Those who follow me on social media may be aware that my parents both died at the end of last month within a few days of each other. Soon after, I agreed to be interviewed by a journalist from the newspaper Mum read for many years – the Belfast Telegraph – as part of a series they are running paying tribute to local people whose deaths were attributed to Covid 19. I would like to thank Claire McNeilly for her respectful handling of this interview at a time when I was still processing what had happened. I reproduce below the article she wrote – in case it is taken down, as I wish to keep it. A link to the original on-line version may be found here.
(It did feel a little strange to discover we had made the front page of the print edition, pictured above)
Coronavirus: ‘Mum and dad were old but stayed home and didn’t go out… we never expected this to happen’
Daughter of Belfast couple who died within days of each other tells of her deep shock
By Claire McNeilly
May 04 2020 09:30 PM
When Jackie Law visited her parents in January, she could not have imagined it would be the last time she would see them.
Norman Wilkinson (91) and his 92-year-old wife Winnie, who lived in the Four Winds area of Belfast, died within a few days of each other after contracting Covid-19.
Norman passed away on April 25 just hours after being admitted to hospital.
His wife of nearly 69 years clung to life for another five days but died last Thursday, April 30.
Both were cremated, with Winnie’s service taking place yesterday morning.
And heartbroken daughter Jackie (55), who lives in Wiltshire, was left to grieve at home.
“We couldn’t get over [to Belfast] because no one could travel so there was no funeral service as such,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“My dad was cremated on Thursday, while my mum’s cremation was yesterday morning.”
Mrs Law, a book reviewer, told how her older sister Elaine Stead (58), who lives in Belfast, broke the news about her dad’s death before she even knew that he had fallen ill.
“Obviously they were both quite old and they had underlying health issues but it all happened so quickly,” she said.
“They were in their house, they didn’t go out. We certainly didn’t expect this to happen.”
Jackie, who has three children – Robyn (23), Ben (21) and Patrick (19) – with her IT consultant husband Rick (57), said her elderly parents were respecting the lockdown restrictions and “had carers going in regularly”.
She also reflected on how the speed of their demise shocked both her and her siblings – Andrew (67), who is retired and lives in Australia with his wife Colleen, and mum-of-three Elaine, who has twin sons Gavin and Jonny (29) and a daughter Nikki (23), with husband Gary.
“They took ill suddenly at home; they became very, very sleepy,” she said.
“My sister went up the weekend before my dad died. She was very concerned.
“But, of course, with the lockdown you’re not allowed to spend time with people so it was the carers who were going in and looking after them.
“And once they realised dad wasn’t well, they called the ambulance.”
Jackie said that after the carers informed her sister “that my dad and my mum had been taken to hospital” Elaine contacted her as soon as possible to let her know what was happening.
“Dad went into hospital around 5pm on Saturday and he was dead three hours later so by the time my sister got in touch with me he had already passed away,” she said.
“She told me at that time that mum was also ill so from then onwards we were in touch regularly but there was nothing anybody could do.”
Jackie told how her parents came to be taken to hospital on the same day.
“My dad started having trouble breathing on Saturday April 25 – the day he died – and the ambulance was called,” she said.
“But after the paramedics examined dad they were concerned for mum as well so they both went in at that time.”
She added: “My dad lost consciousness in the ambulance and he died a few hours later, whereas my mum was in hospital for a few days and was being treated before she passed away.”
Unfortunately, Jackie’s Belfast-based sister did not see their mother in hospital either because she was never well enough to receive visitors.
“Mum was unconscious for most of the time, even though she was in hospital getting treatment,” she said.
“My sister was talking to the doctors regularly over the telephone.
“Mum came round a couple of times but never enough to be coherent and never long enough for my sister to be called to go in and see her.”
Speaking to this newspaper just hours after her mother’s cremation, an emotional Jackie said she was “still in shock”.
“We’re in limbo; everything has sort of stopped,” she said.
“I don’t know how long the grieving process is going to take.
“With not being able to go over and not being able to hold any sort of memorial for them at this stage, it’s all a bit surreal.”
Jackie, who has lived in England since 1988, revealed that she used to write letters to her parents and she said it would be difficult not being able to continue that ritual.
“I used to write to my parents a lot,” she said.
“They didn’t have a computer; they weren’t comfortable with technology, so ever since I left Northern Ireland I’ve written them letters.”
She added: “When little things happen I’m still storing them in my head, thinking that ‘I must put that in a letter because mum will be interested’ and it’s strange to think that those letters will never get written now.”
At least, as she revealed, she still has a collection of all the letters they sent her.
“I’ve got a drawer of bits and pieces that they’ve sent me over the years,” she said.
Her last visit to Belfast in January with husband Rick will always remain a source of great comfort for Jackie.
“We spent mum’s birthday with her on January 26,” she said.
“We bought her flowers and helped celebrate with her. We all sat around and chatted as that was what she wanted to do.
“I’m just so glad we went over, given the lockdown and everything, it was probably very well timed.
“I would’ve felt terrible if I hadn’t seen them so recently.”
She also revealed how her children paid their grandparents a visit the month before, in December 2019, because “they knew they were going to be tied up with exams in January”.
When it comes to memories of her beloved mother, Jackie, a short story writer, said that she will always think about her green fingers.
“She loved her garden,” she said.
“When I think back to what she was like, I think about her in the garden.
“She loved to bring colours to her garden with flowers and she liked to keep it tidy.”
Jackie also told how her parents enjoyed their walks and she said that they “kept doing that even when they could only walk up the road and down again”.
“She loved to visit Botanic Gardens in Belfast,” she added.
“In their younger years, once my dad retired, they loved their holidays and they always spoke fondly of them.”
She added that her mum, who trained as a seamstress, “had to leave school at 14 but when she had her children she was able to work as a dressmaker from home”.
Jackie said her father worked for the Northern Ireland Electricity Service from “after he left school until he retired”.
Describing him as a “quiet man” she said he “enjoyed classical music, reading books and the theatre”, adding that he had a great fondness for chess.
“He played a lot of chess and he played the piano,” she said.
“The soundtrack to my childhood is my dad playing classical music on the piano.
“One thing I find… whenever I hear classical music I know the piece because I’ve heard my dad play it but I don’t know what it is. The house was always full of his music.”
Even in sadness, Jackie, who has been a stay-at-home mum since the birth of her first child, said her parents’ pride in their grandchildren will endure.
“They lived long lives and they took great pride in their six grandchildren,” she said.
“Mum was always talking about how pleased she was that they all got to university.
“She was one of nine children and most of them went to work in factories as soon as they left school.
“They’ve done more with their lives but that’s initially where they started out.”
Jackie added: “Mum was so proud that all six of her grandchildren got to university.”
Following the publication of this tribute I was approached by local television (UTV) and radio (The Nolan Show) requesting interviews. I chose to decline these invitations.