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When a loved one is missing from the celebrations

The empty chair at the table is one which will cast a shadow over festivities in many households over the Christmas period. Two Northern Ireland families tell Stephanie Bell how they cope with the season after losing a young person in tragic circumstances

Father’s grief: Peter Dolan, whose son Enda was killed by a driver on Belfast’s Malone Road
Father’s grief: Peter Dolan, whose son Enda was killed by a driver on Belfast’s Malone Road
Enda Dolan
Happy times: Enda Dolan with brothers and sister and parents Niamh and Peter
Rosemary and Leslie Day, the parents of Corporal Channing Day
Corporal Channing Day

The empty chair at the table is one which will cast a shadow over festivities in many households over the Christmas and New Year period. Two Northern Ireland families tell Stephanie Bell how they cope with the season after losing a young person in the most tragic of circumstances.

‘This is now a time of the year you don’t look forward to, as there is one person less in the house... you would love to just press a fast-forward button and roll on to 2019’

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Enda Dolan
 

Peter Dolan wishes that he could press a fast-forward button on time and transport himself to January, missing the Christmas and New Year period altogether. That's how difficult this time of the year is for the Co Tyrone dad since he lost his 18-year-old son Enda in October 2014, when he was knocked down and killed by a drunk driver.

Peter, a chartered architect from the village of Killyclogher, says the whole family - wife Niamh and children Dervla (20), Ben (16), Andrew (12) and Adam (10) - find this time of year without Enda difficult.

He says: "Christmas was always nice, especially with the kids in the house, but since Enda was killed things changed dramatically.

"It is now a time of the year you don't look forward to, as there is one person less in the house. It is a sad time and really you would love to just be able to press a fast-forward button and roll on to 2019."

It is not just Christmas Day but the countdown to it which is a struggle. With one child less to buy presents for, even the simple act of shopping is heartbreaking.

Peter says: "From my wife's point of view, at this time of the year she has been out looking for presents. Enda is not here and she has had one less to buy for. That is hard to take.

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"When she's been out shopping, memories have come flooding back of previous years and what she got him.

"The children appear to be coping okay but in relation to Christmas, my heart goes out to them, as they are missing him as well.

"He is their older brother who they would have played with and argued and fought with. He was someone they would have looked up to, a role model, and it is heartbreaking that they do not have him now."

Enda's death, just three weeks after he started studying for a degree in architecture at Queen's University, Belfast, devastated his family and shocked Northern Ireland.

He died on his sister Dervla's 16th birthday in the early hours of October 15, 2014, when he was mown down by drunk and drug fuelled driver David Lee Stewart, from Gray's Park Avenue in Belfast.

Enda was walking to his student accommodation on Belfast's Malone Road when he was hit by Stewart's van and dragged for half a mile.

Devastatingly for his family, even after stopping and seeing Enda, Stewart and his passenger drove on down the Malone Road.

Stewart was initially sentenced to seven years - three and a half years in prison and the same on licence. On appeal he was given another year in prison.

It is a sentence which Peter and his family have found hard to accept and led them to launch a campaign to have the law changed, so that people who cause death by dangerous driving face a stronger maximum sentence.

Their campaign has seen them meet with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Attorney General and officials from the Department of Justice.

Currently the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years and the family are campaigning to change it to at least 20 years or life.

Peter says: "We are passionate about getting the law changed.

"Until it is, there will be others standing outside the courthouse saying they are disappointed in the law.

"To us, the passenger was as guilty as the driver, as he pulled Enda off the car and left him on the side of the road like a piece of rubbish.

"They then drove on down the road and came to an abrupt end when they crashed into a lamppost.

"It has been a long process and we feel let down by the lack of action at Stormont. It doesn't help that we have currently no Minister for Justice.

"For Stewart to get four and a half years in prison for killing someone is totally disgusting.

"It doesn't sit easily with me that he got a five-year driving ban and that started when he went into prison.

"He will serve four and a half years and just six months after getting out he can drive again.

"The law needs revamped. It is just not acceptable in this day and age to kill somebody and get that sort of sentence.

"You want to see the pain in our house and I know our home is no different from other houses up and down the country where life has been lost because of drunk driving.

"Enda does not have a voice and the other families who have lost someone in similar circumstances don't really have a voice, so I am prepared to put my neck on the line and get a result if that is what it takes.

"We are continuing to meet with government officials and ministers until we get the law changed. It is important for me that no other family goes through what we are going through."

Peter has also channelled his grief into establishing a charity in his son's memory.

The Enda Dolan Foundation is a fitting legacy to the bright and talented young man, as it focuses on improving the lives of the local community.

Enda was a straight A student and a keen athlete who enjoyed running. He was also a gifted guitar player.

Some months after losing his son, Peter, also a keen runner, created the 'Run For Enda' which has become an annual event attracting thousands of runners each year, all running in memory of Enda.

He has also established numerous six week couch to 5k running programmes which he coaches himself, inspiring and leading his community towards a healthier lifestyle.

The foundation has also established the Enda Bursary for first year architecture students at Queen's University.

In honour of Enda's love for playing the guitar, The Red Balloon Guitar Workshop was also established.

This week-long workshop, held in August, sees around 60 people from the ages of eight to 18, get the chance to learn or enhance guitar skills.

Peter adds: "It is a very uplifting week wand it is all about keeping his memory alive and doing things that he would have had a passion for.

"We also now have done 10 running programmes geared towards people who are not generally up for running and we do couch to 5km and many of them have gone on to run the Omagh half marathon, which is great to see.

"It is great to see so many people out and doing exercise and it is these things which keep you going."

‘It all changed without Channing. It took me a long time to realise why the kids didn’t want to do what we usually did on Christmas morning... it would have hurt them too much’

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Rosemary and Leslie Day, the parents of Corporal Channing Day
 

Christmas was very special in the Day household before tragedy struck in 2012 and they lost their beloved Channing. Since her devastating death in October 2012, when she was shot while serving as a medic in Afghanistan, no one in the family has had the heart to celebrate Christmas as they did when Channing was part of it.

This year, however, a new addition to the family, nine-month-old Kingsley, is bringing some joy to the season for the first time since Channing's death.

A new son for Channing's brother Aaron and the first grandchild for her parents Rosemary and Leslie, little Kingsley has given everyone a reason to smile again.

Rosemary says: "This is the first time since 2012 that we have looked forward to Christmas - because of Kingsley.

"This is one of the toughest months for us. From October until January would be very tough, as we have Channing's anniversary and then Remembrance Day and Christmas.

"When she was alive I would have had the tree up knowing she was coming home on leave and her sister Lauren would have been coming home from England and everyone would be back together again, but now Channing is never coming back and it is tough.

"Having little Kingsley in the family has helped immensely. Aaron has his own wee family now and another baby on the way and he has had Christmas at his home."

Channing was a bright, beautiful and bubbly girl whose life was cruelly cut short when she was killed with colleague Corporal David O'Connor while on her way to give first aid training to Afghan police officers on October 24, 2012. She was 25-years-old.

As a medic with 3 Medical Regiment, Channing had saved many lives doing a job she loved and which she had dreamt of doing from her schooldays.

She is described by all of her family as a wonderful young woman who never stopped smiling and who had an infectious laugh.

She was also an enthusiastic and talented sportswoman, playing football for Northern Ireland as well as ice hockey. She had gained her qualification as a ski instructor through the Army and was a Northern Ireland gymnastics pair's champion.

While Channing's death saddened people across the country, it had a profound impact on her local community in Comber, where everyone knew her for her dedication to her sport and the Army.

As a pupil of Strangford College, she was always physically fit and achieved top grades in PE, excelling at gymnastics, trampolining and netball.

Her family still find it hard to accept that such a vibrant young life could be extinguished so suddenly.

One way of coping has been to throw themselves into raising funds for Army veterans and their families.

Everyone has played their part - mum Rosemary (56), a school cleaner, dad Leslie (58), a civil servant, brother Aaron (29) and sisters Laken (30) and Lauren (33).

In the first couple of years after Channing's death they raised £70,000 and Rosemary continues to fundraise for numerous Army charities.

But while it takes her mind off things for a while, traditions like Christmas, when Channing would have been at the heart of celebrations, are still a struggle for Rosemary.

A very close family, they had enjoyed their own traditions which made Christmas extra special every year.

Rosemary explains: "My four kids are all very close. We have a three storey house and the girls would have been in the top floor room and on Christmas Eve, Aaron always went up and slept with them.

"Every Christmas morning Leslie would ring a bell and the kids would come down and line up on the stairs.

"Leslie always said the same thing - even when they were adults - 'Oh dear, looks like Santa didn't come'. The kids each had a chair in the living room with their presents laid out on it.

"There was one Christmas that Channing didn't get home because she was in Iraq and the kids made a head of her and put it on a stick and put her in the line on the stairs and sat her at the Christmas table and put party hats on and took pictures. It was such a joke, but it was like they couldn't leave her out.

"The first Christmas without her, the kids all stayed here on Christmas Eve, but Aaron stayed in his own room and they didn't line up on the stairs and they didn't get up together as they usually did.

"Leslie and I went to the graveyard on Christmas morning and the kids went later. It all changed without Channing, it just wasn't the same, and it took me a long time to realise why the kids didn't want to do what we usually did on Christmas morning. It would have hurt them too much."

With most of her children having now flown the nest, Rosemary and Leslie have had a quiet Christmas at home this year with just their daughter Laken.

But of course it isn't just Christmas that is different, as the family have found every day hard since losing Channing.

Last year Rosemary hit a low point and attended counselling, but even after 20 sessions she said the pain had not gone away.

She says: "It doesn't get any easier. Last year I was at rock bottom and we paid for counselling, but it didn't help.

"I decided I needed to get out of the house and I started doing the breakfast club in Andrew Memorial Primary, then supervising the children from 12-1pm and then doing my cleaning job later.

"I'm out all day working, much of the time spent with kids and wee ones, and that has been the best medicine for me.

"It is tough, but we just have to try and accept that Channing is never coming home."

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