Thursday 17 January 2019

A Requiem for Rosabel

Suzanne McClean and Gary Monroe tell Barry Egan how they have battled with grief since their baby daughter Rosabel died last April, and how they set up Rosabel's Rooms to help parents who lose a child

Baby Rosabel, who would have been two on January 5
Baby Rosabel, who would have been two on January 5
Suzanne McClean and Gary Monroe with son Ruben and dogs Juno and George. Photo: Andrew Downes

They say that every human walks around with a certain kind of sadness. They may not wear it on their sleeves, but it's there if you look deep. That weight of sadness around Suzanne McClean and her husband Gary Monroe is such that you wonder how they bear it at all. On April 20 of last year, their daughter died in her cot at home in Co Galway. She was 16 months old. Her funeral Mass on April 24 was at St Mary's Church, where her parents married in 2016 (she was a flower girl). Suzanne and Gary, both 43, are in many ways broken beyond repair by what happened. You wonder how they cope. Yet in the eight months since Rosabel's passing, as Gary says, "in a way we have no choice but to keep putting one foot in front of the other".

Ruben - Rosabel's big brother, who is now five - has "been through so much", adds Gary. "So we are determined that he doesn't suffer any more than he already has."

"There are times it feels as though we're not coping at all," says Suzanne. "We're just existing. Going through the motions. As Gary says, we have a responsibility to our son Ruben, and we are determined that he will have as happy a childhood as he possibly can. I probably cope best when I find ways to keep parenting her. By continuing to love her and by concentrating on her legacy. That's a coping mechanism for me."

In terms of the support they received from family and friends, Suzanne says it is impossible to "overestimate how much they have helped us through this darkness. I could not have survived this without my parents", she says, referring to her father Syl and mother Jean. Suzanne and her four girlfriends - Sarah Peelo, Bianca Luykx, Aisling Farrell and Fiona O'Brien - in Dublin share a WhatsApp group so there is conversation and connection on a daily basis.

Suzanne McClean and Gary Monroe with son Ruben and dogs Juno and George. Photo: Andrew Downes
Suzanne McClean and Gary Monroe with son Ruben and dogs Juno and George. Photo: Andrew Downes

"They are all suffering too. They adored her. We are very close to each other's children and we are all devastated by this."

"There was always a member of Suzanne's family or her friends from Dublin here in the days and weeks after Rosabel's death," Gary says. "They were incredible. Rosabel's godparents, Roger O'Sullivan and Jenny Buckley, were outstanding."

"Both of our families are desperately impacted by this," says Suzanne. "Rosabel was the youngest of 10 grandchildren on both sides, so it was like the littlest link has been broken for both of our families. She was, and still is, loved so much. Her four grandparents and all of her aunties, uncles and cousins adored her. She also had a very special bond with her childminder, Dee."

Asked how they helped each other through this hell, Gary says he believes that because of Suzanne's professional background as a psychologist (she is on leave from the Galway Rape Crisis Centre), she has helped him normalise the emotions that he has experienced since they lost Rosabel. "It's been helpful to know that there are no emotions that are not normal. The anger, the fear, the anxiety, the helplessness. She has helped me to accept all of this as being a normal part of the grief process."

Suzanne says: "For me, it's the simple things. Just knowing that somebody is there every morning. Somebody is making a pot of coffee. Another human being knows and remembers the intricate, delicate details of your child's face in the same way that you do. They remember the sound of her laughter and the warmth of her skin in the same way that you do. And they carry the weight of that loss with you. It's knowing that when one of us is paralysed with grief, the other can pick up the pieces."

Have they come to find any meaning in all this?

"I have always known that there was something special about Rosabel," says Suzanne. "We recognise the uniqueness of both our kids and love them both beyond measure, but there was always something about Rosabel that made me believe she was here for a reason. It sometimes felt as though she was too good to be true. She was incredibly perceptive and empathic for her age."

She adds that her mother Jean lost her little sister Paula, in 1955, and so was raised as an only child.

"I know that my grandmother Eileen grieved for her youngest daughter for the rest of her life. There was never a day that passed when she wasn't wishing her back. I think their souls are somehow entwined. We were given the little girl that we wanted so badly, but she was borrowed. I believe she's back there with them now. Myself and Gary cherished her.

"There was something about her that captured the best of both of us. Like as if the best parts of our histories blended into one and she was the outcome. She was meant to be here, but perhaps her life was never meant to be a long one. Perhaps she had perfected herself."

Gary says: "I find it difficult to find any meaning. Suzanne has a very close relationship with her mum, her sister Nicola, and the women in her life. They are very strong women and they feel so deeply about this that I guess it has helped me to find some meaning, too. But it doesn't stop the physical ache in my chest. The longing and the missing. It doesn't fill the silence for me."

I ask them to tell some stories about Rosabel.

Suzanne says: "From the time Rosabel was born, her grandmother Margaret often commented on 'the way she might look at you' [referring to the old Harp ad, 'Sally O'Brien and the way she might look at you']. Rosabel had this calm, intuitive look in her eyes. She would catch eyes with you and stare, smiling gently as if to tell you everything was going to be OK. As if she knew something that the rest of us didn't know. But she was mischievous too, and lots of fun.

Gary says: "She was full of fun and she knew she was loved very deeply." Rosabel, adds Suzanne, had figured out tricks to make them all laugh: little faces she would pull, noises she would make. And when the room would erupt in laughter, she would clap her hands, delighted with herself, and toddle away. Rosabel was in awe of her big brother, and was really happy hanging out with him and their two dogs, Juno and George. Rosabel was "always smiling and giggling," adds Suzanne with heartbreaking candour.

"She had the most beautiful smile I have ever seen in my life. She would have moved mountains. She would have set the world on fire. In a way, I guess she did. From the moment she was born, she was the easiest child in the world to mother and to love," says Suzanne.

"Her name means beautiful rose, and that's precisely what she was. Everybody who knew Rosabel even a little knew there was something special about her. Maybe she really was too lovely for this world. By a strange and very sad twist of fate, our friends Uli and John Kennedy lost their 12-year-old daughter, Zoe, the week before Rosabel died. Zoe was a vivacious, talented, beautiful child who had a wonderful life ahead of her. There is no sense to any of this, but both of these girls were so very special. It makes you wonder."

"Rosabel," says Gary, "always made me feel very proud. Both of my kids do. She was very girlie in some ways, gravitating towards handbags and stuff, but she also loved the rough and tumble of Ruben's world. The bond they shared was magic. We were blessed, but we knew we were blessed. We never took her for granted."

What do they tell Ruben about his little sister?

"Ruben shared a room with his little sister, and so he woke in the frenzy of Suzanne finding her on the night she died," says Gary. "We had no choice but to bring him with us when we raced to the hospital. The morning after we took her back home, Suzanne explained to him that the kind doctors and nurses had tried their best to save her. It was the most difficult experience of my life to have to watch my heartbroken wife try to gently tell my son that his little sister had died."

They explained that her body was here but that it wasn't working any more; that she was with them and would always be with them, but that they couldn't play with her or hold her any more.

"He wasn't afraid," says Gary. "He kissed her and held her hand. He chose items that he wanted to send with her to heaven so that she would always remember him."

Suzanne says she was struck by how courageous little Ruben was - "and still is".

"Though, naturally he was also very upset and confused. We continue to talk about Rosabel daily, but always at his own pace. He knows that he is still her big brother. He misses her hugely, especially at bedtime. His best friend, Dylan, attended the funeral with his parents, and this little guy has been such a great support for Ruben. They often reminisce about her in their own little way when they are together."

What do Gary and Suzanne tell themselves about Ruben's little sister?

"That she made us the happiest, proudest parents in Ireland," says Suzanne, "and that while our happiness has been shattered, we continue to be so proud of our little girl. She brought so much joy in her short life, and in due course she will bring so much comfort to other bereaved families in Ireland."

Gary adds: "She taught me so much, She taught me about what really matters and what doesn't matter at all. She has made us very brave, I think. It is not a bravery we would have chosen but she has made us very brave, and very strong as a couple."

Not long after Rosabel died, Suzanne and Gary took little Ruben away to Greece to attempt some sort of healing process. "We had to get away," says Gary. "Our families and friends and the broader community of Galway were incredibly supportive, but we also needed privacy to grieve for her. We needed space to try to love her big brother back to better."

Gary's brother Rob, also his closest friend and his business partner at Monroe's bar and venue in Galway, was supportive of him taking time away. "Himself and Rosabel loved each other very much. She was the only person in the world who could distract him from his horse racing," smiles Gary.

There is something therapeutic about being by the sea for long periods of time, says Suzanne of their three months in Greece, something soothing about the rhythm of the waves and how they flow towards the shore, over and over again. It reaffirms how utterly powerless we are against the force of nature.

"We were so powerless the night our daughter died," says Suzanne. "There was nothing that could have saved her. Rosabel's death was so sudden and we still know of no apparent cause of death. It remains unexplained after a thorough case investigation. All we know is that it could not have been predicted or prevented. Apparently, there is a 1.4 chance in 100,000 of a healthy toddler dying in their sleep. I suppose our time in Greece was about somehow learning to accept the cruel reality that we were in that 1.4."

Is there ever a minute in their lives when the pain of Rosabel's loss isn't churning inside them?

"I sometimes find peace in music. I grew up around music and I guess that has served me well," says Gary.

Suzanne says: "For me, music is a bit of a dichotomy really. I find some peace in it but it breaks my heart at the same time. All the old songs associated with memories over the years now just seem to represent the depth of what we have lost, and all the things she will never have. Even saying those words now feels horrifying. I am reluctantly learning to somehow live with my loss, but hers I will never be able to accept."

Suzanne says that there were very poignant moments during the couple of days they had Rosabel at home in Mincloon, before the funeral. Their families and close friends gathered outside the family home in Galway with candles lit, waiting for Rosabel to arrive for her private wake. Rosabel's dog Juno seemed to know what was going on. The dog lay under her casket for hours. Suzanne will never forget the image of Rosabel's cousin Jessica (12) when she held her hand and kissed Rosabel goodbye for the last time. Suzanne also remembers that Rosabel's "two beautiful little hands were warm right until the end because there was always somebody holding them".

Asked what are their memories of when the funeral was over and they went home, just them and Ruben, Gary remembers clearly the first time he and Suzanne were alone. Ruben was at his cousins' house and they decided to put a polite note outside their front door, requesting privacy. "We just closed the curtains and cried."

Suzanne says: "I know that everybody has their own unique way of dealing with loss, but I think the Irish in general have a very warm way of grieving. We literally carry and pull each other through the darkness. To be honest, we didn't have much time alone until we went abroad. That time was really important to us as a family."

Do they believe in God? If so, does this shake that faith? Suzanne says: "I believe in Rosabel. It's not even a question of belief really. I know that she is with us, though in a different capacity, a different frequency. I believe in her goodness and in the power of goodness in general. I believe in souls. I know this now. But God? Perhaps this is my anger speaking, but I'm not sure that the God I may have believed in at one time would have allowed this to happen.

Gary says: "My faith is shook. My daughter's life on earth ended before her second birthday. I look at my son, who has had his entire world turned upside down at five years of age. I look at my parents, John and Margaret, who have to endure the loss of their youngest grandchild at this stage of their life.

"If there's a God up there, then in the wise words of Stephen Fry... how dare he? Maybe this feeling will change with time. People mean well when they tell you you've an angel in heaven. Well, I'd rather her here in my arms."

The reason Suzanne and Gary are doing this interview is to raise awareness of Rosabel's Rooms at the Irish Hospice Foundation, which they launched on January 5 last week in Salt Restaurant, in Salthill, Galway, on what would have been Rosabel's second birthday.

Suzanne says: "As you know, Rosabel died at home, but she was raced to University Hospital Galway. The staff were truly incredible that night but unfortunately, there was not really an appropriate space available to us while we were trying to navigate our way through those first crucial, post-trauma hours with our deceased child. Rosabel's Rooms will be family-focused bereavement suites in hospitals around Ireland, designed and developed in collaboration with the Design and Dignity Project at the Irish Hospice Foundation. Following our decision to establish a charity in Rosabel's memory, the Irish Hospice Foundation offered us the opportunity to work under their well-established umbrella. Rosabel's Rooms will also be providing therapeutic and financial supports for individuals impacted by child loss. The Room-to-Heal fund will provide direct financial support for families in the aftermath of child loss, assisting families to take time off work, pay for funeral costs, etc."

If you would like to pledge support to Rosabel's Rooms, please email for further details.

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