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Neil and Donna

Losing my sister Donna 'Traumatic shock, grief and facing deep inner demons'

It’s a fitting a tribute to Donna to finally be myself, writes Neil Fox.

I ALWAYS THOUGHT that Johnny Logan’s song went “What’s another year for someone who’s lost everything?” But I’ve just discovered, after careful listening, that it continues “that they own”.

Owning a person, a way of life, a sense of being in the world, doesn’t ring true for me. However, the song’s sentiment certainly resonates with me this New Year.

World Remembrance Day

The last time I wrote a reflection was seventy five days after the tragic death of my beautiful sister Donna Fox. That was on World Remembrance Day for Road Traffic Victims in November 2016.

To say it only feels like yesterday might surprise some people and annoy others (who think one should just be quiet about these things). But in many ways it feels like quite a short time ago.

Time has been a mystery to me since I got that life changing news that my little sister, who I was just after texting and was to meet the next day for lunch, had been killed while cycling to her place of work in Dublin city. That tomorrow and that lunch never came.

Time trundles on

But time doesn’t stand still. It trundles on. Finding myself entering the second calendar year that Donna is not in, is hard to believe. There is deep pain that her voice or laughter will never echo about in 2018.

The flip side is that I have survived despite that seeming impossible on some of the bleakest of bleak days. While every day brings me further away from Donna, it is also carving a new path, a new way of having Donna in my life and heart.

I’m not talking about the various events of last year: the different cycling and political endeavours I support, like increased funding for road safety campaigns and the Minimum Distance Passing Bill that I hope will become law.

Instead my growing self-awareness, learned through the last year’s torment, means that I have chosen to open up about my more personal journey. The journey that has been bumpy and at times horrendously lonely.

The collapse was yet to come

In the final months of 2016 I was still in a haze. The shock had not really thawed. I did things, was productive in my own way, but the collapse was yet to come.

Like most blokes I turned to the pub and booze. Unlike most blokes, I had been in early recovery when Donna was killed. Indeed, Donna had driven me home from rehab in Cahir just days before the collision stole her from us. I did not drink for months after and I am hugely grateful for that.

2017 saw the battle to cope with traumatic shock, grief and being forced to face deep inner demons about my sexuality. Unlike my sister, who was at peace and in a loving relationship with her girlfriend, I have struggled with being gay my whole life. Internalised homophobia eat your heart out.

Alcohol came back. My faithful friend. I felt totally disconnected and was worn out, and rightly or wrongly, I felt very isolated too. At least drinking got me out of a rut. I wasn’t sleeping all the time when I started drinking again. But of course I was on the road to nowhere good.

Grief stricken, deeply depressed and at a crossroads in every area of my life is how I spent 2017.

A place of hope

However, I am sharing these thoughts from a place of deep and joyful hope. I can laugh at myself, though I’m not at the out loud laughing at myself stage yet.

Laugh at how I have to realise that I am normal and abnormal. Abnormal is how I felt for being gay. I won’t bore you with the lengths I’ve gone to at times to change this. I wanted to be straight, to be “normal”. I hid it well but it always was there.

When Donna died it was very public, everything was out there. It taught me so much about the genuine kindness, affection and sheer goodness that can come from complete strangers.

The binges kept happening, the real abnormality comes via alcohol for me. That has been difficult to finally see. The booze turns me, changes me. Not every time but most.

Turning on one of the people I love most in the world was the final nail in the coffin for alcohol and me. Here I am so bloody lucky and blessed to be alive. I have so much to live for, not least to honour my sister and do whatever I can to encourage road safety.

It is still very early days, but this public reflection is helping me with my acceptance. Acceptance that I am normal as a gay person. Acceptance that I am anything but normal as a drunk. That I don’t have to hide from myself any longer.

A fitting tribute

Donna was such a huge guide to me this past year. She may not be physically present now, but her voice and kindness are forever in my heart. She gave me the energy, no matter how embarrassed, deflated, and horrified I was after each binge, to get back up again.

I am ringing in this New Year sober and gay. Both my real, natural and most sincere states. Maybe it’s just as fitting a tribute to Donna to finally be myself.

Neil Fox is from north County Dublin. His background is in retreat work and spirituality, and he is passionate about road safety.

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