ON a lovely autumn day almost 21 years ago, the biggest shock in the lives of Alice and Denis Myers arrived, when their beloved son Jack died in an accident as he made his way home from St Aidan’s National School. Little Jack is now going to be commemorated on a sign that is being erected near the school.
Alice and Denis are very warm people, who generously welcomed this writer into their home last Friday, spoke freely about their son, their terrible loss, their grief and are very pleased that this new memorial to their little boy will now be a feature of the town.
Jack was one of four sons in a family that lived in Finian Park in the heart of Shannon. He loved The Lion King movie and trips to Coole Park.
He was in senior infants at St Aidan’s in September 1998, when terrible news arrived at the Myers’ door.
School principal Ger Loughnane and Dr Peter Flynn arrived and Alice says that even when she saw the two men coming, she didn’t have any feeling of dread, expecting something much milder.
“Our eldest guy was playing a hurling match that day for the school. He was the type of fella who was always getting injured, so we just assumed they were going to tell us that Danny got an injury.”
Alice was in the kitchen and Denis in the garden of the house, so both were told separately but even when they were told, Alice says it was impossible to take in.
“They just walked in the door and told us there had been an accident and that Jack was dead. But you don’t comprehend those words.”
Denis also remembers the moment.
“They called me into the house and… just complete shock. They said we want to bring ye down to the school. So we went out and got into the car. The children that were in the house, we brought them to our neighbour’s house. Then we went down to where the accident had happened and Jack was still on the road.”
It transpired that as Jack had made his way home from school, he had seen an oil truck, which had slowed for a speed bump. There was a ladder at the back of the truck that the little boy had caught onto and he was killed when he fell from the vehicle.
“He [the driver] slowed to get over a speed bump and Jack came running out from behind trees with friends, saw the ladder and jumped on it. He was only on the ladder for about two seconds. Somebody blew the horn and he looked back to see and let go of the ladder and fell. I don’t think he would have realised the truck was in motion at the time.”
Jack was quite a placid little fellow and such behaviour was very unusual for him.
“This is something that’s kind of important to me. When you hear a story like that, you think it was a little gurrier child that was running wild; one of these mad young fellas, you know? But he wasn’t.
“He was a soft, gentle little fella and what he did that day was completely and utterly out of character for him. He was afraid of heights, so how he climbed the ladder on a moving truck is still something I can’t comprehend,” his mother says.
Denis went with Jack’s body in an ambulance to Ennis. At the hospital, an autopsy wasn’t required, with the doctor there saying there was no need, which he says was “a blessing”.
“He only had one mark on him; he had a tiny little bruise on the side of his head. That was it. There wasn’t another single mark on the child. And he had a lollipop in his mouth when he fell off the truck,” Alice recalls.
Alice had just celebrated her 30th birthday at the time and Denis, who was then in the army to the fascination of the local children, was 33.
They were part of a very strong community in the Finian Park, with lots of other people in similar circumstances to themselves and it was a tragedy that all their neighbours identified with.
“There was a lot of young families and we all knew each other. We all looked after each other’s kids; they played together, went to birthday parties. And it was like it could have been any one of our children. So all of the families grieved at the same time,” says Alice.
Shock set in pretty quickly after they received the devastating news and it allowed them to muddle through the coming days.
“You go on auto pilot then. You just swoop along and do things that happen after someone dies, without even realising it. I don’t think we really accepted the fact that he was gone.
“Total acceptance, I’d say, took 15 years but actually accepting it at that time maybe took three or four months before we actually started to believe that it had happened.”
While the shock may have made it possible to function in the hours and days after the tragedy, it also meant that they hadn’t yet started to deal with the reality of the loss of their beloved son. Some of the everyday things that they had done without even thinking about were loaded with a new, tragic significance in the weeks to come, Alice found.
“We had three other children, so they had to be brought to that school every day. So every day, you had to walk past a spot where he died. Four times a day you had to do that. That was so hard. Doing simple things like setting the table, when you’re used to setting the table for dinner and you’re used to putting six plates down. Then, all of a sudden, you have to change your habits and you have to put five down.”
Looking back now, she said at the time she felt like she was losing her son 50 to 60 times a day, with all sorts of triggers all around.
Completely unfairly, the couple also felt a sense of having failed as parents following the loss of Jack.
“When your baby is born, you feel that rush of joy and that love that just overtakes you, and that protective thing, it jumps into you immediately; you’d do anything to protect them. When you lose a child, your confidence is knocked. It’s like the two legs are knocked out from under you, your confidence as a parent, because it’s the ultimate failure as a parent not to bring your child into adulthood,” says Alice.
Two years later, the family left Finian Park, moving a couple of miles away, just outside Shannon in the parish of Newmarket-on-Fergus.
While they are both hugely complimentary about all the support they got from their neighbours in Shannon, it was important from them to get away.
“We didn’t have to pass the spot where he died every day any more. We didn’t have to meet people, well meaning people, who would constantly ask how you’re doing. It was so hard. Every room you walked into, I kept expecting to see him, so moving out here definitely was healing for us,” says Alice.
“It was necessary, really. We felt a little bit claustrophobic in Shannon, there was a lot of attention on us. Did you feel that way?” Denis asks his wife.
“Yeah, I did. And it was well meaning but we needed to move and we did and it was lovely. It kind of helped us to come together as a family again,” she says.
The children changed schools and went to Stonehall, which is near their new home, and Alice feels that was good for them too.
“They missed their friends in Shannon and we missed the community, the support of the community, but we needed to not be in that house any more. We needed to not be in that school any more. We needed to just get time to ourselves really.”
In Shannon, children, even those who had been to the funeral, used to call to the door, unable to grasp the permanence of death.
“They’d say ‘can Jack come out to play?’ after he had been killed. I’d say ‘well Jack died’. I remember one said, ‘I know Jack died but can he come out to play?’ They just didn’t have any concept of death,” Denis remembers.
Obviously, losing a child puts a huge strain on a relationship but, ultimately, their marriage has survived the test of time, even though both say that each one had to grieve in their individual way.
“Yeah, we went different paths to healing for a long time. But I think, ultimately, it brought us much closer. I think it brought our entire family much closer. We certainly learned to cherish our children much more. We learned how fragile life actually is,” says Alice.
“There’s always something positive that comes from anything, you know, even something as bad as that. I didn’t think it was possible but there is actually something positive that can come from it,” Denis adds.
He feels that there is sometimes more of an understanding that mothers are left bereft after their child dies but he was also struggling.
Along the way, he says he made some mistakes but that is very hard to avoid. “There is no training for this. You’re supposed to have some kind of inbuilt thing in you to deal with loss and bereavement. But we don’t.”
In the 1990s, the internet wasn’t something people could turn to for information and Alice was pleased when her friend, who worked for Aer Lingus, brought her a handbook on bereavement for parents home from America.
“Once we had a handbook, you could kind of say, ‘Ok, so I’m not completely losing my mind when I’m doing this’, you know, and ‘oh, that’s totally normal’.
“We got great tips for remembrance services and how to cope and the different stages of emotion and everything. We were clueless. Somehow we got through it all and somehow the lads all got through it,” she says.
Alice remembers her mother bringing her back to reality one day when she was struggling.
“My mother gave me some amazing advice one day. She came in, it was maybe after six months, and the Irish Mammy will always give you the kick in the backside when you need it.
“I was sitting at the table, crying and whatever; I wasn’t coping very well at the time. She said ‘You’re sitting around and you’re wallowing in this’. I said ‘how else am I supposed to get through this, what am I supposed to do?’
“She said ‘you have four children. Each one of those children deserves an equal amount of time and at the moment you’re giving all your time to Jack’. It was like a light bulb went off in my head.”
She also spoke to a Buddhist monk, who told her that whenever she spoke about Jack, she should finish the conversation with laughter.
“That was a very powerful thing that that man said to me. It always kind of just reminds me to snap out of the grief, snap out of the sadness, snap out the sorrow. It’ll be there for you tomorrow. You’re going to wake up tomorrow morning and lose him all over again. Because when you wake up in the morning and you’re turning over and thinking, ‘I have to get up and do this and do that’, you forget for those two moments. Just for two minutes, you’ve forgotten and then the grief comes and you remember again. So you lose them again every single morning. That happens for about three years.
“But that got me through, to remember him with love and remember him with laughter. That was brilliant. That was absolutely brilliant.”
Now the couple have two grandchildren, one who is also named Jack Myers, and they have brought great healing to the couple. Alice also started Shannon Angel Sisters, which provides clothing for needy families, in memory of her late son.
Goodness in people
Both agree that many people have been very good to them and Denis says tragedy can draw out decency and compassion.
“Wherever there is suffering, you’ll always find the goodness in people will come out. Some people lose faith in human nature but you see the good in people.”
It says a lot about the couple that they wanted to help the truck driver, even as they were shaken to their core by the tragedy.
“One of the mornings, I got up and I went down to the garda station to talk to the guards about the accident and about the driver of the truck. It was very important to me that he come to the funeral because it was an accident,” says Denis.
“They wouldn’t give me his number. But I said, ‘Would you ring and just tell him that he’s welcome to call to the house, welcome to phone the house’. He phoned the house and then he did come and he went to the funeral mass as well,” he adds.
Alice describes him as “a lovely, lovely man” and the driver’s family have been very supportive over the years.
“It turned out that he had children of his own. He had a big family and they’ve been very good to us as well. Every year on his birthday and the anniversary, they always send a mass card, every single time.”
Asked what advice they would give to parents who have lost a child, Denis says, “Go to bereavement counselling in time. It takes maybe about six months for you to be ready, I think. It’s hard to know what would be helpful but definitely support in groups and things like that.”
It is very important to voice how you are feeling, Alice says.
“Talk, talk, talk, talk. Just talk. Find other parents who are going through it and who have been through it because they understand you. Talk as much as you possibly can. That would be my advice.”
She also feels it is crucial that people can let go of any blame they are putting on themselves.
“Every bereaved parent carries guilt. It’s the nature of being a parent. You always feel, even if you don’t lose a child, you always look at your lads and think ‘maybe I could have done a bit better, maybe I should have pushed him a little bit more with his promise in hurling’ or something like that; there’s always guilt.
“You carry this extreme guilt after a child dies and you know that it’s not yours to own but it’s there. So I’d say forgive yourself and forgive yourself for the days that you wake up and you just simply can’t cope.
“Because there are days like that, days when you cannot drag yourself out of bed. And just forgive yourself for that. Be gentle with yourself.”