Until she died aged just 17, Scarlett Belle Marie Donnellan Feeley and her mother Kirsty Donnellan had enjoyed a particularly close relationship.
I had her when I was young enough; I was 23,” her mother says now. “So we kind of grew together. We were more like best friends than a mother and daughter relationship.”
Scarlett died tragically as a result of head injuries sustained on a night out in September 2018. At the time, having recently sat for her Leaving Cert, she had been at the beginning of a year out, working to earn some money, planning her next move.
“She was very empathetic and caring towards others,” Kirsty says. “She had ideas about what she wanted to do. I work in community development; she was interested in helping and working with others.
“She was planning on doing volunteer work within the homeless sector; she wanted to work with people who were less well off than herself.”
Scarlett was something of a home bird, her mother recalls. Part of a close-knit group of girls, the teenager preferred slumber parties than nights out. “She was the kind of girl who would prefer to sit at home and watch Coronation Street or EastEnders with myself. X Factor was a programme we would always watch together.”
Kirsty and Scarlett’s father had separated when she was eight years old. “I didn’t meet my husband for a little while afterwards, so it was just me and her for a time.”
In recent times, the mother and daughter would often leave Scarlett’s younger sister Freya with her father, Kristy’s husband, and go into Limerick for a day of shopping and lunch. “We were very, very close. She used to tell me everything; her friends couldn’t actually believe how much stuff she would be telling me,” her mother laughs gently.
Her daughter prioritised her health, hated smoking or drugs, loved going for walks, and cooking for her family. To this day her room remains as it was when she was alive; spotless. “She was an exceptional teenager to be honest with you. I never had any problems with her.”
When it came to choosing her debs dress, Scarlett decided on a yellow dress, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, the shopkeeper commented at the time.
The night Scarlett received her injuries, her family received a call at half twelve to say she was being taken into hospital in an ambulance. “Every parent’s nightmare,” Kirsty, who was seven months pregnant at the time, her son Liam is now 15 months old, recalls. At first, the severity of the situation wasn’t clear and Kristy’s husband went into the hospital, leaving his heavily pregnant wife and small daughter Freya, at home.
Shortly afterwards Kirsty received another call, this one from her husband, in University Hospital Limerick Hospital, to say she needed to come now. “He rang me to say that I had to go in, because she had severe head injuries and it was life threatening.”
Scarlett was transferred shortly afterwards to Cork, but her situation deteriorated in the ambulance. Upon arrival at Cork University Hospital, she was put on life support, but there was nothing further the team there could do.
A month before her death, seemingly out of nowhere, Scarlett had raised the topic of organ donation with her mother. “Her grandmother had died in the February. We had conversations about death and dying; we spoke about anything, that’s just the way we were,” Kirsty recalls now. “She said to me one day in the kitchen that she would love to become a donor. She asked me where she could get a donor card from. I said to her, ‘You can get them in the post office, the next time I’m in there I’ll get you one’.”
Scarlett’s injuries were all to her head, the rest of her body remained unharmed. “Obviously we knew that we were going to be asked the question about organ donation. I suppose because Scarlett had brought up that conversation a month or so beforehand, I knew what she would have wanted. Plus, in life, she wanted to be able to help others, to work with those less fortunate than herself. She was interested in gender and women’s issues. She was very strong minded. A bit of a feminist, to be honest with you. I was delighted that we had had that conversation around organ donation. So I knew what Scarlett’s wish would have been, and that she would have been able to continue to help people. Do what she wanted to do in life, even in death.”
Scarlett’s organs went to five separate recipients. “It did give us comfort,” her mother says now. “It gives us great comfort every day of the week. For me, as a mother, that was her wish, that’s what she wanted to do. But it also meant her life wasn’t wasted. Scarlett was only 17 years of age when she died. She was young, she had the rest of her life ahead of her. She went on to save five other people from her organs. It gave us some sort of solace out of a really nightmarish situation. The worst possible situation that any parent could ever be in.”
Scarlett’s younger sister Freya, who turns six at the end of April, is a real tomboy, a lover of superheroes, Kirsty explains. “The way we explained it to her was her sister was a real-life superhero. She was able to save five other people from donating her organs.”
On the first anniversary of Scarlett’s death, Kirsty received a letter from the person who had received her daughter’s heart. In Ireland, communication between the organ donor and the recipient is managed, with anonymity retained.
“This meant so much to us. The fact that it was the person who received her heart who made the first initial contact with us. Because Scarlett had such a big heart; she was really caring. It was just really meaningful, the fact that it was the person who received her heart.”
Kirsty’s youngest child, Liam, now 15 months, was born several months after his sister died, on December 16. On his first birthday, Kirsty unexpectedly received two further letters (she had known she would be receiving a letter from the first donor). These were from Scarlett’s lung and liver recipients.
“I left it on the counter for a few minutes before I opened it. I went into a room on my own. It was lovely to hear; the recipient who received her lungs was 23. He was diagnosed with CF at 15 months old. He said that he loves music and he’s going to go to music concerts, which Scarlett loved; she loved music. There were letters from him, his mother and his friend. His friend and his mother said his confidence and energy have risen now, he’s way chattier. And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s Scarlett’. It’s very emotional. You read the letters, and it’s lovely, to know that a part of your child is living on, helping someone else. But obviously it can be bittersweet at the same time.”
It’s only 18 months since Scarlett died. The second year is harder in many ways, Kirsty admits. “You’re afraid of losing the memories. You’re still grasping onto them, because you don’t want to lose them. To forget what they’re like. Even their voice. I’m lucky; I found recordings of Scarlett on her phone singing. She had a fabulous singing voice.
“I was at the grave on Mother’s Day, and I was talking to another mother who had lost her son the year before Scarlett died. The two of us were saying we would often see signs, whether it would be a feather, or a bird, or a song on the radio. As a parent when you lose a child you always seem to feel them. They’re always there. You might not be able to see or hear them, but they’re always there.”
Take one step at a time, Kirsty advises anyone suffering a similar loss. “Baby steps, that’s all you can do. For me personally, talking about Scarlett has helped me. The more you talk about it, not only are you keeping their memory alive, but it’s processing it.”
Since her daughter passed away, she has kept a journal. “I write it as if I’m talking to Scarlett. What happened during the day. How much I’m missing her. What Liam or Freya have done.”
Scarlett’s birthday falls on the final day of March, March 31. Last year, without knowing that the last week of March is Organ Donor Awareness week, Kirsty posted something yellow on Facebook every day, as a tribute to her daughter, and to raise awareness. On 28 March, she and Scarlett’s best friends travelled to Galway to the Centre of Life Garden, where they released seven yellow balloons. This year they had planned to repeat the trip, to tie yellow ribbons around the memorial tree but Covid 19 put paid to these plans.
“To be honest with you, it sounds kind of weird, but I don’t actually mind being home or whatever,” Kirsty admits. “To me it’s good time for reflection. And to spend quality time with the other two children. Since Scarlett died, and it was sudden, none of us expected it, time for me with my other two kids is precious. To spend that time with them is precious.”
RUN FOR A LIFE
Between now and Monday, June 22, support the Irish Kidney Association and organ donation in its 12th Run for a Life by walking, jogging or running 2.5km, 5km or 10km in your local area. Register at ika.ie.
You can also support the IKA by texting KIDNEY to 50300 to donate €4. Texts cost €4, the Irish Kidney Association will receive a minimum of €3. For organ Donor Cards call 01 6205306, Free text the word DONOR to 50050 or go to www.ika.ie/get-a-donor-card