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How Has Grief Changed You?

How Has Grief Changed You?

Grief is not an easy topic to write about for many obvious reasons but mostly because it’s so deeply personal that I feel that by sharing my own experiences I am exposing the very rawest corner of my soul, the part that is covered in scars and afraid of being hurt again. Suffering extreme loss is unfortunately something that most of us will experience and so I also feel a sense of selfishness too when I talk about my own grief; how dare I have the audacity to write about my own woes when so many are going through the same thing?

Except there are times when I must write about it because the words and memories are bubbling up within me when I am missing her more than ever. Losing my sister undoubtedly changed who I was and how I viewed the world from the second I let her go. I was suddenly left with an unbearable amount of questions about life that few were able to answer so I was forced to learn on my own, attempting to overcome the emotional roadblocks that would come shattering down at any moment.

When we lost Amy the process of saying goodbye to her was like an out of body experience, as if a part of me was watching down and thinking: is this actually happening? I was standing by her hospital bed watching the life slowly slip out of her but my mind felt confused; her hands were warm, her chest was rising, surely she wasn’t dying? It was an incomprehensible moment when I was left searching for the final words I wanted to whisper in her ear because words alone weren’t enough to encapsulate the love I had for her. How could I articulate how grateful I was to share a wonderful childhood with her? Or how angry I was that I wouldn’t have her for the rest of my adult life?

Suffering the loss of someone we don’t want to live without is an evolving rollercoaster of lessons that can last a lifetime; I continue to learn things about myself because of the grief I carry around in my heart every day. Some lessons can be dark and painful, mostly arriving in the depths of night when I am racked with worry and the grief washes over me in tidal waves. These moments are when I am at my lowest, targeting the weaknesses within me and dredging up the fear I battle to suppress in the light of day. For those that are grieving, bedtime can resemble the nightmares of our childhood and are when we feel most vulnerable because it’s when we feel most alone.

For me I am not only coping with the loss of Amy but I continue to feel robbed of the life I had before. Family celebrations, dinners and gatherings were never to be the same again and after she passed I was acutely aware that my role in the family had changed too. I am the eldest and I felt more responsible than ever for my youngest sister because I wanted her to still feel like I was going to be enough for her, that we would be OK just the two of us instead of the three we had grown up as. I also put more effort in to making my parents proud because I wanted them to feel like they’d done a good job, that they were still good parents despite everything.

While I would give anything to have Amy back, losing her taught me wonderful lessons too. My capacity for love and joy. My sense of adventure in even the simplest of moments. How aware I am when I see something beautiful. I have had to adjust to missing her every day but it has become threaded in to the very fabric of who I am, woven scars covering the cracks. I won’t get over the heartbreak but at the very least I can utilise it in some way to make life a little easier to bear.

The most significant change of all though has probably been how gentle I am with myself now during moments when my confidence is low. I no longer waste time beating myself down since this doesn’t accomplish anything other than helplessness. By practicing self-kindness I am allowing more room in my heart for the good things which is a bittersweet lesson I am very grateful for.

Grief has certainly changed me and it will continue to do so as I carry it over life’s hurdles but along with grief I will always have Amy. After all, she will always be my little sister and that relationship will never change.

Can you tell me about your own grief experience and how it has changed you? I would love to know x

The Full Shilling Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

The Full Shilling Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

Growing up as one of three girls meant that family trips were anything but calm. Someone would be breathing too loudly in the car, someone would be sitting too closely to someone else or a mass riot would ensue if a sister was seen wearing another sister’s dress/shoes/anything that wasn’t their own.

Nowadays we’re mature adults, you might find it hard to believe that I ever broke her nose when we were kids. Twice. But those turbulent times are over and now we are more than capable of surviving a short holiday together especially when that holiday involves eating our way through the villages of southern France and taking lots and lots of pretty photos.

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So with that confidence in mind, we decided to take a quick trip last month to stay with our aunt and uncle who have spent the last 10 years converting an old barn in to the most beautiful chateaux by the Pyrénées (trés middle class, I know). As they are fairly rural we decided to hire a car and after an hour long process (why do I always get the employee who has just started the job the day before?) we finally hopped in to our beautiful Toyota Aygo that just about fit us along with our carry-on bags.

The French drive on the right hand side of the road which made for an interesting journey to our uncle’s house. It took a few attempts to leave the airport (and Shannon couldn’t even bring herself to look out the window when we eventually joined the motorway) but we made it in one piece to Maison de Donnelly in the late afternoon. After we were hugged and my uncle commented on the rental (“that’s some wee yoke there” – typical Irish man review), we were shown around their humble abode which wasn’t so humble and moved me to real-life tears. They have managed to create a home that is warm and still so full of character, each room decorated with gorgeous French vintage market finds at prices that made me shed even more tears. I immediately promised myself that I will be a regular pest of theirs for as long as they would have me.

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My aunt Bronagh is an incredible cook and once we were settled, we sat at a table overlooking the sunflower fields (am I making you sick yet?). The food was glorious and the wine even more so. We sat chatting until Shannon and I could barely speak with tiredness and so with heavy heads, we retreated to our beautiful bedroom to sleep in our beautiful beds. Turns out we are still kids at heart and we fell asleep in the same bed, talking until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. 

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On our first morning I trotted down to the village to get croissants for breakfast because that is what one does in France. We planned our route for the day over our crumbs and then set off for Fanjeaux, a little hilltop village with views for miles. The rain decided to show up for the first hour or two but I was ferocious in my cheeriness that the rain would soon clear off. I’m one of those travellers that vehemently believes that rain should never dampen sprits but really all that it does is convince my fellow traveller that I’m a bit mental (picture me in the pouring rain with a manic smile screaming “WE ARE HAVING FUN, AREN’T WE?!).

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Fanjeaux is an old Cathar town with crumbling medieval walls surrounding the Dominican chapel. It was beautiful despite the drizzle with plenty of cobbled streets to get lost in (or do circles like we did). It was so quiet and felt a little eerie in places because we hardly saw a soul save for a few damp tourists. We didn’t stay too long as we didn’t have an umbrella but it’s a place I would love to go back to on a clear day.

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Luckily for everyone the skies cleared as we were headed to Limoux and as the clouds parted we could spy the Pyrénées in the distance. The valley between Fanjeaux and Limoux is covered in vineyards which makes it a little difficult to be the chief/only driver. The area is famous for a sparkling wine called Blanquette which is sold by the vineyards alongside the road or in all the local shops. If Shannon had have been driving I would have been making a pitstop at every vineyard but being the ever-responsible big sister I stuck to caffeine and saved the wine-tasting to the evenings when I could guzzle guilt-free back at the barn.

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As we approached Limoux we could see that it didn’t quite have the same charm as Fanjeaux. It was a little busier and there were plenty of roadworks which don’t really scream rustic tranquility. However there is a lovely square there which was perfect for soaking up the delayed sun rays and drinking the first coffee I have ever actually enjoyed. After years of trying to like coffee (and failing), it seems all it took was a mocha in Limoux to win me over. I feel more grown up than ever now.

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After a charcuterie feast which was mainly eaten by moi, Shannon and I dawdled back to our car crossing over a very pretty bridge with fantastic views across the river. On our way we dodged a few lengthy gazes from French men who we soon discovered were unashamedly comfortable with staring. Oh how different they are to the typical Irish fella who would look anywhere but the woman he is interested in for fear of coming on too strong…

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Back in the wee Aygo we made our way to Mirepoix with a quick stop off in Luc-sur-Aude. Oh my, this drive was so spectacular. Trees seem to line the entrance of every town in the Languedoc but this road was truly special. Mountains seemed to appear out of nowhere with sheer cliffs towering over the winding roads. Shannon and I had our noses to the windshield as we gazed upwards in awe, not speaking save for tutting to ourselves like old women.

We pulled in to Luc-sur-Aude to give our necks a break and again were so surprised at how quiet the little village was. We walked through the streets wondering where the people were or if there was some apocalypse we hadn’t heard about as we ascended up a hill to check out the view. There were vineyards for miles surrounded by mountains and despite my attempt at taking a photo of the view, I couldn’t do it justice.

 

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The late afternoon sun was burning above us as we headed up the mountains towards the fairytale town of Mirepoix. Our ears popped as we snaked up the hills and we pulled over to drink in even more beautiful views. The roads were so quiet and when we sat overlooking the valleys below all we could hear were the cicadas buzzing in the heat. 

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We got to Mirepoix in the evening and as we hopped out of our car and walked towards the main square, we looked at each other with immediate glee, silently agreeing that we had definitely saved the best place to last. The town looked like something straight out of a Disney movie set and I half expected people to burst in to song at any moment. Shannon and I grew up on these movies and you can imagine how giddy we were to see such a place in real life. We strolled through the market stalls and circled the old town walls before picking a spot in the square where we could soak all of the colours in. We sat with the golden light on our faces, barely speaking a word but feeling incredibly content with ourselves.

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Drunk on the day we just had, we headed back to the barn for another feast until the sky. Desperate not to finish the day just yet, we dandered down to the village to watch the locals play bowls (or boules if you want to get technical) and drank coffee while the stars came out. Finally shattered, we fell in to our beds, thoroughly satisfied that sisters really do make the best travelling companion. Even if their driving might terrify us.

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Stay tuned for another French post coming soon…

An Irish Goodbye

An Irish Goodbye

An ‘Irish Goodbye’ usually refers to a person who leaves a group without saying farewell and sneaks out the door however here in Ireland, saying goodbye is a much more dramatic affair and is usually the longest event of the night with several breaks every few metres until eventually the host is practically on the guest’s lap in the car.

When I think of this type of goodbye that is all too common here it reminds me of how reluctant we are to say goodbye to the people we love. We cling on to every moment, not wanting it to end for fear that once they’re gone, the party is over and we are only left with the memories.

This is the most tragic and bittersweet thing about life that we know to expect but are never prepared for in any case. No matter how we knew the person, saying goodbye to someone who has made us feel a little less alone in a world that we continually battle to understand is something we never get used to. It pushes us in to a place we don’t want to be, away from the living that feels cold and barren and allows thoughts to gather in our minds that only propagates the feeling that we are all alone after all.

Losing my sister was a traumatic experience as most losses are. She was too young and experienced too much pain which meant the only condolence was that she wasn’t going to suffer anymore. My problem with this was just that – she wasn’t going to suffer anymore. She wasn’t going to feel anything anymore and we were all left to feel everything; joy, sadness, excitement, love, hate. I struggled, and still do, with how unfair it all was that her ability to feel was taken away.

These struggles are what led me to never take for granted the ability to feel the best and worst things that life can throw at us. Suffering a great loss can shake us to our core but being able to feel this despair is one of the life’s most cruel of gifts. It might sound a little masochistic but even on the days I feel in pain or scared or angry I am at least relieved to feel.

Unfortunately grief is a lifelong experience that never really goes away. When we lose someone who we weren’t ready to let go of we are left with a hole that can grow big and small even years later. We lost Amy six years ago and there are days when I feel such an urge to talk to her it can overwhelm me. She was the middle sister that glued us three together and it’s difficult to pretend that we don’t need that link to make me and Shannon feel whole. Which is why I don’t pretend. When I need to talk about her or share a funny story I will. When I miss her uncontrollably I’ll call my parents or sister. I will never shut her out because I need to embrace her in my life wherever possible.

The thing is, I appreciate all too well how much of a miracle it is that I’m even alive in the first place. It’s a miracle our planet is in the position it is in the solar system. It’s a miracle I was born in a country with access to modern medicine. It’s a miracle my parents decided to fancy each other and get it on (in the most romantic of ways I’m sure).  And it’s a miracle I am the only one in this world who was lucky enough to be a big sister to Amy.

Sometimes we’re forced to say goodbye before we’re ready. The reality of how delicate and uncontrollable life can be is thrusted upon us and we are bereft with the knowledge we may never see our loved ones again. What we do have and what can never be taken away from us is the memories. The moments shared together happened and can never unhappen. They will always remain and that’s how we can ensure that the people we have lost are never truly gone from us. They need only be on the edge of our thoughts and the end of our breath. We can take as many breaks as we need before we reach the door and say our final goodbye.