'My brother Dara (35) died from a brain tumour, months later my sister Fiona (44) died from cancer and I'd a brother Rory who died in a road accident. So I have no brothers or sisters left. I think about them every day. I loved them to bits'
In a deeply moving interview former UTV news presenter Aideen Kennedy opens her heart to Leona O'Neill about the series of tragedies that have devastated her family - and tells how her two children helped her carry on
She was a familiar face on our television screens, beaming into our living rooms every evening in her role as a UTV news presenter. But behind Belfast woman Aideen Kennedy's slick, camera-ready on-screen appearance lay crushing grief and heartache that would lead her to put on nearly three stone in weight and close herself off to the world.
Two years ago the 39-year-old mother-of-two lost her beloved younger brother Dara to a brain tumour. Still reeling from the unimaginable loss, her older sister Fiona was diagnosed with cancer and died just weeks later. Six months after burying her brother, Aideen had to lay her sister to rest.
Her only other sibling, Rory, was killed as an infant in a road accident. With her two "best friends" taken from her so suddenly, her entire sibling support unit disappeared.
The tragedies plunged Aideen - now a freelance reporter and mum to Jacob (9) and Eva (5) - into a spiral of depression and overeating that led to her putting on weight and her self-esteem plummeting.
"Dara was 35 years old," she says. "Two and a half years ago he went to Forestside Shopping Centre to get his eyes checked. He had fallen down the stairs and thought it might have been something wrong with his eyes. He always had good eyesight. He had had a brain tumour before, in his twenties.
"He got treatment and got the all-clear so he wasn't thinking about that. He just thought he needed glasses.
"They checked him, saw that there was something behind his eye and told him he needed to go to A&E immediately. There they did a biopsy. That was in June - the consultant said that he would be dead by Christmas. But eight weeks later he died. The cancer was all over his head, all over his brain, in his spine, everywhere.
"Six months after Dara died my sister Fiona wasn't feeling well. She went to her doctor, then to the Royal Victoria Hospital. They operated on her and found cancer all over her tummy. Six weeks later she died. She was just 44 years old.
"It was such a shock. The night before she died I was talking away to her and we were planning to go away for a weekend. We were best friends and we loved the cinema and making plans for days out together. The next day I got a phone call to say that I needed to come to the hospital straight away, that she was going to die. It was awful. I didn't believe it. Even now I don't believe it."
The tragedies were not the first to impact on her family. Aideen says the loss of her baby brother, Rory, many years before was still being sorely felt.
"I had another brother Rory who died in a road accident when he was one-year-old," she says. "It was an unfortunate accident - he ran out on to the road and got knocked down.
"So, I have no brothers or sisters left. I have none. It has been awful for my mum and dad. They are amazing. I don't know how my mum coped. She has started to come back to life a bit now. My dad is an angel. They are both very good and we talk about them all the time.
"I think about them every single day. I loved them to bits."
Aideen says she misses her brother and sister every day and still finds herself picking up the phone to call Fiona.
"Fiona worked in the BBC for 20 years so she was just around the corner from me," she explains.
"We used to text and phone all the time. We'd meet for walks, we'd meet for dinner. She was so supportive of me because she also worked in the media and knew how difficult that could be.
"She was always at the end of the phone for me to ask how to deal with something.
"Sometimes now when I'm watching television or whatever and an advert might come on I think to myself, I must phone Fiona about that, we must go and see that. Then I remember that she is not there.
"Fiona was so loved by everyone because she was so kind and patient, she was such a loyal person and so was Dara. Their funerals were absolutely packed. I had people coming up to me that I didn't know telling me how much they touched their lives. People were telling me stories about them and I loved that. They were very special people and great characters. We were so close.
"Fiona was very sensible and extremely kind. Like my mum, she had a brilliant sense of humour. She was seven years older me and nine years older than Dara but every Saturday she would take us to the Curzon cinema on the Ormeau Road and spend her babysitting money on us. She was so generous and kind.
"When we were growing up I pretty much tortured Dara. He was like Fiona, very gentle but I always managed to persuade him to get up to mischief. Dara was a big lad and was extremely protective of me. When my little boy Jacob was born, he just adored him and Jacob thought he was great.
"Dara taught me to be patient and to be kind, no matter what the situation. He was very protective, he left me and my friends out to where we were going every Saturday night and then would say 'Have you got a taxi booked?' Obviously we didn't so he would sigh and say 'Right, I will pick you all up at a quarter past one, behave!'
"Fiona taught me how hard the media business is and how to navigate it. She told me that being kind to those you work with and have relationships with is the best way to live.
"Dara, Fiona and I would have done everything together. We were just very good friends and very close. Our family has always been close. It is now very strange when Easter comes and Christmas comes and they are not there."
Aideen says that she struggled to cope with the huge losses and turned to food for comfort. She says once she realised her brother and sister would not want her to be unhealthy, she took back control of her life.
"I didn't cope very well," she says. "I was not good for a long time. I comfort ate and put on loads of weight. I had really good friends and family, but I stopped wanting to go anywhere or do anything. I was hiding myself away. I put on about two and a half stone. Then one day I just thought, 'This is enough. I cannot keep on like this'.
"I thought to myself, 'Dara and Fiona wouldn't want that for me' so I decided it was time to make some changes. I spoke to a couple of friends and told them that I might like to maybe go out walking. It started really from there.
"At the start I was just doing a few miles a week. My best friend Claire said that I needed to walk faster, I needed to pick it up a bit. It was so helpful going out with people who were encouraging me.
"I started off slowly, doing just a few miles a week. Now I do 20 miles per week, doing about five miles, four days a week. "As I did it I started to feel better and better and better. And I've lost two stone and four pounds.
"It lifted my spirits so much. Even getting into my old clothes. I was literally going around in a black top and trousers all the time and they were getting bigger and bigger and it was so depressing. Whereas now it's lovely to be back in my dresses.
"It lifted my mood, my confidence and my self-esteem. I would say that to anyone going through a tough time.
"I know that it's so hard to make that first step out, but it is worth it."
Aideen left UTV news at Christmas after 10 years. She says that although she loved the work, she wanted to spend more time with her children.
"I loved UTV," she says. "But I just wanted a change of scenery. I was changing everything in my life and I just thought a break away and something different would be good.
"I wanted to spend more time with my kids. I'm freelancing now with U105 and it's been brilliant.
"I've been able to go to every concert my children are in, every play and all Jacob's football matches. It's been just lovely."
"My friends laugh at me because I put the heat on in the house for her when I go out to work. And I genuinely think that sometimes maybe I should leave the TV on for her during the day in case she's lonely. My friends think I'm nuts."
Aideen says she will never forget her 'gentle and kind' siblings and knows they are looking down on her family every day.
"I knew them inside out and back to front," she says. "I will remember them by thinking about them every single day. I have a diary and I write down things about them that I remember. I have their photographs all over the house.
"My sister's widower, Conor, gave me some of Fiona's things and I treasure them. I have some of her books, clothes and even her make-up, which she loved. I will never let go of those things.
"I remember them by talking about them. My two children want to talk about them and my mum and dad do too. I'm always going to remember them.
"And there are always going to be times when I burst into tears and think that it's so unfair.
"But then there are other times when I just want to remember the good things, like how everyone loved them. They were good, kind people."
Aideen takes comfort from a strong feeling that her beloved siblings are still watching over her.
She continues: "I think they are looking down on me and I hope they are proud. I see little signs.
"When I get myself into a state about some things and anxious about things. I think, in the larger scheme of things, 'Does this really matter?' I have become more chilled out and relaxed. Because the worst has happened already. It has given me a different perspective on things."
She adds: "As for dark times, I was in the blackest place and I thought that was it for the rest of my life but that's not the case.
"Yes, I think about Dara, Fiona and Rory every day but as time has gone by, life has got better.
"I think reaching out to family and friends is essential and not pretending you're okay on days when you feel bad. My advice for people navigating grief is that even when times are dark, think about the special people and moments in your life that make it all worthwhile."