Bernie Mullan and Sinead Farry, both from Belfast lost their husbands to cancer. They tell Marie Foy how Cancer Focus supported them and their children at the worst possible time.
When a mum, dad or grandparent has cancer it affects everyone, and for children and young people it can be especially isolating, confusing and frightening.
Leading local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland has launched its Spirit of Christmas appeal to help raise awareness of and funds for its family support service to help children when an adult in the family has cancer.
Ollie Govett, of Cancer Focus NI, says: "The funds you donate will help us continue this valuable service so that children across Northern Ireland will have the help they need at this critical time in their lives, particularly at Christmas.
"We help families cope with the disruption to ordinary life and try to minimise the long-term impact on the children's emotional well-being.
"Our staff also support parents, helping them communicate with their children and, when the prognosis is not good, helping them to write books and letters and make recordings for the family they are leaving behind."
Cancer Focus NI offers one to one support for children and holds family bereavement groups.
There is also a six-week project called CLIMB (Children's Lives Include Moments of Bravery) to help children understand cancer through art, craft and play.
This group helps them talk about their fears and gives them the chance to meet other children in the same situation.
It also gives parents and carers time out to meet.
Ollie adds: "Family support is one of our most used services but we can only provide this essential care thanks to you, so please help us help the children who will be left without a parent this Christmas."
We talk to two families here about how they coped after losing someone to cancer.
Bernie Murray (38), from west Belfast, lost her husband Liam on New Year’s Day 2010 when their twins Amy and Liam were three years old. The twins have benefited from Cancer Focus NI’s family support service. Bernie says:
Liam had been diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was 19 but was able to live a normal life for years. He had his first surgery when he was 24 and over the years had two surgeries, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. But it was only when he was 31 that the cancer became aggressive.
Even though he was very sick I didn’t really think he would die, I thought he would get better, he always had every other time, and it was very difficult for everyone to accept. He was nursed at home because he wanted to keep everything as normal as possible for me and the children.
He’d come to the park in his wheelchair with us or shopping, and the children would sit on his knee. Everything was as day-to-day as it could be. If I needed to go out to pick the children up from nursery school his mum or another family member would sit with him. It was a very emotional time but you have to hold it together.
He got really sick on Christmas Day and went to the hospice a couple of days later where he died.
Liam always had a very positive attitude around the children and we were very honest with them about what was happening.
When we were told the cancer was terminal in September 2009 we were put in touch with Rachel Smith, the family support co-ordinator at Cancer Focus NI.
She helped us prepare what we were going to tell the kids. She helped their dad put together messages that they will be able to read when they are older along with mementos for them to keep.
Rachel told us about stories that we could read to Amy and Liam to prepare them for what was coming. After their daddy died Rachel came to the house and, through play, explained and answered their questions in a way three-year-olds would understand.
The twins also joined the Cancer Focus NI family support group where they met other children in the same situation and they could see that they were not the only ones going through such a sad time.
They have so much fun at the group and can forget for a while — they learn that it is still all right to have fun.
The group also gave me the chance to talk to other parents who’d lost a partner and I got bereavement counselling with Cancer Focus NI which really helps too. I wasn’t talking to anyone at home so having someone outside the family helped me to open up and express all that emotion. It was a huge release.
Amy and Liam decided they wanted to do something to help other children so they’ve done a voiceover for a local radio station for Cancer Focus NI’s Spirit of Christmas Appeal, which they are so excited about. The money raised will go to the charity’s family support service, which helps children who are spending Christmas without a mum or dad this year because of cancer. The ad will run from Saturday until December 17.
There isn’t a day goes by that we don’t think and talk about Liam, and I’m so proud that Amy and Liam have taken part in this appeal to help keep his memory alive and to help other children who’ve lost an important adult in their lives.
I’d encourage everyone to help support this wonderful family support service and anyone affected by cancer should definitely give Cancer Focus NI a call or look up their website — there is so much free support available and the staff are warm and friendly. It’s a real lifeline.”
Sinead Farry (45), from Belfast, has four children, John (12), James (10), Una (7) and Henry (4). Her family would have struggled to get through the past three years after she lost her husband Gareth to cancer without Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s family support service. She says:
My husband Gareth died in August 2013, 13 months after being diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. He was only 40.
Gareth had a lump on his neck for many years but when it started to get bigger he went to the doctor. He was diagnosed with cancer, which rocked our world. We had just been blessed with our fourth child, Henry, and we tried to keep things at home as normal as we could for him and our other three children.
Gareth had surgery in September 2012 to remove the tumour but the following February he started getting bad headaches. By April, scans showed that the cancer had spread to his lungs, liver and brain. We went into shock as the news was incredibly hard to deal with — the floor fell from under us. Four months later, Gareth sadly died.
Cancer Focus NI’s family support service has supported my family through the worst of times. My children and I have found it invaluable.
Rachel Smith, the charity’s family support co-ordinator, came out to our home to speak with the children to help them understand why their daddy had cancer in a way they could understand. She helped take the fear away and spent time with each one so they knew they were not alone. I found that one of the most beneficial parts of the service for my children was CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery).
My son John, who is now 12, benefited greatly from the six-week programme that helps children understand cancer through art, craft and play. The various activities helped John talk informally about his fears and to ask questions about his daddy’s illness. And he was able to meet other children in similar situations — all the children saw that there were other kids going through the same thing.
When my world was falling apart, Rachel gave me the strength to say ‘I can do this with the kids’.
We’ll carry on going to the family support evenings. They give me a feeling of steadiness and a belief that everything is going to be okay. It’s such a wonderful service.
Christmas is always a tough time for us, and it’s at the toughest times that this amazing service helps our children the most.
Please make a donation of whatever you can afford this Christmas to Cancer Focus NI’s appeal because other children in this terrible situation should never be left to deal with cancer alone.”