Belfast Telegraph

John and Lynette Rodgers honeymoon tragedy: As I waved Lynette off, Michaela McAreavey death flashed across my mind, says mum Eva Reilly

Year after her daughter and son-in-law drowned in South Africa just days after walking down aisle, Eva Reilly is still trying to come to terms with nightmare, but takes solace from fact the newlyweds were together when they died.

By Claire McNeilly

To this day Eva Reilly has no idea why such a dark thought flashed across her mind at that moment.

She had just watched daughter Lynette and her new husband John disappear through the departure gates at Dublin Airport. The pair radiated happiness, excitement, anticipation.

Yet, for some reason Eva started thinking about what had happened to Michaela McAreavey, and the devastation it had brought.

It was just a passing thought, though.

People rarely die on honeymoon; they have long, lazy, laughter-filled days and nights together, they walk along beaches, they plan for a fulfilling life ahead. They come home.

Four days later, at around eight o'clock in the evening, a police car pulled up outside Eva's Holywood home and two officers stepped out.

"My first thought when the police arrived was that something had happened to my son, simply because I'd already had a text message from Lynette earlier in the day," said Eva.

"I had been concerned because they'd been on a long drive, but after the message I knew they'd arrived safe... but when I heard the female officer utter the words 'Lynette and John...'

"I knew then by the look on their faces."

The news those police officers brought, and the profound shock and grief that accompanied it, was unimaginable.

The bodies of John Rodgers (28) and 26-year-old Lynette had been found washed up on a beach in South Africa.

Mrs Reilly's only daughter and youngest child had drowned alongside her new son-in-law on October 23, only a short time after checking into their honeymoon hotel.

Just six days earlier, on October 17, the couple, whom family described as inseparable, had got married in Holywood First Presbyterian - the same church that would host their joint funeral service a year ago today.

"I just couldn't believe it... to be honest, I still can't," said Eva.

"From the euphoria of the wedding day to what happened so soon afterwards... the last 12 months have been really hard to get through.

"You have to force yourself to get up in the morning and go and do things. Somehow you have to get on with life."

We're sitting in the conservatory of the 63-year-old retired civil servant's detached suburban home, and a dignified Eva is visibly still trying to come to terms with losing Lynette in such dreadful circumstances.

There are reminders of her beautiful daughter everywhere in the room that overlooks a well-kept garden; a photograph of Lynette and her beloved black Labrador Bonnie; a picture of the newlyweds; an album, handmade by friends and filled with photos and poignant messages.

Eva reaches for her favourite photograph of Lynette, taken on that unforgettable wedding day when the new bride laughed, danced and chatted with guests during the reception at Ballygally Castle, while never seeming to leave her doting husband's side.

"She's beaming; that picture says it all about her," said Eva.

"Lynette was very bubbly; she was full of fun and made friends very easily. I only realise now, a year since she's died, the impression she made on so many people and how she inspired others."

Two years prior to the wedding Lynette had taken up her first permanent job as a physiotherapist at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

Always the adventurous type, the ex-Holywood Primary and Sullivan Upper pupil spent four months working in Kenya with the charity Hands Around The World, after graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University.

"That experience in Africa greatly enhanced her life," said Eva.

"Some of the children were disabled and she was giving them physio and helping in the primary school. Lynette really enjoyed that.

"She was full of life and she made the best out of it. She did so much that I just have to be thankful that she lived life to the full, short as it may have been."

Eva opens a card she received from Jenny and Peter Hume, the 75-year-old South African couple who found her while they were out walking with two others.

John's body was recovered separately by local retired school teacher John Hall (70). The honeymooners were found just 20 metres apart.

"It was really awful for them too, to come across that on the beach," she said.

Lynette and John, who had been together for six years, were discovered on the picturesque blue-flag Robberg Beach at Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape.

It is believed the couple - who Eva said were both strong swimmers - had got caught up in a vicious riptide while taking an early evening dip.

The dreadful incident in such a beautiful part of the world shocked locals and the Holywood and Ballygowan communities here alike.

"The South African authorities reckon it happened about 5.30pm," Eva recalled.

"Lynette and John had just arrived, after a long drive to Plettenberg Bay and, obviously, decided to go for a swim. It was tea-time in South Africa, so there was nobody about, unfortunately."

It took seven days for the couple to be brought home - a horrendous wait for both grieving families - but, even so, Eva said she found some comfort in the knowledge that their bodies had actually been found.

"We could have been left wondering every day what exactly had happened to them; had somebody killed them?" she said.

"I'm thankful that wasn't the case; that it was a tragic accident." Eva breaks down in tears many times as she remembers Lynette - who was especially precious because her parents had been married for a long time before the children came along.

"I had three miscarriages and then my son (who has asked not to be named) was born 10 weeks premature," she revealed.

"And then I had to lie in the Royal Hospital for three months before Lynette was born due to complications... so she was a very precious child."

She added: "My late husband Derek and I had always wanted children, but we were married 13 years before we had any."

Derek Reilly, a plant technician, was 53 when he passed away in October 2005, three months after being diagnosed with cancer. He and Eva had been married for 31 years.

"I'm used to living on my own now, but after Derek died, Lynette was my strength," she said.

"She was very hands-on, get up and go. Her daddy would have been very proud of her achievements, and of her brother's as well. Her brother (now 29) was honoured to have walked her up the aisle on her wedding day."

Four months after leaving the family home in February 2014 Lynette got engaged to John, a part-time reservist corporal in the Territorial Army who worked for an office supply company in Belfast, and the couple moved to the east of the city.

The Ulster University graduate from Ballygowan was the middle child of Johann (59) and Billy (60). His sisters Gwen (32) and Kathryn (26) were very close to Lynette.

"John actually came and asked me if he could marry Lynette; they got engaged on June 24. I was very, very happy," said Eva.

"They were so good together. I was close to John. He was hands-on. If I needed any jobs done, John was very able. All you had to do was ask."

Eva helped pick Lynette's wedding dress and the two of them had a great day out shopping for the mother-of-the-bride's outfit, which her daughter chose.

"I tried quite a lot of places and was ready for home, but we went in to one last boutique and that was where I got it; she reached me an outfit and when I put it on I knew it was the one," she recalled.

Eva said Lynette had meticulously planned the honeymoon and had written down in a book the trips they were going to make and the places they were going to visit.

"My daughter was game for anything - she had even planned to go cage diving with sharks," she said.

It was Eva and a friend who drove the newlyweds to Dublin Airport for a flight to London, and then on to Johannesburg, on Monday, October 19.

That moment at the departure gates was the last time she would see them alive.

"On the way out of the airport, I actually said to my friend that it must've been awful for Michaela's family," she said, referring to the shocking murder of Tyrone GAA manager Mickey Harte's daughter on honeymoon in Mauritius six years ago.

"I don't know why I thought about her. It was just after Lynette and John had left us. For some reason, Michaela just flashed into my mind..."

Lynette's four bridesmaids - Ashley, Claire, Jenny and Poppy - were at the Reilly family home on Sunday, October 23... the first anniversary of their friend's passing. So too were friends from work and others from university; all were keen to share their fond memories of Lynette.

"It's very hard for them as well; very hard," Eva said.

"They texted each other every day, so it's a big gap in their lives as well."

Eva spoke of Lynette's desire to have children, and how she'd gone for a promotion shortly before the tragedy.

Mrs Reilly added that the South Eastern Trust had been very supportive to both her and their staff in the aftermath of Lynette's death.

They had a meeting to remember her on October 23, to mark the day she died. Later, they also had a staff service of remembrance at which Eva gave a tribute.

Going forward, the trust's physiotherapy department has created a memorial award in Lynette's name, to be annually bestowed on a member of physiotherapy staff who has shown exemplary behaviour or performance.

"That makes me feel very proud," Eva said. "I've had cards from patients she had, saying how she helped them so much."

She said she keeps in touch with John's family, adding: "I'm very aware that they've lost a son and when you go to the grave it's very poignant, because they're both there."

Coping with the pain doesn't get any easier, though.

"I know all about profound grief from the time Derek died, but losing your child is different," she said.

"Unless you've walked that walk, it's very hard to understand the feelings you go through. I don't know how Derek would have coped."

Not being able to talk to her daughter every day has been one of the hardest things for Mrs Reilly - and it's also one of the things she misses the most.

"She used to call me on her way home from work every day about 5.30pm and tell me what was going on in her life, what she was doing," said Eva.

"I still find myself waiting for the phone to ring, and her being on the other end of the line..."

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