On Grief... - Johanna Kiely
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On Grief…

written by Joanne October 17, 2017

The below is a a very personal post and talks about a way I found to cope with grief. Some people might ask why would you choose to publish something like this online, but if one person reads it and they find it helpful then it was worth it 🙂


So to start at the beginning…

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 55, back in 2008 when I was in my second year in university in Ireland. It was a very difficult time for my family not to mention my Mom who had huge enthusiasm for life, and so a setback like this was a massive shock to her. She had completed a 3 year qualification in interior design after giving up her job she hated as a technical drafts-person for 20 odd years and was working as freelance interior design consultant, doing something she was passionate about.  Fortunately she recovered from the illness after months of chemo and life slowly returned to normal for her and the rest of us, although she frequently would be fatigued after any form of strenuous exercise.

Prior to my mom getting ill, cancer was always something I was obviously cognizant of but never thought it would impact my family. We think we are invincible until someone close to us, that we love gets ill..

At 63 years the illness returned, this time in her spine. The cancer had “metastasized” which in lay-mans terms meant it had infiltrated her body, left over from the time she had breast cancer and there was no guarantee that it would not spread to other parts. So this is exactly what happened – it moved and spread rapidly and chemo & radiotherapy were to no effect and after 10 months of discovering the cancer again, my mom passed away.

I am a relatively private person and a lot of people I worked with at the time were surprised to learn that my mom had passed away because most of them did not even know she was sick. Compartmentalizing for me became par for the course, it was my way of coping, separating personal from professional life completely was something I found helpful to do.  So I would return to my home town on the weekends – literally drive straight to the hospice where my Mom was staying on a Friday after work and the weekend would be structured around different family members visiting my mom or taking her out for the day.

I was supposed to be relocating to another country for work (another continent to be precise) and so during this period, a work VISA for Brazil was being worked on by HR in my company, Because no-one in my family knew how quickly the cancer would progress and what the exact prognosis was, I didn’t know if relocating was something that was completely off the table or not, and so just carried on, hoping that a) things would get better/stabilize b) the long term prognosis was such that I could relocate for a period of time and come home when we had a timeline of a year or two left, to be with my mom.

But things don’t always work out like we hope…

I went to Lima, Peru for 5 weeks with work to help support a new partner in the region and the day after I arrived my brother rang me to tell that all of my mom’s treatment was to stop, that the doctors did not think any form of treatment would stall the disease and from here on out it was a waiting game. I asked for a prognosis – a definite timeline so that I could make a decision to stay or leave and he told me a few months maybe.

I was devastated but made the decision to stay and complete my 5 weeks (something which I at times regret), thinking that we had months left not weeks. The day I arrived home from Peru after the 5 week stint my Dad & sister collected me and drove me straight  to the hospice. My brother based in Canada had been in Ireland already a month with his wife and 2 kids, my sister had returned from Scotland and my other brother who lives in Ireland were all there and they had known that it was a question of days. In fact, before I boarded my flight home, no-one told me, because there was a chance I mightn’t make it in time, that my Mom was very close to passing away. I flew in on the afternoon of June 12th and the morning of June 13th my Mom passed away.

My aunts told me that my mom was waiting for me, that she was hanging on to say goodbye and she did get to say goodbye to me in person. When all of her children were home she was able to let go and stop being sick and feeling pain.

So how does all of the above relate to sport?

I had an injury recently which meant I wasn’t able to do any sport or much physical activity. Bed rest was the recommendation to heal the injury which meant no cardio, swimming, yoga, football, hiking, walking – nothing. To say I was devastated would not be an understatement.

After bawling my eyes out in a physio’s surgery because I was frustrated with no improvement after 10 days, I realized how much sport had come to mean to me over the last few years and how central it is to my life, especially in New Zealand. I was so upset at the prospect of months of rest I even considered leaving New Zealand and coming home

So what does sport mean to me?



In the months after my mom passed away, the loss coupled with the fact I was seeing someone who was 100% EMU (he got the boot eventually!), meant I was a bit all over the place and so running helped me to find a release. I had already started doing some running inspired by my brother who is a super-mega triathlete but now it became something that I couldn’t not do, at least a few times a week,  Concentrating on making that next kilometer or trying to improve your time even if only by a few seconds gave me a goal to focus on and provided the distraction I needed. With running you start to develop not just your physical fitness but also your mental fitness. What’s unbearable/painful slowly becomes more endurable with some dedication. You can develop a resilience and doggedness from the activity that can be applied to other areas in your life.



My grief for my mom had been parked to one side (and still is to some extent) because it wasn’t something I was ready to process. Yoga helps to “unblock” emotions through physical movement. I had already been introduced to yoga through my sister in law, who is an awesome PT and Yoga Instructor but began to go more regularly, about 2-3 times a week.

For all those doubters who consider yoga to be a “hippy dippy” exercise, there is an important mental aspect to the activity that can’t be ignored.  It calms and clears an overactive mind and this is important for me as I am such an over-thinker! Yoga also educates you about what your body can do, when something feels off and what feels “right”. Not surprisingly this taps into how you are feeling emotionally and a good session can provide an emotional detox. It wasn’t unusual for me sometimes to have tears streaming down my face at the end of class. My dad actually avoided going to yoga in the months after my Mom passed away, as he found it to be overwhelming. So it’s definitely something you need to be aware of if you go, that you can experience some pretty uncomfortable feelings that you might be repressing if you are truly engaged in the class.

The same goes for meditation. If there is something going on internally for you, that you are not ready to process, meditation can be very difficult because things come to the surface that you might not be ready to deal with.

On a lighter note, what’s good enough for Ryan Giggs should be good enough for you! He cites yoga as being the reason he was able to play football for an extra 10 years. The stretching and conditioning gave him important strength and flexibility, so that injury could be mitigated and he was able to prolong his career.


Team Sports

Gaelic Football

When I came to New Zealand I was eager to try out Gaelic football as this is one of Ireland’s national sports but can be quite intimidating to play at home if you haven’t grown up with the sport, as players are usually quite skillful and it’s taken seriously. We weren’t a GAA family despite my Dad playing hurling with Tracton in Cork until his mid-thirties, it was rugby/soccer for the boys and sailing school in the summer for my sister and I.

Lots of Irish know this already but for readers who don’t, wherever the Irish diaspora is (and isn’t), clubs have been set up and it’s a different ball game altogether (pun intended!). The GAA abroad is a place where people of all nationalities and levels of skill are welcome. The GAA club in Wellington has been like a big family, a support network abroad to tap into, especially helpful for people who are newly relocated. If you need a lift to training just shout, a backpack for a hike, a head-torch for a run or advice on where the live, there’s dozens of people there ready to offer a helping hand.

I’ve  been playing  with the ladies team in Wellington and it has been a fantastic experience so far. It’s so good to get out and run around in the fresh air after work with a great bunch of girls and we always find time to meet up outside of training to go for a drink/dinner/brunch.


Touch Rugby

You can’t come to New Zealand and not try your hand at rugby! Rugby is to the New Zealanders what Gaelic Games is to the Irish. It forms such an integral part of their culture, like GAA it’s at a grass roots level and is something that brings people together, especially in rural areas. To quote Phil Gifford, ” in rural towns in New Zealand there have often only been two major public buildings for people to gather in, a War Memorial Hall and a rugby club.”

Touch Rugby is great because it’s non-contact so safe, it’s social, teams are mixed and there are leagues held throughout the summer. There’s no kicking (disappointing) but lots of running and dodging which is fun and the game moves very fast. You have 6 “touches”to score a try and if you fail to do this as a team, then the other side gets possession via a “turnover”.


To sum it all up….


More than a year after my mom has passed away running, yoga, football, climbing, rugby …. you name it, have become the things I get so much enjoyment from.  I couldn’t imagine a life without sport and a week doesn’t go by where I don’t do some or all of those activities. We might even try and get in some salsa dancing and surfing if there”s time!

The injury (SIJ Sprain) is still there, but healing and can be managed. Progress is not as quick as I would like it to be but it’s important to be patient. The experience has taught me to remain positive when faced with a setback and that everything passes, nothing is permanent. It’s important to listen to your body and give it a chance to heal when faced with injury.

On grief – everyone processes it differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve but exercise was a huge support for me during a difficult time. I would recommend an active lifestyle to anyone. There’s something out there for everyone, it doesn’t matter your fitness or capability, you can find an activity/sport you love 🙂

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