How six Sligo siblings coped after losing their parents to cancer

Their parents died within 13 months of each other, but together they faced the adversity

Kristen O'Reilly often wonders if her father John Martin was whistling as he went about his work that day. He whistled a lot. He was missing when she came home from school at about 4.30pm on October 9th, 2013.

Kristen was 16 and in Leaving Cert year – and wasn’t too worried as she rushed off to grinds that evening. John Martin had cancer, but seemed to be doing well, and the last thing anyone expected was that he would have a massive heart attack and collapse while fencing on his farm. When they found his body, Kristen remembers lying down to put her arms around him. “Mammy just broke down, the poor thing,” she recalled.

Two of her older sisters were away in college and she remembers agonising about how much to tell them on the phone and how to get them home fast.

When they arrived she remembers that the six siblings – Michelle, Nicola, Lorraine, Nora, Keith and herself – and their mother, hugged on the street. The children were aged from 12 to 22. Kristen’s last conversation with her father was the evening before when he remarked “you’re back early” after grinds. She laughs. “It’s not much but it’s all I have. There were no goodbyes.”



Mary O’Reilly started to lose weight almost immediately after her husband’s death but no one was too surprised. “They were best friends. They did everything together,” said Kristen. But by January Mary too had been diagnosed with cancer. She was in hospital for much of the year. But she made sure she was home for her youngest child Keith’s Confirmation. And when Kristen was doing her Leaving Cert exams her mother was at home. Mary’s last evening in the house was the night of Kristen’s debs. She remembers texting her sisters from the hotel and asking “how’s Mammy” and being told she was back in hospital. “I think she had held on for me. That’s the way she was.”

Her memories of Leaving Cert year are more about itching to get into the hospital to see her mother, than about study. “I used to ring her at break. I couldn’t stop thinking about her,” says the 22-year-old. “The school secretary would often come into the classroom if someone needed to go home early, and I panicked every time she came in,” she recalled. Once the secretary did ask for Kristen and “I burst out crying and started shaking”, but in fact there was no emergency that day.

Preparations for her Leaving Cert oral exams in French and Irish were also traumatic because students expected to be asked about their families. “I had to ask the teachers for a simple sentence, just to explain the situation, the translation for ‘my father is in heaven’ . It was hard on the teachers too.”

Kristen does remember the emptiness of the house when she, Nora and Keith used to arrive home from Coola Post Primary School to their home near Conway's Cross, Co Sligo, when their mother was in hospital. "I remember you'd be walking around the house feeling, 'where are they?' We'd put on our dinner and we would cosy up, do a bit of homework and maybe watch a film."

Thirteen months after their father’s death, the O’Reillys lost their mother.

“She was so strong. An air of grace came over her and she accepted it,” said Kristen. “She kept saying you’ll be fine. Ye’ll mind Keith. He was her baby, her pet. She had faith is us. It’s good to know she was not worrying about us. She just wanted to be with Daddy.”

Mary did live to see Kristen complete her Leaving Cert with flying colours, despite the stress. “She was thrilled. She loved seeing you do well. Now if we get exam results, she is the first person you’d love to tell.”

John Martin and Mary, who both died at the age of 51, have missed a lot of family milestones including 18th and 21st birthday parties and the graduations of daughters Michelle and Nicola. “I feel sorry for them. They did the hard years. They put in the work. They made us a beautiful home,” said Kristen who graduates as a mental health nurse next October.

She celebrated her 21st birthday last year on Mother’s Day. “Part of me was dreading it, but then it was like ‘she would kill you if you don’t celebrate and have fun’. Mammy was like that. She marked special occasions and we all do.”

The family got a lot of help from relatives and a close rural community who raised funds for them and kept turning up with dishes of lasagne and chicken curry. For a time all six lived together in the family home, the eldest four eager to be there for Keith and Nora, when they were getting ready for school, or doing their homework or needing a lift somewhere.

“We were so lucky we had each other,” said Kristen. “There were definitely dark days, days when you’d say ‘why did this happen to us’. But I think what drove us was the need to just make them proud. And we got such support from the community, we needed to show up and get things done in a way to say thank you to everyone.”

She says all of the family had part-time jobs from the age of 16 because it was expected of them. “That’s the way we were reared and it did make us independent.”

Kristen and her boyfriend James Cawley live a few minutes from the family home where Nicola , Lorraine, Nora and Keith still live, while Michelle, a physiotherapist, is in England. All the family are in relationships, and all busy with work or study, and looking forward to the future. "We will have such a lovely life, the whole lot of us, the six of us. We will have so much fun. We will always be together. I think the next 10 years will be very exciting for us all. There are no grandchildren yet – but I can't wait," says Kristen.

Joined Samaritans

Months after her mother’s death, Kristen joined the Samaritans, volunteering for the midnight to 3am shift to fit it in with work and study. It’s a time when the most vulnerable tend to ring but although only 18, she was never scared. “The training was amazing. They taught you how to actively listen. It is a skill. Some people listen so that they can reply and give their opinion. But in the Samaritans you are there to give this person the opportunity to talk. And there are very difficult calls. And loneliness is a massive thing in this country. Some people just ring to say goodnight.”

On Wednesday night she will be called upon to share her insights at the third "Leitrim's Health is Wealth" event in the Bush Hotel, Carrick on Shannon which has been organised by local community mental health nurses Hubert McHugh and Valerie Cogan. Speakers will include Adi Roche, John Lonergan, former rugby international Alan Quinlan and former Aston Villa player Mikey Drennan and the focus will be on the need to talk about mental health. Kristen will speak about her family's experience of coping with adversity.

“I will tell my story. I’ll say that everyone in life gets knocks, but you can decide ‘I’m going to get through this and it won’t define me’.”

“You don’t have to lose years of your life because something bad happened. You have to decide that life does not finish with these tough times. You don’t sit down and say that happened, I’m done, I cannot cope any more. You make the most out of everything.”