ANAM Cara, the support group for bereaved parents, started like most good conversations do. Over a cuppa.
“I remember being in the hospital waiting room when my youngest daughter, Rebecca, was gravely ill,” says Sharon Vard, founder of Anam Cara. “There was another mother there and we both looked at each other, knowing the worst was going to happen.”
Tragically, Rebecca passed away in 2004 from an inoperable brain tumour.
Realising there was no support available for bereaved parents and siblings, Sharon and her husband Aidan founded Anam Cara.
“There was nothing there to help parents during their intense grief, sense of loss, and loneliness,” says Sharon.
Anam Cara celebrates its 10th anniversary this month and now operates in all the major cities country-wide.
Sharon adds: “It has grown from two groups, in Dublin and Cork, to eight, confirming what we already knew: That there was a real need to provide support and information to bereaved mums and dads.
“Now they have a safe, comfortable structure in which parents can come and meet and be with other parents, who might be a little further on, to give them hope. Because in the early days after losing a child, there is no hope.”
Anam Cara provided a glimmer of hope to Cork couple the O’Riordans, helping them piece together their fragmented lives when they lost their beloved daughter, Debbie, in October 2009.
“I happened to spot an ad for bereaved parents one day,” says Valerie O’Riordan. “And I knew somebody who had joined Anam Cara.
“Paul and I went along soon after Debbie’s death and it was like manna from heaven. It was like a release for me, where I cried openly with tears running down my face."
Valerie, who is now a volunteer with Anam Cara, added: “The people there understood the pain and loss and we had so much in common. Friends became strangers and strangers became friends. The family steps back. After a while the process is the same for everyone.”
Anam Cara has supported 10,000 parents over the years.
“It is our 10th anniversary, we are still open for business,” says Valerie, who became involved helping out at meetings and co-ordinating trained counsellors to come on board.
“Paul was satisfied and pulled away after two years,” says Valerie. “I stayed with the organisation and then I was asked to volunteer. I decided to give it a go.”
Valerie, a chef at CUH, had walked in the shoes of all the bereaved mothers she met.
“I felt I could help others because of my own experience,” she says. “Bereaved parents are stunned, devastated, and totally at a loss. They think they are going mad. We have to get used to a new normal, a different normal.
“It is over eight years since Debbie died. Other parents like the idea of that. They see that I have managed to carry on. It takes the awful fear out of what happened.”
Does the tragic aftermath of the ultimate bereavement of losing and burying a child get any easier over the years?
“I thought; I could lie here and never get up again,” recalls Valerie. “Anniversaries and birthdays are the worst. You feel the loneliness for the loss of a future you envisaged with that person.
“We still had a duty to David, our son. I said; this is not what’s going to happen here. I decided to start moving and keep going. But it is something you never get over.”
Anam Cara offers comfort and hope, where once there was neither.
“Bereaved parents feel that the Anam Cara meeting is a place where they can come and say things to others, like discussing a head-stone for their child’s grave,” says Valerie. “Others might say to them; what a subject! At Anam Cara you are among people who understand what you went through. You can say what you feel on a given day. There is no judgement.”
Life goes on.
“It does,” says Valerie. “Our son, David, and his partner, are expecting a baby in June. We are going to be grandparents! We are over the moon.”
It is the circle of life.
The magnitude of losing their son, Daniel, in November, 2013, took over Majella and Donal Crowley’s lives.
“The grief takes over your life,” recalls Majella. “It takes an enormous effort to function at any level. The worst fear has actually happened. The physical and mental pain is unbearable.”
Majella had never heard of Anam Cara.
“I pinged an email to Sharon Vard a few weeks after Daniel’s funeral. Sharon offered to come to Cork from Dublin and meet myself and Donal. It was the most important conversation of our life. Sharon had achieved so much. Meeting someone like her gave us a lot of hope.
“We got hope that we could survive this. Sharon pointed out that we could face the future despite what life had thrown at us.”
Little by little, the couple clawed their way back out of the mist of unbearable grief.
“We were able to take small steps at first, that we hardly noticed,” says Majella. “You will recover a bit each day, Sharon told us, and that we would survive.”
“Our lives haven’t ended. They just changed. We had to make a choice about how we mean to go on.”
The meaning of life was blurred after Daniel died. “When we entered the room at the Anam Cara meeting in February, 2014, it was the saddest room,” says Majella. “Everyone had lost a child. At the same time, I felt better when I left the room. I thought maybe I could cope like the other bereaved parents coped. They had dealt with life on a similar journey. I could learn from the others who have gone before me.
“It made a massive difference. I took the view; if they can do it; then I can do it too.”
Majella and Donal saw the light at the end of the dark tunnel they found themselves in.
“Anam Cara provided a safe place where we could talk openly,” says Majella. “It helped us through a new world of despair and sadness. Talking to other bereaved mums and dads gave us hope, and they helped us feel less alone. They led the way to enable us to survive, showing us how others, at such a desperate time, survived. There is nothing as powerful as sitting with another bereaved parent who has buried a child. Anam Cara helped us survive this.”
The annual Daniel Crowley Christmas Swim at Myrtleville beach has raised in excess of €40,000 for the Mercy Hospital Children’s leukaemia Unit. It is a comfort.
“Nothing is ever, or will be, the same,” says Majella. “Your old life is gone. However the problem is; Life does go on. It hasn’t ended. But it’s changed. We continue to attend Anam Cara meetings. It is a club nobody ever wants to join. Our shared experience can benefit others. People can connect, because everybody in the room is a bereaved parent. The positive is, if the worst happens; there is support out there. Anam Cara is a super organisation.”
MORE ABOUT ANAM CARA
Anam Cara provides informal monthly meetings where parents can meet other parents. These are co-facilitated by one of the volunteer parents and there is also a professional at every group who has experience of working with bereaved parents. The support services are free to all families who have experienced the death of a child, regardless of the age or the circumstances of their death.
For more information or for an information pack, email: anamcara.ie. Call: 085-2888 888.
Anam Cara meets on the first Wednesday of every month at the Clayton Hotel, Tivoli, Cork. 7.30pm-9pm, and in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry on the first Tuesday of every month, 7.30pm-9pm.