Teenager was an inspiration

Hannah Shepherd.
Hannah Shepherd.

Hannah Shepherd was an inspiration to the end. The Markethill teenager died on Monday of last week after a five-year battle with a rare form of cancer – Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma.

Yet, throughout the trauma and the knowledge that the illness was terminal, Hannah (19) never once complained. As the end approached and she succumbed to the inevitable in the Southern Hospice in Newry, she left her parents Harry and Cynthia and brothers Sam (16) and William (15) with a burning sense of pride in a daughter and sister whose courage never flinched.

Her parents know that it was her unwavering Christian faith (nurtured in a loving home) that saw them all through. Hannah’s love of God was typical of the Shepherds – not an airy-fairy kind of faith, but a practical every-day journey by a young woman whose musical tastes veered from hymns like ‘In Christ Alone’ and ‘How Deep the Father’s Love’ (which she chose for her funeral service) to Gothic Rock (or goth).

The family chuckles there was a ‘dark’ side to Hannah as shown by her wonderful art creations – her favourites were self-effacing caricatures of herself, usually dressed in black with heavy black eye make-up.

She translated those individualistic tastes into her attire for her final journey – in her mother’s words – “to be with the Lord”. As the end approached, Cynthia and Hannah went on-line shopping for a black dress and black boots in which she was laid to rest, with friends of the family completing the picture by applying her characteristic eye make-up after she died.

“That was a sad, yet somehow joyous shopping experience,” said Cynthia, speaking from their farm home at Collone Road. “It epitomised the fact that the family had talked openly with Hannah during the entire heart-breaking process. We look back over those sad, yet fulfilling, years when nothing was left unsaid. We mourn Hannah deeply, and yet she inspired us throughout the five years. It was an honour to help her through. And the way in which she bore the burden will remain with us for ever.”

Harry finds solace in his farming – he runs a suckler herd – and he agreed that the main ingredient in helping the family cope was Hannah’s positive attitude. “Had she tended to moan, I suppose it would have been much more difficult,” he said. “But that was never Hannah’s way. She made it a privilege for us.”

Hannah’s condition was diagnosed when she was 14 and in her third year at Markethill High School where she was goalie for the hockey team. It began with a sore shoulder, which Hannah blamed on having to carry a heavy schoolbag. But it persisted, and – with a mother’s intuition – Cynthia set up an appointment with Dr Karen Webster who arranged a visit to Craigavon Area Hospital. It was there that the heart-breaking truth emerged and Cynthia was left with having to tell her only daughter that she had cancer.

Cynthia recalled, “I said to her – Hannah, petal, that thing, it turns out it is cancer – and she simply replied ‘cool’. We were completely shaken. It was a Wednesday night and on the Thursday night there was a huge community prayer meeting at our church (First Markethill Presbyterian). I woke up the next morning a completely different mum. I was given Grace that morning which has never left our family since.”

As part of a Christian family, Hannah was totally committed to her church – she had received her special 12-year badge for full attendance at the Girls’ Brigade, and a Bible for 10 years at Sunday School, and this loyalty and faith helped everyone cope from the start.

The month after her May 2009 diagnosis, she had a lung removed in an 11-hour operation, and 18 months later, when a brain tumour was found, another 
life-saving operation was performed. “Each time,” said Cynthia, “we prayed hard that Hannah would not be taken from us just yet. I suppose we, Hannah and God realised her time hadn’t come. It was such a privilege to look after her – she was so easy to care for.”

In her final year, Hannah was totally bed-bound, and during that time – as well as the family discussing things with her – the Minister of First Markethill, Rev David Irvine, was a tower of strength to the entire family. He spent quality time with Hannah, and they both benefitted from the conversations.

Hannah is also survived by her grandmother Heather Shepherd in the Markethill area and by her grandparents Clifford and Edna Mills from Clough.

Her final few weeks were spent in the Southern Hospice where the staff were, said Cynthia, “saintly and total caring experts in their field, both physically and psychologically”.

She added, “The cancer had spread to other areas of Hannah’s body and we all knew the end wasn’t far away.” At the terminal stage, the Shepherds’ attitude of talking things over paid dividends. The hospice staff continued to converse openly with the intelligent 19-year-old who was prepared to meet God, with the conviction that she was bound for heaven, leaving behind a family that carried her through and who, in turn, were able to discuss things in practical terms.

Said Cynthia, “Hannah left this world the way she wanted to – quietly slipping away in her sleep. She did have breathing problems towards the end and dreaded she would be short of breath and in a panic. But God was good and accepted our dear daughter quietly, leaving us with wonderful memories that she never once moaned ‘Why me?’ We’re so proud of her.

“So many caring professional people – medical, 
social workers, family, church and friends - helped us along the way, and all were 
inspired by Hannah’s lack of self-pity and humour through it all.”

First Markethill was full to overflowing into the adjoining property where the service – led by Rev Irvine – was relayed, with Auntie Karen Cullen reading the Bible lesson.

The GB formed a guard of honour and burial was in the adjoining churchyard.