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Drug awareness: Bereaved mother recounts the devastating loss of her son

May 13, 2019

By Diarmúid Pepper

This Friday 17th May at 6.30pm, Mullaghbawn CLG will host a drugs awareness talk by Theresa Burke. This event is open to everyone above the age of 12, and Theresa encourages parents, as well as teenagers, to come along.

 During the event, Theresa will talk about the loss of her son, Kealan, to drugs. Speaking to The Examiner ahead of the talk, the heartbroken mother says she has chosen to use her experience and tell her story “in the hope that it will help other people”.

She recently gave talks in St Paul’s High School and to Carrickcruppen GAA club, and says that she speaks “as honestly and as truthfully as I can”.

 Of her son Kealan, Theresa said: “He was a lovely fella but I do believe he was born an addict, that he was born with an addictive gene that makes you need something and want something all the time.”

 Kealan’s drugs habit began with marijuana. Public opinion towards marijuana is becoming softer, but Theresa believes that marijuana acted as a “gateway” drug for Kealan that soon led him to harder and stronger drugs. 

 “He began, as far as I’m aware, smoking marijuana at around 17 or so. And he openly smoked marijuana in my house. It was something that he and all his friends did, so I did nothing very much about it.”

 When Theresa spoke to The Examiner, she was at pains to note that “I can only tell Kealan’s story.” She said: “I only speak for Kealan and I can’t speak for anybody else but for him, without a doubt, marijuana was his gateway drug. Without any doubt. It led him into ecstasy and the benzos that he was dependent on. 

 “He was an addict and he was a victim to the benzos. The marijuana to him, because he had an addictive nature, brought him into stronger and stronger drugs. For him that was the way it was.”

 In his early twenties, Kealan’s life took a devastating turn for the worse. “He was caught buying ecstasy in Limavady and he was taken to court. They gave him an unconditional discharge. They told him to go home and “be good” and he said he would, but very shortly after that he went and bought some methadone.

 “He was very depressed, and he took this bottle of methadone and went to his bed and laid down. He never spoke again. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t swallow, he couldn’t move. He was quadriplegic and doubly incontinent. And he was like that for a year and a half until he took a very bad MRSA infection and about a week and a half later he died. He was 22 when he died.”

 Now, the devastated mother is focused on “using Kealan’s story and his death to try to educate youngsters so that they will never ever start with drugs.” As she says: “If they never start, then they will never have to give up.”

 When asked where she found the courage to speak openly about her son’s death, Theresa says: “When he was dying, in that year and a half, I took photos and videos of him. I don’t know why I did this, I had no inclination to speak to anybody. But I was asked by a GAA club about ten years ago to tell my story. It was taken up by the police and they asked me to pass it on to other schools. 

 “Someone once said to me that Kealan’s life was a terrible waste. I like to think there must have been some reason why Kealan was put in this world, and the reason must be so that he can save at least one other person. Whenever I talk to these youngsters, I believe that his life will mean that some other child and some other family will be saved from the pain that we suffered.”


 Theresa is more than humble enough to realise that she doesn’t have all the answers, but that will never stop her from spreading her story in the hope that she can help others. She said: “Someone once asked me: “What can the police do?” I don’t know what the police can do, I only know what I can do. I can only tell Kealan’s story.

 “There was a policeman who once asked me what I would have done differently. I said I would have loved to have Kealan see his story; to see the pain that we went through and that he went through, because he went through some terrible pain. And that must stop at least one youngster from doing what he did.”

 The talk in Mullaghbawn on Friday will be the third that the hard-working Theresa has given in south Armagh in little more than a week. For Theresa, it is important to dispel the myth that drugs are an inner-city problem. 

 She said: “Kealan was brought up three miles from the nearest shop and almost a mile from the nearest neighbour. We were brought up in the middle of the mountains, among the sheep, so it is not a city or a town problem, it is an overall problem.

 “Kealan was a drug addict and if you had have said to me a few years ago, “who can be a drug addict?”, I would not have thought it could be someone in the middle of the country. It was someone on the streets of Derry or Belfast. But I’m in the middle of the country, up in the middle of the mountain, and this problem came to our household.”

 Over the years, her public talks have helped numerous young people thread a safer path in life. She said: “I have even got letters from youngsters, and there have been youngsters who come back to me and say: ‘I will never ever touch drugs after hearing Kealan’s story’.

 “There was this young policeman in Lurgan one time, and he met this youngster and he said to him: “Are you still on the drugs?” And he replied: ‘Are you mad?! I have heard Kealan’s story; I will never touch drugs again after that’.  This means everything to me. It means that his life has been for a reason; he was taken early for a reason.”

 This is Theresa’s mission, to ensure that Kealan’s story can save others. “No parent should ever bury a child, but if his life is for something, it is for saving other children. I only do this because I feel like we have to do something. 

 “There are so many drugs out there and there are so many difficulties for these teenagers. We have to do something to save them, because we are going to lose a generation.”

 Despite the hardship in Theresa’s life, she remains optimistic as a result of the people she has encountered from telling her and Kealan’s story.

 “All I can do is tell my story. I have a faith in people and the people that I have met over all these years. I have a strong faith in good people, and I am a great believer that things come for a reason and things are there for a reason. The reason that Kealan died and is not with me anymore is so that I can use his life and his death to help other families. His life and his death were meant to be for some reason, and the reason that I have chosen it to be, is so that I can use it to help other people.”

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