Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Love Lasts for a Lifetime. Grieving Doesn't.

Bébhinn Ramsay’s Charity in Brazil
By Sue Leonard.
Published in Reality Magazine, July, 2012

In 2007, Alastair and Bébhinn Ramsay were on holiday in America with their two young sons. Life was good for the couple. Then Alastair got a fever, his symptoms worsened, and within days he died, aged 39.

Bébhinn felt she’s lost everything. Struggling to find meaning in life, she fretted that Alastair was unsettled. He’d been a devoted husband and father, and his worst fear had been not being there for his children. As for Bébhinn, at 31, she felt sure life could never be happy again.

Desperate to find a way through her grief, Bébhinn took the boys on Pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago; but that only highlighted her isolation.
“I’d walked it before, alone. Pushing the boys in a double buggy was exhausting. It made me realise I was no longer independent, or part of a family unit. I needed help”

She tried a Buddhist Retreat, but found it unbearable being alone with her thoughts. She started a PhD in Child Poverty at Oxford University; something she’d planned before Alastair died. But she felt unable to concentrate. And then, after six months, her grief shifted.
“I woke one day, feeling calm. I felt, ‘all is well.’ It was as if Alastair was now settled, and was happy somewhere. I could now mourn him properly.”

A partner in McKinsey and Company, Alastair had been passionate about contributing to society. A leader in pro-bono work, he’d worked with several children’s charities, and was involved with a medical support charity in Peru.

Bébhinn shared this passion.
“From the age of eight, I’ve wanted to work with the poor,” she says. “I’m one of eight, and our parents handed down strong values. My mother would say, ‘if you are given talents, you use them. It’s your duty.’ I really took that to heart.

“I’d always had a fascination with Peru; perhaps because my uncle was a priest there, and, after studying at UCD, I worked there in an orthopaedic clinic.”

After a short stint as a supply teacher, Bébhinn joined McKinsey, as a Management Consultant.
“I saw that as a step to working in a non-profit organisation,” she says. And it was there she met Alastair. “I was 24, and he 32.”

They married, and moved to Rio, where Bébhinn worked with an NGO. By the time Alastair died, the couple lived in London, but had planned the move to Oxford.

In his will, Alastair allocated some money to be spent on a charity, and Bébhinn decided to set up a charity in his name. Gathering family and friends to help her, she set up The Alastair Ramsay Charitable Trust –ARCH - based on the NGO Alastair had worked with in Peru. And she now lives in Brazil, on the Island of Florianopolis.

“ARCH fitted perfectly. My Masters was in Child Poverty, and Alastair had always wanted to set up a charity. Child poverty was the one thing I still felt passionate about, so I could do what I loved, and honour Alastair.”

ARCH tries to meet the dual challenge of poverty combined with a child’s illness. Families are referred by a hospital, and ARCH develops a two year plan helping the families in all areas of their lives.

“The children might have cancer; they might have HIV or Heart problems. We make a plan with the families, seeing what needs to be done, and how we can lend them a hand.

“We’ve turned around a lot of lives. One women, who graduated last year, was referred because her second child had HIV, and the authorities were thinking of taking the child into care. The mother was illiterate. She wasn’t able to administer the medication. But the social worker felt with help, she would manage. And she did have the support of her husband.

“At the start she was scared of public transport. Her husband had to bring her the one and a half hours. Later, we’d collect her from the bus station, and then she gained total independence. She learned to read and write, and could administer the medication.

“We give group therapy, and for a year, that woman didn’t speak. And she wasn’t keen to join in the arts and crafts. The second year she opened up and she changed dramatically.”

The charity provided money for a bathroom for the family too. The husband did the work on it. Then he died of AIDS, leaving his wife with the two small boys.
“She was distraught, but she was managing. She’d started applying to get her pension; she could never have done that before. Her relationship with her children had really improved too. The child with developmental delays was now walking and talking. It was incredible to have had a hand in the transformation.”

Three years on, Bébhinn feels she is healed. She has a boyfriend in Brazil, and a third son. She’s happy in herself. The charity, she feels, enabled her to put her grief to bed. And the book she has written about her journey through grief, feels like the end of a chapter.

“When I move from an overwhelming sense that death is bad, for Alastair, for me, and for the boys, to the possibility that death is also good, I experience a great sense of peace and liberation for Alastair and me, and a surge of joy and hope for the future.

“Love lasts a lifetime, but mourning doesn’t,” she says. “The future is exciting. I have three gorgeous boys, a lovely family and great friends. I must now makes decisions based on what’s best for my family. I still want to help with poverty, but I can now do so with joy; not because I’m a widow.”

Response to her memoir of hope, courage and eternal love, has been amazing.
“I’ve had some wonderful messages. One was from a woman who lost her husband three and a half months ago, and had two small girls. She said the book had given her such comfort. She no longer felt alone. And that message alone made the writing of the book worthwhile.”

Love’s Last Gift by Bébhinn Ramsay is published by Hachette Books Ireland. All royalties will go to ARCH.

©Sue Leonard 2012

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