Death of Michael Cullen 'reopened raw wounds' for McIlwaine family
The grieving family of Dean McIlwaine say the death of another young man in tragic circumstances has brought everything back for them.
It comes after the body of North Belfast man Michael Cullen (33) was recovered from Cave Hill on Wednesday evening.
The grim find - following an intensive three-week search campaign - bears heartbreaking similarities to the disappearance of Dean.
The 22-year-old barber was also found dead at Cave Hill last July, after a high-profile nine-day search.
At the time of their disappearances, Michael was described as Ireland's best beat-box performer, while Dean had been poised to open his own salon in Glengormley.
Dean's aunt Ann Taylor (62) said the McIlwaine family had followed the search for Michael, which so closely echoed their own efforts to trace Dean.
She described how her sister, Dean's devastated mum Karen, had broken down in tears at the news that Michael's body had finally been recovered.
"I would just like to say that the McIlwaine family are really feeling for the Cullen family, and our sympathies, thoughts and prayers are with them," she said.
"The loss of a child is something that you will never get over, and unfortunately Mr and Mrs Cullen are having to go through all of that now.
"The days after Dean was found were a total blur for the family. When you get the news it is an absolute shock to the system, as you hope they are coming home.
"Karen and Rod were absolutely devastated - they had heard about Michael's disappearance from the first day, and they are still so raw from Dean's death.
"The are re-living Dean's loss with Michael - it has brought everything back.
"They couldn't bring themselves to go out on the searches, particularly as they were at the Cave Hill area where Dean was found, but they were hoping and praying Michael would be found alive.
"Dean's brother Glen had been sharing updates from the searches on social media in order to help get the word out. Unfortunately the Cullen family will have a long, hard road ahead, and they will never get over it.
"When some time has passed I think Rod and Karen are hoping to visit Mr and Mrs Cullen. They know what they are going through."
The circumstances surrounding the disappearances and searches for both men bear striking similarities.
"The only difference was the name," Ann continued.
"They were both popular young men full of life and promise, they both had a lot of talent, and you would have thought they had everything going for them. They even looked similar.
"Dean and Michael both came from big families, and they had a lot of friends and support.
"Dean could have told us anything and we would have listened and tried to help, and I'm sure it was the same for Michael, but you don't know what was going on in their minds.
"If someone dies of natural causes at least you have answers, but if they go missing you will always be left with questions."
While Dean's parents and brother are attending grief counselling, Ann said the family is still struggling to come to terms with his loss nearly seven months later.
"You could go to the best counsellor in the world and it doesn't take away the fact that you have lost a child," she continued.
"It may help you get up in the morning, or to look at things in a different light, but it doesn't take away from what you are feeling.
"You are still expecting him to come through the door."
Ann says she has come to believe that the only "saving grace" for her family in the midst of their tragic situation is the fact that Dean's body was recovered.
"A lot of boys and girls go missing and their bodies are never found," she explained.
"At least we can go to Dean's grave and talk to him.
"I am glad the Cullen family were able to bring Michael back to his home.
"For us, it was hard to go for nine days not knowing what had happened to Dean.
"Karen said that not knowing what had happened to Michael for three weeks must have been absolute agony for Mr and Mrs Cullen.
"We were hoping and praying for them the whole time."