The Grief Journey

Jess aged 16

Allow me to introduce Jessica Grace O’Keeffe – our only child.  

Jess is beautiful, funny, kind, popular, highly intelligent and utterly and totally adored by us and the rest of her family and friends.  

This girl lights up a room when she walks in, laughs loudly, adores nature and is hugely talented. Jess is quirky, sensitive, strong-willed and she utterly despises any type of discrimination. 

She excels at school, is popular with the teachers, liked and respected at her part-time job. To be honest, I  often wondered how two “ordinary” people had made such an “extraordinary” girl. 

She has just got her licence, bought a British Racing green Mini Cooper and the pages of the Uni prospectus on her desk are flagged with the courses she will take next year. 

Then, on the 27th of July 2019, this gorgeous young woman, our world, took her own life…..    

The First Year  

I will never forget the trauma of finding our beautiful girl no longer alive. Shock, pain, utter disbelief and excruciating pain. Confusion and a deep fog overlays everything. I dial 111 and the operator asks me which service, please? I reply “I don’t know” 

The house is in chaos with the Police and Ambulance services arriving. Neighbours are gathering on our driveway, I know they want to be supportive but I just want to scream at them to leave. The Police are in  her room, opening drawers, cupboards, bags – looking for “clues” 

Watching my girl being taken away in a van inside a body bag- my brain is screaming “THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING!!! “ but I stay quiet and numb. 

The pain is indescribable – there are no words big enough in the English language to describe these feelings! 

A constant thought-train of circling thoughts – “how did this happen?, what did we miss?, how can this be?, this can’t have happened, why?, questioning everything, why?, this must be a nightmare and I’ll wake soon”. These thoughts never leave my head – day and night.  

Planning a funeral for your child is incredibly difficult –wanting to honour them and provide the service we think she would like. But at the same time, be wanting to be doing anything in the world than having to plan it. I don’t remember much of the service at all, or even recall who was there- just “– “ how did this happen?, what did we miss?, how can this be?, this can’t have happened, why?, questioning everything,  why?, this must be a nightmare and I’ll wake soon”. 

The loss of any young person in a community is bloody tough but suicide adds another whole layer of complication. So much guilt and pain that others have and as Jess’ Mum, I do feel largely responsible for this. The ripple effect is huge-broken friends who wondered what they did wrong, a totally disrupted school community, hurt and bewildered teachers. It is a mess….. 

There are a couple of seconds each day when I don’t feel pain – those first few when I wake up. And then I  remember ……..oh shit, this really has happened. – “How did this happen?, what did we miss?, how can this be?, this can’t have happened, why?, questioning everything, why?, this must be a nightmare and I’ll wake soon”. 

I said in those early days that I could not believe humans could possibly continue to function when they were carrying so much pain around. But we did and still do. 

I try everything I can think of to relieve the pain. 

I’ve walked for miles – by myself and the dog sometimes but usually with a supportive friend. I’ve laid on the bathroom floor howling like a wounded animal when nobody else was around. I’ve screamed at Muriwai Beach – my screams hidden amongst the crashing waves and wild winds there.  I’ve sobbed hard sometimes and cried quietly but constantly at other times.  

I’ve done hard, physical work to “swear the hurt out”.

I’ve written thousands of words in a journal. 

The triggers (I call them "heart darts") are everywhere…… a sound, a song, a bird, a girl, a shop, a food, a  place, a boy, a car, a candle, a school uniform, art, a book- almost everything. These things are all around in my world and send darts to my heart multiple times a day.  

Sometimes I delve into the heart darts – singing loudly to her favourite songs, tears streaming down my face. 

Other times, I shut the music off because I can’t bear it. Different days bring different reactions. 

As a Mum, I felt that I had largely lost myself. I had usually planned everything I did in a day around Jess – what was her school/work schedule? Did she have a driving lesson?, was she going to a friend's and needed dropping off/picking up? Was she needing anything from the shops? What food would she like in her lunch today? Constant thoughts were about her and her needs and now what? I have a massive gaping void in my life that I don’t know how to fill.  

I’ve had ugly thoughts too–what the hell was the point of putting all the effort into trying to be the best parent I could be? Putting 16 years of energy into raising a beautiful human felt wasted and I felt bloody ripped off. Am I still a Mum? I felt ashamed that Jess had caused so many people to be so hurt by her actions. I felt guilt that the emergency services had to deal with the unpleasantness and stress of coping with a young suicide.  

Most of the time I just felt like I was losing my mind…..  

I have always thought of grief feelings and emotions but what completely side-blinded me was the physicality of the grief. Headaches, brain fog, muscle aches and utter exhaustion from just functioning…. 

My hands trembled constantly and still do on some days. 

The tears – oh my goodness, how can a body keep producing so many tears?  

My heart – the physical pain in my heart is unbearable and I can literally feel it bleeding on some hard days like sorting through Jess’ wardrobe.  


Moving Forward  

At the time of writing, it has been a little over 2 years since we lost our lovely Jess. To be honest, I  wondered if I would make it through myself but here I am. I still cry over my girl most days but the crying bouts are shorter and I don’t feel quite so tortured.  

On some days, my heart is incredibly heavy but other days not so much. 

I preface everything I say here by acknowledging that every grief journey is different. Do what feels right for you at that time.  

I truly believe that you can’t possibly understand the agony of losing a child unless you have lived it. For that reason, I have found it most helpful to connect with people who have suffered the unbearable too. It can be a lonely journey – many people say nothing or say completely the wrong thing.  

Two of my close friendships have faded away after the loss of Jess but on the plus side, some of my friendships have deepened to a whole new level.  

I have found that connecting with others has helped. Being able to share experiences, thoughts and challenges with others in the same boat has definitely made me feel a bit more normal. Talking with others who genuinely understand is very helpful. 

Some of these things may work for you but again I stress, it is important to do what fits with you. 

I am not religious and have never been particularly spiritual but have found myself searching for information about life after death. I have gained comfort feeling that Jess is still around, although I can’t see her. There have been many occasions when things have happened that would support this belief. 

From the outset, we made our home open to Jess’ friends in the hope that this could minimise their pain and allow them a safe outlet for their feelings. Today, we acknowledge her birthday and anniversary of her passing by having her friends here collectively to share a meal, laugh or cry tell stories (boy am I finding out a lot ) and simply remember her. 

My husband and I have donated to an art project dedicated to her memory at her school. We have both had a tattoo done in her honour. 

I have a beautiful piece of glass memorial jewellery that contains Jess’ ashes. 

Above all, I am making it my mission to be as kind to as many people as possible. Our beautiful Jess pretended to be happy whilst carrying an enormous burden and maybe, just maybe, I can make a  difference to someone else with a kind word or gesture. 

In closing, I’ll say this. Be kind to yourself, do what feels right for you at the time, cry when you have to,  don’t try to follow any timelines and remember that the sadness you feel is a measure of the love you will have for eternity for your child who is a part of you and will be forever.