Bereaved dad Michael McEnery and his wife Maria have experienced the whole gamut of emotions since losing their daughter Annabel to a tumour at the age of 14 months.
From raw grief to despair, anger and finally acceptance, their ‘journey’ has been torturous but, Michael says, it has ultimately made them stronger.
In fact, the couple, who live near Kinnego, help run the Armagh branch of bereaved parents’ group Anam Cara, to support others going through the loss of a child.
Michael, who is an IT teacher in Lurgan but is currently on secondment to the CCEA exams body, explained how life changed completely for the couple in June 2007 when 10-month-old Annabel was diagnosed with a tumour in her spine.
She had been unwell, and had been starting to lose power in her arms and legs, but the diagnosis was a huge shock especially as doctors held out little hope for recovery.
However, after chemotherapy, Annabel began to improve and the couple dared to hope that their prayers were going to be answered. “There is a photograph of me playing with her in the ward, building blocks,” said Michael.
But just two weeks after that, a second MRI scan showed the tumour had spread to Annabel’s brain. Michael and Maria finally reached the heartbreaking decision to allow her ventilator to be switched off, and their youngest child “slipped away”.
Said Michael, “We just wrapped her in a blanket and brought her home in the car. We put her in the bed between us that night. We knew she wasn’t in any more pain.”
The months afterwards were “very, very tough” as the couple tried to bring some kind of normality back into the lives of their other children, then aged seven, six and three, and deal with their own feelings.
“There is the sudden realisation that she is gone and you are trying to figure out why,” said Michael. “Maria was constantly in bed, so I had to get the children to school.
“In the evenings we started to have a drink - not very heavily - but enough to numb the pain.
“We needed support. We were given numbers to ring but they were no longer valid and we tried another group but they had a waiting list.”
He added, “The tension was developing between Maria and myself and I had lost my faith completely. I was in such an angry phase.”
The turning point came when a support worker from a children’s cancer charity mentioned a family bereavement camp in Co Kildare.
“Meeting other parents and realising that they were going through the same emotions was a relief,” said Michael.
Through it they also met counsellor Peter Hanlon who “took a great weight off” their shoulders when he explained that couples often do not grieve together. Said Michael, “He told us that grief doesn’t come in a nice, neat package. It’s like a rollercoaster ride and that while two people are on the same train, they are not always in the same carriage.”
It was Peter who also told the couple about Anam Cara, which then held its closest meetings in Dundalk.
Four years ago, Michael and Maria, along with two other sets of bereaved parents, decided to undergo training with Anam Cara and set up a group in Armagh.
Said Michael, “We chose Armagh City Hotel as it’s a neutral venue and convenient. At the first meeting, we had 60 parents. It was overwhelming, we hadn’t expected so many.
“As I have gone through my journey I am much stronger, but I shudder to think of families who go through that and don’t deal with it.”
Since Annabel’s death, Michael and Maria have had another two children, and Michael describes it as “loving and heartbreaking” to hear the older siblings talk about Annabel to the younger ones.
Just last Sunday the family attended the Anam Cara family spring event at Barretstown Castle, Co Kildare, where families who have lost a child can meet, relax, chat over a tea, allow the siblings to engage in some fun activities while remembering and celebrating the memory of the child they have lost.
Anam Cara meetings are completely confidential. They are held on the last Wednesday of every month from September to June from 7.30-9.30. Anyone affected by the death of a child, no matter what age, is welcome to attend.