Brian O’Connell lost one of his closest friends – the singer and musician Brian Carey – to suicide this year. In a new RTÉ Radio One documentary, he speaks about his loss and explores his own reaction to grief. Here he talks with Donal O’Keeffe.
“Grief is an emotion many of us will face at some point in our lives, and Christmas can be a particularly difficult time,” says Brian O’Connell. “When I lost one of my closest friends this year, the grief hit me like a tsunami, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the emotion and its purpose. Can grief ever be good?
“This is probably the most personal programme I’ve made, but the one thing I’ve learned about grief is that keeping it inside multiplies it and we all have to form our own personal relationship with the emotion. So, this programme is an attempt to understand my own and other people’s grief, and how best to deal with it.”
Brian O’Connell is a journalist who works primarily with RTÉ Radio One’s “Today with Seán O’Rourke”. He came first to national prominence when he spoke fearlessly about his own battle with alcoholism. As journalists go, O’Connell has a phenomenal work-rate, and he is (as this writer can testify) a generous and decent man. In a moving on-air tribute to O’Connell, Seán O’Rourke described him – without irony – as “my hero”.
O’Connell’s radio documentary “Life After Loss” features the music of Brian Carey, his original guitar compositions and his recordings. It also features Cork singer-songwriter and rising star Jack O’Rourke.
“Working with Brian was a pretty moving experience. The subject matter is moving and honest. Christmas is a happy time, but it's no harm in exploring the poignancy of the tine – remembering and reflecting and ultimately healing. Singing Black's (Colin Verncomb's song, "Wonderful Life" was fitting and thanks to Camilla and Max and the family for allowing me to do my reading.Working with Brian was a pretty moving experience. The subject matter is moving and honest. Christmas is a happy time, but it's no harm in exploring the poignancy of the tine – remembering and reflecting and ultimately healing. Singing Black's (Colin Verncomb's song, "Wonderful Life" was fitting and thanks to Camilla and Max and the family for allowing me to do my reading.Working with Brian was a pretty moving experience,” says Jack O’Rourke. “The subject matter is very honest. Christmas is a happy time, but it's no harm in exploring the poignancy of the time – remembering and reflecting and ultimately healing. Singing Black's (Colin Vearncomb) song, "Wonderful Life" was fitting.”
According to official figures, between 400 and 500 Irish people die by suicide every year. Brian O’Connell reckons the true figure is likely to be far higher.
“Having spent quite a bit of time in the Coroner’s Court, I’ve always thought that suicide is hugely under-reported in Ireland, hugely,” he says. “I think there’s a variety of reasons for that. There are stigmas around suicide, but I think there are practical reasons too, sometimes, around insurance. Sometimes people have concerns that insurance policies may not pay out, in cases of suicide. You often hear that.
“I think sometimes we don’t want to label a death as suicide – and I can understand this – because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the living, but that doesn’t paint an accurate picture for us.”
O’Connell is very open about the guilt he feels since his friend Brian Carey died by suicide.
“I would have talked a lot about issues to do with mental health, male emotions, how as males – as young men, as middle-aged men – we experience the world, in Ireland in particular. And yet here was one of my closest friends struggling for about a year and I had some awareness of that for part of that year, but for the last two months I definitely feel that I wasn’t as involved, or I didn’t ask the questions that I should have been asking.
“I didn’t concern myself enough to really get interested in what was going on in his life. Look, I know that even if I had got involved, maybe he would have died anyway. I know that, but it has taught me to never again be in any way complacent around someone close to me who is going through issues to do with mental health.
“I knew my friend was getting help and counselling and was engaged with the mental health services, but this experience has taught me as well not to rely on the fact that someone might be engaging with mental health services in Ireland, and that they might be getting professional help, because I think our mental health services – as a general point – are appalling. They’re appalling for under-18s and they’re not much better once you get into the adult system.”
O’Connell feels that there is no easy way to deal with a loved one who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“I think you have to be over-cautious, even if someone you know is getting professional help I think you still have to be on your toes. And by ‘on your toes’ I probably mean I would have been a lot more direct if I could put myself back a couple of months now to when he was alive, I would have asked him straight up ‘Are you feeling suicidal? Are you having these thoughts?’
“Because if he was, I probably would have gone down to his house every morning, I would have sat with him a little bit more. I wouldn’t have accepted him saying ‘I’m okay, it’s fine’. I would have gone out of my way to have been around him.
“That’s what Brian’s death has taught me, and I’ll probably always carry a little bit of that guilt.”
O’Connell confesses that he has felt at times conflicted about making this programme, worrying that he might be disrespecting the memory of a friend he cared about a great deal, but on balance he feels the tone of the programme is right and he is hopeful this documentary might stoke a national conversation about mental health, and about suicide.
“We have a very high incidence of male suicide in Ireland and I don’t think we talk enough about it,” he says. “Maybe this might help to contribute in some way toward that conversation. I don’t know.”
O’Connell notes that while we in Ireland are – on one level – very good at funerals, he wonders whether we actually know how to talk about grief.
“It’s not the big events that caught me. It’s not the birthdays or the Christmas Days, or my friend Brian’s daughter’s birthday – although that did affect me – it’s the everyday.
“Grief, I think, is hiding in the mundane. It’s hiding in the ordinary, in the everyday, in places that you least expect to find it, and that’s when it’s most impactful, and that’s when it affects you most.”
O’Connell feels that the best we can ever hope for is to reach an accommodation with our grief.
“There’s an awful word called ‘closure’. It’s such a redundant, ridiculous term. You will never have closure. Ever. And you can’t have closure. We are not engineered to have closure. But we are engineered to keep going on, and to keep going on in a way that you take your grief with you. You package it up, in a way, where you can take it with you.
“Bob Geldof, I remember, talked about when he lost his daughter Peaches. He talked about how, for him, grief is like a little memory stick in the back of his mind. He might be at a party, say, and grief would suddenly hit him, and he would go through a visualisation technique where he takes out the USB stick out of his mind, he looks at it, and then he recognises it and he slots it back in. So he acknowledges it, but at the same time, you have to get on with it.”
O’Connell notes that we tend to romanticise the dead, often forgetting their faults and complications. He feels it is better to remember our loved ones faults and all.
“There were times when my friend drove me crazy, and there were things about him that drove me nuts. I think sometimes we tend to forget all of that when someone dies. It’s like a hyper-romanticism which makes it harder, sometimes, to get through grief, because you’ve formed this idealised version of the person in your head, and it’s not real.
“So I’ve tried to stay true to my friend’s memory.”
O’Connell finishes our chat with a great quote, from what he calls an unlikely source.
“There’s a letter that Queen Elizabeth II wrote to the families of British people missing after 9/11. There was a line in the letter in which she said ‘Grief is the price which we pay for love’.”
‘Life After Loss’ airs at 4pm on Friday, December 29 on RTÉ Radio One and is presented and produced by Brian O’Connell.
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, please contact The Samaritans’ 24 hour helpline on 116 123.
Pieta House provides a free, therapeutic service to people who are in suicidal distress and to those who engage in self-harm. Since its foundation in 2006, Pieta House has helped over 28,000 people.
The Pieta House 24 hour helpline is 1800 247 247.