Just over a year after losing her teenage daughter Anna to cancer, heartbroken Co Antrim mum Aine Kearns has created a moving tribute she hopes will strike a chord with anyone grieving a loved one.
Anna’s Light — a song penned and performed in memory of the 18-year-old by local singer Rebekah Fitch — is to be released to mark National Grief Awareness Week, which begins on Thursday.
Anna had already fought a fierce battle with brain cancer at the age of seven and went on to enjoy 10 years in remission before the return of the disease in 2019.
For Aine, a holistic therapist, it meant doing something no mother should ever have to do — preparing her child for her death.
In a shattering story of loss and love, Aine (54) says she hopes the song for Anna will give a message of hope to those who hear it and raise funds for the Northern Ireland Children’s Cancer Fund.
“I wanted to do something really different that would embody her energy so that Anna’s light can shine forever,” she says.
“The song really is the essence of Anna. It is perfect, it has grit and there is just something special about it.
“I want it to reach out to people on that same type of journey and let them know that, no matter what, they are not alone and love never dies.
“To me Anna’s energy never dies, she is with me in nature. I hear her voice or see something that will remind me of her.
“Hopefully Anna’s Light will show people that death is not the end and no matter how hard and cruel it is on those who are left, it is freedom for the person who was in so much pain.”
Aine feels that one line of the song in particular — ‘Everywhere she went she bloomed’ — really sums up Anna’s bright personality.
Anna was one of three girls living with their mum in Glenravel. Sisters Stephanie and Mary are 26 and 24 respectively.
Her loss has severely impacted all of the family, who thought she had beaten cancer after a tough battle with the disease at the age of seven.
Anna was diagnosed with a grade 4 medulloblastoma, which is the most common type of brain tumour in children.
She underwent an 11-hour operation, which removed as much of the tumour as was safely possible.
But she lost all power down her left side and had to learn how to walk again.
She then had six weeks of radiotherapy and a year of chemotherapy, and while she was on medication ever since, the disease seemed to have disappeared.
Her mum says: “Before her diagnosis, Anna had not a care in the world and was really happy-go-lucky.
“I had been taking her back and forward to the GP for several months before she was diagnosed.
“She stopped eating and her personality changed. She went from being very shy to suddenly quite extrovert and I later discovered that was due to a build-up of pressure in her brain.
“She started being sick regularly and having headaches. At one stage we were told it was stress. Then her left eye turned in and I took her to my optician who discovered her optic nerve had disintegrated. He advised me to get her to the doctor immediately.”
Anna had a CT scan carried out shortly afterwards revealing she had a brain tumour.
Life changed in an instant for the family, as Aine explains: “I will always remember that day. Anna was clinging to me and I was in bits.
“She was crying that she didn’t want to die and she was afraid to go to sleep that night in case she didn’t wake up.
“I remember the doctor coming in to tell us and she had been in tears. I pulled myself together and after that we realised we just had to fight it.
“Anna went through a lot over the next year with surgery and treatment and she was left with serious nausea, which she had to take medication for.
“I never left the hospital for three weeks and it was hard on Stephanie and Mary. Being the oldest, Stephanie took over the mothering role and had to grow up very quickly. They lost out on a lot.
“Anna had to learn to walk again and was left with balance issues which prevented her from doing some things.
“But she was determined and went back to school and passed all of her GCSEs and got an award for learner of the year.
“She then went to the local tech to do performing arts because her confidence had been knocked and she thought it would be good to help her build it back up again.”
Anna was enjoying life and all appeared well until early 2019 when Aine started to suspect that all was not well.
“I noticed her gait was going off and she had started to have back pain and I just knew something wasn’t right,” she explains.
“I could see her going downhill and I brought her to Antrim Area Hospital.
“After tests we were told she had pneumonia, which was such a relief that we were jumping up and down with joy.”
However, six weeks later and with no improvement in her health, a visit to A&E revealed news that no one was prepared for: the cancer was back and this time it wasn’t treatable.
Aine recalls: “They did three MRIs on her in one day and I knew at that point things weren’t good.
“It was May 23, 2019 and they said the cancer was back in her bones.
“She had another scan on June 4 which revealed the cancer was in her spine and other bodily organs and that it had gone rogue round her body.
“We decided to fight it tooth and nail and Anna never gave up and insisted on going back to the tech to finish her course. She even went on a trip with the school to London that December.”
Covid struck and the first lockdown in March 2020 saw the family shield to protect Anna.
That tragically coincided with a rapid deterioration in her condition.
Stephanie came home to help her mum nurse Anna around the clock. As a holistic therapist Aine had given her daughter all of the treatments she could to improve her health.
When she realised her daughter was coming towards the end, she decided to prepare her for her death.
She explains: “Everything I had in my tool box I was using.
“I now believe that I was meant to train in holistic therapies because of Anna.
“I studied reflexology when I was pregnant with her and I used every healing bit of energy I had to help her.
“When I realised the end was coming I worked to prepare her to pass on peacefully.
“I did in a way that she wasn’t conscious of but that was preparing her on a sub conscious level.
“I got her to do some visualisations.
“It is really hard to say to your child you have to go with this. No mum should have to do that.”
Anna passed away peacefully surrounded by her loved ones at home on August 7, 2020.
A year on and her family are still struggling to live without her.
Aine says: “I’ve had post-traumatic stress disorder but I know because of my training how to deal with it.
“I’ve walked the legs of myself and done all sorts of healing work on myself. I recently returned to work and I opened my new therapy business called The Embodiment of Love in Anna’s honour.
“Stephanie helped me nurse Anna and what she saw no one should have to watch their sister go through, and both she and Mary have really struggled.
“I don’t know how you are supposed to be or how you are supposed to grieve, but I will grieve for the rest of my days.
“I feel that I owe it to Anna to live my best life and keep her memory alive, which is why we have made the song.
“The Cancer Fund for Children helped us a lot. They were there for the girls when they were younger and have been there for us throughout. I hope the funds raised from the single will enable us to give something back to them.”
Anna’s Light is now available to listen to on Spotify and iTunes. Aine has also set up a fundraising page in memory of Anna. Find it at https://justgiving.com/campaign/AnnasLight