A year spent coping with the pain of losing my beloved wife

A year after losing his wife Lil to dementia, TP O’MAHONY reflects on the grieving process, and how his attitude to life after death has changed
A year spent coping with the pain of losing my beloved wife

ENDURING BOND: TP O’Mahony and his wife Lil in Rome in 2002

A YEAR has passed now since I lost my wife Lil, and the pain of that loss endures. If anything, and paradoxically, the experience of it is more intense now as time goes by.

I lost her to dementia, a dreadful disease for which there is no cure. Hopefully, one day there will be (a lot of research is going on) - but today it afflicts more than 64,000 people in Ireland and places enormous strains on families.

Among those who have fallen victim to it are ex-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, former broadcaster and academic Brian Farrell, and the lovely soprano Cara O’Sullivan. Further afield, it took the life of Peter Falk, famous for his role in the TV detective series Columbo.

Losing Lil has diminished and disorientated me. My life has become unanchored, and it can never be the same, but it is the intensity of her loss, even after a year, that has surprised and humbled me. It has brought a new awareness of how much she meant to me.

Her loss has also made me acutely aware of my own mortality. Two lines from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam now have a scary reality:

The Bird of Time has but a little way

To flutter - and the Bird is on the Wing

I’m also finding out that I’m not good at living on my own, of adjusting to residing in an empty house. Sometimes the walls just seem to close in around me and I have to get out, I have to escape.

I seek solace from books or alcohol, so I take off for the library or for the pub. Even when it’s the latter, I’m usually accompanied by a book.

Back home, I can feel the presence of Lil; sometimes it’s just as if she had passed me in the hall or the front room. Occasionally, I even find myself looking over my shoulder.

I told myself once or twice this is just silly - “Lil’s gone, just get used to it,” I say.

Then, the other day, I came across an interview in a magazine with the Scottish-born comedian and actor Billy Connolly, who now lives in Florida.

Now, unlike my son, I was never a fan of his brand of comedy (I’m not much of a comedy fan anyway), which is a bit beside the point. But I am aware that the 78-year-old former apprentice welder on the Clyde has been ill with Parkinson’s for some time. This, like dementia, is a cruel disease.

TP O'Mahony and Lil on their wedding day in 1964
TP O'Mahony and Lil on their wedding day in 1964

Asked if he resents death as the moment when the extraordinary journey of his life has to stop, his reply surprised the interviewer: “Who knows? It might be lovely on the other side...”

Pressed about believing there’ll be another side, Connolly said: “I’m sure there’s something. I’m sure there’s something ... I don’t know, in recent years I’ve just got a feeling that there is. That we just don’t turn to shite.”

Well, that surprised me too, though it wouldn’t have surprised Lil. Hers by comparison was a very ordinary life, though she didn’t believe death was the end of everything.

Then I remembered something the actor Gabriel Byrne said on radio when he was being interviewed about his 2020 memoir Walking With Ghosts: “There’s no such thing as an ordinary life - every life is extraordinary.”

And of course that’s so true, when you think about it. It’s true in the sense that there can only ever be one of us.

There can never be another Lil - each one of us is unique.

I know now - indeed, the knowledge pains me - that I should have cherished her more. Hers was a calming, reassuring presence. Unlike me, she wasn’t selfish and self-centred, or a seeker of the limelight. Her ‘limelight’ was her home and her family; she was the steadfast one, humble, and unfailingly kind.

During Lil’s long illness we cared for her at home, helped by our children, Veronica and John, her three sisters, Marie, Doreen and Patricia, and key carers Mary, Margaret and Eleanor (and other marvellous carers from the Day Centre in Mayfield).

During that time, I tried to write a book that had its origins in the terrible tragedy of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC.

On three or four occasions, I almost abandoned it, and it was only after Lil’s death that I had the time and focus to finish it. That in itself was a kind of therapy.

Our former President, Mary McAleese, very kindly agreed to write a foreword for it. And when I explained in one of my emails what happened to Lil, she wrote back and referred to the “tragic prequel” of dementia - that “robber of memory” - and yet out of it came the book - “life is ever taking, ever giving”.

The book (due for publication in September) is dedicated to Lil, and I’m more and more inclined to believe that I’ll see her again down the road - some time. On the “other side”, as Billy Connolly believes.

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