Brianna Parkins: Things I have learned about grief after the death of my nephew

I have discovered there are helpful and unhelpful things people do when someone dies

It is my nephew’s birthday. He is six. Or does he remain five forever? I am not sure what the appropriate ageing convention is for buried children. This is new territory to navigate.

The immediate year after the death of someone you love is a nasty mix of the familiar feeling unfamiliar. It is a hard 12 months of “firsts” – first Mother’s Day without them. First Father’s Day. Birthdays. Then there’s the number one big awful Christmas. That month-long season where happy clappy families scurry around buying toys and stress about letting an aunt who thinks salt is “too spicy” be in charge of the side dishes, while you’re just trying not to cry at the empty place at the table.

What you should know about my nephew is that he achieved and endured more in his five short years than most of us spread out over a lifetime. Then one day last year he stopped breathing with no warning, and we have been doing our best to get along without him ever since.

I am coping, but at least once a day I feel like putting my fist through a window and yelling “f**k!”


A few years ago, Helen Garner, the peerless Australian author, released her diaries written during the breakdown of her marriage due to her ex’s infidelity. I wolfed them down, never one to pass up the chance to have a nosy poke around someone’s relationship scraps.

“This will have to be lived through,” she wrote about her pain. There was no alternate route around. No distractions. No avoiding. That sentence hit me in the gut because I knew it was true, and there was no way out of life’s big sadnesses. The ones that sit on your chest and squeeze like a bastard.

So I sit with grief and let it have its way with me. There is no speeding up the process, it will finish when it’s ready.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about grief, and what is and isn’t helpful for people going through it.

  1. There are only so many sympathy flowers a house can fit, plus they require vases and clean water before they are guiltily stuffed in the overfilled brown bin when they die. Send food instead. People need to be fed, but they don’t have the brain space for the “what will we have for tea” daily torture. There are loads of tasty and healthy premade catering services that do online orders – lasagnes always go down a treat.
  2. It’s petty, but you can’t help but remember who was there for you and who backed away like death was infectious. Who came with assorted gifts, not so much to cheer you up (because what could?), but just to have something to do with their hands in an awkward situation. Who didn’t know what to say but tried anyway. No one expects you to say a magic combination of words to make it all better. No such words exist. But a friendly nod from the back of the funeral, a hand on the shoulder, anything to say “I know you are sad and I am here” is all you need to do.
  3. Some people are no good at death. They will avoid you. They will be frustrated you aren’t “getting over it” in a way that is convenient to them. It will bring out a feral hurt and anger in you, but it’s important to remember this is more about them than you. Your grief reminds them of their own grief, one they have been putting off processing themselves. People who steer clear of “bad vibes” are usually just afraid of their own feelings, the ones they pretend aren’t there.
  4. I was lucky enough to have friends who knew when to make me socialise; such as one who threw a party in my own house for New Year’s Eve because then I would have to go. And friends who knew when and how to climb down into the dark hole with me just so I would have company at the bottom. Having both has been a gift.
  5. If you want to spend Christmas alone, do it. Taking breaks to cry in the loo at someone else’s normal cheerful Christmas is hell. Now not only do you feel sad, you also feel incredibly guilty about it. You want to shout “Will you all bugger off and leave me alone with the Milk Tray?” but you are also trying not to be the Grinch that ruined Christmas by spewing your sadness all over the place. The end result is dissociating in the sittingroom listening to Michael Bublé with a slightly crazed smile on your face. Don’t let well-meaning partners/friends tell you that you can’t spend the day on your own. You can.
  6. It is hard to care about things happening in the world when the entire balance has been thrown out by a five-year-old’s death. I was asked to write about an important election two days before the funeral, which I declined. “Thank you for your email,” I wrote back. What I actually meant is there is a world where children you love might stop breathing one day without warning, so none of this actually matters and you should go home and stop writing me emails and go hug your kids.

But that is not how the world works. Other people are not grieving. They are working. The world has an annoying way of continuing whether or not you feel like participating in it just yet. But one day you will, and it’s actually not all that hard to write “Sorry I ignored your email because I was out of my mind with grief but I’m back now” to your unanswered messages.

Brianna Parkins

Brianna Parkins

Brianna Parkins is an Irish Times columnist