Newry family mark first Christmas without mum with Light for Life at Southern Area Hospice
Jenny Lee speaks to Newry chef Devin McShane about how the Southern Area Hospice has helped his family cope with loss on three different occasions and why he will be lighting a light in memory of his wife Emma this Christmas
AS CHRISTMAS lights shine across our towns and villages bringing the message of hope and joy, the Christmas Tree at Newry's Southern Area Hospice holds an extra special place in the heart of those who have lost loved ones to terminal illnesses.
Each Christmas the very special tree is adorned with thousands of little white lights, each one shining in honour of someone special who is lovingly remembered.
Amongst those who will be taking part in the Light Up A Life ceremony on December 12 will be Newry man Devin McShane who witnessed first hand how the Hospice helped care for his grandmother, his father-in-law and his beloved wife Emma, who passed away in February this year at the age of 40.
This year marks Southern Area Hospice providing three decades of specialist palliative care. While the Hospice was originally a six bed inpatient unit, it has grown and now provides care for patients and their families in a number of settings and locations, caring for almost 1,000 patients annually.
Devin's first experience of the hospice was when his granny Kathleen was admitted in November 2008. "She was in the lovely big room on the corner of the building on the second floor, with a view right across Newry.
"After years of caring for her eight children and numerous grandchildren it was granny's turn to be cared for and we will never forget the care and attention that she received."
In 2017, Emma's father Liam was admitted to the care of the Southern Area Hospice, near the end of his cancer journey.
"Liam wanted to die at home and the hospice put a huge effort into making that possible – all the plans were in place. He came home to our house and Emma made sure he got his wish, caring for him for the next 10 days until he passed away peacefully at home with us," recalls Devin.
The family were so grateful to the support they received from the Hospice, but never thought they would be needing their help again so soon.
After returning home from a weekend away at a family wedding in July 2018, Emma went to her GP about ongoing painful shoulder, thinking it was a pulled muscle.
The family's worst fears were confirmed on August 3 when they were told Emma had lung cancer. Just days later, they learned that the cancer had already spread and treatment was not an option for her.
"Looking back, I don’t know how we got through that time. Liam had a long illness with four or five years of chemo treatment and just as we thought we were getting back to some kind of normality, then Emma out of nowhere was diagnosed.
"We had no time to come to terms with any of it, everything moved so fast after that and in September, just as our daughter Amy was starting secondary school, we learned that Emma had a brain tumour and was admitted to Craigavon Hospital."
The family were grateful when Emma was transferred to the familiarity of the Southern Area Hospice. "Though I suppose Emma and I were frightened about what that meant, but having been there twice before we at least were going to a place and to people we knew and trusted to take care of her.
"We were right to trust them. They knew Emma wanted and needed to get home, to be a mum, to have some time with us and make plans for the children’s future," says Devin, who was delighted when she was discharged two weeks later.
"The Hospice is not just a place you go to die; it can build the patient up and let them have time to plan being part of their children's lives after they have passed."
Devin and Emma knew their time together was short, and together they went shopping and created memory boxes for their children. "Emma picked things that would remind Amy and Evan of her and let them know that she was still with them.
"She wrote cards for as many birthdays as she could physically write. In the end, she couldn’t write anymore – her wee hand was shaking with the medication she was on and she was screeching in pain.
"She picked 18th birthday presents and wedding presents for them both as well."
Last Christmas the family were together at home "cramming a lifetime of memories" into those short days. Whilst those memories of "playing games and making fools of ourselves" will always be cherished, it was also during this festive period that the realisation of Emma's fate became real to Devin.
"I found Christmas Eve very tough. Emma is usually the life and soul of the party and very particular about putting out the presents. But on Christmas Eve she had to go to bed early and I just knew then that Emma had gone."
In January, upon the advice of their palliative care nurse, Emma returned to the Hospice.
"It was almost a relief to get her back in. I was trying to juggle looking after Emma, with working and looking after the kids," says Devin, whose advice to others caring for an ill relative is "take all the help you can".
"Don't turn help away. I was guilty of trying to do it alone and Emma said 'Devin you have to stop doing this, you are trying to be superhuman and you need to start spreading the load'.
"Once I did, it was a relief."
January 29 2019 was Emma's 40th birthday – one she celebrated in the Hospice, surrounded by her family and nurses, who helped decorate the room with balloons.
"Of all the plans we made and places we intended to spend her 40th, we never thought it would be in the Hospice," adds Devin.
"The next weeks felt like a lifetime as Emma got slowly worse, slipping a little bit further away each day, until on the morning of February 11 Emma died quietly and peacefully… her battle was over."
Nine months on, the family still find Emma's loss hard, but this Christmas they are looking forward to flying off to Disney World in Florida – one of Emma's last requests.
"Our first holiday as a couple was to Florida. We did Disneyland Paris as a family four years ago and Emma really loved it, and she wanted the kids to experience Florida."
Before then, the family will be returning to the Hospice for the first time on December 12 so the children can look for the light dedicated to their mum in the Light Up A Life ceremony.
"They will know which one it is because we know it will shine the brightest," adds Devin, who is also planning a Valentine's Night gala dinner at his local GAA club to raise money for the Hospice and as a way of his family saying thank you.
:: To dedicate a light to a loved one visit Southernareahospiceservices.org/light-up-a-life-dedications or text LIGHTS to 70660 to donate £10. By remembering your loved ones this Christmas you will be helping the Hospice to care for someone else’s.