Friday, June 22, 2007

An end in sight?

Finding Closure

The last three months have been like a roller-coaster for us all at St Joseph’s Secondary School. The end of any school year is always frenetic because there are practical exams in Music and Art and oral exams in all the Languages. This means a lot of pressure on both pupils and teachers with extern examiners coming into the school. Then there are two graduation ceremonies to be organised and attended – Transition year and Leaving Certificate respectively. Furthermore, there are the History and Geography special topics to be written up. Needless to say, somewhere in the background ordinary school classes continue. Now, take the scenario of a serious incident hitting any school – for all second level schools are the same – like a tidal wave and one would expect chaos.

Well, we did not have chaos. What we did have was a time of absolute emotional upheaval. Somehow or other life did go on as it always does. I’m reminded here of the famous quip by Robert Frost in answer to the question as to what he had learnt about life after all his long years: “It goes on!” How true indeed! We, in St Joseph’s were hit by two tidal waves only 2 months apart: first the untimely death by natural causes of young Stephen Dowdall (15) and then the shocking murder of one of our sixth years Seán Nolan (18) on the night of his graduation. We were all literally left reeling like punch-drunk boxers staggering from the ring – twice.

Nothing prepares one for death really. Even when we expect the death of a loved one, it is still hard. At 49 years of age I have experienced a fair number of deaths, including that of my father (1993), grandparents and several uncles and aunts, as well as three friends from college, one by suicide (1978) and two in a car crash (1979). I have seen all of the foregoing laid out and have bidden them all a fond goodbye. All these occasions are indelibly printed on my mind, or more correctly finely etched in my heart. We do get over them and we do cope, and things do indeed get easier as we grow older. However, we never forget, nor do we understand. We simply learn to accept. That’s life – it’s hard. Let’s pick ourselves up, help each other, cry on each other’s shoulders if we can and go forward together.

However, the death of a young lad who just dropped down dead at 15 is traumatic for his family and friends. Such is not what we would call usual. Thankfully it was natural causes, and somehow, when the post-mortem results come out, we can somehow begin to get our minds around it. How his poor mother might do so I simply do not know. Stephen was her only child and her husband had just died some few years previously. The school counsellor, Mairéad Martin, and I did several sessions on listening, encounter sessions if you like, where we just sat and listened to our Third Years expressing how they felt at Stephen’s untimely death. These were privileged moments for both of us; moments which lie lightly in a sacred space in both our hearts; moments of unique and personal trust never to be forgotten; sacred moments to be treasured; moving moments when we knew we had to be strong for the boys.

I will never forget the evening of Stephen’s removal from the funeral home to Lawrence O’Toole’s Church. I remember standing for more than an hour at various intervals with the boys as they said their last goodbyes to their fellow student. There were five or six other teachers who did likewise. The boys needed us to be there to give them the strength to be with their dead friend. One boy placed a football at Stephen’s feet. Another lad brought in a photograph of Stephen and himself, pictured on the day of their First Holy Communion. He placed this picture carefully at Stephen’s feet. He had already visited Stephen that morning on his own in the funeral home. The young boy simply had to say goodbye alone to his best friend. The most moving sight of all was that of the coffin being carried shoulder high the length of Seville Place all the way down to the Church door. During the service there were many tears, but nothing to be compared with those of the boys outside the Church after the service as they broke down in one another’s arms. Again such grief cannot be contained – it must be expressed. The boys held each other and they felt alright with this as both Mairéad and I had already informed them that it was important to allow themselves to cry.

One boy who could not bring himself to go to the funeral went out alone to Stephen’s grave to say his own goodbyes. That was his way of doing things, his way of grieving, the only way he knew that he could cope. Grieving is different for everyone and the timing and pacing of it is also different from person to person. Four of his friends went down to Stephen’s mother a week later and they sat with Mairéad and me just talking about what it was like to talk to Stephen’s mam about her son and their best friend. They were still confused, still shocked, still bowled over or to continue the boxing metaphor, still reeling.

Roll on six or so weeks to the fateful night of the Sixth Year Graduation, 25/05/2007, a night never to be forgotten. Who would have thought that such an auspicious night for all the families and friends gathered would herald the last few hours of life for one of the graduates? Who would have thought that a young lad of eighteen, healthy and full of life, a sportsman as well, would end up dead a matter of five or six hours later? Who would have thought that young Seán Nolan would no longer be with us? A graduation ceremony is meant to mark the beginning of a new phase in life, the end of one’s school years and the very beginning of one’s adulthood. And so the graduation ceremony of 2007 at St Joseph’s is tinged forever with sadness. How unfortunate that all those lovely young lads had to be catapulted into adulthood so suddenly! How tragic that they were forced to grow up or come of age so forcefully! Such are the bitter-sweet lessons of life! Such is life and such is mortality. There can be no life without death and no death without life. Yet, the poor boys could have waited many more years of adulthood before such a shocking lesson. But that was not meant to be! “God’s ways are not our ways,” “He writes straight with crooked lines!” What we cannot understand we can only hope to accept.

Needless to say, this second death, this tragic murder, brought back the sadness and grief of the Third Years at the loss of their friend Stephen. How could we lose two lovely young lads in the space of eight weeks? Then the grief at Seán’s murder was different to that of the grief at Stephen’s, though both equally deep. The second death was traumatic for the boy’s family and friends. We needed professional help from outside because murder is a greater trauma than natural death. Obviously, I’m not trying to compare the depth of grief of either family or trying to lessen one as regards the other. I’m simply pointing out that murder is an horrific trauma which is more disturbing and confusing than natural causes. Therefore, while the grief experienced by both families may be equally deep, they are different in quality. I hope that makes some little sense. Perhaps I’m not expressing myself too well, so I can only hope a patient reader will understand my drift.

Once again, Mairéad Martin and I did as much as we ourselves could. All the teachers came into the school the Saturday after Seán’s tragic death and sat with our bewildered, bedraggled, confused, angry, sad, tired and emotional graduates. The whole scene was surreal. Most of us were just simply numb. We still could not believe what had happened. It was like a nightmare to which there was no end in sight. Young Sinéad Coffey was brilliant and she only 22 years of age, her first graduation class with the tragic death of one of its students. I won’t mention anyone else by name. Suffice it to say the parents of the boys were also brilliant. There is simply too much to be said so I shall have to bring this meandering account to some conclusion. I notice that the title I gave to this piece is “finding closure” and indeed we have found just a little. How? Well, two psychologists from NEPS came into help us, along with a professional crisis or trauma-counsellor. As well as that, we had a lovely Mass celebrated by Fr Finbarr Neylon on the Saturday after Seán’s death, using the same readings and the candle Seán had carried the night before. This liturgy proved to be very healing indeed, and Seán’s family were all there. As our principal Brian O’Dwyer said, “The Nolans came into the school distraught and broken, but they left stronger and more consoled,” quite simply because all Seán’s friends and classmates were around them. In fact, the family stayed until nearly 6 p.m. looking at pictures with all Seán’s friends. Then, there was the following Sunday night which Sinéad, Aidan and I spent with most of the boys in Parnell’s GAA Club. That was a turning point in the lads’ expression of grief. Indeed, one can truly say that each and every one of us ministered to each other in turn.

The night of visiting the body, the day of the funeral, visiting the grave, the various gatherings in different houses, the sharing of tea and sandwiches, lunches and dinners, not to mention alcoholic beverages etc., all served to bring some closure to a very painful and confusing last term for us at St Joseph’s. Then we had the professional help of psychologists and counsellors along with two group support sessions for the Sixth Years. We have all learned to get our priorities right. What’s the use in worrying about all the small things? What’s that the man said about “Don’t sweat the Small Stuff?” Leave the sweating for the bigger stuff – the most important things in life!

The boys have put up Bebo pages in honour of both Stephen and Seán and the messages of love and grief have been pouring in on both. This is nothing short of journalling on line! Well done, lads and lasses! Your friends live on in both your messages and in your thoughts! To leave a message of love on either page is really to say: “Stephen and Seán, you will never die!” You will both live on in our memory.

Above I have placed a picture I took of the wreath his friends placed on Seán's grave. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal óg dilis. Leaba i measc na naomh go raibh aige go brách!

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