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Why I'm glad to shine a light on the work of the NI Hospice in helping families like ours

Belfast woman Cathy Portis will remember her mother's death exactly a year ago when her daughters switch on the Northern Ireland Hospice Christmas tree lights on December 20. She tells Stephanie Bell how the hospice helped her mum in her final days and also provided vital counselling for her and her daughters

Cathy Portis endured the worst Christmas of her life last year when she buried her beloved mother on December 20.

This year will be just as difficult, but as a family they will remember their mum in a special way when they take part in the launch of the Northern Ireland Hospice annual Lights to Remember service.

Cathy's two daughters Remy (eight) and Storm (15) are to switch on the lights of the hospice tree in Dominican College on the anniversary of their grandmother's funeral.

The girls both benefited from bereavement support from the charity to cope with the loss of their granny Hannah Neill (82), who gave up work when they were born to help look after them.

They will be joined at the service by older brother Logan (21) and their dad David (49), a telephone engineer and grandfather Billy (79). Also there will be Hannah's other two daughters Esther and Elaine, along with Elaine's husband Paul and daughter Ava.

Cathy (49), who works as a legal secretary, says the loss of her mum left a huge hole in all of their lives and every day is still a struggle without her.

Taking part in the hospice Christmas celebration will be a comfort to all of this family who came through a tough year after Hannah was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour.

Hannah, from north Belfast, lived for her children and was just as devoted to her grandchildren.

Cathy says: "I am the youngest of three girls and always had a special bond with mum.

"She always worked, but still was there for us growing up. When I had my first child, Logan, he was also the first grandchild and first boy in the family.

"Mum insisted on retiring to look after him. She adored kids and when I had mine it was almost like another child she was having.

"She was just over the moon and she spoilt Logan rotten. Then when my two girls came along, she insisted on looking after them, too.

"Everyone knew her from pushing a pram into town every day. Nothing was ever too much trouble for mum and she went to every school play and every sports day and even to their swimming lessons."

She adds: "Losing their granny has been very hard for them and switching on the Christmas tree lights in memory of their granny will be very special.

"Storm and I both had bereavement counselling through the hospice and Remy also came a couple of times.

"Having that kind, calm, patient support there for us has made a world of difference; we've all benefited enormously from the time we've spent with them."

Even with the counselling, the grief can still emerge at certain times.

"It hits them every so often. I would be going past Storm's room and find her crying some days and that is really difficult. She is still getting counselling in school to help her. Mum left such a hole in all of our lives."

Hannah's diagnosis in May of last year came out of the blue. She had enjoyed good health for most of her life and was fit and active.

She was very brave in the way she dealt with her diagnosis and tried to remain positive for her family, even though her condition deteriorated quite rapidly.

Cathy says: "Her diagnosis did come out of the blue. Mum was out every day of the week getting the bus into town. She loved shopping and she always trailed daddy along with her.

"She enjoyed good health all of her life until her final years. When I was expecting Remy she took a stroke, but she bounced back unbelievably and was up and about the next day.

"Then about five years ago she had to go through open heart surgery in her late 70s to replace a valve, but again she was back on her feet in no time.

"Then four years ago on Boxing Day she fell and broke her hip and shortly after that broke her ankle. It just seems like in the last seven years everything happened to her."

However, no one was prepared for what happened in Easter 2017, when Cathy's dad rang her at work to express concern for her mum.

She had been disorientated and the family worried that she might have suffered another stroke.

They took her to the Mater Hospital, where she was admitted for tests.

Cathy says the family was shattered by the news they received when she and her sister Elaine and her mum attended hospital in early May that year for the results of the tests.

She adds: "They did a scan and said they had seen a shadow on her brain, but we thought it was maybe just scarring from the stroke.

"We went along to the Royal for the results and had even planned to go to lunch after it, not thinking for one minute we were going to be told what we were.

"The doctor said she was sorry, there was no other way of saying it, but mum had a malignant tumour and they couldn't operate and it was too dangerous to do a biopsy.

"Mum just said, 'Oh well, what can you do, you have to get on with things'. I had to go out of the room, I was in such a state.

"I wanted to know how long she had and at the same time I didn't want to know. The doctor said she would be lucky if she saw Christmas.

"We came out of the hospital and we didn't speak and the three of us went home. We didn't know what she was thinking and then on the way home she asked if we could stop at the Co-op because she had to get ham.

"That was her way. She carried on as if everything was normal and she stayed positive. She never cried, but to me there was a wee bit inside her that died. She had always been so happy and she tried, but you just knew it wasn't the same, although she didn't talk about it."

Hannah enjoyed a few good weeks before her condition started to deteriorate. Her memory started to go and she was no longer able to climb the stairs. She was in and out of hospital and not long after her 82nd birthday in September she was admitted to the City Hospital, where she stayed until December 11, when she was moved to the Northern Ireland Hospice. She passed away on December 16.

Cathy says: "Looking back, I wish she had had more time in the hospice.

"She had stopped eating and wasn't able to come home. I and my two sisters stayed with her the whole week she was in the hospice and daddy stayed a couple of nights.

"It was like a hotel, the room was beautiful and so fresh and clean. Nothing was too much for the staff. It really is an amazing place."

Hannah had loved the Christmas festivities. She attended a carol service in her local church every year with Cathy.

It seemed fitting that carols were sung at her funeral on December 20 and her family wore her favourite colour, green.

Christmas Day without Hannah was horrendous for the family.

Cathy had no choice but to go through the usual celebration for the sake of her children, but her heart was breaking.

The empty chair at her dining table was especially hard.

She says: "I always had mummy and daddy for Christmas dinner and I had to try and salvage Christmas last year for the sake of the kids.

"We did everything we usually do. Daddy came to us and it was hard. We have five seats in the kitchen and Logan and his daddy would usually eat Christmas dinner in the living room, because there wasn't enough room for all of us all in the kitchen, but last year I asked everyone to bunch up so we couldn't see the empty space.

"This year will not be any easier, but taking part in the hospice service will give us all something positive to do in memory of mummy and we will be forever grateful to the charity for their incredible care of mum and us when she needed it most."

Every year the Northern Ireland Hospice holds its Lights to Remember celebrations, with free events for everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of whether they used the service or not. The annual Lights to Remember appeal invites people to dedicate a Christmas light in memory of a loved one, while supporting the vital hospice care service.

Services are being held on December 11 at 7pm in Castle Coole Estate, Dublin Road, Enniskillen; December 13 at 7pm in Mullaghmore House, Old Mountfield House, Omagh and on December 20 at 7pm in Dominican College, Fortwilliam Park, Belfast.

What your donations will pay for:

One hour of complete care from the team in the in-patient unit over Christmas will cost £22.92.

Two hours of specialist community services, helping to keep a family together for Christmas, will cost £69.33.

Looking after one patient, and their family, in the in-patient unit for the whole of Christmas Day will cost £550.

To support Lights to Remember go to www.nihospice.org

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