From enjoying an afternoon in the garden, within an hour, Belfast father of two Gareth Murphy had watched his wife die and was discussing organ donation with a doctor. Left alone with two young children, he couldn’t find the emotional support they needed. But now, thanks to a new partnership project from Cruse Bereavement Care and Corrymeela Community, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, families like his don’t have to suffer their loss alone.
As the hot bath filled and the mirror misted over, Gareth Murphy finally got an insight into his little boy’s sense of loss and bewilderment following the death of his mum Linda just a few weeks before. ‘I miss mummy...’ seven-year-old Nathan had written in the steam on the mirror the previous evening. Stark in its simplicity yet seismic in its meaning the heart-breaking sentiment summed up the catastrophic loss the young family now faced.
“Linda and I had been working in the garden. An hour later I’d said goodbye and was having to make a decision about donating her organs,” recalls Belfast businessman and father of two Gareth. “It was a massive brain haemorrhage. She was just 41 years-old.”
The irony is that his mother had died of the same thing when Gareth was just 19, 24 years before. “So I’d gone through bereavement as a teenager, then as a partner and now I was watching my sons Jordan (14) and Nathan (12) face the same thing. “When Linda passed the shock was horrendous but I remember looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself I had to be strong if I was going to be able to look after the boys. In a way I could rationalise what happened, but the boys couldn’t – they were ten and eight. It was traumatic, but as an adult I could sort of deal with it – watching your kids in that sort of pain is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
“I’ll never forget returning from the hospital after losing Linda. I can still see the boys looking past me in the hall to see where their mum was... and then they were just completely lost and inconsolable. Utterly. They just couldn’t handle the information...”
Like any death, though, the impact on the family was not only emotional. There were practicalities too.
“Until then, I’d been working in London all week and coming back to Northern Ireland at the weekends so there was the question of how to carry on paying the bills and juggling being a dad. Those early days were the worst of my life – I have no problem admitting I had very depressed thoughts. I was also drinking too much after the kids went to bed, while I was on my own, and then waking up with a hangover and not able to be the dad the boys needed. I just wasn’t thinking straight."
"You don’t,” says Gareth. “You don’t know what to do for the best and suddenly your partner isn’t there to bounce ideas off. Suddenly I was having to buy clothes and shoes for the kids – I’d never done that in my life! I felt very low one day when I had to buy school uniforms for the first time on my own. I also remember one morning Nathan saying I wasn’t making his Weetabix like his mum used to - but to keep trying and I’d get the consistency right eventually. They were very difficult times.”
Gareth returned to London briefly to tie up his business interests there but decided his and the boys’ future was in Belfast, where he has since established a new business so he can always be closer to Nathan and Jordan.
“I knew something of what the boys were going through having lost my own mum – but I’d been much older. Even so, I remember having dark periods and missing her incredibly. I still miss her now. When something happens in life it doesn’t feel complete; I still miss talking to her,” says Gareth. “Even then I was quite a rational person and I reasoned there was nothing I could do about this but had to just move forward. As a 19-year-old I just remember getting through it by keeping myself busy – but that was the difference, I was 19. I was pretty much at a loss, though, as to what was the best thing for my own children.
“I wanted them to respectfully and lovingly remember their mum but to pass their days as positively as possible. I just wanted them to try and have a normal childhood and have some fun. I didn’t want them in that dark place that they could so easily go. I wanted them to know that one of the worst things that could happen to them had just happened. I wanted them to understand that they couldn’t rationalise it. These things just happen.
“It would have been good if they could have seen other people their age at different stages of bereavement and mourning so they could maybe understand that they could come through this and they are not alone. I wanted some sort of collective support for the boys.
“I wanted them to be able to talk to other kids their age who were going through or had been through what they had. Kids talk to other kids. The kids didn’t really talk to me because seeing me upset made them worse and they didn’t want to make me sad. I knew they were talking to their friends but if they’d had some sort of structured help it might have been better.
“The first time I got a real insight into their minds was the night I read Nathan’s message on the mirror... I remember making inquiries about getting some sort of counselling but there was a six-week waiting list. I didn’t know where I’d be in six hours never mind six weeks at that stage! My kids were in pain ‘now’ and I needed help ‘now’.”
“It’s reassuring to know now, however, that thanks to the Cruse Families Learning Together project, kids facing bereavement will have access to this kind of peer support when they need it,” Gareth said.
Cruse Bereavement Care plans to provide whole family support with its Families Learning Together project, funded with a grant of £676,384 from the Big Lottery Fund’s Supporting Families programme. The five-year project, which is being delivered in partnership with Corrymeela Community, will offer an intensive package of support for families across Northern Ireland who have suffered or are facing a bereavement. The support includes family residentials at Corrymeela as well as bereavement counselling and home visits. Four years on, Gareth and the boys are still, to some extent, living in the aftermath of their tragedy, though now the future is much brighter.
Gareth has re-married and is re-building the family and a business with his new wife Lorna.
“We talk openly about Linda and Lorna does lovely things with the boys. When Nathan talked about a specific smell from a shampoo his mum used to use, she managed to find the same one because the scent brings back good memories for him.
“I know Linda wouldn’t want us to be struggling emotionally but would be very happy to know that there was someone caring in the boys’ lives who wants the best for them, just like she did,” says Gareth.
“The boys still have good days and bad – there are still quiet and reflective days. If something hurts you don’t always want to talk about it. And we worry constantly about whether we’re handling things the right way. We still don’t know if what we did and are doing is ‘the right thing’. Time will tell. There’s no silver bullet solution to coping with a loss. It’s a long process and everyone is different.”