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Support for parents struggling to cope with death of a child


From this week's Galway City Tribune

From this week's Galway City Tribune

Support for parents struggling to cope with death of a child Support for parents struggling to cope with death of a child

“I thought I was going insane” is how Sharon Vard describes her experience after the death of her child, Rachel, following a short illness in 2004.

It was following the death that Rachel’s parents found there were no supports available to them to help them with their grief.

“Family and friends were very good and supportive. However, as time moved on, I felt like I was stuck in ‘Groundhog Day’. Every day we woke up without her, without our life.”

Sharon (pictured) stresses how “intense and relentless” the first few years were.

“In my experience, even when you’re surrounded by family and friends there’s a huge amount of loneliness.”

She recalls that something which helped her following her bereavement was the company of parents who had also lost their child.

“For a while they were the only people I wanted the company of,” says Sharon.

She explains that for parents, it is a big help to be able to sit in a room with other bereaved mams and dads is reassuring, to know that you won’t always feel the same way you do today.

It is out of this idea that Anam Cara was born.

Translating to ‘Soul Friend’ from Irish, Anam Cara is a charity aimed at helping bereaved parents of all circumstances, whether your child passed away young or old does not matter at Anam Cara, it will always be “against the natural course of life”.

Sharon Vard, founder and services manager of Anam Cara, says that ‘Soul Friend’ is how the solidarity between bereaved parents can be best described, as they are the “only ones who have had the same challenges; [we] have the same minds”.

It was founded in 2008 and offers a wide range of services. Originally just in Dublin and Cork, Anam Cara now operate in 14 different locations across Ireland, including Galway and Mayo, where they offer face-to-face meetings.

The meetings are small and intimate; they are facilitated by a professional who is assisted by volunteer parents. Sharon says there is “no pressure” to talk at the meetings and that it can still be helpful to simply sit in solidarity with other bereaved parents. No booking is required in advance, they operate on a drop-in basis.

The Galway meetings take place in the Clayton Hotel as it is accessible via the motorway – in the hope of attracting parents not just from the city, but also the county and North Clare.

At the meetings in Galway “there is a lot of kindness and compassion” explains Sharon, and there are typically about 10-12 parents in attendance.

She is keen to emphasise that people can sometimes have an aversion to ‘support groups’ and can be under the false impression that there will be pressure to talk, or that you will be told what to do.

“It’s not AA”, Anam Cara aims to “share, rather than tell at the meetings”.

At the beginning of the grieving process many parents will not find themselves able to attend in person events, says Sharon. It is for this reason that Anam Cara has a fleet of online resources. They have a two-series podcast and host many talks and information evenings online. They also provide pamphlets and can direct parents to other charities if needed.

“We’re very good at linking” says Sharon, emphasising that if applicable, Anam Cara guides parents to additional supports that specialise in different bereavements, such as Pieta. Anam Cara also hosts remembrance events, the next of which is Athlone on November 5.

Sharon notes there are obvious times – such as birthdays and anniversaries – that are particularly hard for parents.

However, there are also what she calls ‘hidden milestones’. Despite the lack of a specific date, “September’s a horrific month for bereaved parents – everyone knows where their child should be”.

“The difference with the grief of a child is that you grieve not just the past, you grieve all the future things you thought”.

These hidden milestones can be “very overwhelming”. The grief stays forever explains Sharon, and everyone grieves in a different way.

“The tendency is Ireland is that after the first anniversary people do move on, but often with a sudden death the grief doesn’t come in until a year after.”

Asked what advice she would give her past self to help her with the grieving process, Sharon says: “Find something that gives you an outlet.”

“I think I wallowed a bit, I functioned as much as I had to for my children and my husband, but I wallowed.”

An outlet she has discovered in recent years is sea swimming. Speaking of her last swim in Salthill, she says: “It was beautiful, and back home in Dublin it was raining.”

“Just do something to get yourself out of the house”, she adds, adding that she began doing night classes on anything and everything during her grieving process. One such class included an introduction to Indian Head Massage.

Anam Cara, a charity built to help grieving parents, has also helped those who built it. Ms. Vard noted that one of the most helpful things to a bereaved parent is “reaching a hand out” to a newly bereaved parent.

Sharon emphasises that it is important to honour your child’s life. “I would often say to parents ‘they died but they also lived’, and we need to honour that.”

Her personal experience has led her to one main conclusion on the grief a bereaved parent suffers.

“I can say with the hindsight of experience we do grow around our grief. We will miss our child every day for the rest of our lives, but we will grow around that grief.”

The next Galway meeting is Wednesday, October 4, at 7.15pm in the Clayton Hotel, Briarhill. For more, see

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