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'Mummy's chair is empty': Daughter of Northern Ireland's fourth Covid-19 victim Ruth Burke on her loss

Ruth Burke was NI's fourth Covid-19 victim, but to daughter Brenda and all the family, she was the mum they adored

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Ruth Burke in later years

Ruth Burke in later years

Ruth Burke in later years

It's been three weeks since Brenda Doherty was told of the death of her mother.

And that's it. Told that her mother, 82-year-old Ruth Burke from Newtownabbey - and a lifetime of family memories - was gone, on March 24, 2020 in Antrim Area Hospital.

Separated from her family, away from her home, with only nurses she never knew to comfort her in her final hours.

Ruth was Northern Ireland's fourth official victim of coronavirus, and hers was the first tangible human story to emerge from behind the statistics.

Her daughter's bravery in stepping forward, speaking out in grief and some anger as those around her still enjoyed nights out on the town, trips to the seaside or family parties, either oblivious to what was about to explode around them or, worse, not caring, would have filled Ruth with pride.

A mother-of-five - Brenda, Jennifer, Paul, Colin and Richard, who died aged 16 - as well as a grandmother and great-grandmother, Ruth has so many close family members left bereft by her passing.

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Ruth with youngest son Colin

Ruth with youngest son Colin

Ruth with youngest son Colin

There was no proper funeral, no chance to say a final goodbye, no chance for the family to come together and remember the fun times, a life lived well, and mark through collective grieving the legacy of a wider family circle which grew up around her.

On Tuesday the death toll from Covid-19 officially stands at 134.

It is rising every day and the surge is expected to fully hit Northern Ireland within the next few days.

More families will be plunged into grief.

It is something Brenda understands only too well.

The figures are stark, but Brenda wants her mother to be remembered as more than a simple statistic.

So much has changed in the landscape here in three weeks. Over the Easter period, despite the spring sunshine, coastal resorts remained quiet. All but essential shops have stayed closed. Police checks have kept traffic to a minimum on the roads. Life does go on, but mostly behind closed doors.

And that, said Brenda, is how it should remain until the crisis is over.

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Ruth Burke with daughters Jennifer (left) and Brenda

Ruth Burke with daughters Jennifer (left) and Brenda

Ruth Burke with daughters Jennifer (left) and Brenda

"I can't believe it's three weeks. I really struggle to explain the feeling. It's like none of this is real," she said.

"I've called back briefly to mummy's home. Her chair is empty. Her knitting is sitting there, unfinished. We've had to cancel her pension, some bills, stuff like that. There are other things that need done but we can't do them.

"All we've been able to do as a family is talk on the phone and text each other. There have been no hugs, no moments of togetherness, which every family needs when someone so loved is lost.

"I would have gone to mummy's every Monday night since we lost daddy in 2011. Nine years of routine. I have to stop myself going out of the house on Monday nights. I would have telephoned her every night around 8pm. I still go to pick up the phone, then stop myself as I remember no one will answer. Those little things are difficult.

"My sister would have gone to mummy on a Wednesday, picking up her groceries, dropping them off, spending time. There's no time left to be spent.

"It's like life is postponed. Only when this is over will we get to do what we need."

I've called back briefly to mummy's home. Her chair is empty. Her knitting is sitting there, unfinished

Brenda said the images of her mother's funeral, a silent procession with only the sound of birdsong breaking the silence, will never leave her.

"We thought only two of us would be allowed into the cemetery, but the night before we were told 10 of us could be there," she said.

"They unlocked the gates and the hearse drove in slowly. We were allowed to follow at two-metre intervals.

"I'll never forget the scene of the council workers by the graveside in their protective suits.

"I still see the red and white tape around the open grave. None of us could be at the graveside to see mummy's coffin lowered into the ground.

"I don't know what she was wearing. I so much wanted to put her Mother's Day card in beside her, to give her one last kiss and leave lipstick on her cheek.

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Ruth Burke in younger days

Ruth Burke in younger days

Ruth Burke in younger days

"None of that happened. None of it felt real. It still doesn't, even though I see it when I close my eyes. It was so hard to watch, but one day, when this is over, we will all get together and share memories and hugs and be together as a family to remember and celebrate her life.

"We had no service that day, no visitors to the house, but what we do have, and will treasure always, are the comments on a Facebook page from so many people, many whom never knew my mummy. We look at that and it's helping us through."

Brenda has embraced the need to tell stories of the life of Ruth Burke, little blankets of comfort to stave off the numbness.

I would have telephoned her every night around 8pm. I still go to pick up the phone, then stop myself as I remember no one will answer

"These are stories about my mummy I never imagined I'd be telling the world," said Brenda.

"I watched The Royle Family last week, the episode where Nana dies. The emotion came again. I would have done the same things for mummy.

"I would have showered her, dried her hair. I remember one time bandaging a toe for her, as she had diabetes. It took a while and when I finished she just started laughing. It was the wrong toe but she said I was doing such a good job she didn't want to stop me. That's the wicked sense of humour she had. All those little stories come flooding back as I sit in the house.

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Ruth and her late husband Richard starting out on life’s journey together

Ruth and her late husband Richard starting out on life’s journey together

Ruth and her late husband Richard starting out on life’s journey together

"Mummy would have been amazed at the messages from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. She was never on a plane in her life. She only made it as far as Scotland on her honeymoon. Our family holidays were to Bangor or Portrush. Once we made it to Butlins.

"Mummy always told us she was a domestic technician. She liked that term. She was a dinner lady at Rosstulla Special School in Jordanstown. We were a normal working-class family and there were many times when mummy brought home leftovers from the canteen for our dinner. She did whatever she could to look after us all.

"That's why it was so hard for her when we lost our brother Richard when he was just 16.

"I look back now and realise how strong a lady she must have been to be able to deal with that. Things like that taught me we must all value the lives we have now and live them to the full.

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Richard and Ruth with their children outside the family home in Newtownabbey in the 1970s

Richard and Ruth with their children outside the family home in Newtownabbey in the 1970s

Richard and Ruth with their children outside the family home in Newtownabbey in the 1970s

"We had a rota of jobs around the house and we all wanted to do the hoovering in case we found a pound note lying around. Occasionally we did and mummy would send us to the shop for a loaf of bread and allow us to spend the rest on chocolate, saying we never knew we had it in the first place so it was a wee bonus."

Brenda recalled how her mother was always involved in the community centre, helping run the youth nights.

"She was the one to chase kids when she found them kissing behind the bike sheds or smoking round the back," she added.

"I remember her once borrowing my umbrella and bringing it back shaped like a boomerang. She said she'd spotted a few young lads throwing stones at a girl at the bus stop and she'd taken the umbrella to them. She was only five foot two, but she stood up for the vulnerable. That's why I've learned the need to look out for the vulnerable of today.

"I see elderly people in nursing homes, many of whom might not understand what's going on around them, why their family is not coming to visit. We have to keep them safe and when all this is over we really must look at the work our care workers are doing and treat them with the respect their jobs deserve.

"I think about what they must be going through. To pick up the phone to call a loved one and tell them their mum or dad has just died in these circumstances must be an awful thing to have to do."

I'll never forget the scene of the council workers by the graveside in their protective suits

Brenda sees the faces of those who have died as a result of the virus and it brings back all the pain.

She added: "This has brought home our vulnerability as humans, and until there is a vaccine for coronavirus that sense of vulnerability will always be there. I don't think our lives will be the same. I've watched in admiration the work that communities have been putting in to keep people safe. That, to me, is inspiring.

"Sadly, there are still a few idiots who think they're above all this. I've walked past gardens where lots of kids have been playing. Don't these families realise what they're doing?

"We are all at risk, that's the reality we have to deal with."

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Ruth with son Paul

Ruth with son Paul

Ruth with son Paul

Brenda already knows the first thing she is going to do when the restrictions are finally lifted.

"I'll be trying to meet the nurse who sat with mummy in those final hours at Antrim Hospital," she said.

"I know her first name is Sharon. She'll be the first to get a hug. I like keeping lists but since mummy died I haven't been able to tick anything off and that eats at you. You want to do these things, but you can't.

"For now, we're keeping a scrapbook. To the grandchildren and great-grandchildren mummy was known as Nanny Ruth. When they tell you Nanny's with the angels it breaks your heart all over again. We will one day look back on 2020 as the year Nanny Ruth died. We hope the strength she showed through her life runs through us to get to that stage."

Much more than just statistics

Families across Northern Ireland have spoken movingly about what it means to lose a loved one to Covid-19 and how their lives were about so much more than the virus which led to their passing. If you have lost someone close to you and would like to share the story of a life well lived, email us at newseditor@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph