Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Domestic violence: How it ripped my family apart

Every year thousands of women in Northern Ireland endure torture and violent abouse in their own homes. Here Karen Ireland talks to the mother of Caroline Crossan, victim of one of the province's most horrific cases of domestic violence, and finds out why she is adamant her daughter will not have died in vain.

Caroline Crossan should have been celebrating her 36th birthday today. But, instead of organising a party or planning something special, Caroline's mum, Bridie McGrellis, was visiting a grave to honour the daughter cruelly snatched from her seven years ago.

As usual, her Londonderry home will be full of white daisies, Caroline's favourite flower.

Bridie and her husband, Hugh, together with their six children, were also attending a special service at the Guildhall to mark Caroline's Day, which has become an annual event in the city.

"It is wonderful that people haven't forgotten and that Caroline is always honoured and remembered in this way," says Bridie.

Understandably, however, the McGrellis family do not need a special day or event to remember the one they all called 'Sweet Caroline'.

"Caroline is with me every minute of every day. I see her face everywhere I turn and I think about her constantly," her heartbroken mother says.

"Within the space of an hour on that night in October, 1997, I lost my precious daughter, my grandchildren and my family was ripped apart. We will never, ever get over what happened."

In March 1999, Caroline's husband, John Crossan, was convicted of the brutal murder of his young wife and sentenced to life in prison. For days during the trial, Bridie and her family had to listen as the horrific details of one of the province's most cold-blooded murders emerged.

The court heard how Crossan had struck the 29-year-old mother-of-three several times with a poker-like object before setting her alight with cooking oil to try and hide evidence of what he had done.

These are images which Bridie says continue to haunt her night and day.

"My three grandchildren were asleep upstairs while their daddy killed their mummy. I have to live with that thought every day for the rest of my life."

Bridie's voice quivers and falters at the mention of Caroline's children. Hesitantly she explains: "I lost them that night, too. After Caroline's death, John was awarded custody of the children and after the trial their paternal grandparents were made legal guardians.

"I don't see the older two at all, but count my blessings that I have a monthly visit with the youngest one. I cling on to that and to him each time I see him, as he reminds me so much of his mum. We sing songs she taught him and I cherish our time together.

"My only hope is that one day, somehow, the other two will come back to me. I have written to them in the past and tried to tell them just how much I love them and want them in my life, and how very special their mother was.

"It is up to them to make up their own minds. I feel they blame us somehow for their dad ending up in prison and I feel like I have let Caroline down because I am not with them.

"I have in the past also tried to get a prison visit to see John. I don't want a fight. I just want to talk to him and to try to get him to talk to the children about what happened to their mother."

Guilt and grief have become heavy burdens for Bridie and Hugh over the years, ones which have taken a toll on their health and well-being.

"I just wish I had recognised the signs and had had some inkling as to what Caroline was going through. Then maybe I could have done something before it was too late.

"I would know the signs now alright, and sadly I have seen them many times since. I have had so many young girls coming to my door and ringing me up asking for help.

"That is the one positive in all of this. Through Caroline we have helped highlight the issue of domestic violence and I know that because of her, many women have got out of dangerous situations. She gave them the courage to take action and I am proud of that.

"A young girl came to me one afternoon with a baby in her arms. She was crying and desperate, but didn't know where to turn. I showed her a picture of Caroline on the wall and asked her was that all she wanted her mother to be left with?

"She went to Women's Aid that day and got help. She found somewhere safe to live and has since got a job and is doing really well."

But Bridie is all too painfully aware that not everyone is as lucky. Tragedy hit the family again two years ago, when Bridie's niece, Yvonne Heape, was stabbed to death outside an Oxford police station by her former partner.

"We couldn't believe that fate would deal us such another cruel blow and that domestic violence could come to our door again. That is why I will always speak out and do anything I can to raise awareness. I never want any other family to suffer like we have."

In a gruesome turn of events, the McGrellis family were forced to re-live the funeral trauma, when several years after her murder, parts of Caroline's skull, which had been found on the kitchen floor were returned to them by the authorities.

"Can you imagine what that was like? As a mother I had to bury parts of my daughter's body in a small white coffin.

"This is a nightmare and a life sentence for us. Yes, some days are worse than others. I do try to remember the good times with Caroline in the past.

"I have six other children, 17 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. On Christmas morning everyone was at my house and one of the neighbours commented we were bursting at the seams. But then, just like every other day, there was a big hole because Caroline and her children were missing.

"My daughter was so sweet and thoughtful. She would ring me up every day and ask: 'What's the crack mummy?' But looking back now, I can see how much she changed when she married John.

"She used to be so happy-go-lucky, the life and soul of the party, but with him she always seemed under pressure, constantly watching the clock and rushing around.

"I realise now what a control freak he must have been. Friends of hers have brought information to light, too, about things they thought strange over the years. Only a couple of months ago, I found out he didn't even take her away on honeymoon. They spent it in a caravan.

"They went to Paris once and I thought she would have been so excited and full of it on her return. It wasn't even mentioned.

" Something obviously happened there, too, like so many other times when she would phone to say she wasn't coming round or couldn't make it to something. She was obviously hiding her cuts and bruises behind closed doors. That is why I would urge anyone who is reading this and who is the victim of any kind of abuse to do something about it now.

"There is help available and no-one need ever feel like they have to deal with it alone or that they have to stay because they have no money or anywhere else to go. Get out and save your life. I only wish I could have told Caroline that."

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