Although we’re not terribly good at dealing with death and serious illness in the West, we do have our mourning rituals.
And among the most significant these days are the memory and charity walks, usually raising money and awareness for a particular cause while allowing bereaved friends and family members to recall the person they’ve lost.
At Antrim on Saturday, there will be a charity walk — or walks, as there are three elements, an eight mile walk, a five mile walk and a mile-long memory walk.
It’s all in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support, which this year celebrates 100 years of providing nursing and psychological support to people nearing the end of their lives.
The new Macmillan palliative care unit, which opens in Antrim next year, will also benefit from the walks.
As joint organiser Cynthia Cherry puts it: “This is an Antrim walk in the Antrim area for Antrim people and for Antrim charities. Fundraising is in my genes as my uncle was Dean Samuel Crooks from St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, the first Black Santa, and when I discovered Macmillan needed money for this good cause, I got busy as I know the superb work they do.”
This year, actress Alexandra Ford will be getting proceedings going and completing the Memory Walk herself.
She revealed at the launch why she wanted to get involved in the event.
“I’m taking part in the Antrim Walk in memory of my mother's two best friends Moira Gamble and Pat Carson who died of cancer. I know that unfortunately every household has been affected by cancer in some way.
“Macmillan Cancer Support helped my grandfather and my family when he died of cancer a few years ago. Their sensitivity and humanity were a great inspiration to me at that sad time.”
We talk to three people who are taking part in this weekend’s walk.
A walk that’s filled with pain — and hope
‘They offer support when maybe relatives are bewildered’
Alexandra Ford (36) is an actress perhaps best known for her role as Dympna in Give My Head Peace. Married to agent Mark McCrory, they live in Belfast with children Lara (4) and Max (one). She says:
This is the first time I’ve done the Macmillan walk and I’m doing what’s called the Memory Walk, which is a mile, so I can bring the children.
We’ll do it as a family and we’ll be thinking about my mother’s best friends, Moira Gamble and Pat Carson, and my grandpa Joseph who all died of cancer.
I feel very strongly that we will be remembering people and not just thinking about their passing. Before I was born my grandmother Ethel died from cancer, yet my mum’s mum was a living presence to me. As a mother now, I can only imagine how hard it was for my mother to lose her.
Auntie Moira was the sort of person who made life into a party. She knew how to find the fun in anything and her cup was always half full.
Her children, Julie, Richard and Philip, and I all grew up together in Antrim and used to go on holiday together.
Moira had been ill with several different forms of cancer, principally bowel cancer, and had had various operations. She then had Macmillan care at home in Strabane.
Patsy was an incredible woman, a career woman and a real inspiration, who was very efficient and embraced some of the feminist ideals I had as a teenager.
She developed pancreatic cancer, and Macmillan provided the respite care at home when Patsy and her family needed it at the end.
I suppose my closest experience, though, of Macmillan nurses was with my grandfather, Joseph Ford.
He developed cancer and I realised that the nurses have to support the patient when relatives may be bewildered and confused. It’s difficult to ease the patient’s discomfort while giving the family practical and emotional help but they do it. They helped my granny, Martha, who’s still around.
I was 24 when he died and we had a very close relationship as I was the eldest grandchild and the only granddaughter. The sun shone from me and was reflected in him. Macmillan nurses are a great source of support.”
‘The Macmillan nurses helped my family get some closure’
Karl Downey (24) lives in Antrim and works at the Clonlee Nursing Home in the town. He is also a part-time student at the Belfast Metropolitan College. He says:
Last year I took on a Macmillan Cancer challenge and cycled from London to Paris, raising £3,500. It was around July time and the weather was roasting — I remember it was over 30 degrees for four days.
The reason I did this was that when I was in primary school, my Granny McTernan died of breast cancer when she was in her early 60s. I was only eight but it was the first time I’d been close to somebody who had died or knew somebody with cancer. And when that person goes, there is a real gap.
We used to go to my granny’s house for a roast dinner every Sunday and we all live near each other, so there was a lot of contact. She’d had breast cancer 10 years before and was in the clear, but then it returned which was sad.
I couldn’t understand what was happening at the time but the experience has been in my memory ever since.
Recently my other grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and it rocked the whole family. It also brought back memories. Happily, she’s got the all clear now but Macmillan is a charity that is close to my heart. I’d heard that Macmillan was building a new palliative care unit in our town and wanted to help. I thought about organising a disco but then saw the Paris trip on the Macmillan website and just went.
The funny thing is I felt lost when I got back from Paris, as if I’d nothing to aim for. Fund-raising is 110% an addiction.
Then I did the Belfast marathon for Macmillan, raising £500.
Why do I do it? I just want to give people in this area a hand and show people who have cancer that people care.
On the Paris ride, I met an older gentleman who’d lost his 15-year-old daughter to cancer and he had done annual charity events for the last nine years. Another guy kept cycling and the last I heard he’d reached Australia.
Since I started running, I’ve met some Macmillan nurses and the work they do is outstanding. I think at the time of my grandmother’s death, they helped the family get some closure.
I’ll be doing the eight mile walk on June 18. There’s a buzz about these charity walks; I’m keeping fit and raising money for charities at the same time.
It’s also important to remove the stigma and taboo about cancer. Happily cancer isn’t the death sentence it was and one day I want to get involved in medical research.”
‘I’m keeping their memories alive and raising money too’
Natasha Strain (23) works as a supervisor at Asda in Antrim, and lives with her parents in the town. She says:
Last year, I did the Antrim walk for the first time for Macmillan. It was on behalf of my aunt Tracy — she was 37 when she developed lung cancer and sadly died of the disease.
It happened just a year ago. She was diagnosed on May 1, then died on May 13 when her son Robert had just turned 21.
It all happened so quickly — it started in her lungs, then Tracy lost the sight in one eye as the cancer spread to her brain.
She died in the cancer unit in Belfast City Hospital. She used to smoke but of course it was still a shock, and we’re a close family so it affected all of us.
After Tracy’s first hospital appointment, Macmillan Cancer Support contacted us to offer their help. A nurse came round to our home where my aunt was staying.
They’re really supportive and help with practical things like obtaining the death certificate. And they didn’t just support my aunt Tracy when she was in hospital, they’ve gone on helping my cousin.
He’s the only one in the house now, and they’ve helped him apply for benefits. He is also having counselling.
When Tracy went, my mum Karen lost her younger sister, after losing her mum the year before, and her dad the year before that, all to cancer. We’ve had our fair share of tragedy.
This year I’m going the walk for my granda Harry McNally, my dad’s dad, who died on November 28. He was 72 and said he wanted to live to see his birthday which he did.
He had Macmillan Cancer Care support and got home visits which enabled my granny Kathleen to get a few hours’ sleep.
He was a bit of a stubborn man and wanted his family all around. He died at home and we asked for donations for Macmillan Cancer Care instead of flowers, raising roughly £200.
You’d be lost without Macmillan in these situations, so I’m putting on the T-shirt again, with granda Harry’s picture on it this time, and a lot of colleagues from ASDA are coming with me. My granny’s doing the memory walk.
It’s good not sad because you’re keeping their memory alive, plus raising awareness and money for the care of other families.”