Posted 28 Feb 2018
I’ll never forget it. It was late December 1991 and I was just 12 years old.
My mum, Ann, was home from the hospital for Christmas having an 18-month-long battle with cancer. She was incredibly sick but delighted to be at home among her family.
Naively, the younger ones in my family (I’m the second youngest of six) believed it was the road to her recovery beginning again.
In that vein, during the days after Christmas myself and my pals from the estate had wanted to go to Funderland (the annual Dublin-based funpark) but my parents had said no.
As an angry pre-teen, I reacted sharply and had cross words with them both, despite how ill my mum was.
Just how sick she was I was to find out on the morning of New Year’s Eve.
We were awoken by my dad, John, to tell us Mum was gone, she had died during the night.
It was only later that I learned her coming home for Christmas was not the beginning of the recovery, but the beginning of the end.
They had hoped to tell us in the new year what the story was and not to spoil our last Christmas.
Her shock death meant I never got to say sorry to my mum for what I said to her about Funderland.
For a mixed-up and confused kid, that ate me up for months — and years — afterwards.
I blamed myself, quietly, believing that my row with her had played some role in her dying at the age of just 46.
Heartbroken, confused and lost, I carried that around with me without telling it to anyone for a long time.
Being a teenage boy is difficult enough but losing your kind, loving, amazing mum was devastating and left a void that in truth has never been filled.
Grief is very hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It is also an intensely personal thing too.
Each person’s experience is different and each person manages it differently.
But what compounded that void was for most of my teens I had a difficult relationship with my dad, who too died prematurely in 2003 at just 58.
Repeated groundings, which had become common and lengthy, through my teens only served to increase a sense of loss and isolation.
I was very lucky to have the love and support of amazing older siblings, particularly my two sisters, who quite frankly saved my ass on more than one occasion.
But at the time, I resented their interventions and there were certainly some matters that I could not speak to them about.
And it wasn’t exactly an easy topic to bring up with friends of your own age, so I didn’t bother.
Just what the impact all of that had on me came to the surface when my dad died suddenly, when I was 23.
Thankfully, we had resolved our differences and were in a great place by the time he collapsed and died in our kitchen in December 2003.
The loss of your dad, for any young man, is a major cause of readjustment and self-examination.
This time however, through bereavement counselling, I was able to explore all of those pent up issues which had weighed on my thinking for so long.
The reason I am detailing all of this is was an item last Tuesday on Today With Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1.
Sr Helen Culhane, who was recently awarded a Person of the Year award in Limerick, was on the show to speak about her work with young children in the city who have lost a parent, either through the death or as a result of parents’ separating.
In 18 minutes of compelling radio, Sr Helen spoke of how she and her team work with young children, in total confidence, in getting them to deal with their grief.
She spoke of how the grief of the children of separated parents is very different to that of those, who like me, lost a parent at an early stage.
Sr Helen said that what children mostly want is a listening, impartial and non-biased ear.
With younger children, they use creative means like workbooks, art materials, clay and other materials to help connect with them to allow them to feel comfortable enough to tell their story.
“It allows them to find their voice,” she said.
Older children are treated differently.
They sit them down in a setting that is different to counselling, and it allows the teenagers realise that the staff of psychologists, health professionals, art therapists, care workers are there to support them.
I thought this was a brilliant initiative and I was literally on the verge of texting into the programme to congratulate the HSE and the health authorities for developing such an important scheme.
Why, because I was consumed by a feeling that I could have and would have benefited massively from such an intervention when I needed it most.
To have had such a haven would have been so liberating for me when I felt the world was against me — and against me with a vengeance.
To be able to vent all of that confusion, hurt and anger in a safe place without the risk of causing further hurt to another loved one would have been such a huge benefit.
But I was stopped in my tracks from texting by the next comment from Sr Helen, when she told the radio host that the service was operating on a voluntary basis.
I was shocked when I heard her say it.
She too went on to say that they had a waiting list of 80 young people looking to access the service.
Sr Helen made the plea for proper funding to allow her hire one or two additional people to deal with that backlog.
Clearly this is a scheme which deserves to be rolled out across the country and funded properly by the State.
The total health budget this year will amount to €15.2bn, an increase of €640m on 2017.
But yet despite that massive spend, the Government’s commitment to mental health has been questionable.
In the wake of the budget in October, an umbrella group for mental health agencies said the Government has “failed to deliver promised funding for mental health” in this year’s Budget with an additional allocation to the area of just €15m.
Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People Jim Daly confirmed that €20m of the €35m announced in Budget 2018 for mental health services was funding already promised in 2017.
The Green Party accused the Government of “misleading the public” over the levels of funding allocated to the area.
From my perspective, it is a no-brainer that what Sr Helen is doing in Limerick is a vital service for young people in Ireland.
I would plead with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone and Jim Daly to see if they can row in behind it and give children who are the victims of such bereavement the help that is much needed.
I was fortunate to have emerged from my teens. Scarred, yes but I survived.
Many others may not be as lucky as me.