Thursday, September 14, 2023

'I really needed help': Children's Grief Centre helped Anthony Foley's family grieve

 Olive Foley at the Children's Grief Centre in Limerick city. "The staff in the centre have the language for children, they have ways of explaining things." Picture: Brendan Gleeson

The sudden death of Munster and Ireland rugby ace Anthony “Axel” Foley in 2016 left his wife Olive and their two young sons, Tony and Dan, completely heartbroken.

Without any warnings the family had lost its anchor, but visits to the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick city helped them learn the tools necessary to navigate their grief, particularly young Tony and Dan’s.

“It was very sudden, I had two little grieving kids, aged eight and 11 at the time, I was in complete shock and grieving myself, and I really needed help,” explained Olive Foley, who sought out Sisters of Mercy nun, Sister Helen Culhane, who's the chief executive of the Children’s Grief Centre. Sr Helen, she said, “took over from there”.

Founded 14 years ago, the centre has helped more than 2,000 children cope with the trauma of losing a parent in death or who is grieving the loss of a parent from the family dynamic because of a separation or divorce. But the “need is great” for children’s grief centres in every county, warned Olive Foley and Sr Culhane.

The free service, the only one of its kind in Ireland, has a three- to four-month waiting list and 170 children waiting for an appointment to see a support worker.

The centre sees up to 60 children a week, but plans to expand this to 100 children a week at its newly redeveloped premises, on the grounds of Scoil Carmel, 'The Mount', which was officially opened on Tuesday.

The building, donated to the centre by the Mercy Sisters, has been transformed into an oasis of calm where children are firstly listened to, and allowed time to heal on their own terms through play and expressing their emotions in a safe environment.

Often children who are grieving for a parent may exhibit risk for high levels of emotional and behavioural problems or even suppress their feelings in order to protect their other parent.

“Children will protect the other little lads were looking at me, and saying ‘if we ask mom something, we are going to make her cry’ — but they were able to come in here and really be able to deal with their grief,” explained Olive Foley.

“The staff in the centre have the language for children, they have ways of explaining things, and, you know, every child can survive grief — grief is an awful experience for children but you can survive it with the little tools that help.” 

The one full-time, eight part-time, and 10 volunteer staff members, led by Sr Culhane, are seen as “angels” by the thousands of children and their families that have passed through its doors.

One of the service users, Caoilinn Cahill (16) from Kilmaley, Co. Clare, was just 10 years old when she lost her beloved brother, rising hurling star Oisin Cahill (18) in a road traffic collision that also claimed the life of their cousin Darragh Killeen (19).

For a long time, Caoilinn isolated herself from family and friends, as “I was struggling with figuring out how to deal with how I was feeling” until she began attending the centre in 2020.

Initially she felt “scared to come in and talk” about how she was feeling “because when I came in I didn’t even know how to put words on it”.

“But as soon as I came in, I knew it was a really welcoming and safe space. Helen (Culhane) had set up a plan to follow, so every day we were working on something new, I’d be writing a letter, or painting, or just talking, or playing a game, but it just really helped me to understand how I was feeling.” 

“Not only that, but I was able to deal with how I was feeling, instead of pushing my emotions back down, I was able to work through it and feel through it and not struggle.” 

“For sure, I wouldn't be near where I am today without (the centre). If I never came here, I probably would still be locked up in my room at home and really struggling.” 

The centre, a registered charity which survives completely on donations, mostly from the JP McManus Benevolent Fund, and annual government funding of €52,000, costs around €400,000 annually.

Others, including the Tomar Trust, Cork; the Bon Secours Health System; US semi-conductor manufacturer Analog Devices; users' families and individuals help with donations and this year it received one-off capital funding of €450,000 towards the centre’s €3.5million redevelopment costs.

However, resources will be stretched and more funding will be required to keep the centre open in the long term.

Last year, 306 children attended the centre, while the number is likely to be 400 at the end of this year. They come from far and near, “Limerick, Tipperary, Cork, Kerry, Waterford, everywhere”, explained Sr Culhane.

“So our aim, long term, and with government support, is that we would see 100 children per week, I think that is a possibility — but we do need (financial) support from the government.” 

“There is a huge need in Ireland, there should be a children's grief centre in every county in Ireland, I suppose that would be the dream.

“Only within the last number of weeks, we've heard of so many tragic bereavements — what's going to happen to all those children and young people who need support going forward?”