Ireland star Mike Ross: 'When a child takes their own life, you wonder if you've failed them...'
Ireland prop Mike Ross was just 17 when he lost his little brother Andrew to suicide. Now, he says, he's using his own experience of bereavement to help others cope with grief
Talking to the press is second nature to international rugby star Mike Ross. The 49-times capped Ireland prop has been interviewed so often he switches easily into the language of hookers and tightheads, the physical and psychological battle of the scrum, the glory of the Six Nations, and how pretenders to his crown will have to fight tooth and nail for it.
At 35, he knows his days as one of the leading lights of Irish rugby won't last forever, but he's not ready to hang up his boots just yet.
"It would be nice to think I'll be first choice until I'm 40, but I'll keep going as long as I can and if another guy wants my place he'll have to take it," he says. "That's sport for you... I'll make him fight for every last inch."
That's the kind of brave talk for which this sporting hero is renowned. But today, we're not talking about rugby. We're talking about a new role he's taken on that's a world away from the thrill of the game. It too requires courage, but it's not an easy subject. He's never spoken in public about it before and why would he? It's personal.
This year, Mike has become an ambassador for Anam Cara, the support group for bereaved parents. The voluntary group - which receives no State funding - offers a hugely important service to people ravaged by the grief of losing a child, and he's delighted to lend his name to its cause.
We talk for a while about how and why he got involved. He's friends with Simon Keogh, a fellow Leinster player, and his wife Victoria, who looks after PR for Anam Cara, and she thought he'd be a good fit.
"And when I looked into it, I was more than happy to become an ambassador, not just for this Father's Day campaign, but going forward."
He talks about Anam Cara's new #daddyandme campaign, which is being launched today to raise awareness of the particular challenges facing bereaved fathers - how the man is expected to be the strong one through the devastation, even though he's breaking up inside.
"Men tend to internalise things," says Mike. "We don't wear our emotions openly. And people treat bereaved fathers differently from mothers. They often ask men in the situation, 'How's your wife coping?' I think it's great that with Father's Day coming up, the #daddyandme campaign puts the focus back on fathers."
But there's a bit of an elephant in the room, because while it's a wonderful thing he's doing, and for an eminently worthwhile cause, Mike himself is, thankfully, not a bereaved parent.
His four-year-old son Kevin and seven-month-old daughter Chloe are beautiful, healthy children and the lights of his life. So what's the connection?
"I lost my brother," he says, "and I could see the impact it had on my parents and my siblings. When a child dies, it affects everybody in the family."
Mike is the eldest of five, from Ballyhooly, Co Cork. They grew up on a farm and it was a pretty idyllic childhood, until 1997, when Mike was coming up to his 18th birthday and his brother Andrew, then 16, died.
"My parents went through a tough time," he says. "They had four other kids who needed attention. I saw them struggling, and my siblings struggling... It happened in October and I did my Leaving Cert the following June. It was tough on all of us."
And then comes the awkward question, how did he die?
Oh God, I'm so sorry.
"It's bad enough, however a child dies, but when he or she chooses to take their own life, it adds even more layers of pain. You wonder if you've failed that child. Was it something you did? For us, the loss was doubly painful because of how he died."
Had he been suffering from depression? Was there any indication of whatever turmoil was going on in his mind?
"No, it came out of the blue. There were no signs leading up to it whatsoever. There was no note."
Without explanation, the teenager took the gun that was used on the family farm to scare off crows and shot himself. His mother found him.
"Nothing was ever the same again," says Mike. "You never get back to the way things were after something like that. It took my parents years to find their 'new normal'.
"Anam Cara didn't exist at the time. There was no support network. Somebody suggested my father take up exercise to work through his grief.
"Now, I understand more than most the benefit of exercise in everyday life - among other things, it releases dopamine that can make you feel good - but I'm sorry, exercise was not going to make my father feel okay.
"I'm passionate about the work of Anam Cara, because they organise open nights and have online forums and a helpline and provide lots of outlets for men to engage and receive the support they need.
"I'd like to say to any man out there who has lost a child or a sibling, don't bottle it up. You're not alone.
"It can be a very powerful thing to listen to other people and share your own story. That's why I'm doing this, talking about my brother and how it affected our family. Suicide was and still is a bit of a subject you skirt around. It's described in euphemisms, like he 'died suddenly'.
"That cloak adds another layer of difficulty that loved ones left behind have to deal with. People don't know what to say to you. And there's the shocking waste of potential when a young life is cut short like that. All you're left with is a sense of what could have been."
With just 18 months between them, Mike and Andrew were as close as two brothers could be. Both were sporty and shared a love of life and a sense of fun together.
"He was mischievous and used to pull the wool over my eyes," he says. "We fought like cats and dogs, but if anyone messed with us, they'd be facing both of us. Losing him was very painful. I thought about it every day for years and, yes, time is a healer, but the experience leaves a scar. However, it becomes a little less painful as the years go on.
"He's buried in the family plot in Cork and I go visit him from time to time. I gave my son, Kevin, his middle name, James, as a way to remember and honour him. I like to remember the good times. For me that's very healing."
If losing his brother was the worst experience possible, becoming a father is one of the best things that's ever happened to Mike. He describes it as "to have your heart go walking around outside your body," quoting Elizabeth Stone, author of A Boy I Once Knew.
"Now that I have two wonderful kids, the thought of losing either of them would be my worst nightmare," he says.
"The #daddyandme campaign is wonderful. All you have to do is take a picture, donate €4 by texting SUPPORT to 50300 and tag three friends in. If it grows nearly as successful as the ice bucket challenge, Anam Cara will need a new bank account!
"But seriously, if it reaches a fraction of that success, it will make an incredible difference to bereaved families across the country."
Sharing the burden: how you can help
In the run-up to Father's Day on June 21, Anam Cara's #daddyandme campaign aims to raise awareness of the difficulties facing bereaved dads, and raise much-needed funds to provide support services throughout the country for all bereaved parents. This is how you can get involved:
1. Share a picture of you and your Dad on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and include the hashtag #daddyandme. The photo could be a recently taken selfie or one from the archives
2. Tag and nominate three friends or companies to do the same
3. Donate and include the following text information in your post or tweet - 'Text SUPPORT to 50300 to donate €4 to Anam Cara'
According to Sharon Vard, CEO of Anam Cara, mothers and fathers grieve in different ways. At the family events the organisation runs from time to time, she says women talk to each other, while men find solidarity in 'doing stuff' like playing football with the kids.
"Fathers grieve shoulder-to-shoulder, while mothers do it face-to-face," she says.
It's how she and her husband reacted when their youngest daughter Rachel died from a brain tumour in 2004, at the age of five.
"I got together with other bereaved parents and we were each others' lifeline. It was predominantly women then, but since we set up Anam Cara in 2008, we find that if you can get a man to go to a group, and he hears other men sharing their feelings, it gives him a chance to open up too.
"It's only when I listened to other dads that I understood what my husband had gone through.
"We offer support not only for parents of small children. When the child is older, it's a different bond. Parents are broken, and for bereaved siblings, they don't just lose a brother or sister, they lose their parents as they knew them."
To coincide with the #daddyandme campaign, Anam Cara is launching a new information video entitled A Dad's Grief, which gives recently bereaved fathers the opportunity to hear how others have learned to cope with the pain of losing their child. For further information visit Anam Cara's website at anamcara.ie.