Carrickfergus mum Tanya Phillips on losing her father over the festive period, and the nursing staff who helped her family cope
For Tanya Phillips from Carrickfergus, the festive season will always be tinged with heartache, but the mum-of-two tells Stephanie Bell she will also never forget the nursing staff who have helped them cope through their darkest days... and beyond
Never were two little sisters more thrilled by an invitation than Ruby and Hollie Phillips, who will this year have the honour of switching on the Christmas tree lights at the Northern Ireland Hospice. The girls will perform the annual tradition in memory of their grandfather William Haggan, and their grateful mum Tanya is also thrilled that the family has been asked to help launch this year's Lights to Remember appeal.
Tanya says: "Ruby was so excited that when asked she responded with a wee dance - which we took as a yes! I don't think she'll be sleeping from now until then. She thinks she is a celebrity now."
Last year the emotive annual appeal, which invites people to put a light on the hospice tree in memory of a loved one, coincided with the first anniversary of Tanya's dad's death.
She and her girls went along not knowing what to expect but found the occasion so moving that it has brought comfort to them; a solace which Tanya says has helped to carry them through the past year.
In an especially cruel blow, Tanya had to say a final farewell to her dad at the height of the festive season. His funeral took place two days ahead of Christmas Day in 2017. Understandably it's become a sad time of the year for Tanya, who still must try to make the most of it for the sake of her two daughters.
However, amidst the heartache the family, who live in Carrickfergus, also got to experience first-hand the kindness of others. From the moment her dad became terminally ill from cancer in September 2017 Tanya says they had fantastic nursing support from the Northern Ireland Hospice.
And that support has continued as Tanya continues to grieve for her dad. "Last year I saw the Lights to Remember leaflet and thought: 'Oh my goodness, that's dad's first anniversary'," she recalls.
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"It almost felt 'meant to be'. I was worried it would be too sad for the girls, but my friend who had been before urged me to give it a go anyway. And it was perfect; remembering loved ones together with other families who really understand what you've been through.
"We got given a tag to write a message for dad and hang on their beautiful tree. They also gave the girls a battery-powered tealight, which they lit on Christmas Day to remember their grandad. We've kept them and this is a new family tradition for us now.
"They both keep the tealights in their bedrooms and it is a reminder for them of their grandad."
Tanya (41), a nurse who works with a local GP practice, and her husband Norman (56), a retired paramedic, nursed her father in the last weeks of his life along with her older brother and sister.
Keeping him at home was possible with the help of a Northern Ireland Hospice nurse, who was always available to offer advice and support.
It also allowed the couple's two daughters Hollie (13) and Ruby (7) to spend quality time with their grandfather in his last days.
Tanya says: "My dad William was always smiling even through the eight years he lived after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
"Mum died 10 years ago and it was just after her death when dad was diagnosed. Mum did everything for him and when she went and he was diagnosed I thought he was never going to cope.
"He was very old school and never talked about it, the word cancer was never mentioned.
"But he got monthly hormone injections and had a good quality of life for many years until September 2017 when he got secondary cancer in his bladder and bones."
The decline in his health happened abruptly. Tanya's dad suddenly appeared unsteady on his feet and was complaining of excruciating pain. He was admitted to hospital and a scan revealed that the cancer had spread throughout his body and he was terminally ill.
Having lived in the same house since he got married in 1969, it soon became apparent that he would have to move into sheltered accommodation.
Although that was a major upheaval, he adapted to it well and as his condition deteriorated, his family took it in turns to nurse him round the clock so that he could spend his last days at home.
Though she is a nurse herself, Tanya admits she felt challenged when it came to looking after her own father and she was relieved when the Northern Ireland Hospice offered to send one of their palliative care nurses to help.
"Dad was the type never to complain but he was actually crying and screaming with the pain it was so bad," she explains. "I have been nursing for years and I found it hard. All your common sense goes out the window when it is someone you love so much.
"In my job I have taken a lot of calls from families who are caring for loved ones who are terminally ill and after my own experience I now find these people so inspiring.
"I am a nurse and I found it difficult and I really do take my hat off to the many families who are doing it so that their loved ones can spend their last days at home."
With Tanya emotionally distraught by seeing her father in so much pain, Claire, a palliative care nurse from the Northern Ireland Hospice, arrived to help the family at the exact time she was needed.
She immediately put Tanya at her ease and was able to get her dad's pain under control.
Tanya says: "Claire managed dad's pain with weekly visits, so we were still in control and dad could stay at home, which is where he wanted to be.
"It was a bit daunting but, with Claire's help, we all took it in turns taking care of him, my husband did nights and my older brother and sister and I took it in turns to be there during the day.
"Claire was only a phone call away; I could always run something by her.
"Even during the evenings, if I was unsure of something, I would send her a text and she would always reply.
"Home was really the best place for dad - here with us all, making precious memories right up until his final hour.
"Then, when he started to slip away, my girls were able to climb into bed with him and cuddle. We couldn't have asked for anything better. Put simply, my dad died surrounded by love."
William passed away at home on December 20 and his funeral was held the day before Christmas Eve.
Nursing him in the run-up to Christmas meant that Tanya had only been able to do a little shopping online.
Filled with grief having just buried her dad, she nevertheless had to face the Christmas Eve rush to ensure that everything was in the house for Santa coming the next morning for her girls, who were then aged just five and 11.
It was a tough Christmas, as she recalls: "It was a bit of blur. Back in the summer we had booked to take the kids to see Santa in the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle. That turned out to be the day dad died. I knew he was really sick and I told my husband to go on without me, but in the end we decided to cancel.
"After dad's funeral all I wanted to do was crawl up in wee ball but I knew I had to do Christmas because of the girls. I knew that somehow I had to go Santa shopping.
"I had bought family Christmas presents from my dad and I didn't know what to do with them. In the end we decided to give them out so the girls found presents from their grandad under the Christmas tree and they were delighted and said grandad had sent them Christmas presents from Heaven.
"We had to clear daddy's house out before New Year, and so we did that after Christmas.
"My birthday is on New Year's Eve and my mum died eight weeks before my 30th and dad died 10 days before my 40th, so my 30th and 40th birthdays didn't happen.
"Christmas isn't the same now; I just go through the motions because of the girls."
Tanya is looking forward to this year's Lights to Remember ceremony as she knows that she and her girls will get strength and comfort remembering her father at such a special service.
She adds: "If you're able to attend Lights to Remember, I'd really recommend going. It's such a moving service - there is nothing like it. And, if you can manage it, please make a donation, so Northern Ireland Hospice can support other families like mine to make special memories that will last."
A shining light to remember loved ones
Now entering its 25th year, the Northern Ireland Hospice's Lights to Remember Appeal provides an opportunity for families to come together to remember loved ones and to dedicate a light to their memory during the festive period.
This year's event will take place on Thursday, December 19, starting at 6.30pm at Dominican College. Light refreshments will be provided at the school and the celebration service will begin at 7.30pm.
To dedicate a light to your loved one go to: https://www.nihospice.org/light-to-remember-dedication.
This will allow you to add a dedicated message to a tag which will be placed onto the hospice's Christmas tree while at the same time making a donation to Northern Ireland Hospice.