Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh: Dealing with bereavement

SOMETIMES unthinkable tragedies happen. When they do, they send shockwaves of grief, pain, guilt, trauma, despair, anger and hurt through families, friends and communities. The loss of Monaghan’s u-20 captain Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh last weekend will be felt for a long time. By his family, friends, teammates and, indeed, by the wider GAA community.

Those of us who never had the pleasure of meeting the young man will recall the knot in our stomachs last Saturday morning upon hearing the news. We can’t even begin to imagine the enormity of his loss.

Just a few short hours later, his county teammates had to put any emotions they had to one side, and take on Armagh. Very soon, his u-20 teammates will have to contest an Ulster final without their captain. His club, the people who knew him from the very first day he put on a pair of boots, will have to face life without him.

Of course, all this pales into insignificance when we consider the hard road his family will have to walk. A tragedy puts sport into perspective. Bad performances, silly decisions, rows, selections, match-ups. They don’t really matter. The bad days we’ve had in sport don’t matter when we consider how bad the real world can be.

Sport can also give us some of the best experiences of our lives. Victories, bonds with teammates, lifelong friendships for fans who travel to events together. Shared memories. These relationships are important. This is what makes overcoming tragedy so difficult. We don’t contemplate death in sport too often. Because it is unnatural for us to think of anyone being lost when they are in their prime.

The immediate aftermath of a death gives an opportunity for everyone to join together in grief. There is no thought of football, or anything else, because nothing else matters at that time.

In the weeks and months afterwards, everyone will continue on their own pathway of grief. At different paces. During this time, physical, cognitive and emotional states can all be affected. Performances may change, decision-making may be affected. Mood swings may happen, on and off the field. The good-natured footballer suddenly becomes someone who swings wildly at an opponent or who swears at a referee. Players may become more susceptible to injury as coping with stress could potentially affect training or match day performances that could invite injury.

The impact of grief varies from one person to another. Some may disengage from a team completely. Others might welcome the opportunity to focus on a football for an hour, so much so that their performances improve.

This may be especially true if they throw themselves into a new, more intense training regime in an effort to avoid their emotions. This could potentially lead to a psychological collapse in later months or years, or a delayed grief reaction, if not managed appropriately.

Knowing that this may happen can help people be prepared for the challenges. There will be an underlying feeling of wanting things to get back to normal. The thing is, they will never be normal again. People may feel they shouldn’t think about their grief, but avoid it. They may think they should be able to overcome or override it, rather than embrace it. Avoidance is one of the most common coping mechanisms.

Players should be in a safe psychological space, where they can openly express their opinions and views. This is the way every dressing room should be, even in the best of times.

We know this is not the case in many sports, not just on this island but all over the world. Too many people hide their thoughts, parts of themselves and their personalities for fear of falling foul and losing a place on a team. A safe space ensures players should be able to mourn openly with their teammates, meaning that their grief doesn’t go away. But it becomes more manageable over time.

Not everyone is comfortable with expressing emotions, especially if they’re in a culture where this wasn’t facilitated or encouraged. Not everyone has the emotional space to take these feelings on either. That’s ok. They may be overwhelmed by their own grief, or unable to support themselves and others. Seek support from others, qualified to help. Counsellors, psychologists, talking therapy, helplines or websites. Professionals who can help you make your way through it.

Continued access to grief counselling is helpful, due to everyone processing their pain at a different pace. Humans by and large tend to be very understanding, but they are not mind readers.

In all sports, when the unthinkable happens, administrators should make it very clear that this access is always there, on a regular basis. People may find it hard to acknowledge their loss. They may be feeling anger or perhaps be dismissive when it is discussed, as that is the way they are coping at that moment in time.

This isn’t easy on coaches or administrators either. They’re straddling an uncomfortable divide of trying to support their teams, grieving for their friend and pupil, while also knowing they’ll have to deal with the logistics of running a team very soon.

One of the best things about the GAA is the worldwide family it automatically gifts you when you become a member.

Yes, we fight and we row and we crib and we moan and we’ll always have an extra bit of spite for the club or county next door. But we’ll hold each other up when we need to. We will hold Monaghan Harps and all who knew Ógie close to our hearts for as long as they need us to.

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. Bhí saol an fhir óig seo i bhfad ró ghearr agus go bhfaighfidh a mhuintir agus a chairde sólás as áit éigin.

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