“I got the call in the middle of the night – it was 3am – I knew straight away my dad had gone. It was horrendous. The most grief I’ve ever felt in the space of 60 seconds. It was like the world fell out from under me.”
Westlife’s Shane Filan was still reeling from the death of his beloved mother Mae in December 2019 when, just 10 months later in October 2020, his father Peter passed away from pancreatic cancer.
“When he died a part of me died with him, a part of me broke. The two of them together was just too much,” Shane, 42, says.
“Death and grief are things that you can never be prepared for. You can get bad news, but grief is so final. It’s hard to comprehend.
“You’re used to having someone your whole life. You can never touch them again, talk to them again.
“It’s like having your favourite food taken off the shelf and you can never eat it again. It’s a really horrible hole in your stomach that cannot be filled again.”
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The youngest of seven children, with three sisters and three brothers, Shane had a great bond with both his parents.
Mae was the one to kickstart his glittering pop career when she rang Louis Walsh (who came from the same town, Kiltimagh, Ireland, as she did) and asked him to listen to a tape of the young singer’s band.
“I owe her everything, my whole career,” says Shane, who lives on the coast in Sligo, Ireland, with his wife Gillian, 42, and their three children, Nicole, Patrick and Shane.
“From a really young age she encouraged me to sing. She was Westlife’s biggest fan – she was at every show.
“And Dad, I became really close to him, like a friend. We talked about everything. I got my singing voice from him. I had a brilliant relationship with both of them. And they were amazing grandparents – they had 22 grandchildren.”
And so when Mae was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015, the family was floored.
“She’d had a cough for a little while. But at first blood tests came back and nothing came up. A couple of months later, tests showed the cancer,” says Shane.
“You hear your mum has cancer, the dreaded ‘C word’ – it’s life changing.
“It’s a horrible experience. It was very difficult, but she fought. She got four great years and got to see a lot of things, including the reunion of Westlife.”
The band, which also includes Mark Feehily, 41, Kian Egan, 41, and Nicky Byrne, 43 – have had 14 UK number ones, such as Flying Without Wings and You Raise Me Up.
In July 2019 they played Croke Park in Dublin to a crowd of 80,000.
“Mum got dressed and put on her make-up despite being very sick at the time,” says Shane. It was at that show that Shane’s brother Peter, a doctor, realised something was wrong with their father.
“At the after party he said, ‘Dad looks a funny colour, doesn’t he?’ He was a bit reddy/yellowy. And his stomach was a bit off. A few days later, we found out he had pancreatic cancer.”
Shane couldn’t believe the news. “Straight away I thought of Steve Jobs (the Apple creator who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2011). He had all the money in the world and he couldn’t fight it.
“It hit me like a steam train. I thought, I can’t lose two parents. It really did flatten me It was a really difficult time.”
Meanwhile Mae underwent chemotherapy to treat her cancer, and had one of her lungs removed.
“Six weeks later she was back out walking her dog, a German shepherd. She was an amazingly strong woman,” says Shane.
After his diagnosis, Peter underwent treatment aimed to keep the cancer at bay. Shane spent as much time as he could with both parents as they battled the disease.
In December 2019, Mae passed away peacefully at North West Hospice, Sligo, surrounded by her family. She was 82. And in October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Peter succumbed to his cancer aged 77 at St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin, his son Peter by his side.
“Just before he died, we had a great chat and I said, ‘Thank you, you’ve been the best father a man could ever wish for and he said, ‘Shane, you’re one of a kind’.
“He hugged me and gave me a kiss on the lips like I was still his little baby son. It was incredible to have that moment with him.
“I still haven’t fully processed the fact they’re both gone,” says Shane, who admits he was unprepared for how all-consuming the grief of losing both parents would be.
“Grief is surprising. There are good days and bad. I sang at my parents’ funerals. It was hard, but I got through it.”
But then in July this year, during an intimate concert hosted by DJ Zoe Ball, Shane broke down.
“I felt like I was being strangled. In the middle of the song I turned round and I wept. At the end I ran off crying like I was three years old. It hit me all of a sudden that my parents were gone.”
To help cope with his grief, in lockdown, Shane took up the guitar, encouraged by Gillian. “They say behind every man is a great woman – and it’s certainly true for me,” says Shane.
Fast forward to now, and Westlife’s new album, called Wild Dreams, features nine songs penned by Shane and Mark.
“I’m most proud of Always With Me, which is about my parents,” says Shane.
“It’s been cathartic talking about them. I’ll always have lost my parents, but I can process the positive parts of my life with them.
“Out of grief can come happiness if you try and focus on your memories with them. I’m going to celebrate them, and continue their legacy.”
■National Grief Awareness Week starts on Thursday. For details visit thegoodgrieftrust.org. Westlife’s album, Wild Dreams, is out now. For 2022 tour dates and tickets, visit westlife.com