Artie O’Hara first become involved with Cruse when he was a consultant psychiatrist based in Derry in the 1980s. He had a family bereavement when he was young and felt passionate about the work that we were doing in Northern Ireland. He was heavily involved in our response to the tragedy of 9/11 and went to New York to support the British families affected.
“When I was nine years old my grandmother died. For a variety of reasons she had been important to me and this was the first time I had been to a funeral. I remember being affected by the sound of the first shovels of clay on her coffin.
“Later I found myself crying but not really understanding why this was happening to me but not to my younger brother. Later when I became a psychiatrist I learned that this reaction was related to the bond developed when at about one year of age my grandmother had looked after me for some months while my mother was unwell.
“Some other events as I grew up also re-enforced with me the idea that bereavement and loss were significant in many people’s lives but not often acknowledged as such even within the field of mental health. As a consultant psychiatrist I had a number of referrals of people who were experiencing emotional disturbances which appeared to be manifestations of a psychotic illness but where I felt that these were related to bereavement.
“When the regional manager of Cruse in Northern Ireland, Patrick Shannon, arranged a meeting in Derry in1987 to consider setting up a branch of Cruse in Derry I went along to offer encouragement. Patrick subsequently persuaded me to join a steering committee to achieve this. I somewhat reluctantly agreed as I was not sure I had the capacity to make the commitment and I certainly had no intention of making a longer term commitment.
“However as many Cruse volunteers find, once you become involved it is difficult to step away. So over the next few months the steering committee achieved its objective of setting up the second branch of Cruse in NI I was again persuaded to stay involved and became chairperson of Foyle Cruse.
“As chairperson for the regional committee I was also asked to be the NI regional representative to council. For the next few years I regularly attended council meetings and I hope that my contributions were valued. I can certainly say I was privileged to meet and work with people on Council who willingly gave up their time to see Cruse being able to promote the care of bereaved people.
“However my time on council came to be dominated by the events of September 11th 2001. When Cruse was asked by the Government to send volunteers to New York to support relatives of British people who may have perished in the Twin Towers I was asked in conjunction with Dr Colin Murray Parkes to lead the team in New York.
“The two weeks I spent in New York were challenging but fascinating. We worked alongside the consulate staff and the police liaison officers to provide practical and emotional support to relatives who came over from the UK. This involved meeting relatives at the airport, guiding them through immigration and customs and ensuring that they had somewhere to stay. When, usually the next day, the were settled we escorted them to the facilities set up by the US Government where they could obtain information about those who had been killed and also provide the U.S. authorities with personal items which might help with identification of victims.
“I think we learned that while formal counselling has its place, and lots of good work was done that in the immediate aftermath of such an event, that people valued being able to access information and having practical support as perhaps being the most important aspect of their needs.
“From a personal point of view two things stand out for me during this time. On the first morning in New York, I found myself in front of the media at a news conference which came as a total surprise to me. On hearing my Northern Irish accent people assumed that I had some special expertise due to our situation at home. As a consequence I spent a lot of my time being interviewed by radio, TV and newspaper reporters. Meanwhile the other volunteers were doing the real work.
“The second was a letter from a lady that I had accompanied while she sought information. In it she said 'Thank you for your strong silent support for me'. For me that comment seemed to highlight the value of being alongside people in distressing times without having to say anything.
“While I have said this was a challenging time I look back on it as one of the most valuable experiences of my life. Sometime later due to work and family commitments I felt the time had come for me to hand over to others who would be able to take forward the work of Cruse. I look back on my time with great fondness and value the good people I met. I wish Cruse well and hope that its good work will continue for another 60 years.
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