‘Every day I walk past the spot where my wife died and say a prayer. The biker who killed her got out of jail after only a few months... but our family’s been sentenced to a life without Valerie’
A year and a half after his devastating loss, Seamus Armstrong tells Claire McNeilly about bringing up his three children without their mother... and why he is backing an off-road motorcycle awareness project aimed at preventing another tragedy like the one still haunting him
Eighteen months on, Seamus Armstrong's grief at losing his beloved wife is as profound as ever. Valerie Armstrong was just 35 when she died from the devastating injuries she suffered after being struck by a teenager riding a scrambler motorbike at a west Belfast beauty spot on July 20, 2016.
That sunny afternoon the devoted mother-of-three had, as usual, been walking her dog in Colin Glen Forest Park near her Poleglass home when off-road rider Gary Lewis, then aged 17, crashed into her.
Lewis is now free, having served just nine months in prison, while Valerie's heartbroken family are still trying to adjust to their life sentence without her.
But, in an act of admirable selflessness, aimed at helping others avoid the suffering that they continue to endure, the victim's husband has agreed to endorse a new awareness project aimed at encouraging the safe use of off-road motorcycles.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the 43-year-old widower said that, in the absence of the woman he spent almost two decades of his life with, his primary focus has been on their son and daughters - Dylan (11), Lucy (8) and Sophie (6).
"We were together for 19 years and married for 11, so every day is a struggle, to be honest," he says.
"It's not easy looking after three young children alone. They still talk about Valerie a lot, especially Sophie, the youngest. She asks more questions about her mother and gets upset quite a lot.
"Dylan and Lucy are coping quite well but, understandably, they have their moments."
The west Belfast man admitted there have been many dark days and nights since they lost Valerie and, choking back tears, he revealed a heartbreaking incident during a recent shopping trip.
"Lucy is making her First Holy Communion this May and, while her and I were out looking at dresses, she broke down saying 'Mummy won't be here for my Communion'," former chef Seamus recalls.
"It's all those things that Valerie won't be here for. The kids know themselves that she should be here for them. This will go on until they're adults and getting married ... But mummy won't be here for all of these things."
Organisers of the MCE Ulster Grand Prix are today launching a Motorcycle Awareness Project aimed at young people across Greater Belfast and Lisburn, to encourage the safe use of off-road motorbikes.
The educational cross-community pilot scheme, which is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, is being funded by the Department of Justice under the Assets Recovery Community Scheme, and is supported by the PSNI.
Twelve young people aged between 13 and 17 have already begun a 12-week programme at David Wood House in the MCE Ulster Grand Prix paddock, with training designed and delivered by Cornerstone Off-Road Motorcycle Academy.
Those behind the project have confirmed that the youngsters chosen to take part were picked through community groups and by local police.
Learning includes a combination of classroom and practical workshop sessions that teach bike safety and riding skills, and participants will leave the course with certifications in emergency first aid at work, Motor Cycle Union of Ireland flag marshal awareness, basic maintenance skills and basic riding skills.
Supporting this new initiative is not something Mr Armstrong is undertaking lightly, but he believes it will hopefully shield others from senseless suffering.
"I'm glad to see something is being run, even though it's too late now to make any difference to my family," he says.
"But if it helps save someone else's life, taking a handful of these youngsters off the road and giving them the education that they need - and maybe giving them the willingness to stay off the road and pass on a bit of knowledge to younger ones - it can only be a good thing."
Following today's launch, Seamus's role will be to share his personal story with those enrolled in the scheme - and it's not something he's looking forward to.
"I'm going to have a word with the kids who are involved and put across my side of what the effects are should they cause an accident while they're out riding illegally," he says.
"Unfortunately, this only brings it all back to me."
Recalling that dreadful afternoon, Seamus revealed he first knew something was terribly wrong when their dog Kaya returned to the family home without Valerie.
"When Kaya came round the corner by herself, a female neighbour just screamed," he says.
"They had found out through social media that there had been an accident in the park and, when Kaya turned up, they put two and two together and realised something must have happened to Valerie.
"They knew I had been out in the back garden with the children and she screamed 'Seamus, you need to get round to the forest ... it's Valerie'.
"At that point, I hadn't a clue what they were talking about."
Not knowing which route Valerie had taken made finding her all the more difficult but Seamus asked several walkers along the way if they'd seen anything and eventually he came across her.
"I eliminated paths I knew I didn't have to take and ended up at the lake while she was still being worked on by paramedics," he says.
"The boy who was riding the bike that had knocked into her was being restrained by the police; the boy that owned the bike had taken it away and left the scene."
Mr Armstrong followed by car as his wife was taken to hospital in an ambulance, while the neighbours looked after the children but, tragically, Valerie never regained consciousness.
"She died at the scene ... a couple of teenage girls had earlier tried their best to save her using CPR," he says.
Seamus recalled how he and his wife had their last conversation over the breakfast table that morning, just hours before he would see her alive for the last time when she returned from work that afternoon.
"She came in, got changed, came out the back and asked if any of the kids wanted to go with her - but luckily enough they were all playing in the paddling pool with their wee friends and none of them went," he says. "That was one of the things that went through my head... only for the kids being in the sunshine and playing with their friends, they would normally have gone round with her and some of the neighbours' kids would've gone round with her, too."
Gary Lewis, of Colinvale in Dunmurry, pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving and using a motor vehicle without insurance and was sentenced to 18 months in prison last March.
He was freed exactly one year after loving mum Valerie lost her life, despite Mr Armstrong's appeal to the probation service to have his release date changed.
"He took someone's life and, whether it was accidental or not, that punishment was ridiculous. It sends out the wrong message to all the others who are riding around illegally and putting people's lives in danger," says Mr Armstrong.
"I would have liked to have seen him do the full 18 months in custody - that would have been a bit more appropriate, but it's still not enough. He was classed as a juvenile because he only turned 18 three months after what happened."
Seamus hasn't had any contact with Lewis, but fears that it's only a matter of time. And he said that knowing the person responsible for his wife's death makes the situation harder to deal with.
"Once his probation time finishes in April or May, he could potentially go back to his family home, which is not that far away from us; myself or the childen could end up bumping into him," said Seamus.
"In court he said he'd written a letter of remorse to our family but I have never received that letter that he used as part of his defence. If it exists, why haven't I got it 18 months later?"
Notwithstanding the deep void that will never be filled, Seamus said he does "his best" to forgive Lewis for what he has done; likewise he has decided that "getting angry is not the way to go".
What is of some comfort to him, however, is that he now knows two people are alive today because they received Valerie's organs.
"She gave her liver, pancreas and her kidneys and I believe two women are doing well today thanks to her," he says.
Meanwhile, Kaya, the dog, still gets taken round the park on a daily basis by Seamus, for whom it has become a poignant pilgrimage.
"I walk past the spot every day and say a wee prayer for Valerie," he says.