Lifestyle

Friday 11 July 2014

The wonderful and lasting legacy of brave Donal Walsh

St. Johns Church in Tralee, Co. Kerry was packed with mourners at Donal's funeral.

Mark O'Regan told him, just days before he died, that his anti-suicide campaign was really working

The voice at the other end of the phone was strong and resolute – but it also betrayed a hint of hidden heartbreak. I was nervous. I felt like an intruder into the private agony of what must be the worst nightmare of any mother and father.

In this case, a son – just 16 years old – dying of cancer was in the final days of his life.

But Donal Walsh had fought a brave public campaign, from the moment he accepted he could no longer beat his disease, by making a heartfelt appeal to all those who would contemplate ending their own life, to think again.

As his illness wrought its final inevitable toll, he wanted others, however troubled or depressed they may be, never to consider suicide as a solution to their problems.

But how ill was he now? Did he still have the strength to talk to the media? It was Donal's father Fionnbar who answered the phone.

I apologised for calling, but said I had some good news for Donal regarding his plea that depressed young Irish teenagers should never resort to suicide, no matter how dark and futile their life seemed to be.

I wondered if I might speak to him.

"Sure," replied his father instantly. "I'll just have to bring the cordless phone to him upstairs. Just remember that he is quite low on energy.''

As the seconds ticked by, it was impossible not to contemplate the reality of a sports-mad, Irish teenager, confined to a family upstairs bedroom waiting to die.

Suddenly the voice of somebody obviously very ill came on the phone and said: "Hello. How are you doin'?"

When I told Donal that a website providing support for suicidal youths had recorded a four-fold increase in teens seeking help, following his plea to young people not to take their own lives, his delight was obvious.

"I'm thrilled my message has had a such a massive impact,'' he said.

And his voice seemed to get momentarily stronger as he added: "I didn't expect anything like that at all. A four-fold increase is huge. I just wasn't expecting something that big, I'm delighted.

"There wasn't any particular reason to kickstart my appeal. It was just me writing down my own thoughts on certain subjects – and suicide was something I felt strongly about.

"Thanks very much for letting me know."

Donal fought to contain a bout of severe coughing. But regaining his composure, he said: "Sorry about that."

His voice suddenly sounded very far away – and the gravity of his illness became awesomely clear.

"Thanks for calling,'' he said.

What to say to end the conversation suddenly seemed very difficult. Remarks like "the best of luck'' or "we'll be in touch'' seemed small, trite, and out of place.

So I just said thanks for taking the call.

Donal Walsh died less than 72 hours later, in the early hours of Sunday morning. There was to be no last-minute miracle. It was to be his final media interview.

Despite the inevitability, news of his death was still profoundly shocking and sad. It was impossible not to contemplate the raw courage of one so young who, having told the nation he was dying, was determined to embrace life right up to the very end.

He had looked deceptively healthy on television only a matter of weeks ago when he moved so many people with his courage and humour.

He was highly intelligent and articulate, with a clearly thought-out view as to how he would cope with the cancer, which he knew would kill him sooner rather than later.

It was also obvious in our telephone conversation that he was determined to the very end to focus on other people's problems, rather than his own. His stay in Crumlin Children's Hospital had prompted him to lead a fundraising drive which netted over €50,000.

But it was his appeal on suicide which touched a national chord.

Donal's family live in the picturesque Co Kerry village of Blennerville, famous as a tourist attraction with its local windmill, and gateway to the Dingle Peninsula.

In making his appeal he would have been well aware his native county has one of the highest rates of suicide in Ireland, particularly among young males.

However, the appeal from Donal has already had a tangible effect nationally.

SpunOut.ie, a website which provides support to suicidal youths, recorded a four-fold increase in the number of teens seeking help after he spoke out about what is often a secretive and hidden world.

SpunOut.ie spokesman Ian Power said traffic dramatically increased on the site, with over 80 teenagers logging on seeking help for suicidal thoughts.

"It's definitely down to Donal, no doubt about it," he said.

"The week after he spoke out we had a surge of people coming to the site and type in the word suicide.

"These were people specifically looking for advice and help. The spike was highly unusual and something we wouldn't normally see.

"We couldn't pinpoint it to anything other than his decision to speak out."

Meanwhile, latest figures from the CSO show far more people in Kerry have died as a result of suicide than in car accidents over the past decade.

The county is also one of three locations in the country with a suicide rate 50pc above the national average, according to another survey.

Three weeks ago, there were heartrending scenes at a Kerry coroner's court, when five out of six inquests into a series of deaths in the southern part of the county were found to be as a result of suicide.

It provoked the coroner, Terence Casey, to make an emotional plea to young men in particular to heed the words of Donal Walsh.

Two of those who died were only 16.

One was 21, one 22, and one was aged 30. At the previous two sittings of the coroner's court, presided over by Mr Casey, seven out of the eight deaths were by suicide.

"This is a very, very big problem in Co Kerry," he added. "It's a most unfortunate situation that we have to face in this county where young people take their own lives."

For Donal, there were some uplifting moments during his final days.

His mother Elma said the response, from young people in particular, to his appeal on suicide 'was exactly what he wanted to achieve'.

"What has been coming here to the house has been unbelievable – letters, cards, and reports of all the Masses that are being said for him," she said.

When he died the Samaritans also paid special tribute to Donal, describing him as "a remarkable young man who was an inspiration to us all".

In one of his final tweeted messages, Donal Walsh simply stated: "Thanks for all the messages of love and support #grateful loved the experience and hope everything came across clear.''

Everything did come across very clear from this 16-year-old, who was a hero for our times.

Having fought for his own life right to the end, his message was simple to all those who feel wretched, worthless or suicidal – always choose life over death.

HELPLINES

If you are affected by any of the issues in the article, please contact the Samaritans at 1850 60 90 90 or Console at 1800 201 890.

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