Leona O'Neill: Being a journalist teaches you that life is short and precious

The Derry area has suffered more than its fair share of heartbreak in recent weeks and the insight given to a working journalist reporting on the tragedies that have befallen families makes you want to hold your own all the more closely to you, writes Leona O'Neill

A minute's silence a year on from the Buncrana pier tragedy prior to a match between Derry and Meath last month Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

IT'S been a very tough two weeks in my home city. We lost two mammoth leaders in our football captain, Ryan McBride, and former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.

We lost young people taken before their time – a young woman in the prime of her life was murdered in Goa and a young man's body was pulled from the River Foyle. And we remembered with love and heartache the family of five lost in the Buncrana tragedy exactly a year ago.

As a journalist I covered every one of these harrowing and traumatic events. I went to candlelit vigils and anniversary masses. I attended the emotional removal of remains where loved ones were carried home and covered heartbreaking funerals as families bid a final farewell. I had to gather the information, speak to people having the worst day of their lives, absorb the pure, raw emotion of the occasion and produce an informative and sensitive piece of writing so that people could absorb the news, get a true picture of the deceased, read tributes and make people who couldn't be there feel like they were part of it.

My heart went out to every single family impacted by the loss of loved ones over the last two weeks. Speaking as someone who has experienced grief in all its cruel and crushing forms, I know their journey along the road of life without their fallen father, son, brother or sister will be long and difficult and fraught with emotional ups and downs. After all, grief is the price we pay for love. I hope every single one of them is enveloped in love, comfort and hope in the dark days ahead.

I know I wasn't the only news professional who felt emotionally wrung out by the end of two weeks of terribly tragic circumstances. For us it was two weeks of delicately and discreetly dropping into the worlds of people broken by immeasurable grief, of standing on the sidelines while mothers, fathers, wives, partners, sons and daughters wore their utter devastation at the loss of their loved ones outwardly.

People can at times think journalists a cold-hearted, ruthless bunch, with one aim in mind and that is to get the story, regardless of the consequences. That is not the case. We are human too. We are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

Although, at times it is necessary to emotionally detach ourselves from situations in order to get the job done, we do feel it. Maybe it's in the car as we're driving home to our own children. Maybe it's at night when we're alone with our thoughts. As a mother I couldn't help empathise with the mothers of murdered Danielle McLaughin, or with tragic Jack Glenn, pulled from the River Foyle after eight long weeks of ceaseless searching by his parents.

These last two weeks I have watched daughters cry for their fathers, fathers sob for their sons, mothers break their hearts for their dead children. If I didn't feel heart wrenching, gut churning empathy for them all, I wouldn't be human.

One thing being a journalist teaches you is that life is short and precious; we must appreciate every single day, every moment, every minute. For day and daily I speak to those who have had their hearts shattered by the loss of a child, or who are facing the inconceivable horror of losing a child in the near future due to illness. I speak to people whose loved ones have had their lives snubbed out in a heartbeat or their lives changed forever in an instant.

Every day over the last two weeks I have went home and hugged my children a little tighter, stayed a little longer at their bedside to watch them sleeping, told them I loved them a little more.

Because life is uncertain, life can change in the blink of an eye and we should all make sure we leave an imprint of love on those around us.

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