When Death Surrounded Me, A Mountain Retreat Changed My Life
7 min read | Aug 2022
By:Ford Anglia
Gen X / Moderate / Teacher

When Death Surrounded Me, A Mountain Retreat Changed My Life

Living on a remote Irish mountain helped me survive my grief.

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In 2016, Mum, the linchpin of our family, suddenly collapsed and died. She was 81 years old but lived life like she was 30 years younger. There was so much more left in her, and we were not ready to lose her.

I missed her passing by 20 minutes. My brother met me at the hospital doors and shook his head. The strong, loving woman who we all turned to for advice, support and reassurance was gone. As he pulled me into a tight hug, a guttural roar left my body, which both astounded and terrified me. I remember thinking afterward, “So this is the sound of grief.” 

Months later, as the family gathered to scatter Mum’s ashes, my older brother became seriously unwell and was rushed to a nearby hospital, where the quick thinking of a local doctor saved his life. He had encephalitis. He made a slow and incomplete recovery. Our family life was changing rapidly.

And then, the worst happened: In 2018, my husband died. We had just celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary when he suffered a massive heart attack from out of the blue. I loved him. We were supposed to grow old together. 

My children, now young adults, looked to me to help nurse them through their grief. Watching them suffer and being unable to support them hurt the most. I was exhausted from crying and reliving the moment when I found my husband’s body. Exhausted from replaying how he might still be alive had I only found him sooner. The two people I needed to lean on, to help me be the person my children needed, were gone. I was a drowning woman unable to save her children who were drowning too. 

The following year, my aunt died, and the year after that, my beloved mother-in-law. The matriarchs of the family had now all gone. The love of my life had gone. I felt so alone.

A woman feels like she is metaphorically drowning in grief.

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I Went Into the Wilderness to Find Myself

Work was a distraction, and there was no shortage of social outings. Life was busy, but despite the activity, wonderful friendships and tight bond with my children, my joie de vivre had evaporated. Life was colorless. I now walked around carrying a dull, black weight. My children continued to look to me for the security that my husband and mother had provided, but I could offer little.

It was a chance conversation with my friend, Caitlin, that changed everything. She and her husband owned a small farm that had been in the family for 200 years. It was in a part of rural Ireland that I had never heard of. I was welcome to use it.

“Won’t you feel lonely?” my friends and family asked. 

“You hate being on your own,” my daughter protested. “Is this a good idea?”

But I didn’t have anything to lose. I felt alone in a place where I was surrounded by people who cared for me. I needed to do something. Something needed to change.

It was a bleak January day when I arrived at the farm. The rain was tipping from gray clouds, and a cold wind whipped up waves across the lough as it dramatically came into view while I whizzed along the country road. The shock of the dark, ominous water just meters away made me gasp. 

Panicky and feeling very vulnerable, I pulled over to calm my nerves and reread the directions to the cottage that Caitlin had given me. I was soon on a track that twisted and turned steeply uphill for a mile or more. It was getting dark, and if I had any hope of finding the cottage, it needed to be soon. Suddenly, a stout farmer appeared at a gate. I stopped the car and leaped out.

“Hi there,” I said.

“Hello,” he replied, stretching out his hand. “I’m Fionn.”

He was incredibly scruffy and he spoke with an accent that I could barely decipher, but one cannot choose their rescuer. 

I trustingly followed this stranger down a long, grassy lane. As we turned a corner, there it was: Caitlin’s cottage. It was a typical single-story Irish cottage of whitewashed stone. This was to be my home for the next three months. I thought of my children and longed for them.

The cottage was cold. It had lain empty for a few months, and there was evidence of damp in one of the bedrooms. My heart sank. 

“We’ll need to get that fire goin’,” said Fionn, “or you’ll get a dose of it.” There was a wood-burning stove in the living room. I watched as he stuffed it with paper twists, kindling and logs and was amazed at how quickly a fire began flickering behind the glass door. 

A path leading to an Irish farmhouse.

Life on the Mountain Shook Me Out of My Emotions

That night, as I lay in the total darkness of my bedroom, my phone in my hand, containing my only Irish contact—Fionn’s, “in case you need help”—I felt fear. Under my pillow was a knitting needle—my defense against intruders. I was completely alone. My children were on the other side of the Irish Sea. I prayed over and over again for my safety and for theirs. I prayed out loud to the house's ancestors, reassuring them that I meant no harm. If I survived tonight, would I stay another?

I woke the next morning to sunshine and blue skies. No moaning ancestors had disturbed my sleep. Everything looked brighter and more hopeful. There was a dusting of snow on the ground.

I dressed quickly, pulled on my wellies and set off to explore. To say that the views of the mountains and the lough were stunning would do them no justice. My dry soul opened up and drank thirstily. Something was happening to me. I stood with my arms outstretched and my face upturned to the heavens. I laughed out loud and thanked God for the beauty of nature. And that was the defining moment when I knew it would be OK. I would be safe here. I would find peace.

My friends had advised me to seek out the library in the nearby town for Wi-Fi access and a place to write. During a time when we were still required to wear face masks, connecting with new people proved challenging. At first, the librarians received me with skepticism, although both were courteous and friendly. By degrees, I came to be trusted. A library membership card was offered and a space created for me to work. I began serving tea at the weekly knitting circle, helped at the launch of the library’s first art exhibition and joined its new book club. The librarian became my confidante as we laid the foundations of a firm friendship. 

The winter season passed with many a squall and storm rattling the barn doors and swooshing the trees surrounding the cottage, yet I felt secure inside my cozy home. I loved the dark evenings when I could watch my favorite TV quiz program, listen to the local radio, knit or read. Some evenings, there would be a gentle tap on the door, and Fionn would be standing on the doorstep with a shy smile, calling by to check that all was well and see if I had enough fuel. He made me feel safe and cared for—something that I had missed since my husband died. Our conversations would take off slowly, our polar-opposite life experiences allowing no immediate jumping off point. He was a farmer who had lived all his life in this small pocket of Ireland and had never left its shores. On the other hand, I lived in a busy city and traveled all over the world. Yet three cups of tea in and as many hours later, we would still be talking: him philosophizing about life, nature, man and the planet, me talking about my life in the city, work as a teacher, my family and my love of books. Our friendship burned slowly, but it was something that became as important to me as the mountain.

This great hulk of a man stood in stark contrast to the hulk of the mountain, with its burbling brooks, gushing streams, torrential rain and howling winds. He was gentle and offered safety, whilst the mountain both frightened and exhilarated me. I loved to stand in the middle of a field with the wind driving rain into my face. It was wild, exciting and fierce and reminded me that I was alive. 

A woman allows her mental and emotional state to be transformed by the beauty of the Irish mountains.

When I Returned Home, I Was Healing

Then spring crept in, and I learned that the mountain could be equally gentle and caressing and musical with the sound of bleating lambs and sheep, the rare sound of the cuckoo, the sight of brown hares, sparrows, thrushes and wagtails. I quickly fell in love with it all—with the people and their country ways, their unique language, their benevolent welcome and inclusion. My heart sang each time I stood and looked up at a full bright moon, a clear starry sky or the sun casting an amber glow across the landscape before sunset. I loved the fields with their bright yellow whin bushes, the blossoms on the white thorn trees, the brown heather on the mountainside, the yellow daffodils when they bloomed in March.  

“You seem so different,” my friends said when I returned home in April. “Something has happened to you. You look so well. You seem happy.” My relationship with my children changed too. Gone was vulnerability and sadness. Here was a stronger woman, someone whom they could lean on. They were now free to lead their own lives because their mother was leading her own. 

I felt lighter, happy, hopeful. The mystical mountain and its people had led me to a place of healing. I’ve returned here to Ireland for the summer, and it continues to work its magic on me.

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