Claire Byrne knew her father Tom didn’t have long left.
Together with her mother Breda and five siblings, she was at his bedside, each of them taking it in turn to hold his hand while he slowly began to slip away.
They would wait for the squeeze back in return, their father’s way of letting them know he could still hear them. Over the next few days, in the comfort of the family home in Mountrath, Co Laois, jokes were shared, stories told, private goodbyes gently whispered.
At 86, Tom Byrne’s family knew he had lived a full and vibrant life. But the end, when it came on that early Friday morning last June, was no less difficult to accept.
“We got such a shock and it seemed to happen quite quickly in the end,” Claire told the Irish Independent this week.
“We knew he wasn’t going to live forever, but he was just so vibrant and full of life.
“He was physically strong even towards the end of his life as well.
“That played into the notion that he would be around forever.
“All of those things create this false sense of security that you are never going to have say goodbye. But ultimately the day came when we did have to say goodbye and it hit hard.”
It has been six months since her beloved father’s death, a relatively short period of time and one the RTÉ star admits has left little opportunity to stop and fully grieve.
“I feel like I am so busy in my life that I don’t get much time to sit and think about him,” she said.
“When I do talk about him, like I am talking to you now, all of the feelings appear again. In the days leading up to his death, I remember feeling I was losing a real champion.
“Your parents always believe that you can never do anything wrong and I felt like I was losing someone who absolutely believed in me. He thought that of all of his children. He was such a great supporter.
“He loved to hear how we were getting on and loved all of his grandchildren. It’s a big loss for everybody and there is no point in saying otherwise. We are still very sad…
“Heartbroken really to have lost him.”
In speaking so candidly about her father’s death, Byrne hopes to highlight the important role palliative care services had in affording him a dignified passing.
Tom died in the family home where he was born, surrounded by family, with the support of specially trained palliative care nurses. The lead-up to his death and the time his loved ones got to spend with him is something for which Byrne is particularly grateful. “We were all there with him when he passed,” she said. “It was as nice as that moment can be, and we felt that we had all had our quality time with him.
“We were very fortunate, but a lot of effort went into making that happen.
“My sister is a nurse, the house was suitable, we had the right services in terms of primary care services and the palliative care nurses, but it was only really when he was in his last week that I realised just how important it is to have that total package.
“When it comes to palliative care, the nurses who are coming in during the day, the nurses who are coming in at night [allowed us to] get some sleep, it all means so much.
“It was like getting a hug really as we took him to his final days.
“I suppose what I realised coming through all of that was that if you weren’t able to have your loved one at home in their last days or months as they are going through a terminal illness, well, you are looking at them ultimately dying in an acute hospital and the reason for that is that we don’t have a hospice in the midlands.
“I hate to think of people going through what we went through in a hospital setting. Everyone deserves that dignity in death, families deserve it too.”
Through her own personal experience, Claire came to realise that the midlands (Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath) is the only region in Ireland that does not have a Level 3 hospice.
In an effort to correct the imbalance in palliative care services, the Midlands Hospice Foundation project is raising vital funds to build a state-of the-art facility in Tullamore.
In the wake of her father’s death, Byrne has become a patron of the campaign.
“My father’s death really brought it home to me how important hospice and palliative care services are because we were very, very lucky,” she said.
“The loveliest part of that week leading to my father’s death was being able to say goodbye. We all have busy lives in our family, but we got an opportunity to come back home together. It was just the six of us and my Mam and we were with my Dad, along with all the professional help that we had.
“We all got to spend some really precious time with him. I think back on it all the time and I am so thankful for it.
“That’s why I’m so supportive of this project.
“We could have been in a situation where my father might have died in hospital and given the restrictions with Covid-19, we wouldn’t have been able to see him.
“I am so conscious of the people that have gone through that. We were blessed in that we had him at home. We all got to spend time with him, to hold his hand over so many days, to talk to him and in the days when he was still able to, he was squeezing our hands to let us know that he could hear what we were saying to him.
“We all had lovely private conversations with him and shared jokes with him.
“It was a really special time and I treasure it.”
In October this year, the HSE accepted architectural plans for a 16-bed in-patient unit as proposed by the Midlands Hospice Foundation project.
A site has been ear-marked on the campus of Midlands Regional Hospital Tullamore and fundraising efforts are under way to raise the estimated €12.5m needed for the build.
“The timeline for this really depends on money,” said Professor Humphrey O’Connor, chairperson of the Offaly Hospice Foundation.
“It’s a phenomenal amount to raise through charitable efforts, but we will look at every avenue possible. Claire’s father, because of the well-developed community-based home-care service of palliative care and the expertise of specialist clinical nurses, was able to almost have hospice at home care.
“A proportion of people can’t achieve that, in cases with particularly difficult symptoms, or if they don’t have the same large, loving support network of family and they need in-patient care.
“What happens at the moment, in the absence of a specialist unit in the region, is that people end up going to casualty or if you are good enough you can be taken off to one of the specialist hospices in either Dublin, Limerick or Galway.
“That is the situation, and we need to do better.”
Meanwhile, as Christmas approaches, it marks a poignant milestone for the Byrne family – their first without Tom.
“I would always have visited my parents frequently,” said Byrne. “Now we go and visit my mother.
This Christmas is going to be particularly difficult for her but there are six of us and we have our families so we will take good care of her.
“There is no doubt about it though, it’s going to be a difficult Christmas and I am taking a decent break this year. The one thing I am doing, which I would never normally do, is that I have made no plans. I haven’t planned any trips away.
“I am just going to be at home and have a very quiet Christmas with my family.
“I realise the value in that now, that you don’t have to be on the move all the time. I know now the memories I created with my father, the ones I dip back into, are the really simple ones just being at home and doing very normal things.”
Byrne has taken stock on her life and admits that her father’s passing has left her re-evaluating what is important.
“When death comes so close to you realise that your life really is for living,” she said.
“You think about all the lovely family time that we had together and you see the value in making time to do that.
“I’m very busy all of the time and I have started to think about how I can be more present in my life with my children. I am very much aware of that now in a way I probably wasn’t before to be honest. It’s something I’m working on.”