“In Irish when you talk about an emotion, you don’t say, ‘I am sad.’ You’d say, ‘Sadness is on me – Ta’ Bron Orm.’ I love that because there’s an implication of not identifying yourself with the emotion fully. I am not sad, it’s just that sadness is on me for a while. Something else will be on me another time, and that’s a good thing to recognize.” -P.O. Tuama

Pádraig Ó Tuama is an Irish poet and theologian who was, until recently, the leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland; a community that specialises in conflict mediation and resolution. His poem ‘The Facts of Life’ is not a meditation upon passivity but it serves to remind us that to live well we should endeavour to accept the extraordinary challenges that we face in our lives with equanimity. The Irish notion that sadness comes upon us reminds us that we are not the corporeal manifestation or the living embodiment of the emotion itself; we are always much more than that. There is an inevitability that profound sadness will visit all of us at some point in our lives but if we welcome the emotion into our lives and embrace it with gentleness in our souls then it does not need to be a debilitating or destructive force. 

    The Irish have many words for sadness. The word ‘brónach’ refers specifically to sadness born of grief but it also references a sadness or emptiness that equates to desolation. Meanwhile, ‘beochaoineadh’ refers to the sort of elegiac sadness for the living that you might experience when someone very close to you has gone away or a relationship has crumbled. There exists in the collective Irish psyche something of a melancholic or maudlin strain and this is reflected as much in casual pub conversations and as great works of literature. It is a sentiment that resonates through many folk ballads and appears omnipresent in those complex Irish rituals that accompany death and funerals. Over the years I have tended to observe that my Irish friends and family are instinctively more accepting of death and live more peacefully alongside sadness than we tend to manage in this country. The Irish do not treat sadness as an unwelcome imposter. Instead, they embrace it as an inevitable consequence of being alive.

    It is always fine not to be fine and grief has no expiration date. Recognising that we are not defined by our emotions and that all manner of things will pass is extraordinarily empowering. Knowing that you will feel better and even amidst your sadness there will be moments of happiness and times when you will want to belly laugh with unbridled joy is, of itself, a recognition that sadness may well be your friend and not something that you need to overcome or banish to some distant kingdom. 

    Grief is a universal experience and the passing of the years does not harden us to the emotional impact of losing a parent or a loved one. I do not profess to have learned much in the forty years separating the death of my father and the death of my mother but I do think that I now have the maturity and life experience necessary to better understand the emotions that I am currently experiencing. If I am only just about there at the age of forty six then imagine how hard it must be for children to experience the loss of a loved one. People often use the phrase ‘getting over’ a loss which suggests that you should strive to recover from it much like you might recover from an ailment such as a cough or a cold. Of course, we do not ‘get over’ such monumental losses but we do gradually evolve to a position of acceptance and we do adjust to the absence of a loved one. Sadness endures but so too does love.  

   So I will not be in School today as today is the day that we lay my mother to rest. Much like the Graham Norton Show, this piece has been pre-written. However, as a family, we are doing well and we are looking forward to the future with optimism and an incredible sense of gratitude for the kindness and thoughtfulness that has been extended to us by so many within a community of which we are privileged to belong. Reflecting upon the nature of grief is not the most uplifting of topics but I do believe that there is a need for us to talk more openly about something which is so important but yet remains frustratingly taboo in British society. 

   At any given moment in time, a good number of our children will be experiencing the loss of a loved one. Providing support and counselling for young people who are bereaved is incredibly important but we must go further and commit to providing guidance for all young people so that they are in a position to support one another more effectively. 

  It can be difficult for children and adults to know how best to support friends and so we sometimes retreat into an embarrassed silence or fret about saying the ‘wrong thing’. Ultimately, being present and demonstrating that you are holding someone close to your heart is almost always of comfort. Being clumsy in terms of expressing sympathy is not something to worry about unduly. We are human and nobody expects us to recite a sonnet that we have deftly composed on the spot in order to demonstrate the profundity of our sympathy. I have received some fantastic letters over the past few days but I have also received a card with a much more direct message which simply said, ‘I know this is really s***’. I valued both enormously. Indeed, I smiled at the directness of the card and, in the moment, it did me real good for it was both honest and empathetic.   

    I am incredibly proud of the steps that my colleagues take to support young people through bereavement. I am heartened by the openness and the tenderness with which staff talk about such matters. We are moving in the right direction and helping young people to embrace rather than suppress their emotions is at the heart of our approach to pupil wellbeing. If the Irish have more words for sadness it is because they have a more sophisticated and nuanced perception of the diverse forms that it takes.

The Facts of Life 

That you were born

and you will die.

That you will sometimes love enough

and sometimes not.

That you will lie

if only to yourself.

That you will get tired.

That you will learn most from the situations

you did not choose.

That there will be some things that move you

more than you can say.

That you will live

that you must be loved.

That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of

your attention.

That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg

of two people who once were strangers

and may well still be.

That life isn’t fair.

That life is sometimes good

and sometimes better than good.

That life is often not so good.

That life is real

and if you can survive it, well,

survive it well

with love

and art

and meaning given

where meaning’s scarce.

That you will learn to live with regret.

That you will learn to live with respect.

That the structures that constrict you

may not be permanently constraining.

That you will probably be okay.

That you must accept change

before you die

but you will die anyway.

So you might as well live

and you might as well love.

You might as well love.

You might as well love.

 Pádraig Ó Tuama

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School