'My wife was just 52 when she died from cancer but I'm determined to carry on her work' - Father-of-four channels his grief by helping others
When father-of-four Jimmy Murray lost his beloved wife Ann McGeeney to cancer, he channelled his grief into setting up a foundation to carry on her good work.
Jimmy Murray (53), from Newry, met his future wife at a party when they were just 18. But as he recalls that first encounter didn't go particularly well.
"Ann offered me and some of my friends a lift home and because she was from the country and a farming background I asked if it would be on her tractor which, as you can imagine, didn't go down too well," he remembers.
Looking back is obviously painful for Jimmy, but remembering Ann is so obviously easy
Fate intervened and they met again a year later when they were both in first year at Queen's University in Belfast. They were together ever since.
"I fell for Ann right away as she was so vibrant and full of life. She always wanted to be doing something," Jimmy says.
The couple married several years later and settled down to family life, bringing up their four children, Daisy (23), Holly (21), Ardal (19) and James (13).
Life was good but very busy, as Jimmy was working for the Department of Rural Development (DARD) and Ann was working as a freelance community consultant, peace building and helping those marginalised in society.
Always active, Jimmy explains how it was Ann's outdoor adventures that led to her being "accidentally" diagnosed when she was 51. "We were out biking and she fell off and hurt her arm and said she felt like the power had gone in it," he says. "When we went to the hospital they decided to do a brain scan as she had suffered a fall, and that revealed a shadow on the brain."
Jimmy recalls how up until this point in 2013 Ann enjoyed perfect health. She didn't smoke, went for all her medical check-ups and was always outdoors, relishing a happy and fulfilled life.
"Further tests in the hospital revealed that not only was the cancer in her brain, it was also on her lungs and was stage 4 and terminal," he says.
This was naturally a lot for the couple and their family to come to terms with, but Jimmy recalls how from the outset Ann didn't want any prognosis of dates or times, she just wanted to make the most of every second she had with her family.
"I'll never understand how she did it but she lived a full and active life until near the end. She just kept going and her determination kept us all going," Jimmy explains.
"Towards the end of her brave fight in September 2014, she had started to lose her hair to chemo and she was very weak. Her father lived until he was 92 and died 10 days before Ann and her mum is still alive at 92, so she came from good genes - which just shows you that cancer is no respecter of that. There was no rhyme or reason as to why Ann got sick."
Though they were an incredibly close couple, even Jimmy had not realised the far-reaching nature of Ann's work. He says he had no idea of the extent of his wife's ability to affect change and the impact she had on lives until after she passed away, aged 52.
"I knew Ann was a community worker, but she didn't come home bragging about people she had helped or things she had done. I knew she worked with those who most needed help - women's groups, the disadvantaged and the marginalised. In fact, one of her first jobs was in Crossmaglen working on inter-community development."
But it wasn't until Ann's wake when people and colleagues started turning up and talking about her that Jimmy realised there was so much about his wife he didn't know. "All these letters from people she had helped started to arrive and I realised what a remarkable job she had done. She had just worked away quietly behind the scenes making a real difference and impact on people's lives," he says.
Jimmy started to realise he didn't want all this good work to be in vain and he wanted it carried on in Ann's name - a lasting legacy to the love of his life.
"A few months after she died I started talking to the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland to see how some sort of fund might work - something which would be based on the principals which Ann had been championing.
"I talked to the children about it and they were completely on board with it. But we realised we just didn't want to do small fund-raising events as a family and we didn't want the worry and the pressure of handling the money side of things. We wanted whatever we did to have a far-reaching effect. We wanted to recognise Ann's life and all that she had achieved and to continue her work through the CFNI, handing out grants to specific charities in need, working with the issues close to Anne's heart."
So The Ann McGeeney Trust was born and in September, almost a year after he lost his precious wife, Jimmy and the children held a ball to launch the trust in her honour.
"It was a terrific night and all the children were part of it. We raised over £20,000 that night. It was full of mixed emotions and Ann would have loved it. We knew she would be very proud of it."
To date, the trust fund has more than £70,000 in it and a special advisory group has been set up to determine where the monies go.
"We want to echo Ann's work and are looking at the disadvantaged in society - single parents, new immigrants, cross- border community work and peace-building. These are all the areas Ann was passionate about," says Jimmy.
"We want it to be about giving money, no matter how small, that will really transform lives and make a difference."
Jimmy says Ann's death has also brought the family a lot closer and they spend as much time as possible.
"We went for a walk up the Mourne Mountains - there was about 150 of us - and we scattered Ann's ashes there as that is where she was at her happiest.
"Now, every year on her birthday we go for a walk up the Mournes and make a day out of it. We then come back to a wee pub and enjoy some food and music and a night of sharing memories and stories about Ann. This is another way of raising money but the family itself decides where that money goes; the first time was to the Southern Area Hospice whose staff were so good when Ann was ill.
"Money also went to Macmillan which was fantastic, not just with Ann, but the whole family."
Jimmy admits that he personally hit rock bottom several months after Ann's death but he went for counselling which made a huge difference.
"It has been difficult and I didn't cope very well," she says. "That was the one thing Ann and I used to talk about as she was worried I wouldn't be able to come to terms with her being gone, which is why I sought help, as I knew that was what she would want me to do.
"I'm back at work now, not quite full-time, but it helps as it is good to be busy. The kids are wonderful but there is just a huge void in my life where my soulmate used to be.
"We had a lot of good friends and they have stayed by my side and are looking after me. I just want to stay strong and make her proud.
"Letters keep coming in. I got one recently from a member of the travelling community who talked about how much Ann inspired her and how she got into education and a job because of her. Things like that keep me going as I know she will live on because of her family and because of the trust."