‘No words to describe the grief that comes from losing a child’

‘No words to describe the grief that comes from losing a child’ Actress Bernadette Brown stars in the one-character drama The Good Room by Mick Draine.
Belfast playwright Mick Draine’s short film addresses a pressing issue in NI, writes Ruadhán Jones

Suicide is an urgent issue in Northern Ireland. A 2019 report by the mental health charity Samaritans revealed that suicide rates in Northern Ireland are higher than anywhere in the UK or in Ireland. For example, men and women are twice as likely to commit suicide in Northern Ireland than in England. It has the 15th highest suicide rate worldwide.

Belfast playwright Mick Draine is personally acquainted with the tragedy of suicide. “There are no words to describe the grief that comes from losing a child,” he told The Irish Catholic. But in his recent short-film, The Good Room, this is exactly what he attempted to do. 2020 began for him with the tragic death by suicide of his 11 year old son, Cillian, and he was still in the midst of grieving when lockdown began.

During lockdown, Mr Draine reworked a play he wrote in 2016. Only the outline survived the re-write – the content, themes and tone changed dramatically. The Good Room (2020), which was released in June, is a one character drama which explores themes of grief, loss and suicide. For Mr Draine, writing the film was part of the grieving process, coming to terms with the loss of his young son, who died on January 1, 2020.

“I got this idea in my head: if I can try and create something over a two-month process, if I can try and recover creatively what was lost, that process might help me recover my real life,” Mr Draine said.

“It was a way for me to figure out where my head was at, to go through different trains of thought and see where my thoughts were and to go through them to see if I could make any sense of it. If I could, or if the character could ask the right questions, it could help somebody who was in the same boat as me,” he continued.

It was on July 1 2020, the six-month anniversary of Cillian’s death and what would have been his 12th birthday, that Mr Draine set himself the target of writing a short play. Due to lockdown, the project morphed into a short-film, which was shot and edited over course of a few weeks before being published online.

The plot is deceptively simple – a young woman sits alone in a room in her family home and starts monologuing to a picture of JFK which hangs on the wall. She covers topics as wide-ranging as the different religions’ funeral practices, to the effects of lockdown on the grieving process.

Northern Ireland’s suicide problem

One of the central themes Mr Draine sought to explore was the issue of suicide, one with a clear personal resonance, but also of significant importance in Northern Ireland. At the start of 2020, Mr Draine was hopeful that the issues were finally being addressed. Following the death of Cillian, he began to campaign to raise awareness and was impressed by the interest taken by the new Health Minister, Robin Swann.

“We had the likes of Mick Condon the boxer and Packie Lee, who started a campaign, who is Johnny Dogs in Peaky Blinders,” Mr Draine said. “Obviously because Cillian was part of a boxing club in North Belfast, it was big thing, a lot of boxers came on board to do all sorts of stuff.

“At the start of the year, it looked like they were being addressed. I think the executive got together a day or two before or a day or two after Cillian’s death. We got a new health minister in, who was taking it very seriously. He met myself and some other parents who had lost children with the Chief Medical Officer. It kind of looked like ok, this now is going to be taken as a serious priority that we are going to try and deal with in the here and now,” he added.

Then Covid-19 hit and Northern Ireland entered lockdown in order to protect “the sanctity of life”, as Mick described it. While he understands the rationale behind it, he was concerned that it will lead to an increase in the numbers committing or considering suicide.

“But is it a case now that there are more dying on a weekly basis from suicide than from covid,” he asks. “As is stated in the film, people die of isolation and staying isolated. By locking people down, by keeping them away from their communities and families, it is without doubt going to increase.

“If that is the case, and if those suicide numbers are increasing more from March then they have been in the previous years, you have to question, well what sanctity of life are we protecting here? What are we doing? But it’s difficult to get numbers on these things.”

Mental health

As it stands, figures from a recent study by the University of Glasgow suggest that there is no evidence of an increase in suicide rates during lockdown. However, their report shows the effects of the first lockdown on the UK’s mental health, including increased rates of suicidal thoughts.

The study found suicidal thoughts increased from 8% to 10% and they were highest among young adults (18-29 years), rising from 12.5% to 14%.

It is a stark reminder of the importance of continuing to address mental health issues facing Northern Ireland, especially during the pandemic. Mick Draine’s story is one that he hopes will not be repeated, though he knows that’s unlikely.

“I hope that as few people as possible end up in the situation I’m in, but the reality is that there will be more people this week; and more the week after,” he said. “Hopefully somebody gets something out of it [the film]. Certainly, I got something out of trying to get stuff out on paper and recording it on camera. I’ve got good feedback, people saying that it has helped them in whatever stage of grief they’re at.”