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Spence family slurry tragedy: 'At times the grief and pain has been so huge it has been hard for me to breathe'

In the second part of our interview, artist Emma Spence reveals how her Christian faith has helped her come to terms with family tragedy

By Ivan Little

Published 02/04/2016

Artist Emma Spence
Artist Emma Spence
Emma with mum Essie and sister Laura
Nevin Spence
Noel Spence
Graham Spence
Emma Spence
Emma Spence and Julie McMurray of the James Wray Gallery with one of her paintings
Emma Spence at the Nevin Spence Centre at the Kingspan Stadium with her brother’s Ireland U20 cap, playing boots and training top
Essie Spence (centre right) is supported by her daughter-in-law Andrea, wife of Graham

To the non-believer, it's almost unbelievable that Emma Spence's faith hasn't been shaken by the farm tragedy that killed her father and two brothers and almost took her own life too.

"I wouldn't be standing here today if it hadn't been for my faith. My only way of coping has been God, who has held me up. There have been times when the grief and the pain have been so huge it has been hard for me to breathe," said Emma, who has been practising what the Bible preaches with regular visits to Moldova to help impoverished people there.

But one journey which has been too difficult for Emma to make since the September 2012 accident has been to watch a rugby match at the Kingspan stadium in Belfast where her brother Nevin was fast establishing himself as an exciting new hero with the Ulster team.

"I used to go on Friday nights with my Dad to see Ulster and Nevin. We are all big rugby fans but there's not too many understand what it's like for Nevin to be missing off the pitch.

"For a long time I thought I would go back, but now I doubt if I ever will. Rugby is very different from when Nevin was alive. It's etched with pain.

"I can't even turn on the TV for Ulster's matches or Ireland's games because I would be thinking about whether our wee Nev would be playing in a green shirt. I do follow the scores, though."

Emma, her mum Essie and sister Laura did attend the Kingspan stadium in August last year for the opening of an impressive new educational centre which was named in honour of Nevin and which features a massive painting of him by his artist sister who talked publicly at the time about her pride in the facility.

"Every time somebody walks into Ulster's ground they will see Nevin's name above the door and it's a privilege that he's been given such a legacy," she said.

The Spences had paid a lower profile visit to what was still called Ravenhill a week after the accident and to attend a memorial service for Nevin, his father Noel and brother Graham, who died after they tried to rescue a dog and subsequently each other from a slurry tank on their farm near Hillsborough.

The Spence women watched from the sanctuary of a private hospitality box as rugby stars and officials went onto the Ravenhill pitch for the event, which was part religious and part tribute.

At the end of the service, 6,000 fans sang their favourite rugby anthem Stand up for the Ulstermen like never before.

"It was a very emotional day. The players are all good men and Ulster Rugby officials and supporters have been excellent to us," said Emma as we sat at the kitchen table of the Spence farmhouse at Drumlough Road not far from the scene of the accident.

It was in the kitchen that Noel Spence used to hold sway in a house which was always filled with laughter and where banter was a constant, especially for Nevin, of whom the family were immensely proud but used to keep his feet on the ground by referring to him tongue-in-cheek as "superstar".

But that isn't to say that the Spence family took everything in life lightly before tragedy cruelly struck almost four years ago.

Religion was always - and still is - a cornerstone of Magheraconluce farm as Emma highlighted at the moving funeral service in Ballynahinch Baptist Church where in an address she said of Noel, Graham and Nevin: "They were Godly men. They didn't talk about God, they just did God. They were just ordinary but God made them extraordinary"

And despite everything that has happened to her menfolk, Emma still cherishes her faith, though she told me she didn't want to come across as what she called a "Holy Roller".

Which is the last way anyone that knows Emma, who has a keen sense of humour and enjoys a busy social life, would describe her. She did, however, speak to me with a stirring conviction and passion about her Christianity which has clearly been a rock for her in the last few heart-breaking years.

And what has also helped her through the turmoil has been the intractable belief that she will one day see Noel, Graham and Nevin again.

"But there's more to it than just going to Heaven to meet them. I'm certain that it's a place where there will be no more suffering and no more pain.

"People might say that's all a crutch that keeps me going, but I've had to experience stuff that very few people have had to deal with - and hopefully never will - and when the rubber hits the road it's all I have.

"Throughout it all my only help has been God, who has given me the strength to continue with my life.

"After I started back to my job at Wallace High School it took every bone in my body to face work and walk down the corridor. The only time I had to myself was in the car on the journey to and from Lisburn and I used to listen to hymns or Psalms on audio tapes.

"They were the old songs that everybody knows like The Lord's My Shepherd and the words suddenly became very real to me.

"I never knew what dramas, crises, decisions and questions I would be coming home to and I remember one day setting God a 12 o'clock deadline to give me answers. And as I left a friend home just before midnight she suddenly remembered that she'd bought me a wee £1 plaque from a charity shop which she could have given me anytime.

"It said 'Be Still and Know that I am God' from Psalm 46; Verse 10. I took that as the Lord telling me that He'd got things completely under control for me.

"And I also keep in mind a line from a poem which a cancer sufferer quoted to me two days after the accident. It said 'In Acceptance Lieth Peace'."

The message resonated with Emma, who shared it with her mother Essie. w"I told Mum our only way of coping was to accept what had happened and not to fight it and that way we would find peace. I didn't like it but I accepted that this was the path that God has chosen for me.

"I nearly died four years ago. And while people say to me it's nearly four years since the boys were killed, in my head I tell myself that they're four years I've had that I mightn't have had."

Emma admitted, however, that as she thought back to the 'hurricane' of the accident, there were days she felt she was sitting on a knife-edge.

"I don't know how I would be able to deal with anything else," she said candidly, adding that her admiration for her mother is boundless.

"I didn't think that Mum could cope after the accident, but when I see her four years on I'm so pleased that she is still standing too and that shows me that there very definitely is a God."

Emma said that she and her mother had their bad days but added that they needed each other for support. "Mum is a very intelligent woman and she has questioned everything about the accident. I sometimes pity ministers who engage her in conversations about the whys and wherefores," she laughed.

Emma's visits to Moldova in Eastern Europe with her church have opened her eyes to the suffering of other people and she said she received a major boost in her life from assisting people whenever she can.

"There's poverty and pain everywhere in Moldova and drink is a massive issue. We have camps and do building work there and generally help in the villages where we see children who have absolutely nothing in situations where bleak is not even the word.

"We came across one woman whose husband was a heavy drinker and he returned one night and threw their baby against a wall, killing the child.

"Later on the wife hurled acid at him and set him on fire to keep him away but he broke her legs in so many places that she can't walk anymore.

"Compared to that woman who was sitting weaving tobacco for some ridiculous amounts of money in one of the poorest countries in Europe, I am really privileged here in Northern Ireland."

Turning to her exhibition, which opens in Belfast next week, Emma said she was convinced that an unseen guiding hand played a role in the show, which is called 'Their Fields' and which was inspired by the land that her Dad and her brothers worked and adored at their farm.

" I didn't go looking for a gallery to put on the exhibition. The approach came to me."

"And I think that also shows that life can go on and that there is hope."

Where to see her work

Their Fields, an exhibition by Emma Spence, runs from April 7 to April 30 at the gallery of James Wray and Co, 14-16 James Street South, Belfast. www.jameswray.ie

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