‘There is no timeline to healing’

Rory O’Shaughnessy shares his experience of Galway Hospice’s Claddagh Family Bereavement Camp for young bereaved families at Wildlands, Moycullen

During the February of 2017 my life, and that of my closest friends and family, was completely shattered after my wife Carmel, found a lump on her breast. Terrifying at the best of times but even more so when she was pregnant with our second daughter, Sophie.

Having come off the back of a pretty traumatic time of our first pregnancy with our daughter Ruby, who suffered from a pre-natal stroke, subsequently resulting in cerebral palsy, albeit mild, it was still a fairly frightening time for us all. Thankfully, Ruby is doing phenomenally well and she’s as independent as she wants herself to be, after all, why clean your own room when dad can do a pretty good job for you.

I had convinced myself that we were done with the children, yet Carmel was determined to have a brother or sister for Ruby. Sadly, at our second attempt we were to miscarry, and our little one was called home before we even got to meet them. Again, I had said, that’s it! I’m done, no more kids! Yet, Carmel was adamant Ruby would have a brother or sister. And in late 2018 we got the news we were pregnant again.

Sophie was due to arrive in May of 2019, but nature had other ideas. Looking back on things, almost five years down the line, I now realise that Carmel took maybe 2 weeks, when the news hit where we were all reeling and trying to make sense of it.

I watched her change her lifestyle completely, which was already a fantastic place as she loved all types of exercising and keeping fit and her diet was insanely healthy, she never once played the victim card, not once. Still, she ramped up the health and wellness for not only herself, but for that of Ruby, myself and of course Sophie.

This monumentally positive mindset continued on through her entire sickness, never once letting it define who she was.

For our children, she remained Mom, and never once let her sickness get in the way of being their mom and to this day I am in complete awe of that strength and resilience.

Carmel spent her final week in the care of those fantastic people in Galway Hospice in Renmore under the care of some of the most loving and caring people I have ever met, truly you have to be cut from a very different cloth to be able to carry out their work in the way they do, giving our loved ones such a beautiful space to pass on with the utmost of grace and dignity.

Having lived in Galway all my life I had actually never been inside the hospice before, but was acutely aware of the work they did for years. with the many fundraisers held and indeed the high praise I would have heard about them too. This was to be my first time being so near to someone using the services. It is impossible to convey the emotions you go through in a time like that, but I always remember Carmel being so relaxed and almost content in her surroundings, while I ran about like a headless chicken, guided by the hospice staff at every step and making sure not only Carmel, but myself and the girls were being looked after too.

Sadly, Carmel lost her fight with cancer in late August of 2019 and created a chasm of emptiness in all our hearts. Friends, family and neighbours all rallied around me and the girls and ensured our wellbeing. However, life goes on. It has to. And we all must adapt, which can be challenging at the best of times, but a certain flu had other ideas.

As the world opened back up, the hospice were onto me almost immediately and reached to see if myself and the kids would like to attend a little talk about loss and grief. Unfortunately, Ruby, who was still very young, would not entertain the idea and so we left. I had thought that maybe our journey with the hospice was over and again, we would be on our own. Of course, this was not to be the case, and in late summer of 2023 I was contacted by Aisling [Kearney, Galway Hospice Principal Medical Social Worker], in the hospice and wondered if I would like to attend the Claddagh Family Bereavement Camp at Wildlands Activity Centre in Moycullen.

Never to be one to refuse something with the possibility of helping us all grow, I said we would go but that I couldn’t give a cast iron yes or no, as ultimately the kids would decide. After having told them the awesome time we would have at Wildlands (and believe me…. we did) I also slipped in the fact that all the other families would be like ours too, with either a mom or dad in heaven. To my complete surprise Ruby, now almost 9, began to vocalise how she would love to go but was very apprehensive about having to talk about mom and maybe get upset in front of strangers, but when I told her, all the other boys and girls were in the same situation, it did sway her decision to go. I was still unsure as to whether she would. As for Sophie, she was delighted to be going and having been only 2 when Carmel passed, may not have had the same outlook on the weekend as Ruby who was almost 5 at the time.

As the time approached, Ruby really wasn’t sure about going, but in the end the three of us landed out on a Friday evening to Moycullen. The following day was when everything changed for me and my little family. Saturday began with the list of activities we would be doing and I noticed the parents had separate activities from the kids. Disaster, as Ruby developed pretty strong separation anxiety from me after Carmel passed away. I had visions of packing up and being home by lunchtime, as I had Sophie who was all strapped in to go abseiling from about 30 feet in the air in one hand, and Ruby who was completely welded to the other hand and would not let go. In stepped Aisling and had a little chat with Ruby…and lo and behold, off she went. I didn’t see her again until lunchtime when she told me about all the things they were doing, and the other boys and girls were really nice too. It was a hugely emotional time for me too, seeing her being able to go off without me, but also feeling immense pride that she felt she was able to overcome her fears and head off with people she really didn’t know. Ruby was absolutely out of her comfort zone, and she was thriving. Sophie was also in her element going from obstacle course to obstacle course, and of course snacks…snacks everywhere.

By the time dinnertime came around I had two exhausted but happy kids. After having a lovely dinner and a brilliant magician showing us his skills, I wondered what we would do for the evening. As we returned to our cabins, we found a bag of even more goodies for us to enjoy watching a movie together. As they got their PJs on I could hear them talking to each other about the other boys and girls and how they were here without a mom or dad also, and from where I was standing it almost looked like a look of relief on their little faces, almost as if to say, that what happened to our family isn’t all that uncommon and in fact there are plenty of people in the same situation. I might also note that it had been four years since Carmel had passed on as opposed to some of the families whose partners had passed on in the last 8 months to a year, so it was still extremely raw for most of them.

Sunday was a day to have a few small activities and prepare for getting back to reality. As I packed away our things I found myself smiling, and when I wondered why I had realised that not only had this weekend been of huge benefit to the kids, who were sitting on the porch smiling and laughing, a far cry from the apprehension I faced when I arrived, it had also shown me how far I had come as a single dad. I would have always questioned my ability to raise the girls in a way that Carmel would have been proud of, and for the first time in four years I was. The tears began to fall, and on cue the girls saw me and set them off too. When I explained to them the tears were “happy” tears and that I was hoping that mammy would be proud of the job I was doing, Ruby completely surprised me by saying, “Daddy! Mammy would have loved it out here, she would have been up on all the high zip lines with Sophie and you and me would be on the ground looking up.” Ruby had not spoken of Carmel like that to me since she passed on. Indeed, anytime the subject was brought up, she would shut the conversation down, even in so far as, if her pals were over, they never played “moms and dads” it would always be “aunties and uncles”, I suppose it was too much for her, knowing her own mom wasn’t here.

Ever since that day, we now speak of Carmel on a daily basis. Sometimes that talk involves lots of tears and hugs, but as I say to the girls, it’s all healing, but happily for the most part it’s lots and lots of laughing. They now also love hearing stories of me and mom when we first started dating and looking at old pictures from 20 years ago and doing so with smiles and giggles and only the faintest tint of sadness.

It’s a testament to the resilience Carmel showed and it’s beautiful to see that strength come through in her girls.

I often sit in the evenings and scroll through photos of us before Carmel got sick, and I always see a sharpness in Ruby’s eyes, a twinkle as cliché as that may sound, a twinkle that vanished after Carmel passed, and I’d swear, ever since that weekend it has started to shine again.

There is no timeline to healing, nor is there for grieving, but I do believe we can help ease the pain, and that weekend in Wildlands absolutely kickstarted something for all of us. It showed me how far we have come as a trio, and even more so, it showed the girls the healing that they have done too, seeing them interact with the other kids and letting them talk about their loss in their own way, and indeed, not mentioning it at all just simply being in each other’s presence knowing they share that same pain and that they’re no different to any other boys and girls.

Personally, I would recommend the Camp, not only for the children but also for the parents, I think the main reason for doing so is due to its very relaxed way of engaging with the families, the distraction of the activities kind of lowers the defences and let us open up to each other, and through that opening up that talking, it’s there we start to find ourselves again. And for me and my family, it is where we began the next stage in our lives. The healing.

The Claddagh Family Bereavement Camp was funded by Community Foundation Ireland.

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