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We know exactly what Rio is facing now that he has to bring up his children alone

Footballer Rio Ferdinand recently opened up about his life as a parent since the death of his wife, Rebecca, from breast cancer. Two NI men who have lost their wives tell Karen Ireland how they and their families have coped and reveal what advice they would offer the ex-Manchester United and England defender.

Dr Cameron Imrie (55), a paediatrician at Altnaglevin Hospital, lives in Londonderry with his two children, Calum (20) and Nuala (17). His late wife, Maire (53), passed away just eight weeks ago. He says:

Things are very raw for me and my children, but sadly this is a journey we have been on for a long time. Maire first took ill in 2004, when she was diagnosed with chronic leukaemia. At the time she was working as a physio, but she had to give it up because she was so ill and exhausted.

The children were very young then. Nuala was only four years old and Calum was eight. So, in some ways my situation then was similar then to what Rio is going through with his young children.

Life just flashes past you at this point; you imagine a future without your other half and all the things you aren't going to be able to do together as a family.

At the time the prognosis wasn't very good for Maire, but the children didn't understand how sick she was.

They couldn't understand how she would be well one day and up and about doing things, then drained the next with little energy to do anything.

At that time I suppose I had the role of being mum and dad. I was trying to do school runs as well as hold down a busy job, which sometimes meant I was on call and had to leave everything and run to see a patient while looking after Maire too. Looking back, it was a very stressful time.

We coped though because Maire was so positive and so determined to beat her illness. She helped everyone else remain upbeat and hopeful.

Going through that time taught us a lot. We learned what was important in our lives and how to focus on that and not worry about trivial stuff. It taught us to surround ourselves with positive people.

Slowly Maire recovered. She was put on medication that worked and stopped the growth of the illness. After a couple of years she was told she was in remission.

However, as family life was returning to normal, fate hadn't finished with her and in 2012 we received the worst news - that Maire had bowel cancer.

Typical of her, she didn't question 'Why me?' or dwell on how ill she was. She wanted to focus on getting better and on beating the disease.

From that point on she never discussed her prognosis and always remained convinced that she would beat it.

The children were her world over the next few years and regardless of how sick or tired she was they were her priority and she wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.

She was a true inspiration and many people have said to us since how well she coped with her illness.

It turned out she had told a close friend that if anything happened to her to look out for the kids and to be there to guide them. And she also told the children to look after me. She wanted to make sure everyone was okay and looked after.

She was always thinking of other people - right through to the end.

She worked with Cancer Focus to make a memory book, which is full of stories of her life, pictures of us as a family and things we did and places we went. She left this as a legacy for the children and for me.

She had chemotherapy and radiotherapy and then surgery, but following the surgery we were told it had reached her lymph nodes and there was nothing more they could do except prolong her life and keep her comfortable.

Even at this stage Maire was still determined she wouldn't have a negative outcome. She went on a macrobiotic diet and really took care of herself.

She was always talking about the future and making plans. She never wanted sympathy or to talk about the illness or her not being around.

In more recent months as she got weaker and had less and less energy, she would make sure she came downstairs every day and walk up them at night with assistance.

She wanted to come down to spend precious time with the children. We were always honest with the children and I told them from the beginning to ask me anything and I would try to answer them as truthfully as I could.

I think they were shocked when Maire passed away on January 9. No one realised just how sick she was and how brave she was being.

It has been difficult, and despite her being sick over so many years there was still not enough time to prepare or to say goodbye.

My advice to anyone in this situation is firstly to talk as much as possible and secondly to take all the help that is offered to you.

Clearly Rio had a lot of support from friends and family, and that is very important.

The children are having a tough time coming to terms with things. We all are. It is still so raw.

We have amazing memories as even when Maire was sick she wanted to travel and we did so much together as a family. It was my greatest privilege to look after her and care for her."

Bryan Hooks (58), editor of the Banbridge Chronicle, lives in Markethill. He has two children, Alan (31) and Diane (30), and two grandchildren, Darcie (two) and Zandra (three weeks old). His wife, Sandra, was just 24 when she died 30 years ago. He says:

I watched the Rio Ferdinand programme with interest last week because I could identify with so much of it.

It’s been 30 years since Sandra passed away. Diane was just three weeks old. I still find it difficult to talk about Sandra without getting emotional.

She took ill when she was pregnant with Diane. She had a brain tumour and it was a race in the end to get the baby born safely.

She was so ill during the pregnancy and was having epileptic seizures. We didn’t want to stress her out any more than was necessary, so I kept a lot of the medical news from her.

We never discussed how bad it was, but in the end there was only ever going to be one outcome.

I was a widower at 28 with a one-year-old and a three-week-old. So, like Rio, I had to be mum and dad for a long time.

I have never known if it was the biggest blessing or greatest tragedy that the children have no memory of their mother.

When I watched Rio’s children make special memory bottles for their mother I thought it was a beautiful thing, but at the same time I could see the pain etched all over them.

Alan and Diane grew up without a mother, but they don’t miss her as they didn’t know what it was like to be with her.

The irony of it all was that Sandra was born to be a mother. I often think it should have been me that went so young and not her as she was denied the one thing she wanted more than anything.

She talked about having children from early on in our courtship and when we got married it was a priority for her.

She was always around children as a Sunday School teacher and Girls’ Brigade leader and we were always asked to babysit.

When she died I had great support from family and friends, especially my mother and father and my in-laws.

My children were overwhelmed with love. That is one thing they were never short of.

Like Rio, I went back to work very early on. He said it was a focus for him and I found that too. I went back after about two weeks.

It gave me something to keep my mind occupied.

I also wanted to work to have holidays and shopping trips out, and things to plan and look forward to with the children.

Like Rio, I couldn’t look too far ahead. In the early days I just had to take it one day at a time.

Back then there wasn’t a lot of support available, or maybe I just didn’t go looking for it. I suppose I felt this was my lot and I had to get on with it.

Life revolved around the children and I tried to be there and do as much for them and with them as I could.

At the time, I was deputy editor in a local newspaper and Sunday Life was just being launched. I was offered a job on the sports desk, and while I was very flattered I said no as Saturday revolved around doing things with the children and taking them to different activities.

I would never have given up that time with them and I have absolutely no regrets about not making that career move. The one regret I do have is that I didn’t talk to the children enough about their mother.

I always felt when the time was right they would come to me and ask  about her and I never felt strong enough to be able to talk about Sandra, even to relatives, without breaking down.

Time just passed on and if the children did have questions about their mum they never asked me.

Maybe they were waiting on me to bring up the subject and I do regret not doing so.

I want them to know they can ask me anything and I will tell them. Their mother was a beautiful person inside and out.

Everyone loved Sandra and she would have been so proud of the children and our grandchildren.

It breaks my heart that she missed out on so much.

Rio questioned about when was the right time to take his wedding ring off.

I was in a relationship some time after Sandra passed away and that was brought up and I really resented the lady for doing so as it was like tearing another vestige of Sandra away from me.

Looking back, I was probably being foolish, but I was still holding onto her.

I’ve had several relationships since, but I’ve realised I’m okay on my own.

If I had to give Rio any advice it would be to talk as much about your wife as you can to your children — don’t keep putting it off. Take all offers of help as it is difficult being mum and dad at times if you are trying to do it on your own.

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