Laura Coleman is a clinical psychotherapist and the family therapist with Mayo Roscommon Hospice Foundation. From Donegal, she lives in Co Mayo with her family
I had cancer when I was 29 and expecting my third child. My eldest was only three years old. It was a very traumatic time. While I was being treated, my husband was at home with three small children in Mayo while I was up in Dublin’s Mater hospital.
I was lucky, I recovered, but my sister died the same year. She was only 42 and left five children behind her.
I was anointed at one point, so I must have been close to dying. I was very ill and I did have to think about the possibility of leaving my children behind. It changed me to have a close call like that and then to lose a loved one. Without support, a family can implode.
I have a degree in psychotherapy and one in psychology, and I’m also a play therapist. So I had these skills and I thought I should do something with them that could help people dealing with illness and end of life and loss. I know it sounds flowery, but that was the fact of it. That was about 17 years ago.
The Mayo Roscommon Hospice Foundation was set up in 1992 and, at that time, there were no supports like this. I had a small private practice at the time, and I started off with the hospice voluntarily, but soon enough my hospice work was taking way more of my time. I eventually became part of the team and now I work for the hospice.
There are two sides to the work. There’s the patient work, and then the other part is supporting the family. The ethos of the hospice is that the person is living their life and not just waiting to die. What I love about it is that we’ve developed a patient-centred design. There’s no one size fits all, and what I provide is to suit each person.
I had a case recently where a mother, very ill, hadn’t had any conversation about what was happening with her children. She hadn’t felt able. So I went in, at her invitation, and initiated that conversation.
I worked with a lovely man and his wife, and she said to me that she didn’t know if he knew he was dying. I told her to go for coffee, and I’d have a chat with him. Of course he did, but they were both trying to protect each other from it.
It’s a privilege to help initiate these conversations, because it’s heartbreaking the regrets people carry if they don’t have them. So many times my job would involve reconciliation. I had a patient who hadn’t seen their children for years after a marriage break-up. They didn’t think the children would come, but they did. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it can be done.
I do groups as well. Grieving and processing grief in groups is so powerful. You’re there with people at different stages of grief and in different positions and that can be so helpful. I run groups for adults and children and adolescents.
Mayo Roscommon Hospice Foundation funds my service fully, provides family support, and substantially funds palliative homecare services. In 2019, our 14-bed Mayo Hospice was completed. During the pandemic, the Foundation began building the eight-bed Roscommon Hospice, which will be completed this year. The cost of building both is over €15m, all from fund-raised income. In the last year, all fund-raising events were cancelled, and our 12 charity shops were closed.
The virtual Sunflower campaign is coordinated nationally by Together for Hospice and it’s our big fund-raiser this year, The National Hospice Movement represents 26 hospices nationwide, which need €20m annually for their services.
I go into people’s lives at the worst of times, and it’s hard not to have a very close bond. If I worked for the HSE, I’d finish at five o’clock, but in this job, I can be out the door at nine o’clock at night if someone needs me. My children are grown up and gone, and my husband works in the same area, so he gets it.
When a patient dies, I grieve, too. You get very close. If I ever stop missing the people I get to work with, I’ll give up the job.
With no on-street fundraising this month, the Hospice Sunflower Days campaign is online through June. Sponsor a flower in the name of someone you love, to be planted in a hospice garden of your choice, or buy a sunflower gift. See sunflowerdays.togetherforhospice. ie
In conversation with Sarah Caden