A life shaped by grief and healing

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Sr Helen Culhane, founder of the Children’s Grief Centre which was one of the Limerick groups to benefit from SIFI funding.
Sr Helen Culhane, founder of the Children’s Grief Centre which was one of the Limerick groups to benefit from SIFI funding.

FOR a period of thirty days, Sr Helen Culhane won’t speak to another soul. Not a word.

She is preparing for a month’s silent retreat, run by the Jesuit order.

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Once a year she takes this time out of mind, to counterbalance the demands of her voluntary day job as Director of the Children’s Grief Centre, located along the outskirts of the city, on the South Circular Road.

Burning out is not an option when you’re tasked with helping children and young people from four to 18 years of age cope with the death of a parent or sibling, or having to guide them through a parental separation/divorce.

A native of Croom, Sr Helen and her colleagues provide a “listening” service at the centre.

The children who seek their help learn how to express their true emotions, through play and art.

The 62-year-old says she feels she can easily “relate” to the children “because of my own experiences of loss”.

Her parents, Denis and Kathy, both died of cancer in Milford Hospice, where she was working when they passed away.

When she was five years old, her baby brother Martin died in a cot death and two years later, her infant twin brothers, John and James, were stillborn.

Outside of her day job, she has been extremely busy organising a conference to mark the centre’s ten-year anniversary.

She’s looking forward to her restful retreat, which encapsulates “silence all day, everyday, for thirty days”.

The need for the Children’s Grief Centre in the region is so great that there are presently 207 children on a waiting list.

1,300 children have attended since the centre opened on September 14, 2009.

Sr Helen recalls how it wasn’t until years later, when she was searching for documentation relating to her family, that she made the “eery” discovery, that, unknown to her at the time, she had opened the centre on her late brother Martin’s birthday.

For her, and many of the children who visit the centre, the deaths of siblings are forever etched in the memory. She also remarks that children know far more than they are given credit for when a family dynamic is ruptured by the loss of a parent or child.

She remembers Martin’s death “very clearly”.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about my work. If I can remember it when I was five-and-a half-years-old, then other five-year-olds can remember too,” she offers.

“In those days there was no Mass and no ritual. I can still see his white coffin in our kitchen. But, we were not taken to the removal. I can still remember seeing my Dad going away with the coffin.

“We didn’t have a car and I can remember our next door neighbour coming in, and, the white coffin being placed in the back of his car. I remember it as clear as a bell. My brother Pat who was four years old actually remembers the license plate number of the car”.

Martin was always included in a nightly rosary at the family home. She believes her parents’ decision not to hide the truth from the other children helped them better understand and cope with Martin’s death.

“My parents always mentioned him. We didn’t talk about him everyday, but when we were growing up, he was always mentioned,” she says.

The deaths of her twin brothers John and James two years after that was another devastating blow.

Drawing on her professional experience, she reiterates the importance of this, and adds:  “I now realise, as a psychotherapist, that everything that is going on within a family is stored in the body.

“They were full-term babies, I remember my mother telling me that. It does empower you, by knowing it. It’s only as you get older, you look back at the situation and you feel you have been respected by being told,” she says.

Arguing for the State to fully fund the centre, she believes its work is ultimately helping the State avoid the cost of having to treat depression, alcoholism, and self-harm in children’s adult lives, by stepping in now to help them with positive grief coping strategies.

The annual cost of running the centre is around €150,000.

This year it will receive a total of €44,000 from, both the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the Child and Family Agency Tusla.

Sr Helen is now planning to expand the centre’s reach in the community with ambitions for a larger centre that will cost an estimated €4million.

She praises her congregation for their continued support allowing her use of a building rent free.

The children who have come here, have in their own words described the invaluable help they have received.

One writes: “I know it wasn’t my fault my parents broke up”. Another explains they “don’t cry anymore” and the help they have been given has “helped me to stop stammering”.

Others have revealed how they have been “used as pawns” by their parents in spiteful marriage splits.

They learn coping strategies, and are empowered to make their parents aware of their own damaging behaviour.

Helen Culhane was 23 years old when she became a nun, having previously worked in Analog Devices, and before that, as a nanny and a care assistant.

She is a qualified social worker, psychotherapist, and counsellor, and she uses the same spirit – when fighting for the rights of the children who attend the Centre – as she once displayed as a county champion camogie player.

From her own experience of loss, she acknowledges that trying to work through one’s grief is “grand, in theory, but when you are sitting there facing that awful pain, it is hard”.

Losing her father in 1991 and mother in 2005 continues to resonate.

Recalling the honour of being named Limerick Person of the Year 2017, she concludes: “It’s strange, but it was my parents I thought of straight away. That’s who you think of. They just come zoning in”.

To contact the Children’s Grief Centre contact 061-224627 or visit www.childrensgriefcentre.ie