Joe Brolly

Brolly: Life’s a bitch and then you die

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We have had a tea cup in the house for the last twenty five years. We don’t drink from it anymore. Instead, it sits on a high shelf, safe from the kids. On the side of the cup, there is a middle aged man sitting on a sofa, bored stiff, supping sorrowfully from a tin of lager and watching the telly. The caption underneath reads “Life is a bitch. Then you die.” My wife often remarks on how absolutely true that is. And we have everything.

Last week, 22 year old Galway hurler Niall Donoghue hanged himself. The kid’s mother died when he was young. His beloved grandmother took his mother’s place all those years ago. In turn, she herself died in the past year, no doubt consoled that she had nursed him to safety. The young man had suffered from depression for months. He was being expertly treated for it. His team mates on the Galway squad had been made aware of his problems and given advice on what to look out for.

He was a terrific hurler and came from a tight knit hurling community. Everything seemed okay. He had it all ahead of him. Now, he is dead and there is nothing anyone can do.

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Sometimes, people drift outside the circle of life and don’t want to come back in.  During the week, I sat outside a small cafe in Belfast with a friend. His sister in law took her own life exactly a year ago. A beautiful, talented girl, she had become depressed and slowly drifted out from shore. In spite of everything that was done to bring her back, she didn’t want to come. We shake our heads and wonder how this can be so. As our coffee cups are refilled, we agree that in truth, the end can be merciful for some people.

It is hard to know what lessons we can learn from this latest death. Life is beautiful, but it is a sorrowful mystery. In 1982, lightweight champion Ray Boom Boom Mancini put his world title on the line against South Korean Duk Koo Kim. It was war. In the fourteenth gruelling round, Kim finally went down under a blistering salvo, his head crashing off the deck.

Ralph Wiley of Sports Illustrated, covering the fight, later described Kim scrabbling to pull himself up the ropes as “One of the greatest physical feats I had ever witnessed.”

The grisly reason for this was that the mortal blow had already been struck. As he tried to haul himself to his feet, Kim was dying. He saw that shore receding and desperately wanted to swim back. He never made it. Lying on the bloody canvas, he slipped into a coma and two days later, died in hospital.

Before leaving his hotel room for the fight, he had scrawled “Live or Die” on the lampshade. After the fight, Kim’s mother travelled from Korea to be with him in the hospital, holding his hand to the bitter end. Then, heartbroken, she went back to her hotel room and took her own life. A few months later, the referee Richard Green took his own life. A trail of bereavement and death. A young man who with his last conscious instinct strove for life. A mother and a referee who didn’t want to live any longer. How do we begin to make sense of it?

When I was a young fellow, one of my Dungiven team mates took his own life. Fergal Higgins was a handsome, charismatic and talented boy. He had recently won an All-Ireland freshers medal with Queen’s University. On the day of the final, captain Joe Kennedy was unavailable and it was Fergal who was chosen to lift the cup.

The photo of the boy grinning broadly as he holds the cup aloft for his delighted team mates is immortalised in the trophy cabinet at Queen’s. The world was his oyster. One minute he was amongst us, vibrant and young and giving life a go. The next, he was gone. His brother Gavin is a stalwart around the club. His twin boys Seamus & Fergal are our undisputed underage stars. I cannot watch them play without thinking of their fresh faced uncle smiling broadly. For us he will be forever young.

In 2009, the suicide of German goalie Robert Enke prompted amateur psychiatrists in the media to create a narrative. The pat conclusion was that the pressures of professional sport were too great and that his concealment of his depression from his club and team mates contributed to his death. The solution was to be open about depression. Yet Enke had been seeing a psychiatrist for years and his family were intimately aware of the details of his condition.

At the time of his death, he was 32 years old and widely tipped to be announced as Germany’s number 1 keeper for the forthcoming World Cup campaign. He was happily married to a devoted wife and had a baby girl. On a chilly morning in November 2009, Enke kissed his wife Teresa and 10-month-old daughter goodbye as usual and left the house, saying he was going to training.

Instead, he drove to a railway crossing, parked his car and walked calmly onto the tracks. The train driver didn’t see him. Who knows? His first daughter died when she was six. Perhaps that bereavement was in the end too much for him to bear. Perhaps there is no rational explanation.

A few days ago, I was with a young friend who is struggling badly with life. A good person and an immensely popular one, things have disintegrated for him for no apparent reason. At the moment, he is under the care of experts, living in a specialised unit and there is no way of knowing how things will go. I have been surrounded with life, death and unbearable poignancy for the last few years.

Because of that, I know that it is untrue to say that he has every reason to go on. All I can say is that we would love him to find a way to go on, a way for him to find some peace. We would love him to find his way back to shore. But life is not so simple.

If you feel like this is an issue that affects you, please contact one of the below helplines:
You can contact Samaritans Ireland aon 1850 60 90 90, 1Life on 1800 247 100 (both 24 hour), Aware also run a helpline on 1890 303 302 that’s especially for people with depression, and it’s open from 10am -10pm, 7 days a week.

If you or someone you know is in distress or despair, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. This is a confidential service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also access the Lifeline website at www.lifelinehelpline.info

More information on looking after your mental health and the support which is available across Northern Ireland can be found at www.mindingyourhead.info