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Like Rio Ferdinand’s kids, these NI people know the pain of losing a parent when you’re very young


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Sad loss: Brian Canavan

Sad loss: Brian Canavan

Rio Ferdinand with his first wife Rebecca

Rio Ferdinand with his first wife Rebecca

Brian with his dad Brian snr, before he was killed

Brian with his dad Brian snr, before he was killed

Terrible tragedy: Michael Palmer who lost his father Stephen 20 years ago

Terrible tragedy: Michael Palmer who lost his father Stephen 20 years ago

The pair together

The pair together

Sad loss: Brian Canavan

Footballer Rio Ferdinand opened up to the cameras recently in a moving documentary about the impact of the death of his first wife Rebecca on their three young children. Linda Stewart talks with two people about the loss of a parent when they were young and how it affected their lives.

‘I would follow people around town thinking they looked like my dad and he might still be alive’

Aircraft fitter Brian Canavan (52), from Belfast, was just nine years old when he lost his heating engineer dad Brian, who was shot dead at their home on the Cliftonville Road by the UDA in 1977. He is now married to psychotherapist Melania Duca Canavan.

Before the traumatic events engulfed him, Brian recalls a "brilliant childhood" and spending a great deal of time with his father.

"I went everywhere with my dad from the day I was born until we lost him," he says. "I was his right-hand man.

"He used to take me to squash all the time at Woodvale. I had an absolutely stunning childhood, but that changed when I was nine."

Brian was just about to turn 10 and was staying with his cousin when his dad was murdered by the UDA.

He believes they went to the wrong house and that his father was killed in case of mistaken identity.

"They knocked on the door and my father came to the door. They shot through the glass at him and that was it. Life changed for ever," he says.

What my mother did to take care of the four of us was unbelievable

"I just came back from my cousin's house and my mother took me up to the bedroom and said, 'Your father is dead', and I said 'What?'.

"For years after that there was a bit of a blank. I don't think I really processed it properly."

Heartbreakingly, Brian used to search for his father in the forlorn hope that, somehow, he might still be alive.

"I used to follow people around the town, thinking, 'That looks like my father. It might be a story they are telling me and maybe my parents really got divorced'," he says

Brian was lucky to have friends and family who supported him following the murder of his dad.

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Brian with his dad Brian snr, before he was killed

Brian with his dad Brian snr, before he was killed

Brian with his dad Brian snr, before he was killed

"What my mother (Maura) did to take care of the four of us was unbelievable," he says.

"The only people that stick by you after death are your close friends and family."

Losing a parent so young and so suddenly changed the direction of his life.

"I lived a different life from what I should have," Brian tells me. "We all have our lives planned out. I was going to be a heating engineer and the world was going to be great.

"When something like that happens, you live an alternate life to how it should have been. I felt disconnected for years."

The family moved to the Glen Road area and Brian started attending a Christian Brothers school.

The IRA were recruiting in the area at the time and his mum was worried he could be drawn into it, so she sent him to boarding school at Garron Tower on the Antrim coast.

There is a simple truth that bad things happen for no reason

"I can see my mother had the best intentions for me - she didn't want me to get involved in anything," Brian says.

"It was brilliant there, but again going to boarding school disconnects you from your family and the life you should have been having."

After leaving school, Brian started an apprenticeship at Shorts and moved into a flat.

"I went to Canada and lived there for a year, trying to escape this place," he says.

"I came back again because I don't think you ever lose the attraction of here, no matter how many times you leave.

"I left here millions of times, but I kept getting dragged back. I don't know whether it is something in your soul that keeps dragging you back."

Brian's mum never remarried. "She said there was only one person for her and that was my father. She never remarried and never dated. There are songs sang about people like that," he explains.

After losing his father, he knew his mum was always going to be there.

"You latch on to that - my mother's always there, no matter what. It's hard to explain, but it's like grounding," Brian says.

When he was 48, he met his now-wife Melania when he was working in Italy. Her background in psychotherapy helped him to come to terms with his loss.

"It gives you a very calm approach to it (trauma)," Brian explains. "I can look back and see what happened and there's the reason why. I can understand it very analytically."

When he came back home, Brain talked to his wife about fighting for truth and justice for his father.

"Melania said everybody knew the truth and asked, 'What kind of justice are you going to get? What is it you want?'," he says.

"We had a lot of discourse about all that stuff and it opened my eyes.

"There is a simple truth that bad things happen for no reason. It's what life's all about, at the end of the day."

The murder of his father transformed Brian's life.

"Life should be, you are born, you grow up, you get married, you have children, you watch them growing up and you grow old," he insists.

"In the natural cycle of life, you look back and you say, 'I've lived a good life and I can go quietly'.

"But that balance gets upset when someone is taken early, especially a real father figure."

‘I shut down my emotions... now I’m quite pessimistic and I think that’s where it stems from’

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Terrible tragedy: Michael Palmer who lost his father Stephen 20 years ago

Terrible tragedy: Michael Palmer who lost his father Stephen 20 years ago

Terrible tragedy: Michael Palmer who lost his father Stephen 20 years ago

Healthcare administrator Michael Palmer (27), a UUP representative from Newtownards, was eight when his accountant father Stephen died. He has a brother called Jason and his mum Deborah is now married to Clive.

His dad was a long-term severe alcoholic who died around Christmas 2000.

"I remember him being at work. He had an accountancy firm in Newtownards. He owned his own business and I went into the office after school and saw him working," Michael says.

"He was interested in boxing. He was also interested in politics and I remember him watching BBC NI's Hearts and Minds programme back in the day.

"He wasn't a member of any political party, but he had an interest in politics.

"He was quite a strong Christian, of the fundamentalist variety."

Michael recalls his father as distant and remembers him drinking through the night when his mother was away at work.

I never got to know why he resorted to alcoholism. I suppose he wasn't happy in life and he just deteriorated

"He hid his drinking and would have had a taxi driver deliver it," he says.

"He was really drunk at different times. He would be paranoid if he couldn't find the drink. He'd be asking, 'Did you hide the drink somewhere?'.

"The thing about alcoholics is that they go on a binge, but after the binge they don't stop - they keep going and going.

"It was a strained marriage between him and my mum and it was a strain on the kids as well.

"I never got to know why he resorted to alcoholism. I suppose he wasn't happy in life and he just deteriorated.

"He died in December 2000. We went to my granny's for Christmas, came home the next day and just found him lying on the floor, really out of his mind.

"We had to call A&E. He was lying drunk on the floor and he was naked. It was a cold winter night and he died of hypothermia.

"At the time I was a child and didn't understand what was going on. You think your dad is going to be around for ever, but that wasn't the case."

It took Michael a long time to get over the death.

"I was crying every night," he recalls. "I would have been emotionally withdrawn about it. You sort of shut down emotionally. I lost my appetite at the time."

However, after the tragedy he grew closer to his mum.

"She was very strong and very independent and I adopted the same attitude. You get on with things and be strong," Michael explains.

"You have to shut down your emotions and not show weakness and things like that.

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The pair together

The pair together

The pair together

"I'd be quite pessimistic by nature and I think that is where it stems from."

He experienced the loss in ways large and small, such as not having his father to teach him to shave.

When Michael was a teenager, his mum remarried.

"My stepdad is great, very sensible and he was also an accountant," he says.

"I thought it was a good thing. My mum deserves a partner and she got a good partner.

"Mum now has someone to go out with and someone to talk to.

"She was looking after two children. It must have been tough doing that on her own."

Since losing his dad, Michael has looked to his mum when he needs to learn how to do things.

"I would fear losing my mother - I suppose we'd both have that fear," he admits.

When you lose a parent, you have to grow up faster and be disciplined with yourself. If I fail, there is no one else to pick up the pieces

Another major change came when Michael hit 13 and came to the realisation he was gay.

"I realised I wasn't like my other classmates. I wasn't sporty and I was a bit sensitive, although I've toughened myself up over time," he says.

Michael still wonders today how his father would have reacted if he had told him he was gay.

"He always said if any of us turned out gay, he would have thrown them out of the house," he says.

"I suppose his death has solved that for me, but I fully believe he would have thrown me out of the house.

"He thought it (homosexuality) was an abomination."

Michael decided to come out to his mum and stepfather when he was 25.

"I was standing for election and I knew it was going to come out. If you're a public figure, you have no private life," he says.

"They were largely okay about it, but they're from a different generation and they don't understand it. Some people experience worse reactions."

The festive season remains tough for him because his dad died at the time of year.

"I usually block everything out with Christmas," Michael admits.

But it's not just at Christmas that he feels the loss - it's also in his day-to-day life.

"I would be harsher and more disciplined with myself," he says. "When you lose a parent, you have to grow up faster and be disciplined with yourself. If I fail, there is no one else to pick up the pieces."

How Rio's family dealt with tragedy

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Rio Ferdinand with his first wife Rebecca

Rio Ferdinand with his first wife Rebecca

Rio Ferdinand with his first wife Rebecca

Rio Ferdinand's three children are coming to terms with a great deal of tragedy in their short lives. Sons Lorenz (12) and Tate (10) and eight-year-old daughter Tia lost their mum Rebecca in 2015 following a battle with breast cancer.

Just two years later their adored granny, Rio's mother, Janice St Fort, died aged 58, also from breast cancer.

The moving BBC1 documentary, Rio and Kate: Becoming a Stepfamily, saw the former Manchester United star talk openly about falling in love with new wife Kate Wright - and the complicated emotional dilemmas the new family unit faced.

It also covered many of the issues that children have when it comes to rebuilding their lives after bereavement. During the documentary Rio's children were encouraged to go to therapy sessions with other youngsters who had lost a parent - and the ensuing discussions were illuminating and poignant. All those taking part revealed numerous concerns - from the fear of losing their other parent to their distress at seeing one of their siblings upset.

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