Sister of Co Fermanagh teenager Neil Graham: It’s hard to keep going but we know he’d want us to be happy

The sister of Neil Graham who died at the age of 17 in a tragic accident in May this year opens up to GRAEME COUSINS about the pain of losing her ‘baby brother’

Neil Graham died on May 22 while doing what he loved best – fixing things.

Cherith and her late brother Neil, whom she describes as "the baby of the family"

Cherith and her late brother Neil, whom she describes as "the baby of the family"

Just weeks before his 18th birthday, Neil, from Garrison in Co Fermanagh, died in a tragic accident while on work experience at a local garage.

His sister Cherith, who recently completed the Great North Run in his memory, has bravely spoken about her struggles following Neil’s death.

The 26-year-old, the eldest of the family’s four children, said: “The first weeks and months in particular felt impossible and it was hard to think we’d ever be able to do anything without this sadness after this huge shock.

“We all still have many bad moments and days where it’s hard to keep going but we do because we think what Neil would have wanted and we know he’d want us to be happy.

Cherith on completion of the Great North Run

Cherith on completion of the Great North Run

“So we just keep going and treasure every memory we have of him.

“We’re not alone as there are so many more people who are missing him every single day.”

Neil lived with his family in Garrison, close to the border with Leitrim and Donegal, and had been in a relationship since last November.

Neil was the youngest of four children – “the baby of the family” as Cherith describes him.

The late Neil Graham

The late Neil Graham

She said: “We’ll remember his laid back approach to everything and his soft and caring nature. His love for animals, driving tractors and country music.

“We definitely won’t forget the 14 hens he brought home in the boot of his car or Rosie the goat. “He loved trying to fix anything technical and we’ll miss his handiness.”

Neil had left Portora Royal School in Enniskillen after doing his GCSEs, to follow his love of machinery and fixing things.

He had also intended to follow his father Eddie into the Orange Order.

The last family photo with Neil included (back left)

The last family photo with Neil included (back left)

In terms of starting a career, Neil began a course in land-based engineering in South West College in Omagh. As part of this course, he was doing a work placement three days a week.

It was while he was on one of these work experience sessions at a garage in the Boho Road area, to the west of Enniskillen, that the incident which led to Neil’s death occurred.

An inquest has yet to take place but it is understood Neil was repairing a tractor when a part fell on him.

Emergency services attended, but he died at the scene.

Cherith said: “We’re so happy he got to achieve what he did in his lifetime, it just feels terribly cruel that it was cut so short.

“We’ll never forget him. I used to think it couldn’t be true when people say that they thought of someone they have lost every day but it’s absolutely true for us.”

At the time of Neil’s funeral his family had asked for donations in lieu of flowers. A total of £3,200 was raised for Air Ambulance NI and £3,300 for Garrison Parish Church.

In addition to the money raised in lieu of flowers Neil’s sister Cherith took part in the Great North Run in Newcastle-on-Tyne on Sunday to raise further funds for Air Ambulance NI.

Cherith said: “The fundraising hasn’t been easy for all of us. I know I personally have struggled quite a lot.

“It’s sometimes hard to feel positive about it because we would do anything to have Neil back. But at the end of the day this is the situation we are in and if by supporting Air Ambulance NI in particular, it might even help save someone else one day.”

Of the Great North Run, she said: “I have run one other half marathon previously – the Royal Parks half marathon in 2017 – so this was my second half marathon race.

“I found the lead up to the Great North Run more difficult that the run itself.

“Dedicating the run in Neil’s memory made it a very emotional experience and I was totally bowled over by friend’s and family’s generosity in their sponsorship for Air Ambulance NI.

“I was doing each step for Neil so I made sure to enjoy it. As I came down the hill at mile 13 towards the coast and a country song was playing I knew he was with me.

“I was never a sporty person by any stretch of the imagination and only picked up running just over a year ago

“It was always something Neil found a bit funny so that made me enjoy it even more to think I would have been putting a smile on his face.”

Asked if she planned to continue to motivate yourself in her brother’s memory, she said Neil’s memory would always “push her on to greater things” but that she did not plan on undertaking any more physical challenges for the foreseeable future.

Of the possibility of a permanent memorial said: “We are thinking about replacing a plain window in our church (Garrison Parish Church of Ireland) with a stained glass window that could be in memory of him.

“The window is in the porch of the church and almost the last thing you see as you leave so I think it would feel like he’s there watching over us all on a Sunday and on all the special occasions that we’ll have there in the future.

“We don’t have any plans for more fundraising ourselves.”

Discussing her own grief, Cherith said: “For me this felt and continues to feel like nothing I ever could have imagined.

“I find talking about it, especially during the bad times, helps and I’ve been doing whatever else I can to figure it all out.

“That could mean listening to podcasts – Griefcast is a good one and not too morbid – or reading articles from other people who’ve been through bereavement.

“This week I went to my first bereavement counselling session.”

She commented: “I trained as a mental health first aider at my work and through that am really aware of the need to help yourself because no one else can know what’s going through your head or what will help.”

Cherith added: “Our community have been a huge support for my family through this time. From the moment of the accident our wider family have helped us through each step and our local community have been pillars of support.

“Even on the day of the funeral when there must have been over a thousand people, there were friends and neighbours making sure we were okay and that everyone attending the service was okay, even bringing trays upon trays of iced water to the many people stood around the church as it was such a hot day.

“I know my parents especially really appreciate every single card and visit from friends and even strangers they have received and continue to receive. The kindness has been strengthening for all of us.”

Sadly the family are no strangers to heartbreak – during the Troubles, Neil’s mother’s brother was murdered by the IRA.

Joy Graham’s brother Ronnie Funston – an ex-UDR member – was shot dead by the IRA in March 1984 as he was preparing to feed cattle early in the morning on a farm at Lowery near Pettigo.

“Unfortunately I know only too much what it’s like to experience tragedy like this,” Joy told the News Letter at the time of her son’s death in May.

Of her son Joy said: “He was a great people person. He loved country music and jiving, going to the country jamborees. He was a great boy – a lovely caring boy.

“He wanted his own business. That’s what he’d have loved – that was his dream.

“He was trying to get his qualifications, learn his trade, and open his own business some day as a tractor mechanic.”

Cherith told how important her family’s faith has been in the dark days since Neil’s death.

Such is their devotion to God that half of the money raised in lieu of flowers has gone to Garrison Parish.

Cherith said: “It’s been a really important place for us.

“We go every Sunday we’re at home and my mum plays the organ for every service.

“We’ve leaned on our faith a lot over the last few months and our minister Ngozi has been a great support too.

“[The donation] felt like the least we could do and we know Neil would have been pleased with that choice.

“It was only three days before his accident that Neil had been helping to mow the grass in the graveyard, little to know it was for his own funeral. Although I think he’d say, ‘well at least I got to do a good job’.”

The other half of the money raised in Neil’s memory went to Air Ambulance NI: “We are so grateful to everything that the Air Ambulance NI team did when they tried to save Neil.

“If it wasn’t for them we’d always have wondered if he could have been saved.”