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We did the best we could

30 November, 1999

Nancy Donoghue writes about helping her children cope with the death of their sister killed in an accident.

 How often have I heard mothers say, ‘Where did I go wrong?’ when talking about their teenage and adult children. Indeed, how often have I said myself, ‘If only I knew then what I know now I could have been a better mother and wife.’ Now, looking back as a grandmother, I believe parents can usually say with all honesty that they did the best they could at the time. There were some wonderful experiences in my life as well as some heartbreaking ones.

The Saddest Time
By far the saddest time I lived through was when Julie, our first born, was killed outside our house. She had got off a bus and was running across the road when she was knocked down by a bus coming from the opposite direction. She died instantly.

I remember it was a Sunday in July and she was coming home from Mass. She was eight years old. There were five younger than Julie in the family and two of her brothers, aged five and four, who were watching for her return, saw what happened.

Living With God

Finally, I came to realise that my husband, Johnny, and the children were feeling just as bad as myself and I tried to console them as best I could. I said to the little ones, ‘Julie got off the bus and saw you at the gate, Michael and John, and ran towards you. Suddenly angels appeared and brought her spirit to heaven. She is now living with God and you can pray to her and ask her to take your prayers to God. He loves her so much he can’t refuse her anything.’

I also brought them regularly to visit her grave and gathered flowers on the way to adorn it.

Then there were the feelings of guilt. ‘If only I had gone with her, or, if only I had been there to hold her hand as she crossed the road.’ I also got into thinking that God must be punishing me for my sins, so that really her death was my fault. It took a long time, and years of soul-searching, to get through all the grief and its accompanying emotions.

We had two more children, Miriam and David, a total of eight in ten years. I became ill then and my husband insisted, ‘No more children!’

If you are one of my generation you will understand how hard a struggle that was in an era of no birth control. The worry about going to confession, looking for a sympathetic priest, but still never getting away from guilty feelings and scruples. Yet, through it all, I did whaever I could to teach my children about a loving God whom we call Father, though I really didn’t understand how such a God could let such bad things happen.

Filling The Empty Space

I treasure the holidays when Johnny packed us all into the Morris Minor and headed for a cottage by the sea in Wexford. Even though space was limited my mother came too and Dad used to come at the week-ends, always bringing with him a big box of strawberries. They were the most selfless of parents and I could never have got through those years without their love and support.

Part Of The Family

I will never forget that night. My husband and some of our sons who lived nearby went out into the rain and wind to search for him, while the girls and I stayed at home praying. This is how I prayed: ‘Dear God, protect John and let no harm come to him. Save him from himself. Angels, gather round him. Go, my own dear angel, and join with his angel to save him and guard him from all harm. Julie, my dear child in heaven, go and whisper in your brother John’s ear, ‘Come home.’

After many hours he did come home, drenched and intoxicated. Johnny held him in his arms and cried with him. We all cried. When he was able to talk, he said he wandered out to find a way to end the pain and did not remember anything after that until he woke up to find he was lying on Julie’s grave. He said to himself and to Julie, ‘I’m sorry, I could never put Ma and Da through that again,’ as he remembered how it was when she died. So he walked the four miles home on that stormy night.

That is only part of the story of one of my children who are still living. Each of them has a story to tell and their stories are still unfolding.

You will have gathered by now that our home always had an open door and welcoming, loving arms to take the children in, no matter what happened.


Miriam and her husband have two children and I see them every day. She called her daughter Julie after the dead sister she never met and she is like her in so many ways that I say to myself, ‘The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, but he gives back a hundredfold.’ I try to encourage these little ones along the road of life, leading them gently towards a love for God and his creation.

For example, when we prepare for Christmas, each morning they come to me about an hour before they go to school. They bring with them their little friend Jenny as her parents have gone to work. We say our morning prayers together and they love to enter into the Christmas story of Jesus.

Advent Stocking

After we light the candles on the Advent wreath, which we have made together, they colour in the cut-outs I have ready for them and write a promise on the back. They then put them into the stocking.

On the first day the cut-out is an angel and their promise for that day is to say yes to what Jesus asks, so that if Mammy asks them to do some chore they don’t particularly like doing, they’ll do it without complaining. On another day the cut-out could be a star and the promise is to shine for their friends at school by behaving well.

Again, the cut-out might be a lamb, and they promise to pray for the homeless and the lost.

On Fridays they put in some money for the poor, and so on. By Christmas the stocking is quite full of these gifts, and after Mass on Christmas morning they empty out the stocking for the Baby Jesus and then Grand-dad gives them their presents from the tree.

Thank You

All in all, life is good and God is good. And I thank him for allowing me to live long enough to see my children’s childrenI have made an Advent stocking. On one side we have the angel Gabriel and on the other a picture of the crib.Now that Johnny and I are in the winter of our lives and are the grandparents of sixteen children, we can see how the scene has changed since we were young parents. Today both parents often have to work to provide a home for themselves and their children and some live too far away to visit us regularly. But we are lucky to have our daughter, Miriam, living beside us. We live in a small house in the garden of her home and call it Teach sa Gairdín (Garden House).Looking back, I see that it was a blessing to have a child in heaven pleading for us. We still felt that she was very much part of the family and was always included in our daily prayers. There were many instances when I called on her to pray for us but there was one occasion which I will never forget. This was when my son John’s marriage broke up. He phoned me to say he couldn’t take any more pain and said, ‘Goodbye, Ma. I’m sorry!’ and hung up. In my own way I tried to make up to my children for the empty space in the house after Julie was killed. I gave up fussing about having the house in order. I never ironed clothes again except when it was really necessary, but spent as much time as I could just being with the children and listening to them.How do you tell little children that they will never see their sister again? John, who was seven at the time, was Julie’s best friend as well as her brother. How to explain to him? I had my three year old daughter tugging at my skirt, saying ‘Don’t cry’, and a baby in the pram who needed constant attention, but for weeks all I could think of was my own pain.