WRITING about her experiences and feelings has been one of the most significant factors in Lucy Dineen coping since the sudden death of her son Robert on May 8, 2015, at just 25 years of age.
Some time afterwards, Lucy and her husband Gerard walked the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain to help them come to a greater understanding of their loss and Lucy kept a diary of her 38-day journey, which forms the basis of her book My Camino Through Grief.
Speaking this week, as Robert’s fourth anniversary nears, Lucy, who now lives in Carrigaholt, says, “He had a long term illness. He had seizures and we struggled with what they were. We don’t know if the seizures brought on psychological problems as well. He suffered every year of his life really, from the age of 10. It was pretty much hope that kept us going every year until he died. He died in his sleep having one of his seizures.”
Robert had graduated from college a short time before his death and was hoping to begin a career. She remembers him as a warmhearted, sunny and popular character. “He had a very difficult time but was a gorgeous guy; he always had loads of friends around him. He was a really funny character, a great character, he always had us in stitches. He never complained. He was wonderful; you would feel his presence all the time. He was 6’4”, a big guy; just very charismatic and lovely. We got wonderfu letters afterwards from people he had reached out to and helped. He had to go for treatment every so often for his anxiety. He had to go on trips to Dublin and stuff but he met people along the way and he loved helping people. It was one of the things that inspired me to write the book. He had a wish to help people, to tell them his story some day, so I’m kind of fulfilling his wish in doing that I think; that’s my hope anyway.”
Prior to Robert’s death, she had no interest whatsoever in writing but the words came to her easily as she embarked on the pilgrimage. “I’d never written before, never even kept a journal; never thought of myself even as a good writer. I started journaling during the Camino. My daughter would have given me a notebook and told me to write about my journey. I started writing the first day waiting at the airport to leave. I felt really silly sitting in the airport with a backpack and walking gear on. I really felt out of my comfort zone, so I just started writing about how I felt. Every day from then on, I wrote. At the end of the walk every day, I just sat and I wrote. I took six months out of work so I had lots of quiet spaces, even though my husband was with me. He did his own thing pretty much.
“I really did have a quiet head space to start thinking about everything. It was kind of a reflection back into my childhood, my family, myself as a parent. I just reflected back on every aspect of my life. When all of the thoughts started erupting, I just started adding them on to my day at the Camino. While I described every day of the Camino, the thoughts came into it as well.”
Despite the book’s title, it is also the story of the months after she finished the pilgrimage.
“The Camino itself only took about 38 days. Then we went to the south of Spain. We rented a little apartment there and we stayed there for five or six weeks. Then we went to visit a cousin in Boston. I describe that and how we first met when she came to Ireland looking up her family roots.
“My daughter was living in Toronto, so we spent Christmas with her. Then my mother died in the midst of all that; she was 92. I describe my relationship with my mother, which wasn’t great. I wrote about that as well and having to come home for the funeral two months early. I decided to use those two months to really get into the writing. I decided I was going to keep writing and do a book for him.”
The act of writing worked for her at a time when counselling wasn’t helping. “It was extremely therapeutic. There were days the tears flowed from me as I was typing. There were days I got up and couldn’t look at the laptop because it was too painful. Then I often spent eight hours a day without even eating; I used to just type and type and type. I tried counselling but it never worked really for me. I couldn’t really talk at the time but writing was so much easier, I felt. As I describe in the book, nobody talked back to me, there were no judgements. It just flowed out of me and I felt a sense of relief and release.
“Those grieving months, in a way I wanted to hold onto them. It was a way of keeping the memory of my son alive, through that pain. As years go by, that pain lessens and for me that wasn’t a good thing because it was losing my son even more so. That, for me, was very strong.”
Lucy works for Tusla and being in child protection is undoubtedly very stressful and demanding but she feels it also gave her an important outlet when she was struggling, forcing her to move outside her own feelings.
“I’ve continued working in it for my own therapy as well. Always when I went in the door of work, I left myself completely outside because I’m working with very traumatised children. I found that very therapeutic, just going in the door every day, continuing on what I always did, what I knew very well and what I thought I was really good at.”
Four years on, she feels that a combination of different and largely unrelated activities kept her going when things were at their darkest. “If I wasn’t running and I wasn’t writing, I don’t know what I would have done really. I don’t think I would have succeeded in staying at work. Taking the time out was really good for me as well. It was a combination of everything that really helped me through.”
This week, Lucy will get her hands on the published copies of My Camino Through Grief and while she isn’t writing at the moment, she plans to write about her work with traumatised children in the future.