Missing Laura Brennan: ‘It’s been an incredibly tough year’

Larry and Bernie Brennan at home in Ennis, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Laura’s family on coping without her and the huge success of her HPV vaccine campaign

A bright light went out in Ireland a year ago, March 20th, when Laura Brennan died. In the last few months of her life, despite becoming increasingly ill, the Clare woman, who had cervical cancer, dedicated much of her precious time to spreading awareness about the disease and encouraging people to avail of the free HPV vaccine.

And while most of us will remember her for the extraordinary courage, positivity and humour she seemed to possess during what must have been a harrowing time, her family also remember her warmth, caring nature and sense of fun.

Gathered together to mark the first anniversary of the 26-year-old’s death, Laura’s family – parents Larry and Bernie and brothers Colin, Fergal and Kevin – speak about how they have coped over the past 12 months and what they miss most about their daughter and sister.

“It’s been an incredibly tough year, particularly around Christmas when Laura wasn’t here,” says Colin. “She was a massive presence in the house and in all of our lives, and not having her around was really difficult. We have all tried to keep busy, both with promoting the vaccine in her honour and getting on with our own thing, but there is no denying that she has left a massive gap in our lives.

“It’s too easy to forget how important people are to you when they are around – sometimes we don’t know how much we value them until they are gone.”

“As Colin said, Christmas was very hard and we were all glad when it was over,” adds Bernie. “Her birthday in September was also really difficult to get through. And we are still getting the odd card from people, which although it is very welcome, every time one comes in, it starts up all the emotion again.

“We just miss her so much, breezing in the door like a storm, sitting at the table with us and talking about her day and even simple things like going out – there is no such thing a family night out any more because Laura is missing.”

We were in a bit of a bubble prior to Laura’s passing as we were busy caring for her so didn’t really see the impact she was having or how far her message had reached

The family have been astounded by the goodwill and sympathy people have shown them since Laura died.

“People are so good, and the amount of contact we have had over the past year has been unreal,” says Fergal. “We were in a bit of a bubble prior to Laura’s passing as we were busy caring for her so didn’t really see the impact she was having or how far her message had reached. But since she died people have come forward to tell us how her story touched them and how she reached out to them without us knowing.

Laura Brennan
Laura Brennan

“So we want to thank the community of Clare and beyond. We have received lots of support online and through letters and cards, and may not have got back to everyone. But we want people to know that they have provided a lot of comfort to us over the past year.”

“We also want to thank Minister [for Health Simon] Harris in particular,” adds Bernie. “Simon has been brilliant and a great support to us. He and the HSE have done great work and have been behind us all the way. They get a lot of abuse at times, but credit where credit is due.”

Family values

Listening to her family speak it isn’t difficult to see where Laura got her extraordinary strength and determination from, and Larry believes that strong family values helped his daughter and her loved ones through their difficult ordeal.

We could count on one hand the amount of days she was genuinely down as she had an unbelievable personality

“Laura got her strength from us as a family. We have always operated as a unit, the six of us together,” he says. “When she got sick, she wasn’t alone, as we were in it as one. At any hour of the day or night, we were all there for her. She also had six wonderful friends that she could rely on – not the 200 ‘friends’ people have on social media, but six real friends who meant the world to her.

“I also think being strong is in the genes. All four of my children have always been involved in the local community, as have Bernie and myself,” Larry adds. “We have always pulled up our sleeves and got on with things, and Laura was no different. When she became sick, she decided she was going to work on promoting the vaccine and gave herself 100 per cent to it.

“She used to say that she was just an ordinary person but was born with a strong voice and was going to use it, and boy did she. She relied on that voice to spread the message, and no matter what interview she did, she was never frightened . In fact, I remember when she went on The Late Late Show, she wasn’t worried about what she would say but the fact that she might trip over on her high heels.”

Larry and Bernie Brennan with their sons Fergal, Colin and Kevin. Photograph: Eamon Ward
Larry and Bernie Brennan with their sons Fergal, Colin and Kevin. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Her brothers say she was worried more about others than herself.

“Whether she was with us or doing interviews on the TV and radio, she was always so positive,” says Fergal. “People used to ask us was she for real, but even in the house there was never any talk of death. She always tried to be upbeat and would be more worried about how we would handle things after she died than how she was feeling herself.”

“What people saw on TV was the same Laura we saw. We could count on one hand the amount of days she was genuinely down as she had an unbelievable personality,” says Kevin. “None of us are as strong as she was both mentally and physically. However, I do think she tried to make things as easy as possible for us, so didn’t want us to know if she was feeling upset.”

Bernie agrees: “Yes, she hid her illness well and I do think she was often in a lot more pain than she led us to believe. I think this was her way of dealing with things.”

Matter of pride

Their grief is mixed with a tremendous feeling of pride at how Laura single-handedly did so much to try to improve the health of the nation.

“We are so proud of her and all she has achieved,” says Kevin. “She always said she wanted to use her voice well. And over the past year, her legacy and the documentary she made, This Is Me, has helped to raise the uptake of the HPV vaccine to 90 per cent in her home county of Clare and to 80 per cent across the country.

“She requested that the documentary be aired in September so it could have the greatest impact in schools and that as many young people as possible would avail of it. Everything she threw herself into for the last two years was to ensure that no boy or girl would go through what she went did, as she was the reality of a non-vaccinated child.”

People are crying out for a vaccine for the coronavirus at the moment and we have one to help prevent deaths from HPV-related cancers

The family hope the increased uptake of the vaccine can be sustained.

“I really hope that Clare maintains its 90 per cent uptake and that the rest of the nation reaches the same level and stays there,” says Kevin. “We are in a very privileged state that we have a vaccine for HPV-related cancers, and I hope people know that there is nothing to be afraid of and there are no long-term side effects from it.”

Colin adds: “The uptake levels are great but it’s important that people don’t get complacent. People are crying out for a vaccine for the coronavirus at the moment and we have one to help prevent deaths from HPV-related cancers, so people should avail of it. It is WHO approved and tested, so it’s important that people get information from a health professional and rely on science.”

As far as we are aware, Ireland is the first country which has reversed the downward trend, so Laura really has been a trailblazer

Anniversary party

To mark her first anniversary, there will be a 5km paint run in association with St Flannan’s College, where Laura was a pupil, along with a Mass in Clarecastle church and a family get-together afterwards.

“Laura always loved a good party, so after the Mass we will get together and celebrate her life,” says Larry. “There will be laughter and tears but, in particular, we will remember her strong laugh and her positivity.”

“We feel lucky to have had the time we did with her and that she could make memories with us and with her friends as so many people have lost loved ones suddenly and didn’t get that opportunity,” says Fergal. “So we do feel appreciative in many ways and we will celebrate her on her anniversary.”

The past few years have been very hard on the Brennan family, but the HPV vaccine campaign has kept them busy and helped them to get through it – and this stellar work doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down.

“The campaign has really helped as we have been very busy with different events celebrating her life and her advocacy,” says Kevin.

“The campaign has been a big success, and in fact Europe is looking at Ireland at the moment as they are impressed with what has been achieved here,” says Larry. “Bernie and I were at an event in Galway recently and met a man from France who told us that the uptake (for the HPV vaccine in France) is only 16-18 per cent, while Romania has the lowest in Europe.

Laura Brennan with her brothers, Kevin, Fergal and Colin
Laura Brennan with her brothers, Kevin, Fergal and Colin

“They have been really interested in what Ireland is doing and have asked for Laura’s documentary to be translated into Romanian so it can be aired on TV there and have asked some of us to go over to promote it. So we are still busy with it. Bernie and myself were at a World Health function in Europe recently where Laura was honoured, while Kevin and Fergal were in Brussels giving a talk. Look at the trouble Laura has got us into. She’d be having a right laugh at the fact that we are doing all this.

“As far as we are aware, Ireland is the first country which has reversed the downward trend, so Laura really has been a trailblazer. But everyone else needs to come on board. It’s all very well us doing it as a family, but we are appealing to Clare people and Irish people to help get rid of it once and for all.

“We don’t want Laura forgotten about, but if there is total immunisation, she will have done her job.”