Published March 23, 2022 in

Liz Interviewed by Wicklow/Bray People on Grief

Liz was interviewed recently in her home by David Medcalf where she spoke of her own experience of bereavement and of how she is working on projects to better help people deal with loss.

She deals in grief. Liz Gleeson is a naturally cheerful and reassuring woman, with a positive aura and a friendly smile, whose business is addressing people’s darkness and distress. There is no point meeting gloom with gloom, so of course it makes sense to present a can-do attitude to life, making her perfect for the role.

She is a listener. She is warm. She is welcoming. She is the ideal confidante, ready to receive, to hear and to empathise. Asked to describe herself, Liz says that she is a psychotherapist who specialises in grief and loss. And she reckons that grief and loss are commonly experienced emotions, which are best brought out into the open, better talked about, better explored.

No sector of Irish society is without its share of grief and she comes armed with helpful strategies intended to air the grief rather than leaving it suppressed. Hers is a very modern approach, backed by deep research rather than by the religious practices she has forsaken in favour of scientific analysis.

A long-time resident of Greystones, Liz hails originally from Blackrock in Dublin where she grew up as the youngest in a family of five children. The 50-year-old reckons that by the time she came along her mother was worn out from raising the four brothers who preceded her. She was allowed to run free as a girl and recalls spending much of her time out of doors, from morning to night.

“I was very close to the neighbours and they minded me,” she recalls as she looks back at her upbringing. One neighbour became a particular friend, though there was a 70 year age gap between little Liz and Mrs Hastings. The old lady fascinated the child from next door with her chain smoking and her fondness for brandy.

When Mrs Hastings died at the age of 81, she inadvertently handed her protégée a first practical lesson in handling grief. The experience would not fit well in any up-to-date textbook on the subject, as the 11 year old somehow felt it was not the done thing to make a show of mourning. Instead, she stuffed a pair of socks into her mouth to stifle the wails which broke out in response to the departure of her elderly pal.

She was scarcely better prepared at 18 when a fellow undergraduate to whom she was close fell off a bridge to her death outside UCD when a student escapade went tragically wrong. Looking back from the perspective of a highly trained therapist, again she feels that she did not know how to express the grief she felt at the sudden passing of her contemporary.

“That had a profound effect,” she muses.

At college, she studied modern languages – French, Spanish and Portuguese – which led naturally to an internship in the communications directorate of the European Commission in Brussels. Back in Dublin, she needed work and appeared poised for a career in business when she was taken on by software company Trintech.

The firm was at the forefront of the revolution and Liz Gleeson was a fast-rising star in this dizzying firmament. She was dispatched far and wide, to Asia, to North America and all over Europe promoting the latest in payments software wizardry. And all the time, a voice nagged at the back of her mind: “I thought the idea of working nine to five was my idea of hell, but I worked there for five years.”

By David Medcalf, First Published March 18th in Bray People and Wicklow People

Then she attended a trade show in Lima, the capital of Peru, and decided to take a few days out afterwards, travelling up and up into the Andes Mountains. There, in the famed ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, she found time at high altitude to assess the direction in which her life was going – and it was not a happy picture.

She recalls telling herself: “technically I have everything, but I feel I have nothing. There must be something more than spending my days gathering income for a firm.” It was time to make a change, though this was not the ideal juncture to embark on a root and branch re-arrangement of her lifestyle. She had just bought a house in Bray – the €90,000 this cost must have felt like a fortune at the time – and she had a car to run.

“I am good at taking risks,” she concludes as she looks back at the abrupt change of career which landed her in Maynooth College as a student of drama therapy. She remembers the course as being where psychology meets creativity and, after the stresses of Trintech, she was in her element.

Though always creative, drama in any formal sense was not in her background. Nevertheless, she quickly adapted to the discipline as a means of self-expression and self-exploration. The freshly qualified Master of Arts established a drama group with a set of fellow therapists, though not with the Olympia or the Abbey in mind. Playback Theatre, as the group styled itself, instead took on appearances in prisons and nursing homes, or working with addicts. 

Their modus operandi was to reflect the experience of members of the audience and it proved powerful as a means of releasing pent-up emotions. The final curtain came down on Playback with a performance at a hospice where one of their own members was dying.

The group helped the patient reflect on her life as it came to a close and also made videos of the dramatic process for members of her family. The experience was so worthwhile that Liz resolved to take a master’s degree in bereavement studies.

She enrolled on a course organised in conjunction with the Irish Hospice Foundation and validated by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. It was run by Orla Keegan of Greystones – “she’s wonderful” – dealing with types of loss, models of grief, perspectives of grief, and so on.

By the time she had added her latest qualification in 2015, the former software executive already had a full clinical practice as a counsellor. She discovered that there was a great need for her highly trained services, working on her own account or with Greystones Cancer Support.

Your reporter put it to Liz that formal religion has traditionally offered a way of dealing with death and bereavement. She responded that, like many, if not most, of her generation in Ireland, she was brought up in a “very Catholic” household. However, she turned away from an institution which she felt from an early age was wrong in excluding women from positions of power.

“I rejected all religion,” she says bluntly. “The only reason I went to Mass was to see someone I fancied. I was questioning the dogma my parents forced down my throat.” The mother of four feels that church funerals offer limited support when death comes to call and that as a society “we don’t do emotions very well”.

She observes: “When someone you love deeply dies, your entire life is changed.” The fallout is spiritual, mental, physical, affecting both the brain and the immune system. Her own experience of death in the family reflects the conundrums and complications of the whole process.

Her mother, to whom she was not particularly close, passed away 17 years ago, triggering a series of nightmares which lasted three years Her much-loved father is only one year gone and his departure at the age of 92 has proven much easier to process, a paradox which prompts her to remark enigmatically: “people may grieve for what they never had”.

The conviction that it is good to talk openly about such matters prompted her to start compiling a remarkable series of podcasts in which she speaks to people about their experience grief. Liz’s guest interviewee for episode one of Shapes of Grief was her cousin Jack, who has been followed on to the website by scores of others to make a fascinating and very accessible archive.

The series has been running for three years and Liz reckons that it has maybe 120,000 listeners spread around the English-speaking world. The Shapes of Grief brand is also used on her practice as a counsellor, operating from her Church Road home in Greystones where she has lived for more than two decades.

The website, with its motto ‘death ends a life, not a relationship’ offers not only access to one-to-one counselling but also grief training for her fellow professionals. Liz Gleeson’s approach will be explained in detail at an event in the Whale Theatre close to her home on March 31.

As well as the live audience, the event will be available over the internet via a live stream. Given the intensity of her work dealing with people’s feelings, it is always comforting for her to know that the beach is only a short walk away.

“I was always drawn to cliff walks,” she laughs. “I love it here in Greystones. I stroll downtown and pick up a coffee. You will always find someone you know.”

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