Next week it will be ten years since Juliette died. It’s a heavy milestone that I’d much rather step round and be off, whistling on my merry way. Unfortunately my subconscious has other ideas.
Ten years, it says. A decade. That’s twice the number of years she spent with you. Ten years is a very long time, you know. Isn’t it time to stop harping on about it? What must people think when a song makes you cry? Feeling her loss so painfully at times, even now – doesn’t that make you weak and self-pitying?
I tried to explain the unique resonance of your child dying to someone yesterday. It’s been a big week for the family, but especially for Elodie, who carried the Olympic torch at the weekend. These moments are sharply poignant because of Juliette’s absence. She was young. She should have been there. I, we will go on grieving for the times she missed with us. Losing a person you love will always be painful, but with an older person you have a heap of memories and shared experiences to draw on. When you lose a child you exist forever with the ghost of what should have been.
Elodie was chosen to carry the Olympic torch. We had the thrill of watching her carry the flame down a Suffolk street and hear with pride all the lovely things said about the person she is. However, part of the reason she was chosen was for her fundraising for children’s cancer charities over the past ten years. Would she be the person she is, motivated to fundraise or do any of the things the sponsors noticed in her application if Juliette hadn’t died?
Yesterday we visited a lovely little school with the torch and Elodie talked to the children about why she’d been chosen. Her sister’s death, she said, had made her want to do something positive rather than dwell on being sad. It’s been her way of bringing a bit of good to the trauma of losing her sister when she was only seven years old.
When I’ve been feeling low about this upcoming anniversary, I ask myself what exactly I’ve done over the past ten years. As much as I want to ignore the significance it feels important to do the sums and make this block of time worth something. If it has no value, then the terrible fear is that I’ve let Juliette down.
I know it sounds crazy, and I’m not sure anyone but the parent of a child who has died understands. I’m certain it’s not just me. I hear bereaved parents on the radio, engaged in interviews which can only be agony for them, just to expose bad laws that they want changed – laws that failed to prevent the death of their child. Parents robbed of their children start charities and champion causes. Some of us write books, or ‘simply’ find the strength to bring other children into the world and bring them up. We do all this with the energy that such a massive loss generates. It shouldn’t be so. Every one of us would choose our old lives, but with the filtering realisation that you have no choice, we are capable of amazing acts.
Of course looking for meaning and purpose after our children die is in essence, wrong. When I’m being existential and/or rational I know that neither life nor death has any intrinsic meaning. We are all a series of collisions, accidents of chemistry and physics. Thankfully my scientific knowledge and curiosity is limited. I would much rather embrace my gentler sense that everything is important and has meaning beyond indiscriminate chance. The human spirit needs hope and purpose to survive.
It’s easy to belittle my achievement in running marathons and in writing a book about our experiences, but I am proud of the people our children are becoming and for what I’ve done in prisons over the past six months. Yesterday I sat around a table in the prison library with four men who’d lived through terrible life events that most of us cannot possible imagine. Over a long afternoon I told them of all the reasons why I love to write, need to write and why I hoped they might get this too. They must have seen a posh-sounding, middle-aged woman with a mad glint in her eye but they listened and responded by letting their imaginations fly on paper. They invented scarred characters, some with dream lives and others a nightmare. They engaged and for a while we were all free. It’s such a privilege and a thrill to work with these men – people that with my life I would never otherwise have met. Prejudice is convenient. It allows us to generalise and stops us having to think too hard about difficult things, but it is dangerous and blinds us to unexpected beauty. Yesterday we talked about judging books by their cover, literally, and figuratively. Since working at the prison, that’s something I’ve stopped doing.
Before Juliette died it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do this sort of work. I didn’t have the confidence to face a class of primary school children, let alone a bunch of male prisoners. I’m nothing special. I’m doing this because I can – because I’m alive and Juliette isn’t. I hate the expression, “making a difference” but that’s what I keep feeling, and why I keep going. I couldn’t save my daughter but if only one of these men gains the self-esteem the rest of us take for granted by releasing his creativity, and sees his life could change, then that is something. The bit of good.