Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

Widower Dermot Breen had his own Ulster Way of dealing with his wife's death from cancer

By Claire McNeilly

A heartbroken widower whose wife died from ovarian cancer has told how he coped with her passing by embarking on a tortuous long distance walk.

Former civil servant Dermot Breen set off on the 1,000km 'Ulster Way' shortly after losing Jacqui, his wife of 28 years, to the illness just 10 months after a shock diagnosis.

Now the Belfast father-of-two has written and published a book about the physical and emotional journey, which he hopes will help others who find themselves in similar, tragic circumstances.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the 56-year-old retiree revealed he has already raised over £20,000 for research into a cruel, merciless disease that claimed the love of his life.

"My book (The Edge: Walking The Ulster Way With My Angels & Demons) tells the story of my Ulster Way pilgrimage which I started in June 2015 in memory of Jacqui, whom I lost the previous January," he said.

"We were together for 35 years, after meeting at Queen's University, and I've tried to give a very honest account of how I dealt with my grief, as well as the physical and emotional challenges that I faced along the way."

He added: "To date I have raised over £20,000 for Cancer Research UK through my walk and associated activities and I am also donating all the money from book sales to the charity."

Mr Breen's book chronicles a grieving man's emotions along the series of walking routes which encircle Ulster, taking in areas of outstanding natural beauty such as the Mournes, Sperrins, Cavehill and Giant's Causeway.

The Ulster Way afforded him plenty of time to reflect on how difficult the months leading up to his wife's death were for himself and the couple's two children - Matthew, now aged 26, who works in sales and is based in Berlin, Germany, and 23-year-old Hannah, a psychology graduate.

"The diagnosis was a massive shock, but then Jacqui responded very well to the initial treatment so for a while we were quite positive," he added.

"It was only towards the end that we began to realise that things weren't working out, although we still had hope.

"The last couple of months were the most difficult. It all seemed to happen so quickly. Things seemed to deteriorate quite rapidly at the end."

Jacqui, a former teacher who worked at Greenisland Primary School for 25 years, spent the last three days of her life in hospital. She died on January 18, 2015.

"We had just celebrated her 54th birthday a few days before, on January 13, recalled Mr Breen, whose initial attempt at a long distance walk, in May 2015, wasn't a huge success.

"I got up one morning and headed out; it wasn't terribly well planned," he admitted.

"I went too far without suitable footwear and suffered as a result, but I was determined to continue on from there.

"Personally, the walk also gave me something to focus on just to get me through those very difficult days. My whole world had just collapsed and I didn't see the point in anything. It seemed so hopeless going on. I really needed something to drag me out of bed."

So far Mr Breen has raised £15,000 through the walk - 38 days spread over two-and-a-half months because he was still working - and another £5,000 by producing a 2016 calendar of photos taken during the journey.

"I was out on my own a lot and it allowed me to try and process the whole thing and deal with the grief," he said.

"I met a lot of people on the walk and some of them accompanied me on sections. Honestly, the support I got was astonishing. That, more than anything, buoyed me along."

The highlight was arriving back at Greenisland Primary School - where the book launch took place last week.

"I always wanted to start and finish the walk there, and the school was fantastic in facilitating that," said Mr Breen, who paid all costs associated with the book himself.

"It was like a big welcome home. I didn't know what to expect but people were out in force. There were parents, teachers and children all cheering me back in."

There were many challenges, including "a section north of Dungiven - Donald's Hill - involving a steep climb a long, long stretch of very rough bogland".

He added: "It was a real scorcher of a day, and a real hard slog just getting from one side to the other. There was no discernible pathway - I could see windmills in the distance and I headed towards them as best I could."

A low point came, ironically, at the top of Binevenagh cliffs - overlooking Magilligan Point and Lough Foyle.

Mr Breen added: I was really at a very emotionally low ebb. This is a key moment in the book - and also why it's called The Edge."

The Edge: Walking The Ulster Way With My Angels & Demons' retails at £12.99

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph