It is 10 years ago since Eric Whelan was killed in a farmyard accident. He was just two and a half years old. Eric was a happy, hardy little boy who always had a wink for his Mam and Dad and who loved blowing bubbles and his wellie boots.
It’s taken great courage for his mother, Catherine, to put into words the indescribable pain of losing a child. There is no need to embellish her words, no need to add or subtract from them. They are the stuff of every parent’s worst nightmare.
In Catherine’s words
“On 19 February 2010 our son Eric died in a farm accident on our farm. He was two and a half years old. Losing a child is the worst possible thing that can happen a family. It’s a journey of survival. I can remember every detail if I try but with practice I can also avoid those memories.
“Eric was brought to Naas hospital where doctors tried so hard to save his life but it was too late. I can still hear the machines and clearly see that room where they worked on Eric. As his mother, I knew he was gone. I felt it. I can remember feeling physically numb. It was like an out of body experience. It was unreal.
“Eric was cheeky, funny, well spoken, mannerly and such a happy little boy. He had a very strong personality. He loved to sleep with us and loved holding hands. He had a hysterical hearty laugh. He loved playing with anything farm-related and had a little green wheelbarrow which he adored. It is still in our garden.
“I loved to dress him in check shirts but no matter what he always wore his little welly boots. He never wore shoes, not even for special events such as communions. His boots were his passport to the outside world. One of his little shirts still hangs in the back of my car and has done so for the past 10 years.
“Eric could count perfectly in English and Irish. He knew all his colours and shapes. He was advanced and intelligent. He adored his big brother Ben who had just turned six, Eve was one and I was pregnant with Grace. He could wink perfectly and whenever I made eye contact with him, he always winked and blew a kiss that I would catch.
“He loved two teddies, Mr Fox, which we have, and Mickey Mouse which he has.
“It might be 10 years but we miss Eric dreadfully and refuse to accept time is a healer. We know we will miss him forever. It’s a painful cross to carry but we try not to start the day with broken pieces of yesterday and never want our other children to grow up in Eric’s shadow.
“The loss of a child provokes feelings of pain, exhaustion, fatigue, fear, guilt, judgment and loneliness. It is the most desolate journey anyone can take. It’s a degree of suffering that is impossible to grasp without experiencing it first-hand. We had to learn to balance holding grief in one hand and happiness in the other. But with Eric’s death we lost an entire lifetime of dreams, hopes and plans.
“Family, friends and the entire community rallied around us and it was all this support that got us through. With Embrace FARM we attended bereavement meetings, shared experiences and feelings and it was good to talk to other families in the same situation.
“Eric is secure in our hearts and we will carry him there for the rest of our days. He only knew pure love and kindness and has left behind a legacy of love. We were privileged to have two and a half years with him.”
Eric’s legacy of love
Over the past 10 years Catherine and Bryan Whelan and their children have kept the memory of Eric alive in their everyday work on the family sheep and beef farm near Baltinglass, Co Wicklow. Talking about him comes naturally and if they are on holidays Eric is always included with a present for his memory table.
In the year he died, Eric’s family donated his savings to purchase an incubator for a maternity hospital. They went on to raise €6,000 for cuddle cots, moulding kits (to take moulds of hands and feet) and counselling for bereaved parents. Involvement with Embrace FARM gives them a safe place to talk and showed them they are not alone.
“You can put on a good face but it never goes away. You can prepare for Christmas but it’s a mother buying a school uniform that gets me,” says Catherine.
She finds Christmas and the run up to Eric’s anniversary very tough and she really wanted to make something positive out of it. That led her to volunteering with the homeless on Grafton Street every Sunday night. With donations from many quarters she is able to distribute proper Christmas presents to needy children and adults. “It’s all part of Eric’s legacy of love,” she says.
Then a couple of Christmas’s ago something happened that was to inspire Catherine and Bryan in ways they never thought possible. “I was coming home from the Christmas present drop with my friend Elaine Jones and she told me about her work at the Celtic cross free primary school in a tribal village about four hours from Calcutta. On the spur of the moment I said I’d go with her on her next visit.”
“Bryan and I raised €15,000 in no time. On that trip the money went to buy medical and educational material as well as cows, goats and chickens. We bought sewing machines, school materials and paid the fees for a young girl studying medicine and built a house for another family.”
On another trip Catherine visited the ‘brick field’ where children and adults make bricks. For the past two years she and Bryan haves sponsored food for those working here thanks to the support of many people.
“The work is ongoing. It is all in memory of Eric. It is his legacy of love.”