More heartache for love split Brenda Shankey as sister Erin Wilkinson dies
Just over a week after speaking out about the heartbreak of her marriage split, Belfast businesswoman and celebrity hairdresser Brenda Shankey's world has been rocked by tragedy with the death of her youngest sister Erin Wilkinson (32).
Brenda (45) was told the devastating news while on holiday in France with her two children, Will (15) and Lauren (13).
Speaking from Nice last night, she said: "What can I say? I am completely heartbroken that my beautiful baby sister has gone and has been taken from this world."
Weeping openly, she added: "I have five sisters and Erin was the baby. None of us can believe she is gone. Erin was my best friend and before she got sick she was the happiest and most caring person in the world."
As tributes poured onto Brenda's Facebook page and messages of condolence flooded in from close pals - including Eamonn Holmes, his wife Ruth Langsford and presenter Denise Welch - Brenda spoke for the first time about the demons that claimed her young sister's life.
"Erin fell in with the wrong crowd and spiralled into a life of addiction to alcohol," she said. "The past five years have been horrendous and all the family have been rallying around and taking it in turns to care for her.
"We've kept this a secret for so long as Erin was so ashamed of how low she had sank. She would cry out to me, asking 'Brenda why has this happened to me? I don't deserve this and I deserve to be happy and better.'"
In the end, Brenda said no one could free Erin, who leaves behind a teenage daughter, from the addiction that had her in its grip.
"I don't think there is as much awareness about addiction as there should be," she stressed.
"This is an illness as powerful as cancer. If it can take hold of my beautiful sister, it can happen to anyone.
"There is a real stigma surrounding addiction, and often those battling the condition are scorned. But the reality is that it could happen to any one of us. People look down on addicts with disgust and have no sympathy for them when instead they should be reaching out and trying to help them."
Until her illness, Erin worked for Jason Shankey Salons in Belfast as a beautician. But when she started to become unwell, she returned to the family home in Londonderry.
Talking about the attempts made to help her sister, Brenda said: "It seemed as is if Erin was just passed from pillar to post. She saw doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, but no one could help her. The addiction had taken hold and it was too late."
Ironically, Derry has now got funding for a new centre for treating addiction but it is too late to help Brenda's "beautiful angel".
Talking about the support she and her family have received since news of the tragedy broke, she said: "I am overwhelmed at the response on Facebook, and so many people have left messages of love and shared their own memories of Erin.
"I think everyone who knew her is in shock as no one apart from close family members knew how ill she was.
"She had become a recluse and just spent days in bed drinking and then getting into such a state that she would be admitted to hospital.
"But as soon as she was up and about again, she was discharged. There was no real support network and we struggled as a family to cope.
"I feel there needs to be more awareness and more education about the dangers of addiction. Erin had been in rehab three times, but even that couldn't help her in the end.
"I am glad she is at peace now and in no more pain, but I will miss her beautiful face and warm smile every day for the rest of my life."
Brenda will fly home from Nice later today to be with her family.
She paid tribute to her dad, Brendan Wilkinson, a former youth worker whom Erin lived with for some time during her illness.
"Daddy did his best to care for her and look after her," she said. "He was great with her and so patient. No parent should ever have to watch a child battle with what she did.
"I can't believe she is really gone. I just can't take it in."