Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland families who lost loved ones during Covid-19 pandemic prepare for national day of reflection

Ruth Burke (l), pictured with her dauhter Brenda Doherty,  was one of the first people in Northern Ireland to die from the pandemic.
Ruth Burke (l), pictured with her dauhter Brenda Doherty, was one of the first people in Northern Ireland to die from the pandemic

FOUR years after her elderly mother died as coronavirus ravaged hospitals, a Northern Ireland woman has told the Irish News why a day of reflection remains so important for families.

Ruth Burke (82) from Newtownabbey died in Antrim Area hospital on March 24, 2020, without her family by her side.

Becoming known as the fourth person to die from the virus in Northern Ireland, her daughter Brenda Doherty has since campaigned on behalf of families and attended the UK Covid inquiry.

This Sunday, she is taking part in a national day of reflection in Belfast, with events also being staged in Enniskillen and Derry.

She said the recent ITV drama, Breathtaking, had powerfully captured the pain of families cut off at the end of their life and the medics forced to make life and death decisions without enough resources.

Ms Doherty also said the drama also reminded her of the ugly side of social media, having received online abuse after announcing her mother’s death on Facebook in 2020.

Although time has passed, she said March remains a difficult month for her family each year.

“I can’t believe that mummy’s going to be four years gone,” she said.

“People who don’t know grief are under the impression that we should have all moved on by now.

“As part of the reflection events we want people to understand that you don’t move on, you move forward every day.

“You carry the grief just as you carry the love of that person with you. There is something about coming together with people who know and have experienced that loss.

“It’s an opportunity to talk about and give eulogies, which many of us didn’t get the chance to do because of the restrictions.

“Mummy got a 10-15 minute committal at the cemetery and it certainly wasn’t a celebration of her life.”

On the Breathtaking drama, which portrayed the gritty reality of life on Covid wards, she said: “I felt it was very powerful and I hope people take on board what it was like. Not just for families but also for nurses and doctors, who were forced to choose who goes on a respirator.

“That should just not have to happen. That was down to the lack of preparedness, which was very clearly shown with the lack of PPE.

“I know a lot of our families haven’t been able to watch it yet, but I felt I needed to.”

Ms Doherty recently received her mothers’ hospital notes, which revealed she had refused oxygen and spoken of feeling lonely.

“If any of us had been there, we could have reassured her. To see that in black and white was heartbreaking,” she said.

“To think of her being on her own in the wee-small hours when she needed us most.

“That’s a guilt that people in our support group all talk about.

“Some people would actually say to me ‘nothing would have stopped me going into hospital.’

“And sorry for swearing, but I would say to them ‘what the f*** did you want me to do?’ Was I going to go up there to cause a riot and get carted off?’

“But my mummy would have felt that I let her down if I did that.”

Brenda Doherty has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that her mother, Ruth Burke, who died of coronavirus in March 2020, was ‘double-bagged like toxic waste’ (Liam McBurney/PA)
Brenda Doherty old the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that her mother, Ruth Burke, who died of coronavirus in March 2020, was ‘double-bagged like toxic waste’ (Liam McBurney/PA)

She continued: “The drama was very powerful, but the heartbreaking thing is that there’s still people who don’t believe that it happened.

“When my mum died, I decided to do a Facebook post because I wanted people to know who she was.

“I received wonderful messages, but then the next thing a Nazi symbol would appear in the comments.

“Or hateful messages saying they were culling the elderly. That’s the first time I realised that not everybody was going to have the same empathy.

“When my father died years earlier from cancer, no one ever said to me ‘well how long did you want him to live anyway’ or questioned if it was cancer that killed him.

“People told me things like ‘Covid didn’t kill your mummy, she was murdered’.

“I know from talking to nursing staff that they also carry a level of guilt that they couldn’t do the job they were supposed to do, which is caring for everybody.”

Having attended another event at Stormont this week to mark the pandemic, Ms Doherty has now urged MLAs to back more funding for the health service, bereavement support and preparing for another pandemic.

This Sunday, families who lost loved ones during the pandemic are invited to attend a craft event at the 2 Royal Avenue building from 4-6.30pm, followed by a short walk to Belfast City Hall for a minutes silence.

Information on the Derry and Enniskillen memorial events is available on the Memory Stones of Love Facebook page.

A celebration of life Gala ball is also being held at the Europa Hotel in Belfast on Sunday, March 23.