Pain. The Great Awakener.

Happier times with Liz and Oliver

December 26th 2013 was a day that would change our lives forever. 

Anne-Marie’s father, Oliver, passes away after a period of illness.

We watch the funeral online from Australia. Facetime might suffice during good times, but it cannot replace the human connection we need this time.

In 2013, this was not a common occurrence. Subsequent events make it more familiar to all emigrants.

Mourning a loved one overseas feels inadequate.

The first visit of Anne-Maries’ parents, Liz and Oliver, to Sydney coincided with a first for ourselves when our daughter Ava was born in 2008.

Anne-Marie, Liz and Ava spent quality time together, while Oliver and I took a road trip along the Great Ocean Road – a breathtakingly scenic stretch of south-eastern Australia coastline between the Victorian cities of Torquay and Allansford.

When Liz and Oliver returned in 2012 on their last visit together, Sydney put on its usual show as we made more memories.

Shortly after, Oliver falls ill. It is not initially deemed serious. But before long, his condition deteriorates. We visit Ireland late the following year. But within a few weeks of returning to Sydney, Anne-Marie decides she needs to be in Dublin with him.

With three young children, we do what all parents do – juggle. She takes our youngest, JJ, while I remain in Sydney with the two girls.

Precious Time

Anne-Marie spends treasured weeks with Oliver. During this time, her grandmother passes away at a ‘good age’. She had lived in the family home since Anne-Marie was young and had formed a special bond with Oliver. He is heartbroken that his pal is gone. He helps Anne-Marie prepare to read his favourite poem at Gran’s funeral – Death is Nothing at All by Henry Scott-Holland.

Shortly after, her sister Kathy is married. (We still have the life-sized cardboard cut-outs of Ava, Erin and myself that I sent over so we could be at the wedding – anything to be part of an Irish hooley. My cut-out is invited to dance more than I would have been in person.)

During her time in Dublin, Anne-Marie takes care of Oliver at home, bringing him out when he is up to it. He gets great joy out of JJ, just nine months old. The daily wheelchair-versus-walker race is a highlight.

As Christmas approaches, Anne-Marie and JJ return to us. She is grateful for having been able to spend each precious moment of the last few weeks with him. 

But this is the final goodbye.

Every airport departure, all emigrants know, is a heart-wrenching experience – even in happy times. But this is no Au Revoir. They know that in their hearts. Anne-Marie would not see him again nor be with him when he passed away.

As I write and reflect on this, I do not know how she coped. But we all do.

Perpetual Motion

Ten days later, we get the call we are expecting and dreading, the one every emigrant fears deep down; the possibility we dare not dwell on because to do so would hurt too much. We had been in perpetual motion for months. Having spent the most precious time with Oliver, Anne-Marie remains in Sydney. That particular choice had been accepted as the price to pay for those weeks with him.

Two days later, we usher the children to bed and Facetime home. We watch the funeral from afar. We set up our little shrine in the kitchen. It seems like a feeble effort. We hear Death is Nothing at All for a second time in three weeks. 

We truly feel the distance. It feels inadequate and unfair. We desperately try to be part of it. But the more we endeavour to close the gap, the wider it seems. We console ourselves with having done all we can, but there is little solace.

Feelings suppressed

In the following week and months we become busy again with the children and the Australian summer. Mourning feels different overseas – vague and incomplete. Out of sight means more likely out of mind. The brutal fact is that the departed loved one has not been part of everyday routine. This daily experience remains largely unaffected by their passing. You wish something would change to make it obvious. But the differences are not visible.

We suppress our grief. Emigrants are well-versed in this practice. It is self-protection when living far away. But it is not always a healthy response.

Living now back in Oliver’s home town in Dublin, I notice how easily thoughts of him appear compared with Sydney. Fleeting moments where a sight, a smell or a conversation triggers fond memories. I am pleased with that. He was a great role model. I will often ask myself, “what would Oliver do?” when making decisions. Just as my Dad has a good compass, so too did Oliver.

Pendulum Shift

After Oliver’s passing, Anne-Marie appeared strong as always. I would ask how she was and take her at face value. I thought she was coping well. 

Since then, she has told me she put on a braver face than she felt. 

“… you try to console yourself with thoughts that he was so unwell, and in such pain . . . but all you want to do is hit out and shout ‘No!’”

When you are in the eye of a storm, amid chaos, you are focused only on putting one foot in front of the other.

For Anne-Marie, Oliver’s death may have been the moment the pendulum shifted. Less than two years later, we returned to Ireland for good. Anne-Marie says she would never wish for anyone to go through what she had.

In August 2015, we told our families that we intended to return the following summer. Liz is beside herself with joy. Our next chapter is about to begin. The road stretches out in front of us. Little do we (any of us) know what is around the corner.


James Parnell is the founder of A New Dawn in Ireland community and provides online coaching for anyone inspired to change their life.

This article is an excerpt from the book A New Dawn in IrelandIf you would like to be notified when the book is published simply register here.

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