THE sudden death of Munster and Ireland rugby legend Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley in 2016 left his wife Olive and their two young sons, Tony and Dan, completely heartbroken.
Without any warning, the family had lost its anchor. However, visits to the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick City helped them learn the tools necessary to navigate their grief, particularly for young Tony and Dan.
“It was very sudden. I had two little grieving kids aged eight and 11 at the time. I was in complete shock and grieving myself and I really needed help,” said Olive Foley, who sought out Sisters of Mercy nun Sr Helen Culhane, chief executive of the Children’s Grief Centre, who “took over from there”.
Founded 14 years ago, the centre has helped over 2,000 children cope with the trauma of losing a parent through death or in a separation/divorce.
Sr Culhane and Olive Foley are now saying the “need is great” for a rollout of children’s grief centres in every county in Ireland.
The free service, the only one of its kind in Ireland, has a three to four month waiting list, with 170 children currently waiting for an appointment to see a support worker.
‘Children will protect the other parent’
The centre currently sees up to 60 children a week, but plans to expand this to 100 children a week at its newly redeveloped premises on the grounds of Scoil Carmel on O’Connell Avenue, which was officially opened today (Tuesday September 12).
The building, gifted to Sr Culhane by the Mercy Sisters, has been transformed into an oasis of calm where children are listened to and allowed time to heal on their own terms through play and express their emotions in a safe environment.
Children who are grieving for a parent may often be at risk of high levels of emotional or behavioural problems, or even suppress their feelings in order to protect their other parent.
“Children will protect the other parent,” says Olive Foley. “My little lads were looking at me and saying ‘if we ask Mom something, we are going to make her cry’, but they were able to come in here and really be able to deal with their grief.”
“The staff in the centre have the language for children, they have ways of explaining things, and, you know, every child can survive grief. Grief is an awful experience for children but you can survive it with the little tools that help.”
The one full-time, eight part-time, and 10 volunteer staff members, led by Sr Culhane, are seen as “angels” by the thousands of children and their families that have passed through their doors.
‘I didn’t even know how to put words to it’
One of the service users, Caoilinn Cahill (16), from Kilmaley in County Clare, was just 10 years old when she lost her beloved brother, rising hurling star Oisín Cahill (18), in a road traffic collision that also claimed the life of their cousin Darragh Killeen (19).
For a long time, Caoilinn isolated herself from family and friends. She says she was “struggling with figuring out how to deal with how I was feeling” until she began attending the centre in 2020.
Initially Caoilinn felt “scared to come in and talk” about how she was feeling “because, when I came in, I didn’t even know how to put words on it”.
“But as soon as I came in, I knew it was a really welcoming and safe space. Helen (Culhane) had set up a plan to follow, so every day we were working on something new. I’d be writing a letter or painting, or just talking or playing a game, but it just really helped me to understand how I was feeling.”
“Not only know that, but I was able to deal with how I was feeling, instead of pushing my emotions back down. I was able to work through it and feel through it and not struggle.”
“For sure, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without the centre. If I never came here, I probably would still be locked up in my room at home and really struggling.”
Surviving on donations
The centre, a registered charity which survives completely on donations (mostly from the JP McManus Benevolent Fund and an annual government funding of €52,000), costs around €400,000 annually to run.
Others, including the Tomar Trust in Cork, the Bon Secours Health System, US semi-conductor manufacturer Analog Devices, and users families and individuals help with donations. This year it received one-off capital funding of €450,000 towards the centre’s €3.5million redevelopment costs.
However, resources will be stretched and more funding will be required to keep the centre open in the long term.
Last year 306 children attended the centre. The number is likely to be 400 at the end of this year.
They come from far and near, “Limerick, Tipperary, Cork, Kerry, Waterford, everywhere”, explained Sr Culhane.
“So our aim, long term, and with government support, is that we would see 100 children per week. I think that is a possibility – but we do need support from the government.”
“There a huge need in Ireland. There should be a children’s grief centre in every county in Ireland, I suppose that would be the dream.”
“Only within the last number of weeks we’ve heard of so many tragic bereavements and what’s going to happen to all those children and young people who need support going forward?”