Little Women – Helping Little Grievers

Are there two words more likely to make an adult woman cry than “Beth dies?” Maybe that happens to adult men – ok, I’ve seen the Friends episode. I missed the window for reading Little Women as a child. I suspect I read a Famous Five book instead. But when I realised how beloved it was, I promised myself many years ago that if I ever had a daughter, I would read it with her. And this I did last autumn, with my 10-year-old. Even though I knew Beth would die (because of the aforementioned Friends episode), I persisted with it and it was worth it.¬† We went to see the new Greta Gerwig adaptation when it opened on St Stephen’s Day. Yes, we cried. But we loved ever second of it. We went a second time and cried even more. It occurred to me that Little Women is not just a sweet story of a devoted family who stick it out through adversity, it also contains important lessons for children on grief and loss.

All the March sisters are lovely – admittedly Amy is a bit of a terror and if she hadn’t fallen in the icy lake, there is no way Jo would ever have forgiven her for burning her book. Sorry, spoiler alert! ūüôā But there is something lovely about delicate little Beth. She seems to bring out the best in people. She brings out a warmth and tenderness in Mr Laurence that is surprising, more so in the book but also here in the film. Of which, more anon. I think that is why her death is so shocking and awful to us. Would we really have been so traumatised if Amy had drowned in the lake? Or if Meg had caught fire and burned to death when Jo singed her hair? I think I would have recovered okay from that. But who did Beth harm?¬† What purpose did her death serve? Yes, they all became better people.¬† But wouldn’t Mr March dying in the war have injected the necessary sadness into their lives they could have learned from? The poor Hummel baby died and barely earned a mention. Was that not sufficiently tragic for their needs? Why Beth? And of course the answer is, why not Beth? Bad things happen to good people. Awful things happen to good families. Tragic things happen to good parents. The book and in particular the film does not struggle to graft a larger purpose onto Beth’s death. At the time of writing it, Louisa May Alcott would have been surrounded by all manner of cruel and random deaths, from the war waging around her to hideous illnesses. People were used to cruelty. We are not.¬† Little Women is an antidote to our yearning for cosmic purpose and balance. Sh*t happens and let’s not dwell on why, it tells us. Obsessively trying to find a larger purpose in random cruelty will lead you into a useless, toxic cul-de-sac. The earlier in life we learn that, I think, the better.

Beth’s mother, Mrs March, is a lovely literary creation.¬† Laura Dern’s vision of her is less syrupy than the book’s original and all the better for it. She is kind, generous, compassionate and wise. When Beth dies, your expectation is that Marmie would get into the grave after her. Dying of a broken heart has a long and shameful lineage in our literature. There is a lovely, tender scene in the film where Jo comes down the stairs to find Marmie alone, juxtaposed with a previous scene where Marmie, Hannah and a recovering Beth were together. Marmie collapses into her grief and Jo comforts her. The parent-child dynamic is reversed. Maybe this is where Marmie will finally lose it all? Maybe Jo takes over the running of the family? Lots of books and films would have you believe this is the logical next step. And yet equilibrium is restored. Marmie resumes her role as parent and Jo resumes her role as troubled child whom Marmie must guide. Grieving adults should never hide their grief away entirely. It is healthy for a child to see some of your struggle. It reassures them that what they are feeling is natural. But it is the job of the adult to regain their composure and be the grown-up.

Next is where I may seem to contradict the point I just made, but bear with me.

The character of Mr Laurence is a warmer creation in the film than in the book.¬† He softens faster, inevitably I suppose. He represents a common literary character I normally detest – someone whose child died many years before but who forms a bond with another child that resembles his own. No child can replace another, I would ordinarily scream at the screen. But in Little Women, it seems to serve a purpose. A man of his generation would not have been encouraged to grieve for his own daughter. It stands to reason he would form a bond with Beth and that her death would affect him so deeply. The scene where he struggles to bring himself to go into the March’s house, and is helped by the younger Jo, is so loving and so necessary. He can’t bring himself to go into the house that Beth breathed so much life into. The younger Jo empowers him to go in. Jo emboldens Mr Laurence to manage a difficult transition – going into now Beth-less house – and we later see how much his life is made better by that. Ordinarily I would be of the view that children should not be helping adults with their grieving – it should be firmly the other way around. But sometimes a kindness from a child to an adult like this goes a long way. There is something about the asymmetry of the power relationship that causes adults to relax about their own vulnerability. Children can give adults permission to grieve authentically in a way that adults often can’t. They do this only momentarily, and then the natural order of the adult supporting the child must be restored. But when they do it, it is life-changing. See, no contradiction there!

My favourite scene, although it reduced me to tears, was when Professor Bhaer visits the March home.  We expect he has come to meet Jo and rescue her from her loneliness. But there is more in store.  He innocently asks who plays the lovely piano. After a bit of uncomfortable shifting in chairs, they tell him Beth was the musician in the family. He

Just to show I’m not made of stone – hubba hubba!

plays the piano himself and while he is no Beth March, he is clearly talented. The piece, which I now know to be Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor¬† is lovely – appropriately solemn but not unbearably sad. A lovely choice for any occasion. But here it represents something wonderful much more important – music returning to the house. And that important realisation in healthy grieving that it’s okay to have joy in your heart. It may be bittersweet but it is still right and proper for you to have happiness in your life.¬† This scene opens the family’s heart to all the joy that follows – Jo marrying Friedrich, their school, their new life. None of this would have happened if they hadn’t been given permission to have joy again. In our society, messages about grief are so confused. So often, it seems that only joyless suffering is a true expression of grief. It’s important that bereaved children understand that having joy in your heart doesn’t mean you have left your loved one behind. Life goes on, a little emptier than before, but not the hollowed-out shell that you might feel you have to endure.¬†

I checked the Little Women wikipedia page and found there have been seven film adaptations of the book. The first in 1917 and the most recent last year. The book has plenty to say to us and we want to hear it. Adults and children both have plenty to learn about love and loss from this wonderful book. Children in particular can learn healthy messages about grief from the lovely March family. Yes, life can have inexplicable sadness but that is no reason to give up on all the wonderful richness it can give us, if we just let it in.


Mother’s Day – It’s Not Just for Hallmark!


Some time in February, you start to notice all the sickly cards in the shops.¬† A flowery tsunami of pastel pinks and yellows.¬† Am I the only mother who likes cobalt?¬† Then there are conspicuous displays of chocolates and cosmetics.¬† A lot of displays nowadays seem to feature Prosecco, I notice.¬† I don’t disapprove. Then the articles in the magazines about what to buy your mother for Mother’s Day. Then the ads for lunches, afternoon teas and dinners.¬† Then the tasteful flower arrangements appear in the shops.¬† Then the last-minute bunches of flowers appear in the petrol stations.¬† And then it’s Mother’s Day.

I should hate it, but I don’t.¬† People complain that it’s a Hallmark Holiday.¬† I always protest vehemently.¬† Mother’s Day has a long and distinguished history and served an important role in our society.¬† Festivals honouring mothers go back to the ancient Romans and probably beyond.¬† What we celebrate is the Anglican festival of Mothering Sunday, which was instituted in the 16th century.¬† It began as a day in which people would return for services to the ‘mother church,’ i.e. where they were baptised or first worshiped. It evolved from that into a religious day in honour of mothers.¬† It is always the fourth Sunday of Lent.¬† Did you ever notice that it moves around every year?¬† That’s because Easter does, therefore so does Lent and so does Mother’s Day.¬† It became an occasion when servants were given the day off to go home to visit their mothers.¬† This seems like something quite insignificant to us now.¬† But in the days when huge numbers of people worked in domestic service and when it consisted of long hours of unrelenting drudgery, it must have been a hugely important day.¬† ¬†For many families, Mothering Sunday was the only time the whole family came together, as servants often did not get time off at other important occasions such as Christmas.¬† You could count on being with your mother on Mothering Sunday and it might be the only day where you could be sure of that.¬† So people used this occasion to visit their mothers, picking wild flowers along the way and bringing a Simnel Cake.¬† In Decorated_Simnel_cake_(14173161143)some parts of England, the festival was known as Simnel Sunday.¬† Simnel Cake is made of almond paste or marzipan and also contains dried fruit and spices.¬† At the time, it was probably an inconceivably exotic confection.¬† Also, it sounds like something that was easy to parcel up and would keep well during a long journey.¬† These were sentimental AND practical people.¬† It you want to have a go at a Simnel Cake, or Easter Cake as it’s now also know, you can find a recipe here.

Another reason Mothering Sunday was special was that in many churches in England, it was the only day on which a couple could get married.  It was probably therefore a very exciting day in a parish.  And it meant that couples would always have a deeply personal connection with Mothering Sunday thereafter.

In the late 19th century, Mothering Sunday fell out of favour.¬† Maybe the advent of the railways meant that people worked huge distances from their home and travelling back to see their mother just became impossible? Maybe employment opportunities swung away from domestic service and towards factory work, which had more predictable hours (albeit still long hours and difficult work)?¬† I’m not sure.¬† But in the early years of the 20th century, the Mothering Sunday Movement gained momentum and put the festival back on the calendar.¬† And so our modern Mother’s Day began.¬†No-one centuries ago could have foreseen the commercial nonsense that would wrap itself around this lovely occasion, but I like to think the values of it are just the same as the were all those years ago.¬† Put your mother at the heart of your day and honour what she has done for you. Even a godless reprobate such as myself likes this festival!

So I embrace this lovely day as part of a long tradition in which people far away from their mothers got to honour then in person. And yet I know how deeply sad it is so for so many people today.¬† Bereaved mothers whose children are not here to bring home a lovely craft made in school or make them breakfast in bed.¬† People whose own mothers have passed away and who can no longer enjoy special time with them. Some people find today sad because their relationship with their own mother is fraught with difficulty.¬† Maybe they have lacked a positive maternal influence their entire lives.¬† And mothers whose children are estranged from them can find this day heartbreaking, too. And yet those people can find comfort in Mother’s Day and can make it a meaningful and loving day, which is quite inspiring.

Wherever you are, I hope you are having a special day.¬† If you are sad, I hope you have memories of happy Mother’s Day of old to comfort you.¬† If you find Mother’s Day too awful and just want to ignore it, I hope you get the space to do that. Most of all, I hope you have a day where someone takes care of you and keeps you in their heart.









Christmas Tree Lighting in Glasnevin


The Christmas Tree Lighting in the Holy Angels Plot in Glasnevin is an important milestone in the A Little Lifetime calendar and in people‚Äôs year in grief.¬†Glasnevin Cemetery is a significant place in our history as a nation.¬† So many people who created and shaped our country are buried there. On my way to the service, I walked past the grave of Daniel O‚ÄôConnell, father of the Catholic Emancipation movement. His insistence glasnevinthat a place be created for Catholics and Protestants to be buried together caused Glasnevin Cemetery to be set up in the 19th century.¬† People should be buried together – an idea that seems as natural as anything to us now began as a radical aspiration. Onward on the right I spied the simple but imposing headstone of Charles Stewart Parnell, colossus of the Home Rule movement.¬† ‚ÄúNo man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‚ÄėThus far shalt thou go and no further‚Äô,‚ÄĚ he famously said. And not just those men, but James Larkin, trade union leader who said, ‚ÄúThe great appear great to us, only because we are on our knees: Let us rise.‚ÄĚ And Constance Markiewicz, politician, revolutionary, nationalist and feminist leader, who advised women to, ‚ÄúDress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.‚ÄĚ And many, many more.¬† I thought how marvellous it was that your child, if you had to bury them, could rest yards away from such luminaries. There can‚Äôt be that many cemeteries where children have such status.¬† Equally, there can‚Äôt be that many cemeteries where the great and the good of society are buried so close to so many children. ¬†Their proximity in their resting is a reminder of what a leveller our mortality is.¬† Death comes to us all in the end.¬† Although, in the case of our children, it came at the beginning.

The Tree Lighting Ceremony is beautiful. Some words, some music, a poem and candles.¬† The elements of it are the essence of timeless simplicity.¬† A solo singer accompanied by an acoustic guitar performing a delicate version of O Holy Night.¬† Some words from Christy Kenneally about how we can be inspired and comforted by the cycle of nature.¬† ‚ÄúLike trees, we are rooted in nature,‚ÄĚ he said. Very true. Peter Hanlon reading Eavan Boland‚Äôs poem ‚ÄėTree of Life.‚Äô

I cannot find you

in this dark hour

dear child.



for dawn to make us clear to one another.


And then the light came.  The tree lit up against the backdrop of the darkening December sky, lifting our spirits with its reminder that light will always return to our lives.

The atmosphere is not as solemn as the Christmas Service in St Nicholas Church in Francis Street.¬† I suppose a church just commands a certain reverence. There was a lively informality I really enjoyed ‚Äď people chatting quietly, a laugh or two, small children running around.¬† Beside me, a dad swung a small laughing child in his arms. This liveliness sat comfortably with the sadness. In the midst of all this, one couple stood out for me.¬† They stood together, silently and stoically, with their candles and flowers.¬† I wondered how old their child might be, had he or she lived.¬† I decided around thirty-two. They reminded me of that lovely expression from mindful meditation:¬† standing with the qualities of a mountain; still, immovable and solid. Will I have such quiet dignity when I am thirty-two years down this road?

When the ceremony was over, I walked around the headstones looking for my friend’s baby who passed away in 1978.  On the way, I was stopped in my tracks by the marker of a baby girl who was born the day after me.  Maybe our paths might have crossed if she had lived? As I walked onward, because I was searching for a baby born in the late 1970s, I was struck again and again by the baby John Pauls. Named in honour of the Papal Visit in 1979, thousands of John Pauls born in the years that followed are now men nearing their forties.  But not here in Glasnevin.  Here, they remain forever the baby boys their parents named to remember a historic Papal visit and all the promise it seemed to hold for them.  What it must have meant for those families to have their own John Paul, and all the promise he might bring.  But it wasn’t to be.

And finally, I found my friend‚Äôs baby‚Äôs name – a Mary like myself, born in 1978.¬† And I shed a tear for her, for her lovely mother who was always so kind to me, for my son and for all our babies. I shed a tear for what should have been. The candles left at the graves were now shining brightly in the dark.¬† Like the other parents I made my way home, past the graves of the babies and the graves of the great and the good, out of this special place and into the cold and the dark. I made my way towards a Christmas imbued with sadness but made a little brighter by the kindness and solidarity of friends. As Daniel O‚ÄôConnell said, ‚ÄúI will go on quietly and slowly, but I will go on firmly, and with a certainty of success.‚ÄĚ



(This first appeared in Moments, the magazine of A Little Lifetime Foundation)

Prince, Bereaved Dad


It’s been so lonely without you here

Like a bird without a song

Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling

Tell me baby where did I go wrong?

‚ÄėNothing Compares To You‚Äô

This time last year, music fans around the world mourned the sudden and shocking passing of Prince.¬† For me, it was like losing a dear and trusted friend who made my life richer and brighter.¬† It is hard to do justice to Prince‚Äôs creative output in mere printed words. He was an immensely talented musician ‚Äď he played all twenty-seven instruments on his first album, For You. He was a prolific songwriter, first turning out a song on his father‚Äôs keyboard at the age of seven. He wrote thousands of hours of electrifying music in the fifty years that followed. He is credited as a producer on over eighty albums. His massive haul of accolades include Grammys, MTV Awards, Golden Globes, Brit Awards, an Oscar and multiple NAACP honours.

Orion’s arms are wide enough

To hold us both together

Although we’re worlds apart

I’d cross the stars for you

‚ÄėArms of Orion‚Äô


After numerous high-profile relationships, Prince married actress, singer and 2014-04-02-19.40.07choreographer, Mayte Garcia, on Valentine‚Äôs Day in 1996.¬† Shortly afterwards, they found out they were expecting their first child.¬† Ahmir Gregory Nelson was born October 16th 1996. Ahmir is Arabic for ‚ÄėPrince.‚Äô He died a week later due to Pfeiffer syndrome, a very rare genetic disorder characterised by the premature fusion of certain bones in the skull.¬† There was intense media speculation at the time about their baby and the couple went to great lengths to protect their privacy. ¬†In what many regarded as a bizarre development, Prince and Mayte granted access to Oprah Winfrey for an interview within days of losing Ahmir and spoke8ad9d3454e0727497623980e65e7fd9d about him as if he were alive. They even gave her a tour of his playroom.¬† When Oprah asked about the baby, Prince replied, “We have a long way to go; there will be many more children.‚Ä̬† Many people were baffled by their behaviour, but I suppose few of us can say the decisions we made immediately after we lost our babies were among our smartest.¬† Had TV cameras come to my house at the stage in my loss, they would not have captured me at my lucid best.

How can you just leave me standing?

Alone in a world that’s so cold?

‚ÄėWhen Doves Cry‚Äô


Despite his global fame, Prince maintained a level of privacy that is perhaps not in keeping with our modern, media-driven age.¬† We know very little about his own inner turmoil. He and his wife suffered a miscarriage a few months later and then went on to divorce three years after the death of Ahmir, which must have brought its own anguish. Mayte later said in an interview, ‚ÄúFor me, it was very, very hard to move forward and for us as a couple I think it probably broke us.‚Ä̬† Ahmir would now be twenty if he had lived. 8ad9d3454e0727497623980e65e7fd9dIt‚Äôs hard not to speculate, of course, and to fill an information vacuum with your own thoughts.¬† But I think fatherhood would have been good for Prince. It would have brought him the sort of stability he often lacked in his own childhood, which was spent back and forth between the homes of his divorced parents. It might have brought out even more of the warm, mellifluous side of his songwriting. And I suppose he just would have been an unassailably cool dad.

If you don’t like
The world you’re living in
Take a look around
At least you got friends.

¬†‚ÄėLet‚Äôs Go Crazy‚Äô

Celebrity deaths are very much part of our lives these days.  When we start talking about celebrities who die, I think we inevitably end up talking about ourselves. When Prince died, an immense sadness came over me. I was taken back to my teenage years, when I dealt with all my stresses and strains by going out for walks on my own with only Prince in my Walkman for company. Long, long walks taking some comfort in a sense that he understood the stresses and strains of life too.  But as the reality of his death sank in, I became sad for him, and the life he should have enjoyed with his little boy. It’s astonishing to think that he carried on for twenty years Рwriting, recording and touring, bringing joy to millions Рwhile all the time nursing such sadness in his own life. It was striking to note how many people did not even know he was a bereaved dad.  Sad for Mayte, too, for all she had gone through and the hopes and dreams that were never realised for her. And sad for baby Ahmir.

And if the stars ever fell one by one from the sky

I know Mars could not be too far behind

‘Cuz baby, this kind of beauty has got no reason to ever be shy

‘Cuz honey, this kind of beauty, the kind that comes from inside.

¬†‚ÄėDiamonds and Pearls‚Äô




This post first appeared in Moments, the magazine of A Little Lifetime Foundation, in May 2017

The Amazing Mechanised Mom

We mums take it for granted nowadays that medicine will look after both us and our babies. We fetch up at the door of the maternity hospital, with the glow of new life about us, and hand ourselves over to an array of medical professionals. While the care of pregnant women is a very old medical discipline, the idea that babies should also be cared for is surprisingly new. For centuries, doctors treated pregnant women, delivered their babies, resuscitated them if necessary, and moved on. The care of the new tiny person was entirely in the hands of the mother. And this practice, along with many others, was the cause of terrible infant mortality rates even in very wealthy societies. It had long been understood that tiny premature babies needed warmth for their survival. Contrivances operating on the same principle as an incubator had been around for a long time. Infants were often placed in padded baskets warmed by hot water bottles. Or they were placed in the drawers at the bottom of ovens. In the 19th century, it became apparent to doctors that something had to be done to improve medical outcomes generally, including those for babies.
In this, as in much else, we owe a huge debt to the French.There began a¬†national crusade in the late¬†19th century to increase the population¬†‚ÄstZut alors!¬†France was in danger of being outdone by their¬†German rivals! ¬†This led to an interest in reducing infant mortality rates. An obstetrician¬†at Paris¬†Maternit√© Hospital, Stephane Tarnier, wanted to find some way to warm the numerous premature¬†infants who died in huge numbers of hypothermia. He found his solution in the most unlikely of places. While visiting the Paris zoo, he saw chickens housed in an incubator display and realised this¬†was exactly what he needed. He had one installed in the hospital in 1880.Housing several babies¬†together, much like the chicken enclosure on which it was based, it warmed them over a hot-water¬†reservoir attached to an external heating source. Later models broke free of their¬†roots in the¬†poultry industry by accommodating babies individually. In Nice, Alexandre Lion, made considerable¬†modifications to Tarnier’s design, creating a large metal apparatus with a thermostat and an independent forced ventilation system. And the incubator we know today was born. The medical¬†profession welcomed its arrival but there was strong opposition from mothers. ¬†Who can blame them – they were being¬†asked to surrender their role in caring for their children to whacky strangers, who wanted¬†to put babies into bizarre, new-fangled boxes. Like many of us, I have stared at a tiny baby through¬†the glass of an incubator, suppressing a primal need to care for him and¬†having to trust others to do¬†so, and so I can understand this early resistance.¬†Unfortunately, then as now, the incubator was expensive. At the time,¬†the care of infants was¬†largely in the hands of charities and they did not have the money for this new technology. However,¬†Lion was not just a talented physician; he was also something of an entrepreneur if not a showman.He set up his incubators as public shows and charged people admission to¬†come and marvel at the¬†way these tiny babies were cared for. It seems mad to us now¬†‚Ästwho among us could imagine¬†strangers gawping at our precious babies? But at the time all sorts of live human shows were¬†common entertainment. The incubator was advertised as¬†The Amazing 2Mechanised Mom¬†and the¬†accompanying publicity campaign showed chubby babies who had¬†graduated¬†from the incubators.This increased public knowledge of what this technology could do for them. The crowning glory of¬†Lion’s career was taking his baby show to the Berlin Exposition in 1896. Through setting¬†up¬†his show,¬†Lion came into contact with Martin Couney, an American physician¬†who was also taken with the¬†potential of these new machines and brought his own incubator shows across¬†the Atlantic. Couney¬†was adamant that he was not just a showman¬†but¬†was advancing understanding of proper care of the premature infant. It was an era of huge technological innovation ‚ÄstThomas Edison filed his first¬†patent application for “Improvement¬†in¬†Electric Lights” in 1878¬†‚Äď and there was a growing public¬†awareness of the potential of new inventions to change lives. Certainly, Couney’s shows boasted¬†a¬†standard of care not matched in any hospital at the time, along with a huge staff of¬†doctors and nurses. However, it was not plain sailing. There was an out¬†break of gastroenteritis in¬†the show at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition 3in 1904 and in 1911 the Coney Island Show was destroyed by a fire, from which the infants were narrowly rescued. But, more damningly, there was¬†a growing unease about these shows and a sense that they were nothing more than the freak shows¬†that were often found at county fairs. The Coney Island show closed in¬†1941 because of falling¬†numbers and the opening of facilities to treat premature infants at local hospitals. This show and¬†others like it had done their job and now had outlived their usefulness.
We have many reasons to be grateful for incubators, aside from the nature of the technology itself. For centuries, medicine felt it had little responsibility to save premature or ill babies because it had little capacity to do so. Or maybe it was the other way around? Either way, these Amazing Mechanised Moms planted in the minds of medical professionals the idea that tiny babies, previously referred to as weaklings, could be helped and therefore that effort should be expended to do this. Nonetheless, incubators, and the almost space-age quality of modern neon natal care, bring unease to bereaved parents. 4For some of us, technology made no difference as our babies did not live long enough to get to an incubator in the first place. Many others did but still could not be saved. And this is a hard truth to grapple with. Because it is not a huge mental leap from  babies can now be saved to the notion that all babies can now be saved. And if your baby was one of the ones who could not, that can fester in your heart. This is not to denigrate the effort in caring for those babies. I just wish more than anything that it could have been available to us too.
Despite these tensions, many bereaved parents have good reason to be grateful to these high tech¬†boxes with their roots in the care of chickens. The capacity to save babies, which¬†is¬†now the¬†cornerstone of paediatric medicine, stems from them. ¬†So too does the more general view that babies are¬†deserving of not just top notch medical care but also respect and dignity at their most vulnerable¬†time. For many families, an unhappy outcome was perhaps inevitable but the incubator meant they¬†had some precious time with their baby, giving treasured memories that sustain them on their¬†journey. But most of all I feel that even when the outcome for families¬†is sad, there is some comfort¬†to be had from the idea that your baby’s¬†survival mattered and from how much effort was¬†employed,¬†sadly all too briefly, to bring it about.
This post first appeared as a column in Moments, the magazine of A Little Lifetime Foundation 

Sometimes Children are Lucky


Increasingly we are realising that children experience their own challenges in grieving – I’ve written about this myself elsewhere. ¬†But a little part of me also thinks, as far as grief goes, that children are way smarter than we are and if we were more like them, we’d be better off.

The proviso for all this is, of course, if we just let children grieve and didn’t judge it or shape it. If you tell a boy that “big boys don’t cry,” he won’t cry. ¬†You’ll get your desired sad-boy-1080p-wallpaper_1_1920x1200result. But he will suppress his grief and it will spill out in all sorts of other ways – temper tantrums, sleep disruption and so on. We’re also quick to urge children to mind their parents, which we shouldn’t do. For example, when a father dies, the son often told he is the man of the house. ¬†He should not be told that. But yet it happens and boys take on that role. You can get children being shushed for asking questions, being shushed for crying, being shushed for being jolly when everyone else is sad, being shushed for being sad when everyone else is jolly. ¬†It’s a minefield for them.

But if we didn’t do all that, they’d manage much better than we do. ¬†They would, first of all, say whatever came into their heads. Whatever! And it would be mad, preposterous stuff, but they would get to ventilate their feelings. ¬†And we, if we listened, would know what they were really feeling. Things like:

What do you mean Granny is in the box? I want to see her. ¬†Open it up! What do you mean you can’t open it? Well, why don’t you ask the man for the key?¬† What if she gets hungry? What is she going to eat? What’s going to happen to all her stuff? Can I have her silver brooch? I don’t want Emily to have because Granny liked me better. Emily can have her shiny necklace with the flowers. ¬†I never liked that. Who’s going¬†to live in Granny’s house?¬†

I’m not sure I’m recommending that adults articulate every thought in their heads, but it would certainly be helpful in times of grief if we were more honest about our fears. If we had confidence that we could speak without being judged, wouldn’t we speak more honestly? And wouldn’t we then get the support we need instead of the support other people think we need? ¬†The child who says the above is articulating very deep and profound feelings of loss – bafflement that Granny is gone, a lack of understanding about the rituals of death and, through grabbing for jewellery, a desire to have her¬†place in Granny’s affections recognised. It’s all expressing a desire to understand and to be understood. ¬†Who doesn’t feel this? ¬† A child who says, “what do you mean Uncle Jimmy’s gone? Who’s going to take me to swimming?” isn’t just being selfish and willful. They are inching their way to understanding what this loss means for them. ¬†Just like we do. But sometimes we can’t help but label their behaviour as selfish because there is an expectation we should all be stoic in the face of our loss. ¬†The child, in that context, is expressing something distasteful. ¬†But what if we were all a little less stoic? ¬†Not consumed by our feelings at the expense of everyone else. ¬†That would be hellish. ¬†But what if we talked about our feelings and asked others about theirs? ¬†And listened? ¬†And let ourselves and everyone else talk about our vulnerabilities. Wouldn’t it be liberating?


If you have any thoughts on children and bereavement, please leave a comment.



If you would like more info on supporting children in their loss, visit:

rainbows-ireland-logoRainbows Ireland is a listening service for children and young people struggling to come to terms with significant loss and change in their lives.  The Rainbows programme supports children and young people affected by loss because of bereavement, separation or divorce. The service is available in local communities throughout Ireland.

logoAnam Cara supports bereaved parents in their loss. The organisation provides safe and comfortable online and face to face forums to facilitate peer support in groups throughout Ireland.





Grief and the Digital World


That¬†logo says it all. ¬†That’s where you’ll find us all now. ¬†On Facebook. Or Twitter, or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever else is next. And you not only find the living on social networking sites, but increasingly you find the dead there as well. ¬†The internet has transformed the landscape of grieving in largely positive ways. Resources available to us online can help us navigate our grief. Online communities supporting each other through their sorrow. ¬†Bloggers, including myself, writing about their grief. It’s all good. Yet, grief, social networking and the digital legacy of your loved one are very significant challenges for families.

It is an unfortunate facet of technology that is social in nature that the technology comes first and the etiquette follows after. Did you know that when the telephone was invented, there was initially no consensus as to what one would say by way of a salutation when one picked up the receiver to answer a call? ¬†There was nothing natural or inevitable about the use of ¬†‘Hello?’¬†to answer a call. And so it is with social networking. The platform comes first and then the etiquette evolves later. ¬†This is particularly true of grief. ¬†For example, is it acceptable to announce someone’s death on Facebook? ¬†And how soon? When Abraham Lincoln was downloadassassinated in Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC on the night of April 14th 1865, news reached the west coast of the USA by early the following afternoon. ¬†This was considered a huge coup for the new telegraph system, which was coming on stream at the time. Now, when any famous person dies, we find out within hours if not minutes. There seems to be a stampede to get on to Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere to be the first to announce it. And what about ordinary civilians? Is it right to go on Facebook to announce that someone has died? Is it okay if you are closely related to the person? Within what degrees of kindred is it acceptable? And is it right that other people find out in this way? The answer to that, I suspect, depends on who you ask and maybe even how old they are. ¬†For some, putting news of a death on the internet is as natural as phoning people to tell them. But it’s certainly something that causes annoyance within families and friends.

Another question –¬†what should you do about your loved one‚Äôs ‚Äėdigital footprint?‚Äô What does a parent do with a deceased child‚Äôs Facebook page? Or your husband‚Äôs page or your mother‚Äôs?¬† It might seem like the most logical thing in the world for you to take it down, as part of a general wrapping up process involving, say, bank accounts or utility bills. ¬†Many sites will close a page down for you if you request it. In fact, Facebook has a whole array of suggestions for managing the page of a deceased person.

But unfortunately there are a lot of people, many of them young, to whom the idea of such planning would never occur. ¬†And who can blame them? ¬†What if you are left with a social networking page you can’t close? ¬†And what if people are¬†continuing to post? Teenagers and young adults will often continue to post on a Facebook page or similar after a friend or loved one has died and adults can find this baffling.¬† They talk to their dead sibling, cousin or friend like that person is alive and reading the posts. “Passed my exams today, wish I could celebrate with you.” ¬†

Some grieving teens and young adults set up their own memorial sites for their friends, which can be a loving and authentic expression of their sadness. ¬†But adults can find it mystifying. ¬†There is also the further complication of course that you have no jurisdiction there at all. ¬†This new digital life has nothing to do with you. Unfortunately, sometimes there can be ‚Äėcompetitive grieving‚Äô between your child‚Äôs peers as to who has be best memorial sites, who gets the most ‚Äėlikes,‚Äô who has the best photos and so on. ¬†This is not good for anyone involved, least of all the friends themselves, but you may have no choice but to let it go, especially if you do not know them very well.

So what should you do about the social networking presence of your loved one?¬† The first thing to ask is if it is your responsibility at all.¬† This is very clear if it is a partner or a child, but it is less straightforward in the case of your siblings and parents.¬† You are not the only stakeholder in that loss.¬† Before you summarily remove a page, stop and think about the wider community of people who are mourning your loved one and consider also what it is that they are posting.¬† If your child has died, and their Facebook page has become an outlet n7nayvu8b9mj5xlwbcerqm5bfor siblings, cousins and friends, you may be taking away something valuable that is irreplaceable in its role in their grief.¬† A whole range of family members and friends may find it therapeutic to post or even simply to scroll through old status updates and photos. Do you talk to your loved one like they are present and can hear you?¬† The digital communication we are talking about here is not all that different. Finally, you must bear in mind that if you close a social networking page, the message people take from that ‚Äď irrespective of whether or not you mean it ‚Äď is ‚Äúthere is nothing more to talk about, let‚Äôs move on now.‚ÄĚ That could be more damaging than you realise.

However, I am not suggesting some sort of online free-for-all. Pardon me for sounding like Hyacinth Bucket, but there has to be some decorum. Whatever people are posting should be positive and affirming in some way for everyone involved.¬†Occasionally adult family members have been appalled at what their child‚Äôs peers have put on their beloved child‚Äôs Facebook page ‚Äď stuff like ‚Äúremember the time we all got hammered in the field, and you were so out of it you couldn‚Äôt find your bike, that was massive, you‚Äôre a legend, man.‚Ä̬† Treasured memories to the friends but, to the parents, distasteful rubbish that tarnishes their beloved child‚Äôs memory. Fiercely protective as they are of their child‚Äôs legacy, they do not want this sort of thing being given a permanent, public airing. Yet all this communication is real and natural to this generation of ‚ÄėDigital Natives.‚Äô ¬†While not as blatantly distressing, some online postings can bring up questions of taste. ¬†I will be the first to admit that my threshold for anything mawkish or saccharine is very low. Some of what I see posted online in memory of people who have passed away would be, well, let’s say not my cup of tea. But to others, that is as natural an expression of their grief as anything I might do. Would I be correct in removing a post that I thought was sickening glurge but that someone else thought was a heartfelt expression of their loss? ¬†And that might be comforting to other people? Almost certainly not. ¬†As with a lot of areas to do with grieving, a great deal of caution is advisable.

Here’s a question to ponder before you do anything –¬†is it¬†appropriate for you to be the self-appointed guardian of someone‚Äôs entire legacy, including their virtual one?¬† You are undoubtedly the guardian of their relationship with you. ¬†But when they were alive, did you manage their relationship with everyone else?¬† Were you fully apprised of every interaction your loved one had with everyone else? If not, then maybe it is not appropriate to do so now.¬† It is also likely that activity on your loved one‚Äôs site will eventually fizzle out on its own, in which case is it worth alienating friends and family now simply to hasten downloadthe end of something that was time-limited anyway? If a loved one‚Äôs continued presence on social networking sites is distressing or just plain puzzling to you, but is clearly performing a useful function for others, then maybe the best option is for you to disengage from it yourself.¬† For example, it might be prudent to stop visiting the page in question and to change your settings on your own page so you do not get alerts or updates.¬† At a future date, a decision may seem much clearer, so why torture yourself now? If it is your child‚Äôs page and their friends are posting messages that are distasteful to you, could you have a quiet word with them and point out that other family members ‚Äď aunts, uncles, grandparents ‚Äď can see these posts too and you would appreciate a little sensitivity?¬† It would be a shame to take away something that is serving a useful purpose to a lot of people all because one or two people are putting up a few ill-advised messages.¬† The most important thing is to keep your loved one‚Äôs virtual presence alive for those who need it for as long as they do so. ¬†Like so many other areas in grief, this is one where it is not necessary to make a decision straightaway. Your loved one’s online life is as real a part of their legacy as any other and while it belongs exclusively to no-one, it affects so many.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if one facet of grief, just one, was straightforward? ¬†There may be one, but I haven’t found it yet!!

Feel free to comment!

Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas)



My Christmas season every year begins on the first Sunday in December with the A Little Lifetime Christmas Service in St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Francis Street.¬† And it ends every year with Nollaig na mBan on January 6th. ¬†Prior to attending the ALLF service, Christmas stays in the outside world.¬† No decorations go up before that date.¬† No cards areblg_2699063__little_lifetime_foundation sent ‚Äď An Post, I don‚Äôt care what you say is your last date for Rest of the World Christmas mail!¬† No Christmas music is played.¬† No mince pies are consumed.¬† Christmas stays in suspended animation outside my world until, in the dreamlike, candlelit stillness, I hear the Garda Male Voice Choir sing ‚ÄėOh Holy Night.‚Äô You might say to yourself, how as an atheist can you like that? My answer is ‚Äď how as a person with ears can you not?

After that evening spent with my friends in ALLF, the chaos of Christmas is allowed to kick off.  My Christmas thus begins in quiet contemplation, but like everyone else’s it quickly gathers pace.  And at the other side of it, after the cards and the shopping and the food and the Santa visit and the gifts and the flowers and the tears, is Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas.

This old Irish festival is marked on January 6th.¬† I think it‚Äôs a darling little day.¬† Lots of countries have a celebration on this date ‚Äď it is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany around the world and in the Eastern Orthodox faith it is the equivalent of Christmas Eve.¬† It was known in the Church of England as Twelfth Night. But in Ireland alone it is a day devoted to women.¬† The day features in a poem by Se√°n √ď Riord√°in

Bhí fuinneamh sa stoirm a éalaigh aréir.

Aréir oíche Nollaig na mBan

It is also featured in the poem ¬†‚ÄėO√≠che na dTr√≠ R√≠the‚Äô (The Night of the Three Kings) by Br√≠d N√≠ Mh√≥r√°in

Oíche Nollaig na mBan, Gleann na nGealt taibhseach.

The festival dates back to a time when Christmas was relentless work for women (not that it‚Äôs a twelve-day spa break nowadays, of course) and their lives revolved around the home.¬† So January 6th was the day for the women to rest and for the men of the house to take over the cooking and cleaning.¬† In the days of large families and when housework was really manual labour of a particularly gruelling and thankless kind, I‚Äôm sure it was a respite to which women looked forward with great excitement.¬† (What the men of Ireland thought has not been recorded!)¬† In those days women did not go to the pub as a matter of routine, but on the night of January 6th women would head out en masse to the local womens-christmas-752x501hostelry for their one night of the year.¬† It‚Äôs hard to imagine the significance of that now, with the many freedoms we women enjoy, but it must have been a remarkable thing for women in bygone days to cast off the shackles of domesticity and rush headlong to the pub.¬† In Cork, for example, it was not unusual to see women in shawls racing giddily to the pub, where they would have glasses of stout ‚Äď high in iron and therefore good for the blood, of course! ‚Äď and corned beef sandwiches.¬† To this day, the bars of Cork and Kerry are crowded with women on the night of Nollaig na mBan.¬† Some pubs report a one hundred percent female attendance. That may say something about women or it may say something about Cork and Kerry, but either way it says something wonderful.


I wasn’t raised with the tradition of Nollaig na mBan in my home but when I first heard of downloadit I took to it straightaway. It doesn’t have to involve a lot of fuss.  Make some time today  to spend it with women who are important to you.  You will be surprised how much it will restore you.


Nollaig na mBan faoi mhaise dhaoibh go leir!




(A version of this blog appeared previously in the A Little Lifetime magazine, Moments)

January 2nd babies are important too, you know!


It’s a sign of my advancing decrepitude that I can remember the birthday of every single girl I went to National School with but I can’t currently locate my phone. One of those girls, a great friend of mine for many years, was born on January 2nd. ¬†To protect her privacy, I will be calling her Contessa Anastasia von Strudelstumpf.

For 364 days of the year, the Contessa was a genial, pleasant child but on January 2nd each year, she turned into this.


Her maladjustment? She was not born on January 1st. Every year on her birthday, she lectured her mother, in a semi good natured way, about how if she had been born on January 1st, she would have been on TV and in all the papers. ¬†Every year she berated her poor mother about this. She could see it all clearly in her mind – the newspaper coverage, the TV footage, and so on. One year, I tried to be helpful, which is to say I unleashed some of my more masochistic tendencies. I pointed out that it doesn’t follow she would have been the first baby born on New Year’s Day. ¬†She might have been the 17th. But no, the Contessa was adamant. ¬†She would have been born at four seconds past the magic hour of midnight and that it would have unleashed a media frenzy. ¬†She was nothing if not confident.

I have long since lost contact with Contessa Anastasia, but I think of her on January 2nd every year. I wonder if she was the only person born on January 2nd who felt like this. ¬†I know that lots of people born on Christmas Day feel a bit cheated and I wrote about this just recently. But I don’t know anybody else with a January 2nd birthday. ¬†So I suppose all I can do is pay tribute to a few January 2nd babies, specifically to how marvellously some of them did without the media frenzy that being the first baby of the New Year might have brought.

Drum roll please ….

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was born on January 2, 1898 in Philadelphia. She was the 220px-godfreykneller-isaacnewton-1689first African-American woman to earn a doctorate¬†in economics in American and the second to do so in any field. She was the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and she went on to become the first African-American woman to practice law in that state. She followed that by becoming the first African-American woman to be appointed Assistant City Solicitor for the city of Philadelphia. Harry Truman appointed her to the¬†President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946.¬†From 1943 to 1947 she was the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association.¬†¬†Later she became President of John F. Kennedy Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. ¬†She practiced law until her retirement in 1982.


220px-godfreykneller-isaacnewton-1689Beatrice Hicks, born January 2nd 1918, was an American engineer and was the first woman engineer to be hired by Western Electric.  In school, she was not encouraged to pursue a career in the sciences because her teachers felt it was not an appropriate career for a woman.  She was one of only two women to graduate in engineering from Newark College of Engineering in 1939. She later earned a masters in physics. She designed and patented a gas density switch that would be used in the U.S. space program, including the Apollo missions. She went on to both found and serve as the first president of the Society of Women Engineers. In that capacity, she toured the US extensively giving talks on to promote the cause of women in engineering.

Isaac Asimov was born on January 2nd 1920 in Petrovichi, Russia and moved to the US with his220px-godfreykneller-isaacnewton-1689 family when he was three years old. He¬†was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and a prolific writer in the fields of popular science and science fiction. He wrote or edited more than five hundred books¬†as well as an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards and is regarded as being one of the most prolific writers of all time. Asimov’s most famous work is the Foundation Series. He was a member of MENSA and served as president of the American Humanist Association. January 2nd is now observed in the US as National Science Fiction Day in his honour.

220px-godfreykneller-isaacnewton-1689David Bailey was born on January 2nd 1938 in London. After a series of dead-end jobs, he was called up for National Service, where his interest in photography began. After being demobbed, he took a series of photography jobs before being contracted by British Vogue magazine. ¬†His work captured and celebrated the “Swinging Sixties” scene in London, with famous images of sixties celebrities such as Mick Jagger and Terence Stamp and, controversially, the Kray Twins. His work is still much in demand by magazines, fashion houses and celebrities . He has also exhibited sculptures and paintings.


Cuba Gooding jnr was born on ¬†January 2nd 1968 in New York. ¬†After finishing High School, he studied Japanese Martial Arts for three years. His first job in entertainment was as a 220px-godfreykneller-isaacnewton-1689breakdancer during Lionel Ritchie’s performance at the closing ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. After various roles in TV, he was cast as Tre Styles in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.¬†This was his big breakthrough and it was followed by roles in films such as A Few Good Men and Outbreak. His scene-stealing performance in Jerry Maguire in 1996 earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In later years, he has turned to more gritty roles and was on our screens mostly¬†recently in the role of OJ Simpson in American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson.


What have I proved? Well, nothing really. Some people born on January 2nd turned out fantastically well and went on to great things despite a whole lack of fanfare when they were born. ¬†I don’t know if Contessa Anastasia von Strudelstumpf went on to great things. I hope she did. ¬†Wherever you are, Contessa, Happy Birthday.







It’s January


January gets its name from¬†the Latin word for door ¬†–¬†ianua – because of course the arrival of January opened the door to a new year. The month is not named after the god, Janus, but in fact the goddess Juno, who also gave her name to the month of June. ¬†And, speaking even as an atheist, the goddess Juno was a bad ass! ¬†In Roman mythology, she was the daughter of Saturn and the sister of Jupiter. ¬†She was the¬†the protector and special counselor of the state. Her role was to watch over women, especially in childbirth. She is depicted in warlike garb, usually with a spear. She is associated with youth, energy and vitality, something a lot of us woman wish we had in January. She has a number of personae. As the Juno Moneta, she guarded over the finances of the empire and I think most of us would agree that’s a good role for a woman. It is from Juno Moneta that we get the word money, and we all know what a complex issue money is in the long, dark month of January. ¬†As Juno Curitis, she was a warlike character and those about to go to war invoked her protection. January is one of the busiest months of the year for divorce lawyers, so maybe that’s something for them to think about.

January stretches out before us full of frosts and disillusion. ¬†It will be cold. Our resolutions will probably fail. Our cards may be declined in a shop at some point. But somehow life will go on and we’ll get through it in the end. We could take a bit of inspiration from Juno and try to summon some vitality and energy. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always war.