‘It’s an incomprehensible form of death’

Breege Clancy: ‘It’s a very shocking and incomprehensible form of death’. Photograph: Tom Honan

In 2010 my friend Paul Clancy died suddenly at the age of 35. There were no warnings. He seemed fit and healthy. It was deemed to be a sudden cardiac death.

Recently his mother, Breege, started volunteering for a new helpline run by Cry Ireland (Cardiac Risk in Young) providing an empathetic ear for others who have been bereaved in such a shocking way or been diagnosed with similar conditions. In December, I visited the Clancy family home in Foxrock where, for years, Paul and I practised with our band, to talk with Breege about this work.

Paul Clancy aged 34. Photograph: Tom Honan
Paul Clancy aged 34. Photograph: Tom Honan

After a nice lunch – thanks to all those hours of band practice, I’m very used to Breege providing me with food – we sit at the kitchen table and talk about the day Paul died.

Breege and her husband Mick were shortly due to fly to Spain with Paul and his fiancée Isa to see where they were due to be married. She had fallen asleep in a chair that evening, which was unusual for her, and at around 10.30pm she was woken up by a phone call.

It was St James’s Hospital telling them that Paul had had a heart attack and that they should come in.

“I knew immediately. Isn’t it strange? I knew immediately that this was it ... I just went cold and I had an unusual feeling.”

In my mind I was processing: how could someone so fit and slim die of a heart attack

A lot of things about that time blur together, says Breege, but she remembers the family being brought to a room in the hospital where they were told that Paul had died. “The nurse had to bring me down to the bathroom and I was violently ill.”

Paul was a psychotherapist and he had collapsed while with a client. She was a medical professional herself and she had the clarity of mind to give him CPR and call an ambulance. Later, she told the family that what happened to Paul “was like as if you went over and switched off a light switch”.

A copy of a poster for the band National Prayer Breakfast. (L to R) Darragh Keogh, Patrick Freyne and Paul Clancy. Photograph: Tom Honan
A copy of a poster for the band National Prayer Breakfast. (L to R) Darragh Keogh, Patrick Freyne and Paul Clancy. Photograph: Tom Honan

It’s a very shocking and incomprehensible form of death, says Breege. “In my mind I was processing: how could someone so fit and slim die of a heart attack? We were brought into the room where they had him laid out and spent time there. But it was just like a dream. I remember coming home and going to bed with all my clothes on.”

I remember the days after this, but I’ve never heard Breege describe them before: Calling family members with the terrible news “on autopilot”; friends and family rallying around and organised all the food preparation for days; And then the pain of the grief kicking in weeks later when everyone else had gone home.

There’s the Christmas tree. There are all the decorations and next time I come in I want to see it decorated because that’s what Paul would want to see

They were initially told about Cry by a doctor at St James’s some months later. Cry organise screening for families who have experienced a sudden cardiac death or where a family member has a diagnosis of a cardiac condition. They do all of this free of charge. But they also have a supportive role. “Marie Greene came out to the house to us,” says Breege. “She founded Cry with her husband, Michael, after their son died. She was an amazing support. Her son was 15 years old and we thought, ‘Oh my God, we had Paul for 35 years but he was only 15 years old’.”

The Clancys began fundraising for Cry, running an annual event in their tennis club among other things. When Cry created the helpline, Breege volunteered, training last Summer and taking calls ever since.

Why did she want to do that?

“Because that’s what Paul did. We got a lot of letters from children in Kildare [where he had worked as a counsellor] and a lot of them said how he had helped them. Some said, ‘I’m alive today because of him’.”

The callers need to talk – sometimes they have no one else to talk to – and Breege, and the other volunteers, are happy to listen. After a while the caller might ask questions. Things like, “What age was your son when he died?” or “What was the thing that worked best for you?”

‘I knew immediately that this was it ... I just went cold and I had an unusual feeling.’ Photograph: Tom Honan
‘I knew immediately that this was it ... I just went cold and I had an unusual feeling.’ Photograph: Tom Honan

To that she says: “Going back to work. I had to get up. I had to shower. I had to dress. I had to concentrate on what I was doing. And then when you come home from work, you’re tired ... If you’re just at home, you have too much time to think.”

They often ask: “‘How did you get through [the first] Christmas?’ I’m very honest. I say, ‘The reason I got through Christmas is my son [Niall] arrived in with a Christmas tree and said, ‘There’s the Christmas tree. There are all the decorations and next time I come in I want to see it decorated because that’s what Paul would want to see.’”

They had a surprisingly good Christmas that year, she says. They’d been dreading it but some good friends came around and they played the boardgame Cranium and made each other laugh late into the evening. Her daughter Emer said, “Weren’t we sent angels?”

Sometimes the callers say things that remind her of her own experience. When she came out of the initial haze of loss, she was angry. “I was going to mass for Lent every morning ... I said, ‘Lord you did that to me and there’s lots of people who didn’t go to mass and you didn’t do it to them. So I’m not going to mass anymore.’ I stopped going to mass. I just finished with religion.’”

I would never say that time heals. It doesn’t heal ... But you do learn to live with it

Is she still finished with religion? She laughs and tells me about a terrifying plane journey she had some time later. “I said, ‘Dear Lord, if you get me down safely, I’ll go back to mass.’ So I feel now I’m obliged to go to mass.”

She thinks she was lucky that she and Mick dealt with their grief in a similar way. She thinks that it’s important that families talk together about the loss of their loved one. Paul is still very much a presence in the Clancy house. They’re still very close to Isa, his fiancée, who is now married with children. They talk about Paul – his warmth, his stories, his talent. They still listen to the music he made. Their six-year-old granddaughter Abbie did a presentation about her uncle’s music for her class. “Abbie talks about him like he’s just around the corner.”

Does she ever find the phoneline conversations upsetting? “No, I would never make them upsetting for me. I’ll just do something after ... I go off and play a tennis match ... I’ll ring a friend and say, ‘let’s go and have a coffee’. Or I’ll go down and collect Abbie from school.”

She thinks it’s important to show the callers that over time she has got through it, that it’s still possible to live life, to be there for people, to experience happiness. “I would never say that time heals. It doesn’t heal ... But you do learn to live with it ... We feel very lucky we had Paul in our life for 35 years”

Ten years ago, Maria Gibbons lost her niece Niamh. The day Niamh died, her dad, Maria’s brother, spent the day trying unsuccessfully to contact her. She was in Cork in college. The family lives in west Limerick.

Maria Gibbons.
Maria Gibbons.

“Eventually they got the horrific news that she was found in the house where she was staying with her friends,” says Maria. “She had just collapsed and died very suddenly, while she was getting ready. She was on work placement at the time.”

Niamh was about to turn 21. “All we were talking about that week was her 21st birthday party. We’d be a good family for celebrating events ... Suddenly it was like the world ended.”

What was Niamh like? “She had beautiful long blonde hair. She was a great woman for nights out and she loved her style ... She had a huge case of makeup. She did some summer work with [her dad] and he’d say, ‘The suitcase would come out on the road to work’ ... Young and old people loved her.

Maria Gibbons.
Maria Gibbons.

“The week she died she attended somebody’s 70th birthday because she just loved this man and wanted to be there ... She used to call over to my mother for the brown bread and scones to bring back to Cork with her. Everybody loved her. She just had a lovely way about her.”

Maria volunteered for the helpline because of the help Cry gave to her brother’s family after Niamh’s death. Maria, a midwife, has some experience discussing difficult subjects.

“When somebody dies, all the neighbours and friends and colleagues go back to normal and the bereaved person is left feeling, ‘Everyone has forgotten and I’m still here stuck in this awful grief.’ That’s where the helpline can be really valuable ... Talking to someone who’s not as closely connected helps to process the grief a little bit.”

The surgeon called it: 'an unfortunate choice of career'

Their parish was struck with another case of sudden cardiac death shortly after Niamh’s death. This time a fifteen-year-old boy died. “The two of them are buried in this little country graveyard. A 15 and 21-year-old side by side. It’s just not the way things are meant to happen.”

Rose Hicks.
Rose Hicks.

Rose Hicks’s son had a cardiac episode in 2014 when he was 22 but he survived. One night at GAA training he fell over and lost consciousness. He got back up and went on training. “Which is kind of scary,” says Rose now. “A couple of weeks later the same thing happened and we thought, ‘Alright we’d better get this checked out’.”

He was diagnosed with a heart arrythmia, “an irregular heart rhythm.” He was going to be a PE teacher. The surgeon called it, “An unfortunate choice of career.”

He had a defibrillator and pacemaker fitted and is on medication. “We were grappling for answers because we wanted to be able to fix him, not accepting that this was a life changing condition ... I came across Cry and rang them but I hung up. Then Mary Greene the founder rang me back and we saw Dr Deirdre Ward [a cardiac specialist who works with Cry] and they’ve been amazing.”

Rose's son retrained to become an underwriter and he’s soon to be married. There are occasional scares. A few years ago, he was walking down the street and the pacemaker kicked in and then the defibrillator started to shock him. He was rushed to hospital.

Rose Hicks.
Rose Hicks.

What are the calls like? “The majority of the callers have been recently bereaved and they just don’t know where to turn. A lot of the time it’s to talk to somebody who isn’t a family member so they can just cry it out or be angry ... Grief is different for everybody ... You have someone who’s totally and utterly devastated and can hardly get the words out. And you have somebody who’s really angry with other family members, with God, with everybody.”

Why did she hang up the first time she rang Cry? “Because I was thinking, ‘What am I going to say when I get through?’ Now I’m the person on the other end of the phone telling them, ‘You’ve done the right thing. You can talk and I’ll listen.’”

Everybody has their own unique relationship with the person who’s passed on or who’s sick

Mary Walsh was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy after her brother survived a cardiac episode 25 years ago and her whole family were screened. 17-years-ago she lost another brother to a heart attack. “It was horrendous,” she says.

Her main worry after all this was around the possibility her children might inherit the condition. She first heard about Cry when they were teenagers and they were brought into “the Cry suite of services ... Every couple of years my children get checked out to see if they’re showing signs of any illness and thankfully, thus far nothing has been discovered.”

Mary Walsh.
Mary Walsh.

How does she feel with about her diagnosis now? “Because I know about it, I’m somewhat protected ... I have a loop monitor which is an implant that monitors my heart on a 24/7 basis. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Why did she want to volunteer for the helpline? “Because of the support I’ve received ... Everything Cry do is free. The first time my children were checked out for this condition it was in the private sphere and 10 years ago that was €500. So the financial relief that that gives any parent as well as everything else is phenomenal.”

She thinks the new helpline is really important. “Everybody has their own unique relationship with the person who’s passed on or who’s sick. You may not be able to be as honest as you need to be because you’re careful of other people’s feelings. So they can ring us.”

The training she received helps her process the calls. “I might go for a walk afterwards, something that takes me out of that space and allows me to reflect ...It doesn’t stay with me. The overriding feeling I have is I’m so glad that somebody was there for that person.”

- The Cry Helpline is 1800 714 080 in the Republic of Ireland and 0044 800 640 6280 in Northern Ireland. It’s available from 7pm-9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 10am-noon on Wednesdays and from 4 pm-6pm on Sundays