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'You don't know what's behind a smile': Co Fermanagh woman dedicates herself to helping others after siblings' tragic suicides


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At the launch of the Hope Health and Growth event for 2019 are Sister Edel Bannon, Adrian Dubar, Noelle McAlinden and Aideen McGinley.

At the launch of the Hope Health and Growth event for 2019 are Sister Edel Bannon, Adrian Dubar, Noelle McAlinden and Aideen McGinley.

Adrian Dunbar

Adrian Dunbar

Noelle McAlinden

Noelle McAlinden

Noelle McAlinden art

Noelle McAlinden art

Noelle lost her sister Roisin in 1999 at the age of 35 and then in 2016 the family was rocked again by the loss of Anita Rooney at the age of 51.

Noelle lost her sister Roisin in 1999 at the age of 35 and then in 2016 the family was rocked again by the loss of Anita Rooney at the age of 51.

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At the launch of the Hope Health and Growth event for 2019 are Sister Edel Bannon, Adrian Dubar, Noelle McAlinden and Aideen McGinley.

A Co Fermanagh artist is set to share insights about how she coped with the unimaginable heartache of losing two sisters to suicide in a bid to inspire others with hope this new year.

Despite living with such massive personal tragedy, Noelle McAlinden will be aiming to inspire audiences when she takes part in the Hope, Healing and Growth event in her home town of Enniskillen this Saturday.

The 59-year-old former teacher and arts activist is part of an impressive line-up of speakers who will be helping get 2021 off to a positive start through the annual event.

Organised by the Aisling Centre, a charity dedicated to the promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing, the event will once again be launched by its famous patron, the Fermanagh actor Adrian Dunbar.

This year, because of the impact of Covid, offering hope to people is more important than ever - and that's exactly what Noelle aims to do.

"The Hope, Healing and Growth event aims to help everyone explore self-care so they can support themselves and those around them to cope with the times we find ourselves in," she says.

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Noelle lost her sister Roisin in 1999 at the age of 35 and then in 2016 the family was rocked again by the loss of Anita Rooney at the age of 51.

Noelle lost her sister Roisin in 1999 at the age of 35 and then in 2016 the family was rocked again by the loss of Anita Rooney at the age of 51.

Noelle lost her sister Roisin in 1999 at the age of 35 and then in 2016 the family was rocked again by the loss of Anita Rooney at the age of 51.

"Because I have lost two sisters to suicide, people might expect my reflections to be grim, but my wish is that they will bring hope.

"I don't see myself as a victim but as one of too many families bereaved by sudden death, which this year is especially relevant because of Covid and the huge loss it has caused to many.

"It is about equipping ourselves with resources and, as a community, supporting each other with compassion and empathy."

Noelle, known as an educationalist, creative advisor and artist, is a founding member of the Hope, Healing and Growth event.

Dedicated to suicide prevention, she believes that art and creativity have a big part of play in positive mental health.

Although living in Fermanagh since 1983, she is originally from Maghery in Co Armagh, where she grew up the eldest of seven children.

Coming from a loving and close family, the shock of two sisters taking their lives over 21 years was completely shattering.

Noelle lost sister Roisin in 1999 at the age of 35 and then in 2016 the family was rocked again by the loss of Anita Rooney at the age of 51.

"My father, Vincent, ran a successful market gardening business and Roisin helped with this," she recalls.

"Sadly, we had no idea anything was troubling Roisin. She was a real home-maker, was generous-hearted and had a great sense of fun.

"Her death was a huge shock and loss to us. We were heartbroken and it was at a time when suicide was seen with stigma.

"We are a very close family and nobody expected it.

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Noelle McAlinden art

Noelle McAlinden art

Noelle McAlinden art

"A year after her death, I dedicated an art exhibition to her called Out of the Blue. It struck me how, during one of the saddest times of my life, I was able to create something of beauty and bring joy to my family and others.

"I learnt at an early age that art can bring great joy. (I also learned) the importance of self-expression for mental health."

The incredible pain of Roisin's tragic death never left the family, but even in their worst nightmares they could never have guessed that it would be an agony they would have to revisit 17 years later with Anita.

Noelle had been coming to terms with a cervical cancer diagnosis and was on her way to hospital to get the results of surgery when she got the call to say her sister had died.

It was such a traumatic moment that, to this day, it has the power to move her to tears when she talks about it.

Fighting emotion, she explains: "My sister Anita had three incredible grown-up children and a loving husband. Sadly, she was seeking medical support for her mental health in hospital when she died. We thought she was safe, which made her death all the more shocking.

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Adrian Dunbar

Adrian Dunbar

Adrian Dunbar

"Eight weeks earlier, I had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. It was ironic that as I was trying to cling onto life, my sister was going through what she was. Your world is turned upside down and you go into automatic pilot.

"Anita was a very loving mother and wife, a successful businesswoman who was normally vivacious and outgoing.

"No one knows what is hidden behind a smile. Some people who are carrying the greatest burdens put on the bravest faces.

"Suicide leaves many questions, as well as a huge gap in your life. We are such a close, loving family. If this can happen in a family like ours, what can happen to a family that is disconnected?"

The void left by her sisters is something that can never be filled, but ultimately Noelle's message is a positive one.

Self-care and compassion are at the heart of her philosophy, as is as a call for families and communities to look out for each other.

"We can never bring them (loved ones) back, but we never forget them. With love and dignity, we must continue to be compassionate, kind and have empathy for ourselves and those that may be vulnerable," she stresses.

"Our health system needs greater investment and resources. We have only one precious life, so it's important we look after our own and each other's mental health and wellbeing.

"We need to equip ourselves with skills and tools that will help us all in challenging times.

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Noelle McAlinden

Noelle McAlinden

Noelle McAlinden

"Covid has illustrated how, even in the most challenging of times, we can connect and support each other and not take each other for granted."

This year's Hope, Healing and Growth event will be held virtually, allowing even more people to take part.

Organiser Aideen McGinley says: "There has never been a greater need than now to promote hope, healing and growth.

"We have run this event over the past three years and each year it has always been inspiring and compelling. This year it is even more important that our speakers tell their stories and share their wisdom. All of us can benefit and learn from their life journeys and find ways to cope with the pressures around us.

"Self-care is vital for all of us and there is always someone out there to listen. This event helps us all to reach out and support one another. Christmas may have been, but hope isn't cancelled."

This year's Hope Healing and Growth takes place on January 9. Register at www.theaislingcentre.com. The event is free, but donations are welcome. For further details, contact the Aisling Centre on 02866325811 or look for the centre's Facebook page

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