There is a quote from Megan Devine – an author, psychotherapist and grief advocate – that has always stayed with Aoife Kirwan: “Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

But sometimes, that weight feels heavier than others. Like sports day at school, as she watched a little boy in junior infants win his race.

“His parents were there and they were just beaming with pride,” recalls Aoife. “And I was just crying behind my sunglasses because I was thinking, ‘I’ll never have that moment with Rory.’”

Aoife Kirwan with her husband Derek Ryan, on their farm with their three surviving children, Louis, Elizabeth and Hazel, and holding a photo of baby Rory. \ Claire Nash

On 27 April 2016, Aoife’s world was shattered when her seven-week-old baby boy died unexpectedly after a sudden illness. At the time, she could not fathom how she was ever going to survive such a cruel loss.

But today, Aoife shares her own grief journey in order to support other bereaved parents through A Little Lifetime Foundation, and to spread the message that where there is loss, there is also enduring love.

“The love for your baby will never die,” she says. “They have left the world as we know it but your love for them will never die.”

Starting a family

Aoife lives in Oldtown, Co Dublin, with her husband Derek Ryan and their three other children, Louis, Elizabeth and Hazel.

She originally worked in finance before retraining as a primary school teacher, and met Derek – a rhubarb farmer who supplies leading restaurants and retailers – at a wedding in 2008.

“My brother was slagging me saying: ‘Oh my God Aoife, this is another wedding you are going to on your own,” she laughs, explaining how she later learned that Derek had already set his sights on her in the church.

Rory was a beautiful baby boy who was always happiest in his mother's arms or out and about in the sling. \ Claire Nash

“I was wearing a blue dress and when we were at the reception, Suzanne, his sister, had said: ‘Aoife is here on her own.’ He said: ‘I just want to find the girl in the blue dress.’ And that was me!”

The couple married in 2012 and welcomed Louis in 2013, before deciding to expand their family.

“I suppose, like everyone, we’d done that plan. We were going to have our next baby,” says Aoife. Sadly, however, the couple suffered a miscarriage in 2015.

I carried him a lot in the sling and that’s something I definitely am really glad I got to do

Fortunately, they were blessed when Rory arrived on 8 March 2016 in such a hurry that the joke was he was attempting to “gate-crash” Aoife’s birthday, which falls on 7 March.

They spent those early weeks in a blissful baby bubble, with Rory most content curled up in his mother’s arms or out and about in his sling, with happy memories of visiting a local pet farm and going to Easter mass to hear Aoife’s mother sing with her choir.

“He just wouldn’t leave my side,” recalls Aoife. “I carried him a lot in the sling and that’s something I definitely am really glad I got to do.”

Sudden illness

The first indication that anything might be wrong was on a walk one day when Aoife noticed that Rory had vomited in his pram. When he got sick again after coming back from the supermarket she thought it was reflux and also noticed that he had a runny nose.

He was actually due his six-week check-up on the Tuesday of that week, so Aoife brought him to the GP as planned, but after a “really restless night” on Wednesday, returned on Thursday.

“He said: ‘He’s having difficulty breathing,’” recalls Aoife, explaining how they were referred to the hospital in Drogheda with what initially was thought to be bronchiolitis (an infection of the respiratory tract).

I’ll do anything. I’ll give up work and I’ll mind him if his organs didn’t work

As the weekend passed, however, Rory was moved to the high dependency unit. Aoife remembers being in the hospital shower and almost bargaining with God to make him better.

“I remember looking at the tiles and going, ‘Oh my God, there’s something really wrong here,’” she says. “And I just thought: ‘I’ll do anything. I’ll give up work and I’ll mind him if his organs didn’t work’. I always thought he was going to get better.”

Within an hour, however, Rory had taken a turn.

“They literally hit a button and I was ushered out and doctors and nurses came from everywhere and just spilled into the room to try and get him ventilated,” recalls Aoife.

The decision was made to transfer Rory to Temple Street. However, on the way to the ambulance he de-stabilised and nearly died. On arriving in Dublin, Aoife and Derek were told that he had a 60:40 chance of survival after blood tests revealed that he had pneumonia pertussis (whopping cough), with those odds later slipping to 80:20 as he continued to deteriorate.

But then

“He only got in at five o’clock. It was at eight o’clock we knew he was going to die,” says Aoife quietly of the devastating news that nothing more could be done to save Rory.

I remember asking them: ‘You’ll mind him, won’t you?’

“He died in our arms at four o’clock in the morning and then I didn’t want to leave him. I remember asking them: ‘You’ll mind him, won’t you?’ I just always remember that because I just couldn’t bear the thought of him being there on his own. We had to go home then and organise a funeral, and it’s just...” she trails off.

Life after loss

While much of the next few days remains a blur, she remembers vividly bringing Rory upstairs to their bedroom the night before the funeral.

“I always remember going up those stairs thinking: ‘How am I going to survive?’ I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” says Aoife.

After the funeral, she believed that she would “never sleep again”.

“I literally thought I’d never close my eyes again,” says Aoife, explaining that in the weeks and months after Rory’s death she could not bear to be alone.

But she had “no choice” but to keep going for Louis, though supporting him had its own heart-breaking moments.

“He’d say: ‘Who will I play tractors with now?’” she recalls of one conversation with the then two-and-a-half-year-old.

She was, however, “wrapped in love” by those closest to her; dinners arrived to the door, the dishwasher emptied, a breast pump delivered before she even thought to ask.

I had experienced the worst thing imaginable that you never think is going to happen to you

However, Aoife also realised that she needed professional support, which is why she first reached out to the charity A Little Lifetime Foundation, formerly ISANDS, which was established in 1983 to support parents whose baby had died around the time of birth or shortly afterwards, as well as parents who receive a diagnosis of fatal fetal abnormality in pregnancy.

“I had experienced the worst thing imaginable that you never think is going to happen to you,” says Aoife, explaining how the charity arranged for her to have counselling sessions with Dr Peter Hanlon, a bereavement therapist.

You go back over every silly thing, every choice, and that’s ridiculous but when you’re in the depths of grief, you can’t see that

This support was key in helping her to work through all the “what ifs” that haunted her after Rory died.

“You go back over every silly thing, every choice, and that’s ridiculous but when you’re in the depths of grief, you can’t see that,” says Aoife. She explains how Peter would get her to challenge her thinking by asking her, first of all, did she really believe what she was telling herself, and, secondly, would she talk to a friend the same way she was speaking to herself?

“It seems really simple,” she continues, “but those two things stay with me.”

Healing journey

Peter also suggested that Aoife start journaling in order to process the pain of Rory’s loss but also to chart each small step that she took forward.

“I think it’s very powerful to go and read back on whenever you feel comfortable, and to see how far you’ve come,” says Aoife.

Life delivered another cruel blow when Aoife suffered another miscarriage in December of that year. Fortunately, she did fall pregnant with daughter Elizabeth in 2017 but while she found it hard to enjoy the pregnancy as she just wanted to get to “the finish line”, it was also a healing journey.

Another bereaved parent, Bríd, said something that sticks with me: ‘Small baby does not mean small loss’

“Every stage we hit along the road of pregnancy with Elizabeth, that was like a milestone, so I think it was like moving through different milestones and different firsts and knowing that you weren’t going to cry forever. That you would experience joy,” reflects Aoife, who also welcomed daughter Hazel in 2019.

Rory, however, is still very much part of the family, with Aoife volunteering with A Little Lifetime in his memory, having drawn strength from connecting with other bereaved parents.

“Another bereaved parent, Bríd, said something that sticks with me: ‘Small baby does not mean small loss’ and I think that’s what wider society tends to forget,” says Aoife.

“The power of being around people who ‘got it’ was really important for me. Knowing that if I can help one other person is really big for me.”

Remembering Rory

While pregnant with Hazel, Aoife wrote a children’s book called Rory’s Rainbow, to raise funds for the charity, and she also organises workshops for bereaved parents, such as painting and flower arranging.

Last year, for instance, she ran a project where parents were sent seeds for “Baby Bear” pumpkins to grow, which they then used as the centrepiece for a seasonal Halloween arrangement.

Living on a farm, Aoife is a big believer in the healing power of nature and believes that growing something can spark a little bit of hope for a person in the depths of grief.

“Growth means hope and hope and love are eternal,” she says.

They talk about Rory all the time and Derek has a tattoo in his honour

She is always looking out for little signs from Rory: a rainbow, a robin, a feather. She takes great comfort from being by the sea, writing his name in the sand, lighting a candle or seeing his siblings draw him in a family picture. They talk about Rory all the time and Derek has a tattoo in his honour: “Even bravest hearts swell in a moment of farewell.”

Her advice to other parents who have been bereaved is not to be afraid to ask for help but to also realise their own strength.

Rory’s legacy is that he makes us both better people

“You can read every book, you can see every counsellor, you can go and see every doctor but you are the person who ultimately carries that key to the hope and happiness again,” she says.

Even though some days the weight of loss is heavier than others, her love for Rory always carries her through.

“Rory’s legacy is that he makes us both better people. I always stop and think, ‘Would Rory be proud?’” says Aoife.

“As well as volunteering with A Little Lifetime, Rory’s memory and his legacy live on and grow with us as a family.”

A Little Lifetime provides a range of supports including parent support meetings, one-to-one counselling, creative workshops and more. Visit for more information.

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