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'Why I'll be remembering my mum, dad and sister at Northern Ireland Hospice Lights ceremony'

Ahead of next month's Northern Ireland Hospice Lights to Remember Appeal, Belfast mum Joanne McGibben and her four children explain why the torchlit march means so much to the family

By Stephanie Bell

As she nursed her late mum this time last year, Joanne McGibben had no doubt that, just like her dad 10 years earlier, her mother was dying from a broken heart.

Today, as she supports the annual Northern Ireland Hospice Lights to Remember Appeal, Joanne's story illustrates the terrible impact on parents when they lose a young child.

Joanne's younger sister, Shauna, was only eight years old when she died from a rare cancer and Joanne says her parents, Margaret and Joseph Graham, never got over it.

In a strange coincidence, both were 62 years old when they suffered heart attacks, even though neither had a history of heart trouble in their families.

Her dad couldn't be operated on because of other medical complications and died 10 years ago, aged 62, while her mother was also unable to receive surgery and died on January 21 of this year, aged 63.

Every year, Joanne's mum got some comfort from going to the hospice to place a star on their Christmas tree in support of the Lights to Remember appeal in memory of her daughter and then her late husband.

This year, Joanne will continue the tradition and take part in the poignant ceremony in her mum's place to remember her and her dad and sister.

Joanne (33), who is a staff nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital, is married to Michael (32), a taxi driver, and they have four children Seana (16), Shea (8), Michaela (6) and Corry-Leigh (3). They all live in Belfast.

She recalls: "Mummy had a heart attack last August. I was working in the Mater Hospital at the time and she collapsed on me and I brought her into work to A&E and she was admitted to a ward. The consultants wanted to put a stent in, but her arteries were completely blocked and so she had heart failure, which was being managed by medication.

"About three years before, I had suspected that she had dementia and she had tests and we were told she was bipolar, but she was eventually diagnosed with dementia.

"I was 11 when my sister, Shauna, died and I believe my mummy had been depressed ever since that. She never got over it and that loss took its toll on her. When daddy died, it was terrible for her and I think in the end she had just given up.

"Daddy and mummy separated before Shauna died, but remained very close and they were always together. Daddy drove mummy everywhere and when he died, she really missed him - and it was very hard for her losing him.

"My daddy was never the same either after Shauna died and they both died as a result of heart attacks, even though no one in their family had ever had heart trouble. I think their hearts were broken." Deborah's current home in Belfast was also the house she grew up in and where both her sister and father passed away.

She was determined to nurse her mum in her final months, even though her condition deteriorated quite rapidly and she needed round-the-clock care.

It was also important to Joanne that her mum was at her home when she passed away, so that she could be close to her husband and late daughter.

It was a very tough few months for all the family and it was only with the help of hospice nurses, who gave them respite in the last three weeks before Margaret passed away, that they were able to cope.

The loss of their granny was tough on Joanne's children, especially eight-year-old Shea, who received counselling from the hospice social work team to come to help him come to terms with it.

Joanne says: "It was hard, especially on the kids. I worried about them and I tried to keep everyone happy.

"I really wanted mummy to be in this house as daddy died here and my sister died here and I wanted her to be with the two of them.

"The hospice was fantastic and said if things got too tough, she could be admitted and it was good to know that it was there if I needed it, but I was determined to keep mummy at home.

"The hospice nurses gave her pain relief, which really helped to settle her, as she was in so much agony in the last weeks.

"They sat with her for three hours a week and let us go out and relax as a family. It was gave us a break and it was lovely.

"Watching her deteriorate was awful. In the last couple of weeks, she was paralysed from the neck down.

"Shea was in the room with me and my brother when mummy passed away. After it, he completely changed. He had so much anger in him. If you asked him to do something simple, like brush his teeth or get changed, he would run round the house screaming and banging things and that wasn't Shea.

"The hospice counsellor came every week for a couple of months to see him and she really helped him and he was soon back to normal. I dread to think what he would have been like without that service."

It will be a difficult first Christmas for Joanne without her mum and, even now, she is reliving this time last year when she was nursing her knowing that the end was not far away.

Her gratitude to the hospice is clear and she is sharing her story today in the hope that people across Northern Ireland will get behind the charity for its annual Lights to Remember Appeal.

Ever year, the charity invites people to sponsor a light on the hospice Christmas tree in memory of a loved one.

Now entering its 21st year, the Lights to Remember appeal hopes to raise £200,000 to provide care and support to people facing the end of life over the festive period and beyond. For families, Christmas can often be a very emotional and difficult period. Lights to Remember is an opportunity for families to come together, reflect and shine a light in memory of their loved one.

On Thursday, December 17, following a short service at Dominican College, Fortwilliam, a torchlight procession will proceed to the new hospice building on Somerton Road, where the Christmas lights will be officially switched on. As construction work is not yet quite finished, the service will take place outside on Somerton Road.

This year, funds raised will go towards helping the charity to continue to provide care for over 3,000 adults with life-limiting illnesses in Northern Ireland. With demand increasing for hospice services, the charity is now caring for over 90% of patients in their own homes and communities.

While hospice care is free to the patient, it is not free to provide and the charity relies heavily on support and donations from the public.

Joanne will walk in her mother's footsteps when she sponsors a light in her memory this Christmas and in memory of her father Joseph and sister Shauna.

"The hospice is such an important charity and it needs the public's support. No one really understands until they are in the position, just how wonderful that support is," she says.

"Mummy always went to light candles and to the remembrance service in the hospice for my little sister and then she did it for daddy as well. I think it will be nice for us to go and do it for her this year and it would be great if people would support the appeal and the absolutely fabulous work of the hospice."

In Northern Ireland, one in three people are touched by the care and support they receive from Northern Ireland Hospice.

This is only made possible by the generosity of the public in supporting appeals such as Lights to Remember.

Belfast-based hospice community nurse Evelyn Whittaker knows the difference that hospice care can make.

"This year many people will be spending the festive season missing a loved one," she said.

"Sponsoring a light on the hospice tree is a special way to remember them, whilst helping to provide care to local adults living with a terminal illness.

"Every donation, big or small, to sponsor a light goes a long way. A donation of just £30 could help pay for an hour of hospice care."

Anyone wishing to sponsor a light and help thousands of families can make a donation by calling 028 9077 7123 or visiting

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