MARY CARR: How can parents cope with the emptiness of losing a child?

As four young people die in a horror road crash in Ireland, how can parents cope with the incalculable emptiness of knowing their child will stay forever young? Writes MARY CARR

When my children were growing up, whatever stage they were at was the time I thought it would be worst to lose them.

As small babies sleeping in their cribs, I would almost sleepwalk into their rooms and bend down close to their cheeks to check they were breathing. I imagined that a cot death would be the most devastating blow a mother could ever experience, and I spent more time than was wise researching the age when that threat subsided, and they could be left to their slumber.

When they started cycling to school in fifth class, careering down the hill at breakneck speed, I kept an ear out for sirens and the heart-stopping sound of emergency services telling me there had been an accident. I knew then that losing them at the cusp of adolescence with secondary school so tantalisingly close would be the cruellest cut of all.

I thought the same during the early teenage years, when they started going into town with pals and tackled the minefield of teen social life, eager to make an impression on their peer group and who knows, liable to get up to all sorts in the process.

The driver of the vehicle was named by police as 24-year-old Luke McSweeney (left). His sister Grace McSweeney (right), 18, along with her two school friends were all killed in the horrific crash

Also in the car was Nicole Murphy (left), 18, and Zoey Coffey (right), 18. All four passengers were fatally injured in the accident in Co Tipperary

An image of forensic collision investigators examining the scene of the crash in Clonmel, Co Tipperary

But now that my children are in their early 20s and grown up, I know that their meeting their end at 18 or thereabouts – as they were immersed in that precious in-between time straddling leaving school and taking their first steps into adulthood – would have been the catastrophe from which I would never recover.

For that reason, my heart goes out to the parents whose children lost their lives in the tragic car accident in Clonmel on Friday night.

I know now that there is no more rewarding time for parents than watching our children become adults. Whatever their problems –and there is often something significant to bother them and us – there is no stage quite as interesting or indeed as nerve-wracking as these vital summer months when their futures begin to take shape.

The rituals of graduating school, debs dances, Leaving Cert results and celebrations and the tyranny of the CAO points race are a rollercoaster for teenagers and it’s a well-kept secret that, for parents, they are also a milestone.

We’ve put in the hard yards of parenting, the trials of teething and sleepless nights; we’ve guided them through school and exam pressures while ferrying them between matches and music lessons, helping them to find passions to enrich their lives.

It’s fashionable nowadays to call parenting a journey, and while it’s true that the voyage never really ends, 18 is the threshold of young adulthood. It’s the time when the proverbial apron springs are severed, and children emerge from the cocoon of parental dedication and control to start taking responsibility for their own lives and making their own decisions.

The deaths of Grace and Luke McSweeney, Nicole Murphy and Zoey Coffey in a freak road accident on a bendy road in Clonmel, en route to catch a bus to a Leaving Cert party in Carlow, is utterly tragic, but it is shattering for their heartbroken parents.

People attend an emotional vigil in Kickham Plaza, Co Tipperary, and pay their respects to the four young people who tragically died

Grace McSweeney’s boyfriend, Arron Costin, is comforted, as he and her friends lay flowers at the crash site on the Mountain Road in Clonmel

For 18 years they kept their daughters safe and sound, and almost the minute they launch them on the road to independence and turned their backs – as every dutiful parent must do if they are to raise functioning adults – they lose them.

The Coffey and Murphy families have lost their beautiful daughters, while the McSweeneys have suffered a double tragedy, losing both a daughter and a son.

But they’ve also lost their children’s whole worlds – their lively chatter, the buzz of their friends, the endless social whirl, the everyday routine, their brilliant plans for the future. The death of a young person brings an incalculable emptiness, in so many different ways.

The years of college-going or learning a trade, to taking up our first real job or travelling the world are also the years when our personalities become solidified. The potential that children and teenagers brim with is harnessed at this stage, as dreams and ambitious are pursued in earnest.

We may be young and foolish and hopelessly idealistic when we leave home, but eventually most of us learn to compromise and to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off after the knocks we inevitably suffer. We become fully formed, warts and all, a mixture of flaws and virtues.

The parents of Grace, Zoey and Nicole have a good inkling of how their daughters might have turned out, but they have been cruelly robbed of the pleasure of seeing them become adults.

In the portraits painted of the girls by their school principals, we see the brush strokes, the outlines of their characters.

Grace was a gentle and kind person. ‘She was a gifted gymnast and a dancer and a very good student who had a positive impact on everybody she encountered,’ says her principal at Presentation Secondary, Michael O’Loughlin.

A woman leaves flowers near to the scene of a fatal crash which claimed the lives of Luke McSweeney, 24, his sister Grace McSweeney, 18, Zoey Coffey, 18, and Nicole Murphy, 18

Police at the scene of the crash in Clonmel, Co Tipperary

Zoey’s personality was warm and vibrant. ‘She was funny, kind and really determined. She was a diligent worker and very popular with her peers and teachers. She was central to all aspects of school life in the Pres.’

According to Anne McGrath, principal at Loreto, Nicole was a ‘beautiful student.’

‘She developed into a young woman who was kind, gentle, witty and she was a trusted and loyal friend.’

Luke McSweeney, 24, is remembered by his former schoolteachers as an excellent rugby player with a playful sense of humour.

But like a sculptor shaping a piece of art out of a lump of wood or clay, it’s the toll of life’s ups and downs that would have revealed the people Nicole, Grace and Zoey were meant to be.

And it is to the eternal regret of all who knew them, especially their parents, that with all their talents and the blessings of excellent exam results, supportive families and gregarious natures, Zoey, Grace and Nicole didn’t survive to bloom into adulthood.

It is not natural for a parent to lose a child. It upends our ideas about the natural order and the cycle of life. It makes a mockery of the sacrifices parents make, and of the hope that made us believe so much in the goodness of the world that we risk bringing a little person into it.

And it’s dreadful to think of the number of parents who over this summer must have been cast into an existential crisis and a maelstrom of unspeakable, bewildering sorrow, mourning the cruel and premature deaths of their almost-grown children.

Two communities came together in Co. Monaghan when school pals Kiea McCann and Dlava Mohamed died on their way to the debs when the car they were travelling in left the road and struck a tree, killing both and injuring three others on the N54 near Clones.

Last Friday, as the Leaving Cert results were released, did Kiea’s parents, Frankie and Teresa, make the pilgrimage to Largy College and get her results, or did they just stay at home and grieve for what might have been?

Seventeen-year-old Kiea hoped to work in childcare, and she was due to begin a childcare course at Cavan Institute next month.

Pupils from the class of 2023 from Clonmel Presentation Secondary School, attend a vigil in Kickham Plaza

People light candles at the end of the vigil in Kickham Plaza, Co Tipperary, in memory of the four

READ MORE HERE: Pictured: Brother, 24, sister, 18, and her two 18-year-old friends who were killed in car crash on their way to celebrate their Irish exam results

Her best friend Dlava, originally from Syria, was younger, about to start transition year having just completed her Junior Cert in June, the outcome of which is, like Kiea’s Leaving Cert, a matter of profound irrelevance now.

And what of the anguished families of Max Wall and Andrew O’Donnell, the two Dublin schoolboys who lost their lives on their post-Leaving Cert holiday in Greece?

Friday must have been torture for their parents, knowing that their sons’ schoolfriends were congregating in St Michael’s College in Ballsbridge to receive their results, their whole lives stretching before them.

Sports-mad Andrew, who is believed to have fallen on a rocky hill on the outskirts of Ios’s main town of Hora after he became separated from a friend while walking home after a night out, had big plans to study in the UK.

Max, who had battled health problems as a youngster and collapsed while on the phone home to his father, had his heart set on becoming a successful businessman.

Their best-laid plans evaporated in the blink of an eye. Heartbreaking.

Indeed, the same could be said about the violent death of Grace O’Malley-Kumar in Nottingham. The 19-year-old medical student and star hockey player was revelling in the freedom of college life and her new-found independence when her life was cut short.

Grace’s bereft mother, Dr Sinéad O’Malley, is from Dublin, but her stricken dad Sanjoy told the vigil for his daughter and her friend Barnaby, who was also stabbed that night, that she was enjoying Nottingham so much it was practically impossible to get her to tear herself away to visit her parents.

A young woman working and partying hard, spreading her wings and intoxicated on the joy of life.

And then it turns dark.

Last night, Clonmel’s close-knit community held a vigil for the four young people taken in the worst road accident in the town’s history.

As in Monaghan, it will be a long time before the community heals from the trauma of their grief and life returns to normal. But life for Bridget and Paul McSweeney, parents of Luke and Grace, for Serena and Declan Murphy, Nicole’s parents, and for the parents of Zoey Coffey will change inexorably.

After the shock has subsided and they pick up the pieces and put their best foot forward for the sake of their other children, there will be something broken inside them: the dull ache that comes from knowing that life will never be the same again and that a beloved child who is forever young will always be in their heart.

Thousands come together to express solidarity with the families of four young people killed in horrific car crash

By Gráinne Ní Aodha and Garreth MacNamee

A devastated community was last night united in grief as thousands lined the streets to express solidarity with the families of four young people killed in a car crash on Friday.

Fr Michael Toomey said the tragedy was like ‘a massive stone’ disrupting still water that sent ‘shockwaves right across our family, schools, town and country’.

As sobbing school friends were seen hugging and comforting one another at the vigil, the priest urged people in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, to ‘stick together’ in the times ahead.

Heartbroken relatives of Grace McSweeney, 18, her brother Luke, 24, Zoey Coffey, 18, and Nicole Murphy, 18, were among the crowd.

Fr Toomey said people across the country have been left speechless by the tragedy.

People attend a vigil in Kickham Plaza, Co Tipperary, in memory of Luke McSweeney, 24, his 18-year-old sister Grace McSweeney, Zoey Coffey and Nicole Murphy, both also 18

Flowers and tributes left near to the scene in Clonmel, Co Tipperary where four young people died in a car crash

He added: ‘Particularly young people here tonight, I say the grieving process that many of you are experiencing, you’re probably going through shock or pain or denial.

‘If this applies to you, then you have begun what we call the grieving journey, the journey which will have most, if not all, of these emotions at different times in the days and years ahead.’

He said that some people will be struggling to make sense of it, and wondered ‘why them?’

‘The question we will certainly never get the answer to, not in this life anyway,’ he added.

Mayor of Clonmel Richie Molloy addressed the vigil by saying that the tragedy was the worst in living memory.

He added: ‘It’s very hard to know what the families are feeling this evening, and while we can imagine, it’s very hard to know.

‘All I can say as the mayor, the people of the town really want to show the families the feeling of unity.’ The Bishop of Waterford and Lismore Alphonsus Cullinan told the vigil that when his brother and sister died he felt helpless.

Heartbroken relatives of Grace McSweeney, 18, her brother Luke, 24, Zoey Coffey, 18, and Nicole Murphy, 18, were among the crowd

People are pictured comforting each other ahead of a vigil in Kickham Plaza

He said he received consolation from the coming together of family and friends.

‘It’s amazing to see so many of you here,’ he said, adding that there was a ‘goodness’ in the coming together of people to console one another.

He said people would support one another in the coming days and ‘find a strength in that’.

Many people were visibly upset throughout the crowd at the emotional vigil as it drew to a close with Andra Day’s song Rise Up playing.

Fr Billy Meehan, parish priest at St Mary’s in Clonmel, yesterday said he gave the last rites to the victims at the scene of the crash.

Fr Meehan, who had baptised Luke and Grace and performed their parents’ wedding ceremony, said the whole community in Clonmel was behind the families and supporting them. He added: ‘It brings home to us how fickle life can be, that in the space of just 24 hours your whole world can change around.

‘The guards called me out last Friday night to tell me that there was an accident over at Hillview. I didn’t know what I was facing or who was involved in the accident.

‘But when I got there and the guards told me who they were, I realised then who they were and it suddenly dawned on me: here was I, 24 years ago and 18 years ago, I had baptised Luke into the faith and set them on their faith journey and here I was giving them absolution and anointing them as they were laid out on the tarmac at Hillview.’

Fr Toomey said a Mass in the young victims’ honour will be offered at 10.30am today and broadcast on RTÉ News Now.

As tributes poured in for the four young people the council revealed books of condolence will be available at its offices from 11am.

The principals of Loreto and Presentation secondary school, which the three Leaving Cert students attended, paid tribute to the girls who were on their way to catch a bus to a party in Carlow in celebration of their exam results.

Grace McSweeney was described as ‘thoughtful, considerate, and hard-working’ and ‘a gifted gymnast and a dancer’.

People light candles at the end of the vigil in Kickham Plaza, Co Tipperary

Flowers and tributes left at the scene in Clonmel, Co Tipperary where the four young people died in a car crash

Clonmel Majorettes said Grace had been a dedicated member of their club ‘for many years’, and was ‘a great talent in both dancing, baton and gymnastics’. Zoey Coffey was remembered as ‘warm and vibrant’, and ‘a diligent worker’ who was popular in the school.

Nicole Murphy was said to have been ‘kind, gentle and witty’ and ‘a trusted and loyal friend’.

CBS High School said in a statement that they were devastated at the loss of their past pupil Luke McSweeney, and added that they were supporting his and Grace’s Ms younger brother David, a fifth‑year pupil at their school, as well as third-year pupil Ryan, brother of Nicole.

Fr Toomey described Luke as a ‘quiet young man’, and a rugby player with ‘a great sense of humour’. On Saturday morning students attended the schools so that they could mourn together.

Loreto’s principal Anne McGrath said teachers greeted students with open arms.

She told RTÉ Radio: ‘They’re welcoming their students in grief this time rather than in joy as we did on Friday. Those hugs were there on Friday in happiness (at the exam results) and today they’re in consolation.’

She said that students were on their way to Carlow to celebrate their exam results on Friday when they heard about the fatal crash and returned to Clonmel.

Ms McGrath added: ‘Some of the girls were already in Carlow, some were on the way.

‘Some, ironically enough, were playing a football match and were on the way by car and they just said to me that they just turned around. They came home, their parents supported them, and they wanted to be together.

‘There was a lot of unknowns initially and it was very important that they were together, so that is what they have done since then.’

‘That’s how they’ve gotten through until now, because they can cry and grieve together.’

Gardaí said adverse weather conditions at the time of the crash on Mountain Road in Clonmel shortly after 7.30pm on Friday, including heavy downpours at the scene when first responders arrived, will be considered as part of the Garda inquiry.

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