Sunday 21 July 2019

'I had no other choice' - Student lost her mother during her Leaving Cert and had to sit exam the next morning

"She passed away at ten past ten, Wednesday evening, and I had to be in school the next morning at half eight to do my business exam.” (stock photo)
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

A young student who lost her mother to cancer during her leaving cert exams has appealed to the education minister to put a bereavement process in place for students sitting state exams.

Last June, Rhona Butler had sat three of her leaving cert exams when her mother Margaret (50) died of breast cancer on June 13.

Rhona, who was voted student of the year for five out of her six years at Scoil Mhuire in Carrick-on-Suir in Co Tipperary, still had four leaving cert exams left to do after her mother died. She said she had no choice but to sit the remaining exams.

“My mam was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and she just got more sick there towards the start of my exams.”

“We were like best friends, I know it’s a bit cheesy but it’s true. She was definitely the best in the world. I knew she’d be there for me for the leaving cert.”

“[She died on] a Wednesday and I was lucky in a sense that I had no exams that day. I think some of my friends had french and biology or something that day that luckily enough I didn’t do. So I got to spend the day with her.”

Rhona told the Ryan Tubridy show this morning that she sat one exam 12 hours after her mother died, another on the same day as her mother’s wake, and another two in the days after the funeral mass.

The heroic student, who was praised by Tubridy’s listeners as a fabulous young woman, said that while she had the support of her family, friends and school the process was very difficult.

“My problem really was that she passed away at ten past ten, Wednesday evening, and I had to be in school the next morning at half eight to do my business exam.”

“I was up at six to try and do some bit of study anyway, to have something in my head before I went in.”

She added: “I’ve a huge family and friends and they were all supportive so my school couldn't have done anything for me, they would have if they could have, and my superintendent, they offered me a room by myself but I didn't want to make it any more abnormal than it was'.

The student, who got her first choice course of Business and German in the University of Limerick, said she felt moved to ring Ryan Tubridy’s show this morning because she doesn’t want other students in similar circumstances to go through what she did.

“On the Friday, I had German, and that was the evening of her wake. Saturday was the burial and I was back in school on Monday for accounting, and I was back for music on the Thursday.”

“I had no other choice. I had put in the work for six years, and if I didn’t show up on the day - that was my problem - the Department didn’t care. They just see us as exam numbers. We’re much more than that, there are people behind those exam numbers.”

“I think everyone knows that the leaving cert is a bit old and outdated and it needs to be reformed... Whilst they’re doing that, there needs to be a bereavement process in place.”

Rhona, who wants to become an accountant, said separate exams should be held weeks later for students who are bereaved.

“There’s two sets of papers that they choose from, so why not have the second set of papers just even two weeks later, some date in July. That’s all people would have needed, just to get their head right.”

“I’m definitely not the first and I’m not going to be the last.”

Rhona recently emailed government ministers to outline her case but she says she only received automated responses back from them.

"I sent letters to all the ministers but I just think it’s like talking to a wall.”

“There are probably hundreds or thousands in the same situation as me, and there really needs to be changes.”

'It's not fair on the student, it's not fair on the family and it's not even fair on the schools really because it’s not their fault that you’ve to go in there either'.

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