philip Larkin. “We walk by faith not by sight,” said St Paul. Big questions. No easy answers.
Just as we’re bewildered by suffering, we cannot comprehend how others keep going. But somehow they do.