Helena Fitzgerald, an A-level English teacher and Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator at Holy Cross College, Strabane, was just 44 years-old when she died at home, surrounded by her loving family.
Her husband, Anthony described Helena as an intelligent, vibrant woman, full of love and fun. She was an adored wife and a wonderful mother to their two boys, Milo, 9, and Rogan, 6.
In early November 2019, without warning or any obvious symptoms, Helena had a seizure at home. A scan revealed it was a glioblastoma brain tumour. Glioblastoma is one of those tumours that is so aggressive, it changes quickly. Within a matter of days, the tumour had already grown, so Helena made the difficult decision to undergo a six-hour operation on Christmas Eve and later underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
As Helena’s health deteriorated, it was our wish that she remain at home. With excellent medical support, thankfully this was possible. Foyle Hospice community nurses, Brigeen McCloskey and Caroline McIvor, nursed Helena at home from the beginning of her illness. With a care programme in place, we were able to remain together and enjoy quality time as a family throughout her illness. Milo and Rogan observed Helena’s gradual deterioration during this time and, maybe subconsciously, it also helped them to prepare for the very sad loss of their Mum.
The nurses visited our home regularly and the atmosphere was always relaxed. They were professional and caring and Helena was content in their company.
Also, knowing that we could contact the Hospice day or night by phone if we needed them, provided us with the reassurance that Helena was receiving the best possible care. Our house was a positive household because Helena was always a very positive woman with a lot of get-up-and-go – even to the end.
After Helena’s diagnosis, I knew I would have to prepare our boys and that’s when Michelle Kosky, facilitator at the Foyle Hospice children’s counselling service, Healing Hearts, reached out to me. It was a hard step to take but it was the best decision for the boys, particularly Milo who was older and had more of an understanding about what was going on.
I wanted Milo to receive information gradually regarding his Mum’s illness and deteriorating health, in a secure and calm environment from a specialist with experience in similar circumstances. Milo undoubtedly benefitted from his meetings with Michelle. He received invaluable knowledge and the sad news about his Mum’s health was broken to him over, approximately, a four-month period. Milo was eight years-of-age, so this time was very beneficial for him to process the massive changes happening in his young life.
Knowing I had Michelle, a caring professional, helping my children to prepare for the shock and sadness ahead, relieved a lot of stress and was an enormous benefit to me personally. Michelle was also liaising with the nurses and this connection was vital. As they observed the changes and deterioration in Helena’s health, Michelle was then able to plan her discussions with Milo accordingly. I got reassurance from knowing that, having professional support, all that could be done was being done to prepare Milo and Rogan.
The specialised knowledge and support we were given as a family are a credit to the Hospice. I would highly recommend it to other parents in similar situations but I understand some parents might not want to engage, or be able to, for a variety of reasons. They may think they are protecting their child or children, so they won’t hear the devastating news, they could be overpowered by the shock and fear of the illness or be in denial of the reality. It could be down to fully knowing that preparation is vital but it’s painful to start the process. Other parents may think they are best suited to discussing the illness with their children, without receiving any external support.
From my own experience, shortly after Helena’s diagnosis, I received a book on how to communicate with children when a parent has a terminal illness. I placed it beside my bed and there it stayed, untouched for many months. I saw it daily and felt sick at the thought of reading it. My issue was knowing preparation was vital but it was too painful to face. I was forced to start after I observed a deterioration in Helena’s health.
When your spouse or a close family member has a terminal illness and children are involved, you are probably not going to have all the information, answers or maybe even the coping mechanisms to deal with it all. It’s simply another level of anxiety, stress and fear in every way. My advice to any parent that finds themselves in this heart-breaking situation is, don’t delay in engaging and getting informed as soon as possible. Preparing children for a devastating loss is vital. It will definitely be more beneficial if they have maximum time to process everything. In hindsight, you will be in no doubt that you made the right choice. Time is more precious than ever; when the worst of luck engulfs a family, using that time wisely is crucial.
A lot of people, when they think about the Hospice, think about people going in there to die, that’s the first thing that springs to people’s minds.
But there’s so much more to Foyle Hospice. Even though Helena didn’t stay at the Hospice, she received specialist care at home and I really couldn’t speak highly enough about it.