Life After brings experience of tragedy to support families affected by death on our roads

Life After provides support for bereaved family and friends affected by accidents on our roads. Mark Robinson finds out more about the Derry-based charity and the growing demand for its services

Some of the Life After committee members, from left to right, Marie O'Brien (Secretary), Debbie Mullan and Christopher Sherrard (Chairperson).
The Life After team includes, from left to right, Marie O'Brien, Debbie Mullan and Christopher Sherrard

Losing a loved one in a road accident is profoundly shocking and traumatic, and sadly it is an experience which is still visited upon far too many people.

So far this year in Northern Ireland, 23 people have died on our roads. Last year, a total of 71 lost their lives, a sharp rise from the 55 recorded in 2022.

Behind each of these numbers is a family left grieving, a friendship group broken and a community reeling; it perhaps isn’t surprising that people can struggle to come to terms with such a sudden and violent death.

Personal experience of loss on the roads led to Life After being founded in the north-west in 2017 to offer support services for grieving friends and families.

The group provides free counselling, monthly support groups, peer support, ‘listening ear’ calls and court support services.

“We have a fantastic array of support services that are tailored to the individual needs of each family and each family member,” says chairperson Christopher Sherrard.

“We are here because there is a need – the support is there for the families if they need it.”

Everyone involved in the charity has lost a loved one in a road accident and the services provided are available as and when required.

“There are families that come in and you might see them for five or six meetings and then you’ll not see them for two years,” says Christopher.

“And when they feel the need to come back, the door is open. Our counselling services last as long as they need to last – there’s no timeframe on it.”

A support meeting in Derry.
A Life After support meeting in Derry

The ability to connect with others who have a shared experience and a mutual understanding, is Christopher believes, what makes this charity unique.

Often when someone loses a loved one in an accident, “there’s a feeling of being alone; there’s a feeling that there’s no-one to listen to them”, he says. “But whenever we get them into the charity and we get them into the support meetings, they have that love and that warmth.

“There are a lot of people that will say that Life After has saved them. It’s somewhere they can go and be understood.”

Christopher lost his father in a crash near Claudy, Co Derry in August 2016. Its effect on his family, in particular his mother’s mental wellbeing, inspired what would become the Life After charity.

Following what Christopher described as a traumatic experience watching his father die in hospital, his family was signposted by the police family liaison officer to Brake, a UK-wide road safety charity which offers support services to bereaved family and friends.

There are families that come in and you might see them for five or six meetings and then you’ll not see them for two years. And when they feel the need to come back, the door is open. Our counselling services last as long as they need to last

—  Christopher Sherrard

However, the counselling support provided was only available over the phone.

“I went on a solo run campaigning for bereaved families, basically stating that we weren’t getting the support that we needed and that we were the forgotten community in society,” Christopher explains.

During this period, Christopher met Debbie Mullan at a road safety group thinktank in Cookstown, and she came on board for mental health and wellbeing.

Debbie Mullan
Drawing on her own experience of loss on the roads, Debbie Mullan has trained as a trauma counsellor and offers support to other bereaved families through Life After

Debbie lost her son 17-year-old son Keelan in a road traffic collision in 2013 outside Limavady, Co Derry after he hit black ice.

“I never thought that I was going to survive losing Keelan,” she recalls.

“I very much was suicidal; I did develop an unhealthy relationship with a bottle of wine, which I never had previously to that.

“I could see where my own journey was taking me – what helped me was early intervention.”

By the time she met Christopher in 2017, she had become a fully trained trauma counsellor.

The outside of the permanent hub in Upper Magazine Street, Derry.
Life After's permanent hub in Upper Magazine Street, Derry. The group has expanded into other areas across the north and is determined to continue to develop its services

Before meeting Debbie, Christopher had put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone else in the Derry area was going through the same situation.

“I was there to tell my story,” says Debbie, “And how I had accessed services and how that had helped me immensely.”

“We came up with an early intervention package,” she said, which was loosely based on a pilot scheme at the time, which was used by the Western Trust for dealing with sudden deaths.

“We set up, initially, support meetings once a month in Derry city.”

But before long, “the need started to grow”.

The inside of the permanent hub in Upper Magazine Street, Derry.
The Life After permanent hub in Derry

Life After now also provides monthly support meetings in the Omagh and Fermanagh, Lisburn and Castlereagh and Causeway Coast and Glens council areas.

They have a permanent hub in Derry and plan to expand into Mid-Ulster, Belfast and Donegal.

As the charity has continued to grow, so has the range of people availing of its services.

“People are coming forward who maybe have witnessed a fatal road traffic collision or maybe have been involved as another passenger,” she said.

Counselling services are delivered by Debbie on a voluntary basis; she says that early intervention is key to avoiding bad coping mechanisms, such as drug and alcohol use.

She believes that the safe space in counselling to share fears and worries is important, but it also gives people “hope that there is somebody that will walk that road with you”.

“We’ve all had that similar experience to those who are wanting to access our services,” explains Debbie.

Looking to the future, the focus is on gathering more funding to continue growing and improving.

The charity has, to date, been funded primarily through donations and fundraisers organised by the families.

“We’ve realised that we’re growing so rapidly and so quickly that this isn’t sustainable,” Debbie says.

“We have to put more emphasis on gathering funding - not only to deliver what we’re already delivering, but also to enhance the services.”