Zoe Holohan’s diary: I dread the month of July with every ounce of my being. This is when my nightmares return in full force

Four days into the month that I dread the most and I’d hardly registered the timing until I sent a message. As I hit send on my ‘Happy Independence Day’ message to my American pal, it suddenly hit me. July was already here.

’d been so busy hurtling through the last few days of June, fully recovered from covid thankfully, that I’d barely registered the changing of the guard.

Suddenly, out of the blue, life was all systems go and I barely had the chance to breathe. To begin with, I finally got to travel abroad for the first time since 2019 (OK, it was just London for a couple of days, but I boarded a plane and spent time in a different country — so in my book it still counts).

Even throwing in the odd airport delay, luggage drama and embarrassing security body search into the mix (it’s the tattoos I reckon that caught their eye), the trip was definitely worth it and the change of scene has given me itchy feet. I can’t wait to jet off again for my next little escape.

Back on home turf a few days later, I gave a wobbly-kneed motivational talk to several hundred at a wellbeing conference in Croke Park.

This was a truly inspirational event, focused predominantly on nurturing your mental health in the workplace, a subject close to my heart. I spoke about finding resilience, rebuilding life after trauma and discovering the power of facing your greatest fears.

While the experience was invigorating, particularly since it was a live event, it was also mildly terrifying for precisely the same reason. Clearly, I’ve become accustomed of late to communicating in cyberspace, in that parallel universe known as ‘Zoom World’ and there was a split second, as I climbed on stage, that felt daunting. I was speaking to a vast room packed with actual human beings as opposed to hiding behind a computer screen (hence the wobbly knees).

Nonetheless, it felt good to push myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the task, which is appropriate considering I was encouraging attendees to conquer their fears and overcome inner demons (practice what you preach, girl).

Following on from my Croker stint, there were some medical matters to tend to, not least some investigations on my dicky-ticker which has been misbehaving of late. I’m happy to report that after various tests and scans it seems it’s not that dicky after all; as long as I keep my blood pressure on an even keel and control those pesky stress levels (easier said than done) it should continue to tick away for a while yet.

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Zoe Holohan endured severe burns on her face and body in the Greek fires in 2018. Photo: Frank McGrath

Several days after those explorations, I had the joy of visiting Mr S at the Plastics clinic in St James’ hospital, for my next medical appointment. My favourite surgeon seemed particularly pleased that I’d managed to stick to our pain management plan, reducing the pharmaceutical assistance (no more yum yums for Zoe) and sticking to regular exercise and physio instead. I wouldn’t say I got an A+ for best patient ever, even if I do believe I’ve earned several gold stars for keeping off the ‘good stuff’. But overall Mr S was happy with my progress and that was good enough for me.

We discussed the next round of treatment for the scars on my legs — something that had been delayed as a consequence of the pandemic — and decided to give laser treatment another go. This had proven to be very successful elsewhere on my body, I’ve been blitzed on my chest, arms and hand and the results were quite positive. So while I can’t exactly say I’m looking forward to the next stage (burning burns is not an entirely pain-free activity) I’m excited to see the endgame a few months down the line.

With all that running around from one hospital to another, it’s hardly surprising that I’d lost track of the date. Allow me to explain why this is relevant.

Since 2018, I’ve dreaded the month of July with every ounce of fibre in my being. It’s filled to the hilt with painful anniversaries and bitter reminders of good things gone bad and if I had my way we’d skip straight into August and delete these calendar weeks entirely. This is when my nightmares return in full force, terrifying memories of the fire start to flicker and that overwhelming sense of loss worms its way back into my psyche.

As the days pass I can feel the pressure mounting and by the time I reach two dates in particular, July 19th (the anniversary of our wedding) and July 23rd (the anniversary of my husband’s death) I tend to lose the plot entirely. My nights become sleep-deprived and I stumble through the days in a hazy daze, often weeping at the drop of a hat.

Try as I might to swallow my emotions in public or paint a smile over the inner cracks (most of the time I’m rather good at this, sometimes so convincingly I even fool myself) my powers of pretence seem to evade me almost entirely during this month and that is what I dread the most. At least that’s the way the last three Julys have played out…

it would be marvellous if we could neatly box each emotion into five tidy containers and tick off every landmark moment in a timely fashion but that’s simply not the way this process works

Four years after the event that changed my life, however, something finally seems to have shifted. It’s not that I’m done with grieving or that the shadows of that fire have left me in peace (my unsettled nights tell me otherwise) but undoubtedly I’m noting a change in my mindset this year. I noticed it a few weeks back in London when I found myself ensconced in numerous conversations about restarting life after losing your partner.

Suddenly everyone I encountered seemed to be asking me the same question — when would I start dating again? The most notable of these discussions was with a cab driver of all people, though why I’m surprised I don’t know. I’ve long suspected that cabbies are secretly the fonts of all modern wisdom, so I reluctantly took his opinions on board.

I’m not entirely sure how we got onto the subject but somewhere along the line he asked me quite openly what was holding me back and wouldn’t my husband (Brian) expect me to live a fulfilled, happy life so long after his passing.

Well now, that really set a cat amongst the pigeons. While I’ve been allowing myself to wonder a little more about the future lately rather than spend every waking hour mourning the past, I was still struck dumb (rare for this gal with the gift of the gab). I simply had no response to the cabbie’s query and his questions really got me thinking.

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Zoe Holohan lost her husband Brian O’Callaghan-Westropp just four days after their wedding in July 2018. Photo: Andrzej Chorazyczewski

I know that the grieving process is not a rational one and believe that there’s no fixed timeline for bereavement. We are all individuals so surely we should each be allowed to handle the death of loved ones in our own unique way.

Maybe my journey through that quagmire of emotions was taking a little longer than some expected; I’m sure for many, four years of mourning must seem like a lifetime. I started to wonder if my attitude towards grief was perhaps not the healthiest.

If I’m honest there was a considerable period of time after Brian and Dad passed that I was obsessed with all things death-related — I’d turned into ‘grief girl’ researching this topic with an enthusiasm that veered toward the fanatical. As a result, I uncovered some fascinating theories written by experts in the field of psychiatry and counselling. Dr Elizabeth Kubler Ross, for instance, author of The Five Stages of Grief maintained that the main stages to work through were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

That’s all well and good — did that, bought the T-shirt — but Dr Ross appeared to entirely omit bitterness, guilt, amnesia, embarrassment and, speaking from personal experience, crippling anxiety from her list.

My quest for death knowledge didn’t end there. I needed more information to feed my addiction, so I delved into dozens of articles penned by scholars on the subject (that was a cheery few days, I must say) and I found their opinions on a respectable period for grieving clashed wildly, ranging from a fortnight (harsh) to an entire lifetime (harsher still). My point is that even the experts couldn’t agree!

Naturally, it would be marvellous if we could neatly box each emotion into five tidy containers and tick off every landmark moment in a timely fashion but that’s simply not the way this process works.

Judging from the several hundred emails and letters I received since publishing my book, most of which came from total strangers, the majority of us experience loss and its aftermath in a chaotic fashion. There is no sense of emotional order, no clear schedule: we all have to negotiate this minefield in our own way and in our own time.

‘Four years after the event that changed my life, however, something finally seems to have shifted. It’s not that I’m done with grieving or that the shadows of that fire have left me in peace (my unsettled nights tell me otherwise) but undoubtedly I’m noting a change in my mindset this year’

All of that pondering brings me back to my London cabbie’s query and the quandary that he awoke within me. I’ve no doubt deep down that Brian would expect me to explore new relationships four years on from his passing. In fact, I reckon had he survived and I’d died on that terrible day back in 2018, things would have played out quite differently. He would possibly have moved on by now, could even be happily married to some other lucky woman (though clearly, they wouldn’t be as happy as we were, she says with only a minor tinge of jealousy imagining this scenario).

Life experience shows that men tend to move on quicker than women in these circumstances and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t judge anybody else’s choices or decisions in this matter — it’s just I’m not quite there yet myself.

By the time this column is published, I’ll have survived what should have been my fourth wedding anniversary, swiftly followed by the painful reminder of my husband’s gruesome death, all within the space of a few days. As always, I’ll take comfort in the family and friends that knew Brian best.

We will visit his resting place and toast this much-loved man with the finest red wine (he believed life was too short to waste on cheap plonk). Together, we’ll share stories of his many adventures and exploits, trying to focus on the good days, making his legacy one of laughter and love.

As for what happens in the future and where that legacy carries me, it remains to be seen. For now, I’ll just try to get through July in as dignified a manner as possible. Perhaps that’s enough of an achievement for the month that’s in it — see you on the other side!

Catch the next instalment of Zoe’s Diary on XXX