Sport psychologist and author of Tell Me The Truth About Loss, Niamh Fitzpatrick talks about her life of two halves, split by the tragic death of her sister, Captain Dara Fitzpatrick in 2017.
When you come to a field of play, the pool, the track, whatever it is, you come as a person first. You come with your sporting talent and your skills but also with your beliefs, your values, your personal characteristics, as well as whatever’s going on in your life at the time of play. You’re a person first and an athlete second.
Your skills and your talent got you to the sporting arena, but when we’re talking about sporting performance, everything else that goes on in your head and your heart matters just as much. The mind needs to be trained as well as the body, and as a psychologist, I look at the athlete as a complete person, it’s not just about the sporting aspect of their life.
To an athlete, it’s not just a game. It’s your life. You empty your heart and soul into your sport. The wins are euphoric, and the losses are unbelievably tough. It’s so much more than just a game.
As a psychologist, as part of the backroom team in a sports squad, there are some losses that hurt so bad.
As a person, there are losses that hurt so bad that they feel like they will break you. The loss of my sister in 2017 is one such loss.
When I was seven, we moved to the foothills of the Dublin mountains where we grew up on a farm.
In farm life, often in the empty horsebox on the way to collect an animal, there would be a load of us kids in the back, hanging over the top of the door and waving at the cars behind us. We spent our days picking stones to clear the fields, whitewashing walls, creosoting fences, bringing in the hay, picnicking down by the river, listening to ABBA. My memories from that time are all very wild and carefree. It was an outdoor life, a simple life, a very different life to now.
My siblings and I grew up around horses and invariably it was only a matter of time before someone threw you up on one and said, ‘Off you go!’.
By the time I was fourteen I was competing in showjumping competitions. One day our coach turned to me and said, ‘We need a good clear last round from you, Niamh. Bring it’. That was when I crumbled. I could not handle that pressure. I shrugged my shoulders and just assumed that I was no good at sport, but then years later as a psychology student in UCD I discovered the field of sport psychology, an arm of the profession devoted to teaching people the psychological skills for sports performance.
My teenage experiences of under-performing in sport are where my interest in sport psychology stemmed from. There was no such thing as training the mind back then. It was just a case of, ‘What’s wrong with you girl?’.
”There’s a Canadian sport psychologist, Dr Terry Orlick, who says, ‘An athlete hoping to distinguish themselves in competition without first having systematically trained, is like hoping that God will come down at half time and turn the game around’. But as another psychologist said, ‘What if God is at another game?’.
I completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology, then a Masters in Clinical Psychology and finally a Masters majoring in Sport Psychology. I lectured in Psychology and Sport Psychology in the UK and Ireland and I also worked in private practice seeing both individual and team sport clients.
I was only 28 when I first got involved with an intercounty GAA team and, whereas now when I work with a team I’m old enough to be their mother, many of the players on that team were older than me. Liam Griffin made the brave call to bring me in to work with his Wexford hurlers in 1996. It wasn’t a done thing then to have a sport psychologist in your backroom team, never mind a female one. There was an understandable initial suspicion from the players on that first day that we met.
Sometimes still when I walk into a dressing room, the players are there with their arms crossed and the foot tapping and their faces tell me what they’re thinking; ‘Alright lady, come on. What do you know about GAA?’.
But when I ask them to list the ingredients for success in their sport, they list how they need to be fit, strong, flexible, to have the technical skills for their sport. They also say that they need to be confident, relaxed, composed, in the zone. I ask them how much of their training centres around those last few ingredients and that’s when the penny drops. That’s when we click. That’s the sweet spot. They understand then, that training the mind is as much a part of sports performance as training the body. It’s not weird. It’s necessary. And an athlete training their mind doesn’t meant that they’re weak, it means that they are preparing properly, fully.
My job is not about gimmicks and rousing team talks. I’m there to help each and everyone involved in the team to be their best in their own way. It’s my job to help them find their optimum and we do this with both individual and group psychology sessions. Reflecting. Understanding. Processing. Learning. Developing.
Liam knew his players would buy into the need to train their minds as well as their bodies and they did.
The Wexford hurlers were on the way to Dublin for the 1996 All-Ireland Final when Liam stopped the bus on the Wexford border to speak to his players. He spoke to them about the importance and significance of returning to their county, the home of their ancestors, as champions. He was seeking to help them adopt a mindset that they would return home having done their job.
He told them that ‘what we do now as group, will keep you warm on a cold November night when you’re 45’.
Without the hours, days, weeks and months of systematic psychological preparation Liam and I had done together with the team, that would just be a gimmick. But Liam knew what to say and when to say it. He knew how to hit that sweet spot and how to pull it all together on the day.
Sport is a high-pressure environment. It’s never just a game.
It’s putting yourself on the line and having people judge you and rate you with numbers on a newspaper page again and again, without knowing what’s going on in your personal life. No athlete goes out with the intention of performing badly or under-performing, but sometimes it happens. Remember that we’re people first, so sometimes what goes on outside the sporting arena can impact what goes on in it. That’s where the psychological training comes in.
As an athlete, you might have a boss who’s putting you under pressure to deliver in work. Or a family at home who need you. You could have financial issues, there might be illness at home or relationship problems. All these different things are going on in people’s lives.
Then, on any given day when you go out onto the field and it just doesn’t happen for you performance-wise as a player or as a team, that’s not just a game. That’s your life. That’s your heart emptied on the field. And it’s left there. Because you gave it your all, but on the day, it wasn’t good enough. And you still have the life worries to deal with.
My job is to help athletes feel all those feelings because there’s no escaping them. With the losses comes a great sense of regret. Regret is where you knew better but you just didn’t do it on the day. That’s a heavy burden to carry.
But if I won the lotto tomorrow, I’d continue to do what I do because I love psychology, it’s what I’m meant to do.
”I love my work, I love my life, but I now see my life very much as being in two halves. I was 48 when my sister, Dara died three years ago. Everything up to that point is one life. Everything that happened after is whole other life.
Dara is my friend and my sister. My first ever memory is of the day she was born.
I remember being brought to Herbert Park by my uncles. I ended up going into the pond after the ducks and my uncle had to haul me out of the water. I remember the squelching sound of my feet walking home. Afterwards, I remember being dried off and put in a pair of my Grandfather’s big woolly socks. I can still feel the feel of them even now.
Then, when we got home, this brand-new baby was brought into the house. A beautiful baby girl. My sister, Dara.
She always wanted to be a twin like me and my sister Orla. She’d always say to my mother, ‘how come they have each other and I don’t have a twin?’. My mother would say, ‘I’ll be your twin’.
She was a smiley kid, full of adventure. She was very family orientated and extremely loyal.
For various reasons, I had a very tough year in 2013 and by the time Christmas rolled around, I just couldn’t face it. Dara lived four doors down from me and one night I was driving back into our estate, late and exhausted, preparing to get ready for the week ahead. Pulling into the drive I spotted Christmas lights wrapped around the trees outside and a wreath hanging on my door. There was a small little tree inside too, all decorated and just waiting for the lights to be switched on.
Dara had brought Christmas to me because I couldn’t do it myself. That’s what it was like having her as a sister. She was kindness through and through.
On Tuesday March 14th, 2017, death visited our family in the middle of the night as we all slept in our beds.
I saw Dara on the Sunday before that Tuesday. I didn’t hug her when we parted. If I knew then that that would be the last time I’d see her, speak to her, be together as sisters, I’d never have let her go.
On Monday night, Dara had returned home from her shift as a search and rescue pilot with the Irish Coast Guard, when she got a call-out to provide Top Cover to a sister rescue helicopter for a long-range mission off the coast of Mayo.
Dara got up out of bed, got ready, and left her son and my sister, Emer, sleeping in their beds and she left the house for the last time.
I got a call from Emer just before six in the morning to say “The heli is down.” I ran the four doors from my house to theirs and when I got to the door, Emer’s face mirrored mine. Six hours later we were told that the body recovered from the water was Dara. She was never coming home.
After the crash, in the search for survivors, the helicopter for whom Dara’s heli was providing Top Cover spotted her red hair in the water and they tried to recover her body from the water, but sea and weather conditions were appalling that night and they couldn’t reach her. Her colleagues had to watch the RNLI’s Achill Island lifeboat retrieve her from the dark seas.
In the worst of times you see the very best in humanity. From the moment she was brought out of the angry seas onto that lifeboat, Dara was never left alone, someone was beside her the whole time in the lifeboat. Even under the horrendous conditions they never left her side. Dara was airlifted from the lifeboat by the Shannon-based helicopter Rescue 115 and when they arrived at Castlebar hospital, her colleagues carried her into the hospital. They weren’t going to let someone else do that. They brought her on her last journey.
The Coast Guard’s job is to bring people home. That’s what they did for Dara, their colleague, their friend. Their hearts must have been breaking. As family members we are so grateful to those people. We will forever be tied to them by that invisible string. We are bound together in love and grief for Dara.
I think when someone dies, you get to a point where you need to find a meaning in life. Life as you knew it has disappeared overnight, so the natural step is to ask, “What’s the point?”
Hours after hearing about Dara’s death, as we were being driven to Mayo to bring Dara home, I took out my phone and wrote three words: vicious, violent and visceral. That’s what it felt like to hear that Dara was dead. I felt it in my body. Overwhelming physical feelings of shock, loss and grief. Writing those three words was me emptying my head. I did that nearly every day, trying to express the bewildering, confusing and overpowering experience of grief. If I was a musician, I’d have an album to perform but my book, Tell Me The Truth About Loss, is the product of my grief.
In Ireland we do wakes and funerals very well, but we don’t often talk about grief in terms of the whole truth about what it feels like. At the time that Dara died, I was a contributor to a show on Today FM radio and when I returned to work and I started to speak publicly about Dara and my grief, I found that people could relate. I’d get messages saying, ‘I’m not losing my mind. I feel the same’ or ‘I’m not doing it wrong. Or ‘you’re telling my story’. I realised then that people needed to have that conversation about loss and grief. Some needed to hear that as they struggled in their pain they weren’t doing it wrong. There is no wrong. Grief is about learning to live with loss, it’s about learning to survive in the face of loss.
Shortly after Dara died, I got an email from a woman who said that she was four years of age when her mother died. In those times in Ireland some things weren’t openly discussed. This woman wrote about how everyone would go quiet when she walked into a room, her mother just never spoken about again, grief never discussed. On Mother’s Day she was put in the corner at school because she had no mother to make a card for.
She wrote to me to tell me how she sent her Mother’s Day card to the women who raised her. Her letter to me and my sisters was for women who were raising a little boy for someone else, for our sister Dara. How kind of her to take the time to reach out and help us like that. I feel that the grieving community is almost like a line, people want to pass back comfort and solace. That’s why I wrote the book.
”People will say, ‘you loved your sister’. No, I love her. I’ll always love her. That love doesn’t go anywhere. Dara’s just not here to feel it.
The experience of grief is like being hit by a train. Going to the search and rescue base to collect Dara’s car and seeing all her things untouched showed me she’s not coming back. A year later when the WhatsApp notification comes in to say, ‘Dara has left the group’ is a kick in the gut. But these things help you to accept the truth. Because in grief, we must accept the truth. What hurts can also help.
Grief is like someone throwing you a bag of rocks and saying, ‘you must carry that bag uphill for the rest of your life’. No one else can carry it. They can run alongside you. They can cheer you on and hand you water but it’s up to you to carry the bag. We may have support, but we grieve alone in that we must all carry the weight of our own personal loss. The weight doesn’t get any lighter, but you get stronger and better at carrying it over time.
I see grief as the gatecrasher that brings gifts to the party. One gift you get when you have survived those first awful days, weeks, months and years after loss, is clarity. I know who I am and what I’m made of. It also shows you who your friends are. Grievers make for rotten friends, we’re so absent as friends because we’re busy just trying to survive, but I’ve had those true friends stick by me, they knew that in time I would come back. And I have.
There’s also a freedom in grief. You don’t need to please people or be liked. You don’t worry about the silly stuff. There’s a great freedom in that.
There’s the gift of perspective. You realise that a lot of life is just noise. Love is all that really matters.
I am a sister before I am a psychologist and in learning to live with the trauma of Dara’s death and to cope with her loss and other losses in my life, I needed professional help. Grief isn’t an illness and we don’t need to pathologise it, many bereaved people will navigate loss without having to visit a therapist. I’m ok with the fact that I did need to do that, I found those sessions immensely helpful and it feels like a smart thing to have done.
With grief, there’s no “moving on” or “closure”, I hate the idea of any of that. It implies that I’ve left Dara behind. I’ll never do that. But there is learning to live with loss and to grow our lives around the loss of the person we love, remembering them and living our life.
In the last moments of her life, Dara fought to survive. She got her seatbelt and helmet off. She got out of the helicopter. She tried so hard to live. She just didn’t make it to the surface of the cold, dark, night sea. How insulting would it be to her if we didn’t live the lives that we’re so privileged to have?
There’s a responsibility to myself and to Dara to say, I remember you. I always will. I will say your name. I will speak your story. And it’s not but I will live, it’s and I will live. I will find the balance between remembering and living.
That’s the struggle. There’s a feeling of guilt when you laugh or enjoy something. When the sister who has been woven into the fabric of your life for 45 years is just gone, how the hell can you be ok when she’s not here?
But when you can get to that point where you can live your life and still remember her, that’s the peace part of grief. For me, there’s hope in that.
Niamh Fitzpatrick is the author of Tell Me The Truth About Loss, out now with Gill Books and available online HERE.
If you enjoyed Niamh’s piece you might like to read Dessie Fitzgerald’s – “Make The Most Out Of It“.
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