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Cathal Shanahan. Photograph by John Kelly.

Cathal putting his life back in order

AFTER losing his wife Jackie to cancer in England, Cathal Shanahan moved back to Clare and started to put the pieces back together, living and working in an area he had left decades before.

The grief hit him hard and fast after Jackie’s death but, having set up a business in Ennis, lost weight and taken up exercise, he feels he is making a good fist of things again.

“She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had the treatment for that, she had chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and then radiotherapy. That was fine. She had about 10 months then until it came back. When it came back it was only ever going to be palliative, it had spread. She passed away about two and a half years after that. That’s two years ago this August,” he says.

Watching his wife dealing with terminal cancer was very difficult. “It was very tough but we were very lucky as well. With Jackie’s work and what I did, we were able to spend time together. I was her primary carer for four years. I didn’t realise at the time that wasn’t the norm but it just so happened I was fine to do it and she liked me doing it, so we were perfectly happy with it. We were always together anyway, so it made sense.”

Shortly after her death, Cathal moved back to Clare. He couldn’t settle, however and retreated to England once again. After a few more months, he decided he wanted to come back, so he returned to Clare again. He ended up buying a house in Crusheen, where he settled in easily.

“In Crusheen I know my neighbours, I know people in the village, there’s a nicer sense of community here. England is very insular like that, people generally don’t associate, people wouldn’t know their neighbours.”

When Jackie was dying he said, on a conscious level, he knew his time with her was running out but when she did pass away he was in no way ready for it.

“You don’t prepare yourself for it, you just hit a wall at the end of it. Time, I think, is the key to it. I’d equate it to someone coming into your brain and turning off all the switches. Everything goes, you’re just caught. Eventually, things start to come back. I used to read but then I couldn’t sit and concentrate on a book. It eventually came back.”
Cathal is in quite a good place now, he feels, quite happy and content. The support of his family is important, even before she passed away.

“What helped me was the people around me. I have fantastic family, they came over and back to help. Just that mechanism, I was never alone. I looked after Jackie solely but there was always contact with people, with neighbours and friends and particularly family, who spent so much time going back and forth.”

He has a brother and two sisters living in Ennis, so he can rely on their support on a day-to-day basis. “It’s great, we don’t live in each others pockets but it’s great to know they’re there also.”

Running Shanahan’s Gems on O’Connell Street means he is dealing with the public every day. While he had planned to deal online after arriving home, people felt it might be better for him to run a traditional shop. Cathal says it has been the right decision.

“It is better. It’s better to be out and doing things and to interact with the world a bit more. It’s very enjoyable, I love what I do, this isn’t a job. This wouldn’t be like your average shop, I have a passion for gems and gemology.”

Talking about things is an important part in recovering, he feels. Sometimes people who don’t do so can find it very difficult to move forward at all. “I have met people who are stuck in that moment, 10, 15 or 20 years later, who have never got past it. You know they just needed to talk to someone.”

In his work he is talking to customers every day. Cathal is quite open about things personally, however he feels, too often, people suffer in silence after bereavement.
“I find there is a little bit of a culture of people not talking and it is really important to talk. You won’t figure this out on your own, it’s only through interaction with other people and gaining other people’s experiences.

“We have a lot of problems here with people taking their lives, it comes from people being isolated and not being able to talk. I did nearly a year of psychotherapy here just to help me deal with this and go forward with my own life. It wasn’t necessarily all about Jackie, it was about putting life back in order.”

Having gone from half of one unit to a single individual again was a huge change.
“One day when we were walking through Sainsbury’s doing the grocery shopping I picked something up and I said jokingly ‘do I like this?’ She roared laughing but that’s what happens, you kind of lose yourself and the two of you become one person. When you’re away from them again, it’s hard to be on your own really, it takes time.

“There are services there, counselling services, private psychotherapy. I’d leave it until you’re okay to do it and then I’d say there’s huge benefit to be had. Not just in terms of dealing with bereavement but in terms of your life and how you want to live.”

The mental as well as physical benefits of exercise are fairly well documented. Since his loss, Cathal has thrown himself into a range of new activities, losing three stone in the process. He is very conscious of the value of life now and feels he has a duty to make the most of it.

“I run, I go to the gym, I watch what I eat. I’m more mindfully looking after myself. I think it would be disingenuous to go forward and not live well, not look after yourself, because you go forward and they can’t. It would be wrong to sit in a pub all day feeling sorry for yourself. Although sitting in the pub feeling sorry for yourself once in a while is great.”

While he is keen to stress that there is a difference between bereavement and depression, he feels there are some things that will help either.

“There’s a difference between depression and a life event. But, at the same time, there are things you can do. I was talking to my uncle who is bipolar and he said that for either keeping busy, being sociable and exercising helps.”

After the loss and the efforts at recovery, Cathal has learned a new sense of perspective.

“To me, something has to be quite major to be called a problem,” he says.

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