Sunday 11 December 2016

Jane McKenna on founding LauraLynn Children's Hospice after her two daughters died

Jane McKenna (61), is the founder of LauraLynn Children's Hospice. She lives in Blanchardstown with her husband, Brendan. They had two daughters - Laura, who died in 1999, aged 4, and Lynn, who died in 2001, aged 15

Ciara Dwyer

Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30

Jane McKenna, who founded the LauraLynn Hospice. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Jane McKenna, who founded the LauraLynn Hospice. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Most days, I get up early, around 7.30am. I turn on the news, even though it's mostly not very good news. I like the radio. I have a boiled egg and toast for breakfast. I'm alone in the house in the mornings. My husband Brendan is a postman, so he's usually gone at 5.30am. The house is empty. But I don't think about it anymore.

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We had two daughters, Laura and Lynn. Laura was born with a hole in her heart, and Lynn got leukaemia. It's 14 and 16 years since they died, which is hard to believe. We had Lynn for almost nine years before Laura came along. I remember after Laura died, Lynn said that the house was so quiet. You can imagine with a little girl running around, the noise and buzz of all that. Then, after Lynn died, I found it terrible in the early days, especially the silence. But I kept myself busy.

I can understand people who want to hide under the duvet, but I'm so glad that I didn't, because maybe I never would have moved on. I count myself lucky that I have the strength to do that. Brendan went back to work pretty much straight away. We were both in a terrible state, but life just has to keep going.

Lynn taught us how to live and how to die. When she was told that she was dying - there was nothing more the doctors could do - she just accepted it. I remember telling her that if I could, I'd give her my life. But she just said, 'It's OK, mam. You and dad have to get on with the rest of your lives'. I'll never understand how a 15-year-old could have such courage. She wrote her will and organised her funeral.

Lynn was very grateful for everything that was done for her in Our Lady's Hospital in Crumlin, but she hated going there. It's not a place for children to die. Lynn wanted to die at home, and she got her wish, with just the two of us. Shortly after her death, the idea of a children's hospice came into my mind. I did some research on it, and eventually, I set up a charity to build one - the LauraLynn Foundation.

With the help of thousands of people, we built and eventually opened LauraLynn House in 2011. It is Ireland's first children's hospice, and it also has a homecare team. I'm not involved in the day-to-day running of it, and I'm no longer on the board, but when I needed to be, I did that for a few years. You could say I'm an ambassador for it, in the sense that I support the fundraising team. They need €3m each year.

My work has always been voluntary. I go out and tell my story. I think when people hear you talking from the heart, it means something. I've been doing it for so long now, but it's not easy. These days, I actually find it harder - not the talking bit, but it's harder to deal with the loss. It takes years for the enormity of it to hit you, particularly the way our thing happened. The years have gone by, and even though we have photos and videos, your memories fade a little bit.

Sometimes you wonder what they would be like now, in particular Lynn. Her friends have moved on, and one of them even has children. Maybe she would have had a child, too. Laura will be 21 in January and Lynn will be 30 - two significant birthdays. You're always thinking about what might have been. The pain eases and dulls, but it never really goes. I always feel that the girls are around me. I keep a diary and I write to them a lot, especially on birthdays and anniversaries. Writing the book about their story was painful, but cathartic.

After the girls were gone, the first few Christmases were terrible. But we went out, whether we felt like it or not. We could have stayed home and wallowed, but it was nearly better being with other people. You just make the best of it. I still love the shops and the lights in town, but I don't like too much of it. I often go into Clarendon Street church and light a candle. I'm not particularly religious, but I have my own ways of doing stuff. It's like an oasis in the middle of the city.

The last couple of Christmas Days, we have stayed home and relaxed. We're both usually very busy beforehand, especially Brendan with his job. He's usually wrecked. We always go to the churchyard on Christmas Day. It's beautiful and very peaceful and the sun nearly always comes out, even in winter. We usually go a few days before as well, to put some flowers on it and a little Christmas lamp. Lynn had asked Brendan to keep the grave looking nice. The girls are buried together.

Because Christmas is so much about children, it does make it hard for us. Also, it's that highlighted thing that everybody is supposed to be happy at Christmas, but, as we all know, most people are not that happy, especially families, and it's just part of life. Everyone has their sorrows and adversities. Our situation is terrible, and it was awful the way it happened, but everybody has problems. I'm grateful for what we did have, grateful that we had the girls, and for the years they had.

Some people aren't able to have children, and then some children aren't treated very well. I look at the difficult situations in other countries, and it breaks my heart. But I still think that you have to look at the positives of your life, and there have been a lot of positives. Brendan and I still have each other. A lot of marriages don't survive anyway, never mind when couples have lost children. Even though we grieve in our own ways and miss them in our own ways, we have survived it together. And we'll always have the memories of our girls. They are the last ones I think of when I go to bed and the first ones I think of when I wake up. Once or twice I dreamt of both of them together, and in one dream I even got a hug. When you have a dream like that, it's very consoling.

'Laura and Lynn's Story: Living In The Shadow Of Their Smiles' by Jane McKenna is published by The Liffey Press, €16.95.

For donations, see lauralynn.ie

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